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Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Explained: The Kedar Nath sedition ruling

In quashing the sedition case against journalist Vinod Dua, the SC referred to the Kedar Nath Singh judgment of 1962. What are the principles on the sedition law laid down in that landmark verdict?

Written by Apurva Vishwanath | New Delhi |
Updated: June 4, 2021 3:21:19 pm
Protest in JNU in 2016 against the arrest of Kanhaiya Kumar for sedition (Express Photo/File)

The Supreme Court on Thursday quashed case of sedition filed against journalist Vinod Dua in Himachal Pradesh for allegedly making remarks against Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the government’s handling of the migrant crisis during the Covid-19 lockdown last year.

In doing so, the court also reiterated the principles in the landmark case on sedition — Kedar Nath Singh v Union of India (1962).

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What were the cases against Dua?

In a video, Dua had criticised Prime Minster Modi and the Centre for the handling of the migrant crisis last year. BJP leader Ajay Shyam filed a case of sedition against Dua. Section 124A of the IPC penalises sedition as punishable with either imprisonment ranging from three years to a lifetime, a fine, or both.

The Himachal Pradesh government, represented by Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, argued in the Supreme Court that Dua had attempted to spread misinformation or incorrect information and cause panic in the perception of the general public— “for example, the statement that some people feared that there could be food riots post lockdown was without any basis and had clear potential of spreading panic.”

Both the state and the Centre argued against quashing the FIR because the state wanted to investigate whether such statements were “deliberate” or “unintended and innocent assertions”.

Journalist Vinod Dua (Facebook/Vinod Dua)

What has the court ruled?

While the Supreme Court shielded Dua from arrest earlier, the case itself was quashed on Thursday by a two-judge bench comprising Justice U U Lalit and Justice Vineet Saran. It held that his remarks constituted genuine criticism of the government and could not be labelled seditious.

Dua had also sought that the court direct that FIRs against persons belonging to the media with “at least 10 years’ standing not be registered unless cleared by a committee to be constituted by every State Government, the composition of which should comprise of the Chief Justice of the High Court or a Judge designated by him, the leader of the Opposition and the Home Minister of the State” to prevent misuse of the sedition law.

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Did the Supreme Court grant this prayer?

No. The court said that formulating such a committee would amount to encroachment of the legislature’s domain, although such screening committees have been appointed by courts for doctors and in domestic violence cases for example.

“It must however be clarified that every Journalist will be entitled to protection in terms of Kedar Nath Singh, as every prosecution under Sections 124A and 505 of the IPC3 must be in strict conformity with the scope and ambit of said Sections as explained in, and completely in tune with the law laid down in Kedar Nath Singh,” the court said.

What are the Kedar Nath Singh guidelines?

In the landmark 1962 Kedar Nath Singh case, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutional validity of the sedition law, it attempted to restrict its scope for misuse. The court held that unless accompanied by an incitement or call for violence, criticism of the government cannot be labelled sedition.

Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code 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.”

Seven principles in the Kedar Nath Singh ruling specify situations in which the charge of sedition cannot be applied.

* The expression “ ‘the Government established by law’ has to be distinguished from the persons for the time being engaged in carrying on the administration. ‘Government established by law’ is the visible symbol of the State. The very existence of the State will be in jeopardy if the Government established by law is subverted.”

* “Any acts within the meaning of Section 124-A which have the effect of subverting the Government by bringing that Government into contempt or hatred, or creating disaffection against it, would be within the penal statute because the feeling of disloyalty to the Government established by law or enmity to it imports the idea of tendency to public disorder by the use of actual violence or incitement to violence.”

* “Comments, however strongly worded, expressing disapprobation of actions of the Government, without exciting those feelings which generate the inclination to cause public disorder by acts of violence, would not be penal.”

* “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 against the Government established by law or with the intention of creating public disorder.”

* “The provisions of the Sections read as a whole, along with the explanations, make it reasonably clear that the sections aim at rendering penal only such activities as would be intended, or have a tendency, to create disorder or disturbance of public peace by resort to violence.”

* “It is only when the words, written or spoken, etc. which have the pernicious tendency or intention of creating public disorder or disturbance of law and order that the law steps in to prevent such activities in the interest of public order.”

* “We propose to limit its operation only to such activities as come within the ambit of the observations of the Federal Court, that is to say, activities involving incitement to violence or intention or tendency to create public disorder or cause disturbance of public peace.”

What has been the impact of that verdict?

The significance of the verdict lies in the Supreme Court’s subsequent reiteration of the Kedar Nath Singh principles. A fresh constitutional challenge by two journalists, Kishorechandra Wangkhemcha and Kanhaiya Lal Shukla, against the sedition law pending before the Supreme Court, and the ruling in Dua’s case, make a strong case against keeping the colonial law in the books.

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