On Wednesday (May 11), the Supreme Court stayed all pending trials, appeals, and proceedings relating to Section 124A, which deals with the charge of sedition, until the Union government completes its exercise to review the colonial era provision.
The court is hearing a batch of petitions to strike down the law, which was used by the British against several leaders of India’s freedom struggle. Senior Advocate Kapil Sibal on Tuesday quoted statements made by Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru on Section 124A, and said they had wanted the provision to be struck down.
What were some of the main sedition cases filed against nationalist leaders by the colonial government, and what did they say about the law?
Bal Gangadhar Tilak
The Lokmanya was tried for sedition three times and was imprisoned twice.
In 1897, he was charged with sedition for “exciting and attempting to excite feelings of disaffection to Government by the publication of certain articles…in (his newspaper) the Kesari in its issue of the 15th June 1897”.
The government also claimed that a speech delivered by Tilak, in which he referred to the killing of the Adilshahi general Afzal Khan by Shivaji in 1659, had instigated the assassination of the plague commissioner of Poona, Walter Rand, by the revolutionary Chapekar brothers in 1897.
In April 1908, the teenage revolutionaries Khudiram Bose and Prafulla Chaki accidentally killed two European women in Muzaffarpur in a bomb attack targeting the British magistrate Douglas Kingsford. Chaki shot himself before he could be arrested; Bose was arrested and hanged. Tilak published a strong defence of the revolutionaries in Kesari and was promptly arrested on charges of sedition.
In July of the same year, Tilak was accused of “bringing into hatred and contempt, and exciting disloyalty and feelings of enmity toward His Majesty and the Government ” through his writings in Kesari.
He had written, “This, no doubt, will inspire many with hatred against the people belonging to the party of rebels. It is not possible to cause British rule to disappear from this country by such monstrous deeds. But rulers who exercise unrestricted power must always remember that there is also a limit to the patience of humanity.”
Tilak refused a lawyer and chose to plead his own case. During his defence, he vociferously attacked the charge of sedition. He argued that as a British subject he was entitled to certain legal rights, such as freedom of expression which were being denied to him. “The point is whether I was within my rights, and whether a subject of His Majesty in India can or cannot enjoy the same freedom which is enjoyed by British subjects at home and Anglo-Indians out here,” he told the court.
He pointed out that the prosecution had been unable to prove either that he had criminal intentions in his writing or that these criminal intentions had been able to influence society at large. Tilak was found guilty and sentenced to six years’ imprisonment with transportation.
In March 1922, Gandhi was charged with sedition for writing three articles in his weekly journal Young India. Shankarlal Banker, the proprietor of the newspaper, was also charged under Section 124A of the IPC.
Rather than plead innocent to the charge of spreading disaffection (sedition), Gandhi declared that since he had no affection for the colonial government, it was his moral duty to disobey unjust laws. Sibal recalled that Gandhi had described Section 124A as “the prince among the political sections of the Indian Penal Code designed to suppress the liberty of the citizen”.
Gandhi also said, “Affection cannot be manufactured or regulated by law. If one has no affection for a person or system, one should be free to give the fullest expression to his disaffection, so long as he does not contemplate, promote, or incite to violence. But the section under which Mr Banker and I are charged is one under which mere promotion of disaffection is a crime. I have studied some of the cases tried under it (Section 124A) and I know that some of the most loved of India’s patriots have been convicted under it. I consider it a privilege, therefore, to be charged under that section.”
Gandhi, therefore, inverted the moral and political association of sedition, announcing that the spreading of disaffection against an immoral government was necessary for those who considered themselves nationalists.
In his article published in 1921, ‘Tampering with Loyalty’, Gandhi wrote, “…Sedition has become the creed of the Congress. Every non-co-operator is pledged to preach disaffection towards the Government established by law. Non- cooperation, though a religious and strictly moral movement, deliberately aims at the overthrow of the Government, and is therefore legally seditious in terms of the Indian Penal Code.”
Nehru was charged with sedition in 1930. Like Gandhi, he too did not defend himself in court and pleaded guilty to Section 124A. He told the magistrate: “There can be no compromise between freedom and slavery, and between truth and falsehood. We realized that the price of freedom is blood and suffering — the blood of our own countrymen and the suffering of the noblest in the land — and that price we shall pay in full measure…” (Quoted in Chitranshul Sinha: ‘The Great Repression: The Story of Sedition in India’, Penguin Viking, 2019)
Despite being used by the colonial state to target nationalist leaders, the sedition law continued to exist in independent India. However, Nehru did understand the problems with it, and told Parliament that “the sooner we get rid of it the better”.
During the debate on the First Amendment that imposed “reasonable restrictions” on the fundamental right of freedom of speech and expression guaranteed under Article 19(1)(A), he said: “Take again Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code. Now so far as I am concerned that particular section is highly objectionable and obnoxious and it should have no place both for practical and historical reasons, if you like, in any body of laws that we might pass. The sooner we get rid of it the better.”
Newsletter | Click to get the day’s best explainers in your inbox