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Saturday, June 15, 2024

Islamic Pakistan’s Supreme Court Has Scrapped Sedition Law, When Will India?

Post-Independence, Section 124A has had a tumultuous run though never anytime losing its foothold. Those opposing the law are not in short-supply. In 2022, the Supreme Court heard a batch of petitions and ruled that no new cases could be filed under the sedition law, adding that people who had been charged for sedition till then could apply for bail and be immediately released.

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By: Sushil Kutty

Section 124A is pretty stark in its messaging: “Whoever, words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise, brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the Government established by law in India shall be punished…” The 150-year-old ‘Sedition law’, as it is commonly referred to, is without doubt the only British Raj legacy that should have left the shores of the subcontinent along with the ‘gora sahibs’.

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It did not. Section 124A continues to hang in there like a blood-sucking leech, displaying the same tenacity as that of the British – 150 years old, and counting. Another of Thomas Macaulay’s 1837 brainwaves, Section 124A is a “colonial era” law which current day rulers of India have often found handy, the present day dispensation of Prime Minister Narendra Modi not excluded.

Mahatma Gandhi, when charged under Section 124A, called it the “Prince among the political sections of the IPC”, a prince now a little jaded with age, a little winded since 2022 after the Supreme Court of India curbed it and placed a bar on fresh cases. The British wanted Section 124A because it was an occupying force, actively engaged in the oppression of a country. The Queen V. Bal Gangadhar Tilak was one of the earliest cases tried under Section 124A.

Under the said section, any disloyalty displayed towards the British amounted to sedition. Strangely, the same pigheadedness continued to be associated with Section 124A even after Independence. The definition of sedition did not change. Only the skin colour of the rulers changed. Who became a pale apparition of the other is quite confusing because if the British masters were palefaces, the Indians who took over from them didn’t pale in comparison in the use of the draconian sedition law!

The sedition law and Freedom of Expression have always been at loggerhead. Sedition for all purposes is a curb on free speech. In the Constituent Assembly, the Communist Party’s Somnath Lahiri had concerns regarding the sedition law and its restrictions on the liberty of the Press, but C Rajagopalachari saw things from the other side of the road. He wanted the curbs on free speech and expression strengthened!

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Post-Independence, Section 124A has had a tumultuous run though never anytime losing its foothold. Those opposing the law are not in short-supply. In 2022, the Supreme Court heard a batch of petitions and ruled that no new cases could be filed under the sedition law, adding that people who had been charged for sedition till then could apply for bail and be immediately released.

The problem with the Sedition law is that the common public, the aam aadmi, the hoi polloi, the Great Unwashed, the “public hai yeh sab jaanti hai”, are completely unaware about the possibility of the draconian usage of Section 124A against those who dissent with the government of the day. Unfortunately, the media seldom follow up on such cases unless the ramifications include regime change. Then, there will be hue and cry, followed by “phir Andheri raat”.

Political parties haven’t piled their combined heft against Section 124A. The Supreme Court called it “colonial law” and questioned the need for it in current day India. Then (in 2022), then CJI NV Ramana issued notice to the Centre, stating that “sedition is a colonial law. It suppresses freedoms. It was used against Mahatma Gandhi, Tilak… Is this law necessary after 75 years of Independence?” He agreed that Section 124A left a “chilling effect” on the fundamental right of free speech.

The Modi government couldn’t care less. Nobody thinks the Bharatiya Janata Party or a government led by the BJP would have any reservations over Section 124A. The then attorney-general of India L Venugopal spoke for the Modi government, saying that Section 124A should be retained with “guidelines”. The fact remains the Modi government is known for its lethargy, which should be factored in while mulling over the question of scrapping Section 124A.

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Excesses in the name of Section 124A have been numerous. The Section is hardly ever used for its “real purpose”. The sedition law is a “legal relic” and has been junked by the British. Even army establishment-heavy Pakistan has scrapped its scrap of Section 124A handed over to it in 1947. When will the so-called “progressive” Modi government follow suit? The very existence of Section 124A is an abomination. It’s like having an ‘asura’ in Ashok Vatika.

There are plenty of voices against the sedition law. “It deserves to be struck down for our republic,” said retired Major-General SG Vombatkere, who took the issue to the apex court, angry that his fundamental right to free speech, guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a), was under assault. Section 124A has been used against civil society, against students and against media persons, against academia… And, when the atmosphere is like that in current day India, anybody qualifies for Section 124A road-kill.

Section 124A is particularly obnoxious because it is non-bailable; two, punishment is imprisonment up to three years to life-term, with and/or fine. Plus, once charged under the sedition law, the person cannot hold a government job nor can he have a passport. Meaning he is no longer human. CJI DY Chandrachud, once he is over delivering Same Sex Marriage, should consider signing Section 124A’s death warrant, not forgetting to break the pen at the nib thereafter! (IPA Service)

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