Student Protests

No, the slogans of the JNU students don't count as sedition under the law

Speech can be criminalised only in situations where it is being used to incite crowds to violent action.

News reports are indicating that an FIR has been registered with respect to a public meeting organised on New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University campus on the evening of February 9. These reports claim that the meeting was about the hanging of Afzal Guru, and it is alleged that during its course, some people raised incendiary slogans. According to reports, the FIR has been registered under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code (sedition), and the police have already arrested one person.

It is important to note that under the Indian law of sedition, the events at the public meeting, even if completely true, do not even come close to establishing an offence. In Kedar Nath Singh’s case, five judges of the Supreme Court – a Constitution bench – made it clear that allegedly seditious speech and expression may be punished only if the speech is an “incitement” to “violence”, or “public disorder”. Subsequent cases have further clarified the meaning of this phrase. In Indra Das v State of Assamand Arup Bhuyan v State of Assam, the Supreme Court unambiguously stated that only speech that amounts to “incitement to imminent lawless action” can be criminalised. In Shreya Singhal v Union of India, the famous 66A judgment, the Supreme Court drew a clear distinction between “advocacy” and “incitement”, stating that only the latter could be punished.

Therefore, advocating revolution, or advocating even violent overthrow of the state, does not amount to sedition, unless there is incitement to violence, and more importantly, the incitement is to “imminent” violence. For instance, in Balwant Singh v State of Punjab, the Supreme Court overturned the convictions for sedition, (124A, IPC) and “promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race etc.”, (153A, IPC), and acquitted persons who had shouted, “Khalistan zindabaad, Raj Karega Khalsa,” and, “Hinduan Nun Punjab Chon Kadh Ke Chhadange, Hun Mauka Aya Hai Raj Kayam Karan Da”, late evening on October 31, 1984, i.e. a few hours after Indira Gandhi’s assassination – outside a cinema in a market frequented by Hindus and Sikhs in Chandigarh.

Thus, words and speech can be criminalised and punished only in situations where it is being used to incite mobs or crowds to violent action. Mere words and phrases by themselves, no matter how distasteful, do not amount to a criminal offence unless this condition is met.

This article first appeared on Kafila.

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