Indian Penal Code, 1860 is the official criminal code of India. It consists of various offences which are considered to be criminal in nature. The terms ‘offence’ and ‘crime’ are often used interchangeably while referring to the list of “misdeeds” as under the Code.
However, the Indian Penal Code only defines the word ‘offence’. The word denotes any unlawful act which is punishable by the Code. Offences under the Indian Penal Code can be divided into many categories of offences. One such classification of offences is that of ‘Offences Against the State’. The Chapter VI of IPC, 1860 contains the offences against the State from Section 121 to 130.
Out of the many offences against the state, one of them is frequently under fire. The notorious offence is named ‘Sedition’. The frequency of disagreement in this law is due to the arrests of activists and journalists. It is given under Section 124A. It was enacted during British rule in India in the year 1860.
The revolt of 1857 was considered to be one of the elements that led the British Raj to enact the law. The Section 124A defines Sedition as, “Whoever by 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 with imprisonment for life, to which fine may be added, or with imprisonment which may extend to three years, to which fine may be added, or with fine.” Sedition is an offence of both cognizable and non-bailable nature. The imprisonment can be awarded by the court of sessions.
For the past few months this year, the sedition law has been remarked upon by the judges of the Honourable Supreme Court, the Chief Justice of India being one of them. Earlier in May, a bench headed by Justice D.Y. Chandrachud restrained the Andhra Pradesh police from taking action against two TV news channels which were charged with sedition. The bench said that the section 124A of the IPC needs interpretation, especially on its application with regard to freedom of the press. Justice Chandrachud remarked “it is time to define the limits of sedition”. Justice U.U. Lalit, in his recent judgment quashed a sedition case against the NDTV journalist Vinod Dua for criticising the Union Government’s miss-management and response to COVID-19.
The court upheld the right of every journalist “to criticise, even brutally, the measures of the government with a view to improve or alter them through legal means.” And if these precedential were not enough, the Chief Justice of India, N.V. Ramana questioned the Attorney General, KK Venugopal, about the continuance of the colonial law in these times. Indeed the statement is worth consideration of the legislatures, the reason and need for the existence of a colonial law in our independent and democratic country must be questioned. The CJI referred to the petition which stated the statistics regarding the dramatic jump in the cases of sedition over the last five years. With the rise in cases the conviction rate has also fallen. In 2019, only 3% of the sedition cases resulted in convictions.
The simple reason the sedition law is under fire is due to its frequent misuse by the public authorities thanks to the lack of specifications on what activities and gestures can be categorised as seditious or non-seditious.
The judgement of case of “Kedarnath Singh v. State of Bihar” is one of the most popular and widely used precedents by the court in cases of sedition. Declaring the section 124A intra virus, the judgement highlighted the importance of free speech, and hesitating to trust the state with too much power, have insisted on a close and clear link between the suppressed speech and the feared public disorder.
Dissent and sedition are often confused between. Dissent is an indispensable element to a democracy. The right to dissent is our right to question, to challenge, to verify and to ask for accountability from the Government. Literally, it is a right to hold opinions opposite to that are commonly held. The Preamble to the Indian Constitution promises to its citizens, the liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship. It is only if there is discussion, disagreement and dialogue that we can arrive at better ways to develop our country holistically. In democracy there is a big role played by majoritarianism. However, the elected representatives cannot claim to be representing the ‘will’ of all the people, and since they came to power with the vote of majority, there also exists a minority who do not with the majority.
While it is clear that a free country is one where there is freedom of expression and governance of rule of law, we must also take into notice that on the pretext of ‘Rule of Law’ none can impose immoral rule or laws which violate the basic civil and humanitarian rights.
There can also be disagreement amongst a Judges’ bench. A judge who studies law, has the right to express his disagreement of the generic view of the others on the bench. For example, in the case of ‘Kharak Singh vs. State of UP & Others.’ It was for the first time, questioned whether the Right to Privacy is a fundamental right or not.
The bench held that the right of privacy was not recognized as a fundamental right under India’s Constitution. Here, Justice Subba Rao, disagreed with the final verdict of the bench and said that despite not being expressly declared in the Constitution, the Right to Privacy is an essential element of personal liberty.
To conclude, as long as the person is not breaking the law or encouraging strife, he has the right to differ and propagate his beliefs. Criticism not only initiates improvement but also introspection. Criticism of legislative, executive, judiciary and armed forces cannot always be termed as anti-national. It must, however, be kept in mind that it shall be reasonable and not only for the sake of it.
This article is written by Manu Mishra of Banasthali Vidyapith.