What use is the law of Sedition?

Sedition is a pro-state law. As such, no government in power has any incentive to remove it, though they may promise to take the sedition law down or condemn its misuse, the law's misuse often becomes its use.

A school play erupted in controversy on 21 January. A play was performed at the Shaheen Primary and High School in Bidar. The play on citizenship Amendment Act erupted into controversy when a video of the play was circulated on social media and where it caught the attention of ABVP members.

The play contained lines saying that a  tea-seller(an allusion to the Prime Minister) is demanding documents. The character says that he will demand that the boy show his documents first and if the boy does not, he will beat the boy with his chappals.

Neelesh Rakshyal, an ABVP member, the youth wing of BJP, filed a complaint against the person who uploaded the video. The police responded to the complaint by booking the mother of the actor, who allegedly wrote the play, and the school principal, who staged the play. The mother and the school principal were charged with multiple sections of IPC like IPC 34, IPC 504, 505(2),124a and 153.

IPC 34 (common intent) covers acts done by many people with a common intent. An example of IPC 34 would be if a group of people joins together to kill a person, then every single person would be convicted of murder under IPC 34. The other charges include IPC 504 (criminal intimidation), 505(2) (publish mischief), 124a (sedition), and 153A (promoting hatred based on religion, race…).

IPC 124a i.e the sedition law has been a controversial charge, as it has a history of criminalizing dissent. From the nationalist struggle to recent cases of Binayak Sen, protesters against the Kudumkulum Nuclear power plant, and an unending series of cases against indigenous people of the North East, Chattisgarh, and Kashmir, sedition has had a dubious history in India. While harassment by representatives of the state is always possible, the vagueness of a charge of sedition is especially dangerous.

The sedition law, or IPC 124a, has been used more frequently in recent years. Before 2015 about 20-30 cases would be filed each year, but in 2017, 51 cases have been made. In 2018, 70 have been made, and in 2019, 3000 people only in the state of Jharkhand.

Each case may have multiple accused, the number of people accused, has varied from hundreds to thousands each year. However, conviction rates in sedition cases are very low. Usually, 1 or 2 people are convicted in sedition, and in most cases, their convictions are taken with other charges. The vast majority of cases are settled and do not see trial.

What is sedition?

In Indian law, sedition is any effort by a person to make people hate the government. It is a crime that can be punished by imprisonment, up until life, and with a fine. The technical code is as follows:

IPC. 124a. 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.

In the original version of the Indian Penal Code, sedition was not mentioned. The Indian Penal Code was implemented in 1860, just after the crown assumed direct control over India. Thomas Macaulay considered introducing a sedition law earlier, but in the 1860 version, there was no sedition law. The law was introduced in 1870, in anticipation of plans to possibly overthrow the Queen’s rule in India. This is why the Sedition law is 124a, rather than a simple number. It was added later.

The first sedition case was in charge was made in 1891 to the Calcutta High Court in Queen Empress v Jogendra Chunder Bose. Bose criticized the recently passed Age of Consent law, which raised the minimum age of marriage from 10 to 12. Bose claimed that the law put Hindus at a disadvantage, and had no legal recourse to challenge the act. This was taken as an attempt to breed dissatisfaction against the state. This case also begins a long history where criticism of government laws intended to affect the public order becomes grounds for the charge. Though he spent time in prison, Bose was released and never convicted. The case was dropped.

During the nationalist struggle, sedition was famously used to imprison Bal gangadhar Tilak and Mohandas Gandhi for their criticisms against the government. The irony is that the law intended to prevent hatred against the state became stepping stones of the nationalist movement. By arresting Tilak and Gandhi for sedition, the courts effectively made their criticisms louder.

From the forming of the Constituent Assembly to current times, many calls have come to scrap the sedition law. Most recently, in August 2018, the state reviewed sedition. One serious consideration mentioned in the report was India’s reputation. The report noted that the United Kingdom removed their sedition law because “the country did not want to be quoted as an example of using such draconian laws.”

Sedition has been controversial regarding its constitutionality. Many court cases have called for reasonable restrictions. In 1962, in the case of Kedar Nath Singh v State of Bihar, the Supreme Court decided whether the Sedition law was consistent with Article 19 of the Indian Constitution, which guaranteed the right of free expression. Singh was a member of the Forward Communist Party in Bihar. His writings stated his belief in a violent revolution where “in the flames of which the capitalists, zamindars and the Congress leaders of India, who have made it their profession to loot the country, will be reduced to ashes and on their ashes will be established a Government of the poor and the downtrodden people of India.”

The Supreme Court decided that the government could only function with reasonable restrictions placed on freedom of speech, but those restrictions had to be reasonable. Speech that was a direct threat to the public order, or the proper functioning of the government could be covered by the sedition law, but angry rhetoric and criticism could not, on their own, be illegal under the constitution. This kept IPC 124a in law.

Sedition is a pro-state law. As such, no government in power has any incentive to remove it, though they may promise to take the sedition law down or condemn its misuse, the law’s misuse often becomes its use. In cases of conviction, the sedition law fosters hatred against the state. So, there is an incentive to arrest dissenters on grounds of sedition, but not to convict them. The law, ironically, can only be used if it is misused.

Read more: Sedition charges against 49 writers and filmmakers who wrote open letter to PM Modi

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