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Saturday, July 31, 2021

Explained: When were Tilak and Gandhi tried under the sedition law?

The sedition law which is enshrined in Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code (IPS) was introduced by the British government in 1870 to tackle dissent against colonial rule.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: July 17, 2021 8:51:18 am
Before Gandhi (right), Tilak faced three trials in cases related to sedition and was imprisoned twice. (Photos: Archives)

On Thursday, while hearing a petition filed by Major General (retired) SG Vombatkere who has challenged Section 124A of the IPC which deals with the offence of sedition, Chief Justice of India N V Ramana observed that the “colonial law” was used by the British to silence Mahatma Gandhi and Bal Gangadhar Tilak.

In his plea, Vombatkere has challenged the constitutional validity of the sedition law on the grounds that it has a “chilling effect” on speech and poses an unreasonable restriction on the fundamental right of free expression. Therefore, his plea wants that the law be struck down. Article 19 (1) (a) of the Constitution guarantees Indian citizens’ freedom of speech and expression.

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The sedition law has been challenged several times over the last few years but it has managed to survive all of the challenges against it. In the landmark case of 1962, Kedar Nath versus Union of India, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutional validity of the sedition law while trying to curtail its misuse. The court said at the time that unless accompanied by an incitement or call for violence, criticism of the government cannot be labelled sedition.

When was the sedition law introduced in India?

The sedition law which is enshrined in Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code (IPS) was introduced by the British government in 1870 to tackle dissent against colonial rule. The original draft of the IPC, which was enacted in 1860, did not consist of this law.

Section 124A states the following, “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 a fine may be added; or, with imprisonment which may extend to three years, to which a fine may be added; or, with fine.”

A blog published by the Library of Congress (LOC) notes that in the 19th and 20th centuries, the law was used primarily to suppress the writings and speeches of prominent Indian nationalists and freedom fighters.

Over the years, various people have been booked under this provision of the IPC, including author Arundhati Roy for her controversial remarks on Kashmir, Hardik Patel (who is facing sedition cases related to the 2015 Patidar quota agitation) and more recently, climate activist Disha Ravi, Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid, journalists Vinod Dua and Siddique Kappan among others.

When was sedition law used against Gandhi and Tilak?

According to the LOC blog, the first known instance of the application of the law was the trial of newspaper editor Jogendra Chandra Bose in 1891. Other prominent examples of the application of the law include the trials of Tilak and Gandhi. Apart from this, Jawaharlal Nehru, Abul Kalam Azad and Vinayak Damodar Savarkar were also charged with sedition.

In 1922, Gandhi was arrested on charges of sedition in Bombay for taking part in protests against the colonial government. He was sentenced to six years in prison but was released after two years because of medical reasons.

Before Gandhi, Tilak faced three trials in cases related to sedition and was imprisoned twice. He was charged with sedition in 1897 for writing an article in his weekly publication called Kesari and was sentenced to 12 months imprisonment. He was tried again in 1908 and was represented by MA Jinnah. But his application for bail was rejected and he was sentenced to six years.

The second time he was tried was also because of his writings, one of which referred to the murder of European women in Muzzafarpur when bombs were thrown by Bengali terrorists. This is what Tilak wrote in his article, “This, no doubt, will inspire many with hatred against the people belonging to the party of rebels. It is not possible to cause British rule to disappear from this country by such monstrous deeds. But rulers who exercise unrestricted power must always remember that there is also a limit to the patience of humanity.”

Interestingly, the judge who announced Tilak’s sentence in the second trial, Justice DD Davar, had represented him in his first trial in 1897.

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