Explained: How successive state and central governments have defended sedition law in the past

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After calling sedition a “good law” and telling the Supreme Court that there was no need to strike it down, the Centre on Monday climbed down from its previous stance, saying it has decided to review the colonial-era legislation.

On Monday, the Central government urged the Supreme Court not to hold a hearing on the petitions challenging the constitutionality of Section 124A till the government finishes its reconsideration process.

The Centre in its affidavit said: “The Government of India, being fully cognisant of various views being expressed on the subject of sedition and also having considered the concerns of civil liberties and human rights, while committed to maintain and protect the sovereignty and integrity of this great nation, has decided to re-examine and reconsider the provisions of Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, which can be done only before the competent forum.”

The Centre’s change on the sedition law was in tune with the views of Prime Minister Narendra Modi on shedding colonial baggage, said the Union Ministry of Home Affairs in its affidavit to the Supreme Court. It said that the prime minister has been in favour of protection of civil liberties and respect of human rights and in that spirit, over 1,500 outdated laws and over 25,000 compliance burdens have been scrapped.

“The prime minister believes that at a time when the country is marking 'Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav' (75 years since independence), we need to, as a nation, work even harder to shed colonial baggage that has passed its utility which includes outdated laws, colonial laws and practice, it said. Various offences which were causing “mindless hindrances” to people have been decriminalised,” it added.

The affidavit added that the Prime minister has been cognisant of various views expressed on the subject and has also periodically, in various forums, expressed his clear and unequivocal views in favour of protection of civil liberties, respect of human rights and giving meaning to the constitutionally cherished freedoms by the people of the country, it said.

Interestingly, the Narendra Modi-led government had in an earlier written submission on 7 May, said that the sedition law and the 1962 verdict of a Constitution bench upholding its validity had withstood “the test of time” for about six decades and the instances of its abuse would never be a justification for a reconsideration.

As the government now reconsiders the sedition law, a remnant of the British era —originally drafted in 1870 by Thomas Macaulay — it is notable that successive governments, be it at the Centre or at the state level, have used the law and defended its use in the past.

Aseem Trivedi case

The arrest of Kanpur-based cartoonist Aseem Trivedi and being charged for sedition in 2012 is perhaps one of the most infamous case of misuse of the law.

Trivedi was put behind bars for two weeks for drawing caricatures depicting the reach of corruption in society. He was accused of putting up banners “mocking” the Constitution during Anna Hazare’s rally in Mumbai in 2012 and posting the same on his website. One cartoon titled “Gang rape of Mother India” showed Mother India dressed in a tri-colour sari, with politicians and bureaucrats about to assault her, with a gleeful beast standing by described as “Corruption”.

Another of his cartoons showed India’s national emblem, the Ashoka Lions, with foxes rather than lions. In the inscription on the emblem, the words “Satyamev Jayate” (truth alone triumphs) were replaced with “Brashtamev Jayate” (corruption alone triumphs) and a danger sign. This was enough for the Maharashtra police to book him under sedition charges. At the time, Congress-led governments were in power both at the Centre and in the state.

Then Information and Broadcasting Minister Ambika Soni had said in connection with Trivedi’s arrest: “There are certain ground rules which we all have to follow. When the Constitution ensures freedom of expression to each one of us, it also lays down that we, as Indian citizens, respect all national symbols which represent the Indian nation. We have to bring our right to expression, right to creativity and our respect for national symbols in a harmonious way.”

Using sedition for horse-trading

In 2020, the Congress-led government in Rajasthan invoked the sedition charge against Bhawarlal Sharma and Vishvendra Singh and Union minister in Narendra Modi’s cabinet Gajendra Singh Shekhawat after three audio tapes were leaked in which the three were purportedly talking about their plan to topple the Ashok Gehlot government in Rajasthan.

Ironically, the sedition charges were filed after the Congress had promised to review the contentious British-era law of Section 124A of IPC that defines sedition in its 2019 manifesto.

After much criticism from all corners, the Rajasthan Police submitted an application in the local court stating that it would drop the sedition charges.

Rana couple and sedition in Maharashtra

In the ongoing Hanuman Chalisa row in Maharashtra, the Maharashtra Police had arrested MP Navneet Rana and MLA Ravi Rana and charged them with sedition earlier in April.

The two were arrested and charged with sedition after they announced they were going to recite the Hanuman Chalisa outside Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray’s residence, Matoshree, in suburban Bandra.

Defending the action, Shiv Sena MP and spokesperson Sanjay Raut said that the charges were completely justified. He further accused the couple of creating communal tensions in the State.

It is important to note her that while the Shiv Sena defended the sedition charge slapped on the political couple, Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar called for the repeal of the sedition law before an inquiry panel looking into the 2018 Bhima Koregaon violence. The NCP chief said other provisions of the IPC and the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act were sufficient to protect national integrity.

Experts speak

The Centre’s willingness to relook the sedition law was welcomed by many, saying it is an important step in rights jurisprudence.

"The fact that the central government is willing to re-look is a very positive step. The Centre's willingness to re-look at the law of sedition and see whether the provision has any relevance in a democracy is a very important step in rights jurisprudence and it is something that the legislature should have done a long time ago," senior advocate Sidharth Luthra said to PTI.

Advocate Sherbir Panag, a financial crimes lawyer, called the Centre's stand a step worth being applauded as he claimed that it is better if the law of sedition is dealt through the legislative process in a time-bound manner.

"We can do a lot of whataboutery but the point is that no government in India, since independence, has come out in glory so far as sedition is concerned. Every government has used it to different degrees and that the government is willing to re-look at it is a step worth being applauded. And it is better if it goes through the legislative process -- whether it is to strike it down or modify or build in statutory safeguards. That all is yet to come. But the government saying allow us to re-look at it and hopefully they will do it in a time-bound manner is something that should be applauded," he said.

With inputs from agencies

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Explained: How successive state and central governments have defended sedition law in the past
Explained: How successive state and central governments have defended sedition law in the past
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