Why is India reviewing its British-era sedition law?
- The Indian government is reviewing its sedition law
- The Supreme Court has asked to government to withhold proceedings on sedition cases until such review is complete
- The law has been in Indian statute books since 1870
The Indian government told the country’s Supreme Court that it wishes to review the colonial-era sedition law that has come into criticism from various quarters across India’s postcolonial history for being used to curb dissent. The Union government’s move has been described as a U-turn because only days ago it said in court that the law as stood the “test of time”. With the government deciding to review the law, the Supreme Court has suggested that cases under sedition law be held in abeyance until the review is complete.
The Indian law on sedition, Article 124A in the current Indian Constitution, came into effect in 1870. The law was aimed to curb voices of dissent against the British Indian government and calls for independence. The first-known use of the sedition law was against Indian freedom fighter Bal Gangadhar Tilak. Tilak was convicted for sedition over his newspaper articles.
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At one point, Mahatma Gandhi was charged under the law which he described as the “prince among political sections of the Indian Penal Code designed to supress the liberty of the citizen.”
Article 124A of the Indian Constitution states:
“Whoever, by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise, brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards, the Government established by law in India, shall be punished with imprisonment for life, to which fine may be added, or with imprisonment which may extend to three years, to which fine may be added, or with fine.”
While the British went away, India did not repeal its sedition law even though the British government has since done away with its laws on sedition and “seditious libel”.
The first major constitutional opinion on India’s sedition law came in 1962 when the Supreme Court heard the Kedar Nath case. While upholding the validity of the law, the court stuck to a narrow definition of the law stating that criticism of the government cannot be labelled sedition unless there was a call for violence.
In 2021, the Indian Supreme Court called into question the need for the sedition law 75 years after independence. The court said the law was a serious threat to the functioning of institutions and asked that while the government was doing away with a number of dated laws, why wasn’t it looking into this law.