If You Feel Compelled To Accuse Someone Of Sedition, You Need To Know This First

Throwback to a 54-year-old Supreme Court ruling.

06/09/2016 5:50 PM IST | Updated 06/09/2016 6:39 PM IST
Anindito Mukherjee / Reuters
Supreme Court of India.

The Supreme Court on Monday clarified that charges of sedition cannot be slapped on people for criticising a government or its policies. Responding to a public interest litigation (PIL) filed by activist and lawyer Prashant Bhushan, through an NGO called Common Cause, the apex court cited a precedence to make its point and, by extension, define the scope of the much-contested Section 124-A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), which deals with sedition.

Over half a century ago, in its ruling in the Kedar Nath Singh vs State of Bihar, 1962, the Supreme Court had not only rejected several interpretations of sedition in earlier cases, but had also disagreed with the one put forward by the Privy Council of Britain, which deemed a wider range of acts seditious and thus turned the law vulnerable to misuse.

In a sense, therefore, in spite of being a colonial legacy, the law against sedition was given a stricter ambit by one of the most powerful post-colonial institutions of democratic India, its apex court. As the bench told Bhushan, while the constable responsible for arresting an individual accused of sedition may not know the exact provisions of law, the courts should be aware of this precedence and dismiss cases that don't qualify.

The next time someone feels the urge to cry sedition, they might want to mull over these facts of what could actually constitute sedition, pointed out in what now is a historic judgment delivered by a five-member bench of the apex court in 1962:

  1. The appellant in the case, Kedar Nath Singh, was initially prosecuted before a first-class magistrate in Begusarai, Bihar, in 1957. Singh was accused of using strong language against the Congress, calling them "goondas" and "official dogs". He had extolled the virtues of the Forward Communist Party, one of the several factions of the Communist Party of India, which, he promised, would usher in a "revolution". In its "flame", he added, "capitalists, zamindars and Congress leaders of India, who have made it their profession to loot the country, will be reduced to ashes..." He, then, went on to make harsh remarks about Vinoba Bhave and blamed bribery, black-marketeering and corruption on the government. In 2016, we have recently seen among a spate of cases, one can get charged with sedition for much less: for making positive remarks about Pakistan or protesting against the state's failures on a university campus.

  2. The court noted that the words "Government established by law" in Section 124-A were not a reference to "the persons...being engaged in carrying on the administration" but to the fact that the government was the symbolic manifestation of the state. The crime of sedition, therefore, was a crime against the state. The purpose of the law was to prevent the government from being subverted because "the continued existence of the Government established by law is an essential condition of the stability of the State".

  3. The court explained that "acts...which have the effect of subverting the Government by bringing that [it] into contempt or hatred, or creating disaffection against it, would be within the penal statute because the feeling of disloyalty to the Government established by law or enmity to it imports the idea of tendency to public disorder by the use of actual violence or incitement to violence." So the essence of sedition, according to the court, lay in an attempt to subvert a government by violent means or in using speech to incite public anarchy.

  4. The court also pointed out what did not amount to sedition. "Strong words used to express disapprobation of the measures of Government with a view to their improvement or alteration by lawful means" was not sedition. Nor were "comments, however strongly worded, expressing disapprobation of actions of the Government, without exciting those feelings which generate the inclination to cause public disorder by acts of violence".

  5. The court noted that Article 19 (2) of the Constitution calls for reasonable restrictions on the freedom of expression guaranteed by Article 19 (1). This was done with the view of squaring the existence of Sections 124A and 505 (statements conducing to public mischief) in the IPC with the right to free speech guaranteed by Article 19 in the Constitution.

These are but only the tip of the iceberg of a judgment that is complex, progressive and nuanced. A good deal of commentary exists on the case for those who don't want to be bogged down by the complexities of legalese in the original judgment. Here's one, from Legally India, and another from the archives of Tehelka, to start with.

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