By Sushil Kutty
Finally, the much-maligned sedition law, Section 124-A, will meet its nemesis, when May 5 the Supreme Court will take up for hearing former Union minister Arun Shourie’s petition challenging the constitutional validity of Section 124-A of the Indian Penal Code. There is almost childish eagerness and belief that if anybody can give sedition ‘kadi-takkar’, and not just ‘kadi-ninda’, it is the former Indian Express editor Arun Shourie.
Yes, triumph cannot be far behind when Shourie butts in with a prayer. Just watch and see, sedition will be left without a prayer. Arun Shourie’s petition was raised by advocate Prashant Bhushan who wanted the apex court to hear it immediately. CJI NV Ramana decided it best to list it for hearing on May 5, along with a bunch of other petitions challenging Section 124-A of the Indian Penal Code.
May 5 is when the SC will conduct the final hearing on the bank of petitions challenging Section 124-A of IPC. In simple non-legalese, Shourie’s petition says Section 124-A is a defunct colonial law used to quell dissent, and solely to target Indians. Shourie through wants it declared null and void, unconstitutional, and thrown out of the statute book. NGO ‘Common Cause’ has made common cause with Shourie in the petition.
It’s over 160 years since Section 124-A was added to the laws to discipline and punish freedom-seeking Indians. Seventy-five years since India drove the sedition-imposers out, the sedition law remains. Successive governments have used it to suppress dissent, and jail political rivals. The latest in Maharashtra, where the Thackeray government slapped Section 124-A on Navneet and Ravi Rana to shut them up.
Shourie and ‘Common Cause’ say sedition is “vague” and doesn’t define “criminal offence” with clarity. Precisely, what the Ranas’ advocate told the court in Mumbai. The Ranas were arrested and jailed because they had said they would chant the Hanuman Chalisa outside Matoshree, Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray’s private residence.
At the end of the day, the Ranas didn’t make good their resolve and promise, but the couple was picked up by police and charged under Section 124-A, sufficient reason for the Bharatiya Janata Party to raise Cain, forgetting that if any government took sedition to ridiculous lengths, it’s the Modi government at the Centre, ever since 2014 when Modi took charge of the PMO.
Section 124-A is intrinsically linked to freedom of speech and the question is often asked if free speech can foment public disorder, and disaffection against the government? Shourie’s petition finds no proximate connection between instigation and public order; therefore, it seeks the court strike down Section 124-A for infringing on Article 19(1) (a).
The petition states that there is need to revisit Section 124-A as the offence had been made cognizable “since Kedarnath” and there were no safeguards left against the abuse of Section 124-A. There was a day when sedition was non-cognizable, which changed with the introduction of the CrPC, 1973.
Section 124-A is nowadays also non-bailable. Anybody can be charged and jailed for sedition, justly or unjustly. By the time the courts step in, it would too late. The person jailed for sedition would have gone through hell. Deprivation of liberty is something that only the caged bird will know, but will not be able to explain.
Among those who were given a taste of Section 124-A early on were Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, who went satisfied that India had attained freedom, but was past knowing what the fate of Indians left to bear with Article 124-A—“the prince among the political sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) designed to suppress the liberty of the citizens”—would be.
In recent years there has been a surge in the number of sedition cases, leading to even the top court commentating on the phenomenon. According to the NCRB and MHA, of the over 10,000 charged under Section 124-A, 65% were booked after Modi took charge in May 2014. And among those charged opposition leaders, students, journalists, writers and academics. In 2018, journalist Wangkhem was charged with sedition for criticising Modi, the RSS, and Manipur Chief Minister N. Biren Singh on social media.
People have been charged with sedition for broadcasting “offending speeches”, for holding up posters, for social media posts, for raising slogans and for “personal communications”, and not all of these prosecuted by the Modi government. State governments, irrespective of which party, used the sedition law to beat and bully. Three Kashmiri students were charged under Section 124-A for celebrating Pakistan’s victory over India in a T20 match.
July of 2021, CJI Ramana asked, “Sedition is a colonial law. It suppresses freedoms. It was used against Mahatma Gandhi, Tilak… Is this law necessary after 75 years of Independence?” The constitutional validity of Section 124-A is being questioned. Has CJI Ramana found the answer to his question, will he give Arun Shourie what he wants? (IPA Service)