Updated: June 2, 2021 7:57:09 am
The Supreme Court’s call for a fresh examination of the remit of the sedition law is enormously welcome. The apex court’s observations, the cautionary note it has struck on what is deemed as seditious, came while hearing a case in which the Andhra Pradesh government has booked two Telugu news channels under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). The two channels have been made co-accused along with parliamentarian Raghu Rama Krishna Raju, whose speech was alleged to have promoted disaffection against the government. The observation by the highest court gains significance as a constitutional challenge by two journalists, Kishorechandra Wangkhem and Kanhaiya Lal Shukla, against the colonial law is already pending before it. Section 124A of the IPC penalises sedition as punishable with imprisonment ranging from three years to a lifetime, a fine, or both.
In the landmark 1962 Kedar Nath case, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutional validity of the sedition law, but also attempted to restrict its scope for misuse. The court has held that unless accompanied by an incitement or call for violence, criticism of the government cannot be labelled sedition. Despite the ruling, however, the sedition law has been weaponised with increasing frequency. The provision is invoked by a trigger-happy state to cramp free speech and muzzle dissent, and has been brazenly used to criminalise protestors. Take, for example, the case in Uttar Pradesh where the state filed over 22 cases of sedition in the wake of a sexual assault case in Hathras last year — of the 22 cases, at least 18 were against unknown individuals. The nation-wide protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act attracted the serious sedition charges for mere sloganeering. According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), the conviction rate in sedition cases was 3.3 per cent in 2019. However, the process often becomes the punishment as lower courts refuse to grant bail or examine the charges thoroughly. The Supreme Court’s fresh examination of the law must nudge the state that initiates prosecutions and the courts that do not ask enough questions of the state, to apply the law correctly.
Supreme Court judge DY Chandrachud, who was part of the Andhra sedition case, sarcastically inquired in another hearing if sedition cases would be slapped against those reporting on the dead bodies of Covid victims found floating in the river Ganga in Uttar Pradesh. His remark is reassuring. It affirms that judges have their ears to the ground, that they are alert to the growing political misuse of the sedition law. The Supreme Court must settle the law once and for all, without leaving wiggle room for its continued distortion and misuse.
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