Why use colonial law even after 75 years of independence?

Chief Justice of India N.V. Ramana’s remarks in open court on Thursday sends a strong message to the government that the Supreme Court is prima facie convinced that sedition is being misused by the authorities to trample upon citizens’ fundamental rights of free speech and liberty. The Chief Justice has sent a clear signal that Section 124A (sedition) of the Indian Penal Code may have passed its time. The CJI said “if you look at the history of use of this section 124A of IPC, you will find that the conviction rate is very low.There is misuse of power by executive agencies.

The CJI observed and conveyed his observations to Attorney General, K.K. Venugopal and Solicitor General, Tushar Mehta. The CJI said; “Sedition is a colonial law. It suppresses freedoms. It was used against Mahatma Gandhi and Bal Gangadhar Tilak..Is this law necessary after 75 years of Independence.”

A number of petitions have been filed highlighting the “chilling effect” of sedition on the fundamental right of freedom of speech and expression. The court also observed the need to re-examine its own judgement which withheld section 124A of the IPC; i.e the Kedar Nath judgement.

Origin of the law; section 124A of IPC

Many legal experts argue that the sedition clause is a vestige of British colonial rule, originally introduced to suppress critical voices emanating from the Indian freedom movement. Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 (IPC), as we have today, was absent from the original draft of Macaulay’s IPC in 1860, and was only introduced in the year 1870, piloted by James Stephen. This version went through further modification through the IPC (Amendment Act), 1898, since when it has largely retained its form.

Landmark case

The landmark case on this matter was that of Queen-Empress v. Bal Gangadhar Tilak & Keshav Mahadev Bal, (1897) ILR 22 Bom 112. In this case, Bal Gangadhar Tilak was tried for sedition for alleged incitement through speech that led to the killing of two British Officials. In this case, a single judge bench of  the Bombay High Court agreed with the definition of ‘disaffection’ as propounded in Jogendra Chunder Bose and opined that any ‘bad feelings’ towards the government is criminal, irrespective of the level of bad feeling. This way, the High Court virtually disallowed all legitimate criticism. It added that there need not be any material consequence at all to qualify the offence of sedition. The court held that in sedition matters, it is the intention of the offender which is of primacy, and could be presumed based on content, audience and circumstances of their seditious speech.

Events that led to considering the need of sedition law

A case under Sections 124 A (sedition) and 153 B (Imputations, assertions prejudicial to national-integration) has been registered against Ms. Sultana, a native of Chetlat island, based on a petition filed by BJP’s Lakshadweep unit president Abdul Khader. The prosecution case is that that on June 7, during a TV channel discussion, she had allegedly stated that the Centre had used ‘bio-weapon’ against the natives of the islands.

Observing that prima facie the offences, including the sedition charge, alleged against Lakshadweep filmmaker Aisha Sultana are not attracted, the Kerala High Court on Friday made absolute the interim anticipatory bail granted to her in a case registered against her by the Kavaratti police for making a remark against the Central government. Justice Ashok Menon, while allowing her anticipatory bail petition, observed that prima facie the petitioner “did not have a malicious motive to subvert the government established by law by merely using the strong word ‘bio-weapon’, to express her vehemence in disapproval of the subject under discussion

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