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On July 15, the Chief Justice of India NV Ramana posed a question to the Attorney General of India KK Venugopal during the hearing on a plea challenging the validity of the sedition law.
CJI Ramana asked whether the provision for sedition under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code is still required after 75 years of Independence from Colonial Rule.
The apex court was hearing a plea moved by SG Vombatkere, challenging the constitutional validity of Section 124A of the IPC, which lays down the punishment for the offence of sedition. The CJI-led bench also issued a notice to the central government and tagged the plea with a similar pending petition filed by the Editors Guild of India.
'Sedition Was Used By British Raj to Suppress Freedom'
Posing tough questions to the central government on the need of having a sedition law in Independent India, CJI Ramana highlighted that:
"Dispute is that it is a Colonial law and was used by British to suppress freedom. It was used against Mahatma Gandhi and Bal Gangadhar Tilak. Is this law still needed after 75 years of Independence?"CJI Ramana
The CJI-led Bench also pointed out the abysmally low conviction rate in sedition cases. The court drew Attorney General's attention towards thousands of cases being registered under Section 66A of the Information Technology Act despite it being struck down as unconstitutional.
"If you see history of charging under this section, conviction rate is very low. Alarming numbers of misuse can be compared to a carpenter using a saw to cut not just a tree...but the entire forest."CJI Ramana
Attorney General KK Venugopal responded to CJI Ramana by stating that section 124A of IPC need not be struck down and the court may only set out guidelines so that it meets its legal purpose.
The court, however, reminded the Attorney General about the costs of having sedition in the statute books. It said that having a sedition law is a serious question for the freedom of the individual.
The plea by Vombatkere sought a fresh examination of Section 124A, which was upheld in the 1962 judgment in Kedar Nath Singh vs Union of India.
It was contended that a statute criminalising expression based on unconstitutionally vague definitions of ‘disaffection towards government’ etc. "is an unreasonable restriction on the fundamental right to free expression guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) and causes constitutionally impermissible ‘Chilling Effect’ on speech."
The plea further said that judgments like that of KS Puttaswamy establish that fundamental rights in the Constitution are not to be read in isolated silos or as watertight compartments, "but are to be read as if the content of each fundamental right animates the other".
The reasonableness of the restriction of free speech under 19(2) ie, in this case the Impugned Provision, will need to considered afresh considering procedural as well as substantive due process embodied in Articles 14 and 21The Petition
A three-judge Bench of Justices UU Lalit, Indira Banerjee and KM Joseph had, in April this year, issued a notice to the Central government in a plea by two journalists – Kishorechandra Wangkhemcha from Manipur and Kanhaiya Lal Shukla from Chhattisgarh – challenging the validity of the provision for violation of freedom of speech and expression.