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Friday, July 01, 2022

Centre to SC: Sedition law, 1962 ruling fine, no need for larger bench

A three-judge bench presided by Chief Justice of India N V Ramana asked the petitioners and the Centre to file their written arguments on the point by May 7. It also allowed the Centre to file its counter affidavit explaining its stand vis a vis Section 124A by May 9.

Written by Ananthakrishnan G | New Delhi |
Updated: May 8, 2022 1:47:50 am
Ram Navami violence: SC dismisses plea seeking judicial panelThe Bench asked the Centre to file its counter affidavit on the matter by May 9. (File Photo)

The Centre Saturday defended the penal law on sedition (Section 124A of the IPC) in the Supreme Court and said that the apex court’s 1962 verdict of a Constitution bench upholding its validity was “long standing, settled”, had stood the test of time and needed no reference to a larger bench. And that instances of its abuse can’t be a justification for its reconsideration.

In his written submissions to a three-judge bench headed by Chief Justice of India N V Ramana on the question whether petitions challenging Section 124A (sedition) should be referred to a five-judge Constitution bench in the light of the 1962 ruling in Kedar Nath Singh vs State of Bihar, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta pointed out that the said ruling “is a Constitution bench judgment and is binding on a three-judge bench”.

Hearing a clutch of petitions challenging the Constitutional validity of Section 124A, the three-judge bench of CJI Ramana and Justices Surya Kant and Hima Kohli had wondered whether it has to refer it to a five-judge bench in the light of the 1962 ruling and asked for the views of the Centre and the petitioners on this.

Attorney General K K Venugopal, too, had said there was no need for any reference and that Kedar Nath Singh is good law.

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Saying that no reference was needed, Mehta’s note Saturday argued that the Kedar Nath Singh verdict already addressed the key Constitutional principles. “The five-judge bench read down Section 124A only to bring it in conformity with Article 14 (equality), 19 (free speech) and 21 (life and liberty)… No reference, therefore, would be necessary nor can the three-Judge Bench once again examine the Constitutional validity of the very same provision”.

In 1962, the apex court had upheld the validity of the sedition law while attempting to restrict its scope for misuse. It had held that unless accompanied by incitement or a call for violence, criticism of the government cannot be construed as a seditious offence.

The government said that the “ratio in Kedar Nath Singh has been analysed, tested and elaborated subsequently by” the court “in several cases”, the latest being Vinod Dua vs Union of India.

In that case, a two-judge bench had quashed the sedition case registered against journalist Vinod Dua in Shimla on the basis of an FIR over comments made on his YouTube show criticising the Central government.

“The bench of three judges cannot reconsider the ratio of a judgment of a Constitution bench without referring the matter to a larger bench,” the note said.

And added that even “for a reference to a larger bench… it will be absolutely necessary for the bench of three…judges to record its satisfaction that the ratio in Kedar Nath Singh is so patently wrong that it needs reconsideration by a larger bench. The bench of three Hon’ble Judges cannot itself decide whether Kedar Nath Singh is a good law or not”.

“Instances of the abuse of provision would never be a justification to reconsider a binding judgment of the Constitution bench. The remedy would lie in preventing such abuse on a case-to-case basis rather than doubting a long standing settled law declared by a Constitution bench since about six decades (ago)”, the written submission said.

It, however, added that if this argument is not acceptable to the court, then the three judges “may not examine the challenge to Section 124A and may refer it to a larger bench for consideration whether Kedar Nath…needs reconsideration”.

Tracing case laws on the topic, Mehta’s note said that “where the point of law has been settled by a series of decisions and has been consistently applied over a long period of time, should not be departed from (even by larger Benches or by a superior court) merely on the ground that another view is possible. It is submitted that the court, considering the long-standing view, will have to carefully decide when not to interfere with a settled position of law, and when to interfere in spite of a long-settled position”.

The petitioners had argued that the three-judge bench can strike down the provision by giving cogent reasons why it cannot follow the Constitution bench ruling. But the Centre said this is “patently wrong.”

“It is only a bench of co-equal strength that can disagree with the judgment of the Constitution Bench while recording cogent reasons as to why the earlier binding Constitution Bench judgment is so patently wrong that it needs to be reconsidered and thereafter refer it to even a larger bench for re-consideration”, the government added.

Section 124 A has been at the centre of a controversy amid allegations that it has been weaponised by various governments to settle political scores.

Under this Section, “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.”

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