The colonial government used the law of sedition liberally to curb free speech. In the Constituent Assembly, B R Ambedkar passionately argued that liberty, equality and fraternity should become the principles of our democratic lives. Still, the section on sedition was retained after independence even though Jawaharlal Nehru, criticised it in no uncertain terms.
In our country, freedom of speech and expression is enshrined as a guaranteed fundamental right in Article 19(1) (a) of the Constitution. However, the existence of this colonial relic, Section 124A of the IPC, has acted as a constraint on the exercise of this right and governments have used sedition to suppress and quell political dissent. Keeping this in mind, I introduced a Private Member’s Bill in the Rajya Sabha in 2011 to abolish Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code. My submission generated a debate around this draconian section but it could not be put to vote. When I moved a Private Member’s Bill to abolish sedition, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government was in power. It is important to highlight this fact because my contention was not with this or that party in power but with the presence of arbitrary, unjustified and undemocratic powers in the hands of the government like Section 124A or the dreaded Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.
Since the BJP led government came to power in 2014, there has been a marked increase in the use of sedition charges. The sword of Section 124A has been hanging over the head of politicians, human rights activists and advocacy groups who dared question the government’s stand. Branding dissenters as anti-national and slapping them with sedition or UAPA charges has become a fashion.
The data on draconian laws like 124A or UAPA exposes their untenability. According to the National Crime Records Bureau data, a total of 156 cases of sedition were pending in 2017. In that year, only 27 cases could be disposed of at the police level by withdrawing the case or submitting a chargesheet. In courts, out of the 58 cases on trial, only one conviction could be obtained and the pendency rate for the cases of sedition was close to 90 per cent. The number of cases increased in 2020, the year for which the latest NCRB data is available, but with the same results. Of the total 230 cases registered, only 23 were chargesheeted. Pendency in court reached close to 95 per cent for the sedition cases in 2020. The abysmally low rate of conviction and disposal of these cases make it clear that these charges are slapped with very flimsy or no evidence to intimidate or harass those who question the government’s fiat. On the baseless pretext of sedition or anti-national activity, the government is keeping political activists, human rights defenders, civil rights workers in prison ad infinitum to create an atmosphere of fear and servility.
The picture is no different for the UAPA. Cases under it have increased by about 75 per cent between 2017-2020. A total of 4,827 UAPA cases were pending in 2020 —of them, only 398 could be chargesheeted in that year. The pendency rate in court remained 95 per cent, indicating harassment and violation of the right to life and liberty for a great number of people who are suffering because of the diabolical prison conditions in India. Progressive citizens has been constantly asking for the repeal of these laws that endanger our fundamental constitutional values. A consultation paper on sedition circulated by the Law Commission of India on August 30, 2018, found many issues that need addressing around the working of Section 124A.
Most recently, on May 11, the Supreme Court directed the Union government and the states to refrain from using the law of sedition and keep all previous cases under 124A in abeyance till the matter is reconsidered in a comprehensive way. In the context of the evolved reality around us, if we are to improve the democratic foundations of our country, there must not be any space for sedition. Dissent, criticism and differences of opinion are vital for the functioning of any democracy. The witch-hunting of those who question the government of the day reminds us of medieval times and totalitarian rulers. It is time we usher in an era of free speech. For that, the sedition law must go.
This column first appeared in the print edition on May 13, 2022 under the title ‘Why sedition law must go’. The writer is general secretary, CPI