1934 to 2016: How Courts in India Looked at Charges of Sedition
From a ‘legal tool’ to ‘vendetta politics’, Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) 1860, known as the Sedition Law has acquired new and different meanings.
Amnesty International India, based out of Bengaluru, has been booked under sedition, for alleged “anti-India slogans” at one of their events. In February this year, JNU Student Union president Kanhaiya Kumar and his colleagues landed in prison due to a similar FIR. As more and more individuals, groups and organisations land in court under the charges of ‘sedition’, what ultimately happens to these cases in the court of law?
The exact number of cases filed with sedition charges in India are not known, however there have been more than 300 cases in High Court and close to 20 that reached the Supreme Court.
The cases date back from pre-independence till date, and include the arrest and trial of cartoonist Aseem Trivedi, and a case against the current finance Minister Arun Jaitely. Here is a snapshot of what courts ruled:
Mr Kamal Krishna Sircar in Bengal was convicted on charges of sedition for making a speech and tabling a resolution. He condemned the ban of the Communist Party and several other groups by the British Government and supported the government in Russia over the capitalistic form of government in British India. In one of the first documented cases of sedition, a two-Judge Bench of the Calcutta High Court scrapped the conviction, saying:
It is really absurd to say that speeches of this kind amount to sedition. If such were the case, then every argument against the present form of government and in favour of some other form of government might be alleged to lead to hatred. To suggest some other form of government, is not necessarily to bring the present Government into hatred or contempt.
Although in scores of other cases, courts under the British regime convicted several freedom fighters for various things they said, this is an interesting case where the limits of the sedition law were recognised by a British High Court.
In a similar case pertaining to an Indian vs the foreign government, prior to India’s independence the Federal Court noted:
The Court in this matter highlighted that we need to understand the differences between the ‘ingredients’ of the offence before passing the judgement.
After independence but prior to the enactment of the Constitution, the Kerala High Court examined the cancellation of the license of a newspaper on charges of sedition. The newspaper had published a series of articles accusing a government Ministry of communal bias and corruption. Finding some of the published content seditious, the court said:
“In Item 11 the Ministry is charged with high treason and accuses it of bringing shame to democracy. The paper asks why the Ministry will not resign. Whatever be the anxiety of the paper to precipitate the collapse of the Ministry, it cannot claim to be offering honest and legitimate criticism of Government. It excites the people to white heat and exhorts them not to allow the Cabinet to continue any longer.”
The Supreme Court in this case, struck down an order issued by the Punjab Government under the Safety Act, which required the petitioner to submit all materials relating to Pakistan including cartoons which he intended to publish for vetting.
Court ruled that such pre-publication censorship was not permitted. In response to the judgement the Central Government proceeded to amend Article 19(2) to insert “public order, decency and morality” as grounds for restricting free speech. Interestingly this was the first amendment to the Constitution.
Although Parliamentary records show that Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru spoke against the retention of ‘sedition’ as an offence on the penal code, his government actually enhanced the punishment stipulated for this offence.
Hearing the appeals of conviction under sedition charges the Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court of India said:
“ What has been contended is that a person who makes a very strong speech or uses very vigorous words in a writing directed to a very strong criticism of measures of Government, might also come within the ambit of ‘sedition’. But, in our opinion, such words written or spoken would be outside the scope of the section. A citizen has a right to say or write whatever he likes about the Government, or its measures, by way of criticism or comment, so long as he does not incite people to violence.”
Hearing a case of sedition through published material, the High Court of Andhra Pradesh ruled against the petitioner and said:
The call of the content was to break open all the godowns and distribute the grains contained therein, cutting into pieces the bastards who obstruct them and run away. The utterances have a tendency to create disorder or disturbance of public peace by resort to violence. The people were called upon to sharpen their axes and sickles to cut down the pests and the leeches on the lines of naxalite leaders.
The court said that such writings incite and advocate the overthrow of the Government with arms and violence.
In a case pertaining to sloganeering, the court held that slogans criticising Parliament or the judicial setup would not amount to ‘sedition’. The Court said:
Criticising the present judicial set up or functioning of the Parliament or Legislative Assemblies cannot be considered as bringing hatred or contempt to the Government. Nor are the slogans alleged to have been shouted by the petitioners capable of inciting any class or community of persons to commit any offence. Seldom a day has passed in the State when such or similar slogans have not been shouted in one or other part of the State.
The court ruled that to scrutinise the sedition through speech or writing its probable or natural effect has to be ‘seen’.
In this case the Punjab and Haryana High Court quashed an FIR charging the petitioners with ‘sedition’ and acts of terrorism simply because they responded to some anti-India and Pro-Khalistan slogans raised at a public meeting. The Court observed:
“Taking into consideration the allegation against the petitioner, to have responded to the slogans raised by Simranjit Singh Mann and Dr. Jagjit Singh Chauhan, is not an act of sedition. The same court in the case of Simranjit Singh Mann v. State of Punjab quashed the FIR against him which was registered on the allegations that he had raised slogans of “Khalistan Zindabad” instigating common people and Dilwan Singh, the human bomb who assassinated the Chief Minister Beant Singh.”
Sedition charges against Dr Binayak Sen grabbed international headlines. A doctor and human rights activist Binayak Sen was was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment for being a Maoist sympathiser and possessing Naxal literature. Granting him bail the Supreme Court observed:
“We are a democratic country. He may be a sympathiser. That does not make him guilty of sedition.” Drawing an analogy, the court asked: “If Mahatma Gandhi’s autobiography is found in somebody’s place, is he a Gandhian? No case of sedition is made out on the basis of materials in possession unless you show that he was actively helping or harbouring Maoists.”
In the notorious case of the victimisation of cartoonist Aseem Trivedi, a Division Bench of the Bombay High Court laid down the guidelines for the police while invoking the sedition law against any person:
The words, signs or representations must bring the Government (Central or State) into hatred or contempt or must be an incitement to violence. Comments expressing disapproval or criticism of the Government with a view to obtaining a change of government by lawful means without any of the above are not seditious under Section 124A.
In the case, decided less than four months ago, a single Judge Bench of the Allahabad High Court threw out a charge of sedition against the Finance Minister Mr Arun Jaitely. The case was filed taking a suo motu cognizance of an article by Arun Jaitley on National Judicial Commission Act case. Quashing the complaint the Court said:
“A citizen had a right to say or write whatever he likes about the Government, by way of criticism or comments so long as he did not incite people to resort to violence. The article merely seeks to voice the opinion and the view of the author of the need to strike a balance between the functioning of two important pillars of the country. It is surely not a call to arms.”
(This piece was originally published in February, this year. Compilation based on the Data provided by Venkatesh Nayak from CHRI)