The Supreme Court on Thursday said India’s sedition law belonged to the colonial era and sought to know whether it was still necessary to use it after 75 years of Independence, Live Law reported.
Chief Justice NV Ramana and Justices AS Bopanna and Hrishikesh Roy were hearing a new petition filed by a retired Army general, challenging the constitutional validity of Section 124A (sedition) of the Indian Penal Code.
“This dispute about law is...it is a colonial law, it was meant to suppress the freedom movement, the same law was used by [the] British to silence Mahatma Gandhi, [Bal Gangadhar] Tilak etc,” the chief justice said.
Ramana said the continuation of these laws after Independence was unfortunate. “The government is introducing many laws, I don’t know why they are not looking into this,” the chief justice said.
Attorney General KK Venugopal, however, argued that the law did not need to be struck down, according to Bar and Bench. He suggested that guidelines can be issued to meet its “legal purpose”.
The chief justice raised concerns about the misuse of the sedition law, saying there was no accountability of the executive. “If we go see history of charging of this section, the enormous power of this section can be compared to a carpenter using a saw to cut the entire forest instead of a tree,” he added. “That’s the effect of this provision.”
The bench cited the example of a scrapped section of the Information Technology Act, which allowed the police to arrest those who posted offensive content online. “Take example of 66A which was struck down [in 2015] but people were [still getting] arrested,” it said, according to Live Law. “There is misuse of these provisions, but there is no accountability!”
On July 5, People’s Union for Civil Liberties had informed the court that the police were still filing cases under the scrapped section. The court expressed shock at this and issued a notice to the Centre
During Thursday’s hearing, the Supreme Court also said that the situation on the ground was very serious. “If some party doesn’t want to hear the voice of another party, they may use this type of law and implicate other people,” it added. “It’s a serious question for individuals.”
The court said it will examine the constitutional validity of Section 124A and issued a notice to the Centre in the case. It also tagged the new petition with the one filed by the Editors Guild of India.
Appearing for Editors Guild of India, Senior Advocate Shyam Divan argued that sedition law was “grossly misused”. “It’s the same issue and a challenge on the statutory provision, and we demanded certain guidelines,” he told court.
Former Union minister Arun Shourie and non-governmental organisation Common Cause on Thursday filed a separate plea that challenged the constitutional validity of the sedition law, reported Live Law. The plea said that Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code was in violation of Article 14 (equality before law), 19(1)(a) (freedom of speech and expression), and 21 (protection of life and personal liberty).
Congress MP Rahul Gandhi and Opposition leaders hailed the observations made by the Supreme Court. “We welcome this observation by the Supreme Court,” Gandhi tweeted.
Trinamool Congress MP Mahua Moitra said she hoped that the “archaic law” that she claimed was misused by the Centre would be “thrown out”.
Swaraj India chief Yogendra Yadav also lauded the Supreme Court decision. “Case in point: Yesterday, sedition case was registered against farmers in Sirsa [a district in Haryana] for breaking the windshield of a minister’s vehicle!” he tweeted. “That’s what this law is being used for.”
Shiv Sena leader Urmila Matondkar also hailed the court’s remarks.
Senior lawyer Prashant Bhushan praised the court and the chief justice for “standing up to the government on the gross misuse” of the sedition law.
The new plea
The petitioner, Major General SG Vombatkere, said in his plea that the sedition law is based on unconstitutionally vague definitions like “disaffection towards government”. “[It] is an unreasonable restriction on the fundamental right to free expression guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) [of the Constitution] and causes constitutionally impermissible chilling effect on speech,” the petition added.
Vombatkere said the court needed to take into account the “march of the times and the development of the law” before dealing with Section 124A.
In April, a three-judge Supreme Court bench of Justices UU Lalit, Indira Banerjee and KM Joseph had sought a response from the Centre on a plea filed by by two journalists – Kishorechandra Wangkhemcha from Manipur and Kanhaiya Lal Shukla from Chhattisgarh – challenging the sedition law.