By Sushil Kutty
For the umpteenth time in umpteen years, Section 124A or what is called the Sedition law could end up facing the guillotine though the Centre wants the process halted with the Supreme Court clearly not willing to acquiesce. The Modi government is no different from other governments. When in the opposition, all parties clamour for the complete striking down of Section 124A but it is an altogether different tune when in government. This time, however, the Supreme Court appears to be in no mood to give in.
Go away’ is the sentiment in the apex court despite both the attorney-general and solicitor-general doing their best to convince the top court to back off. The constitutional validity of Section 124A will be heard, period. A Constitution bench of five justices will hear the case. For those who haven’t a clue, Section 124A of the IPC criminalises sedition. The Centre said there was no need for the hearing as the IPC was being replaced by the Bharatiya Nyaya Sanhita Bill, which is currently before a Parliament Standing Committee.
But the Supreme Court has its own code as attorney general R Venkataramani and solicitor general Tushar Mehta came to realize. The top court refused the Centre’s request to defer the hearing. Note that Section 124A is still in the Constitution, but there is also the Bharatiya Nyaya Sanhita. The proposed “new law in a penal statute will have only prospective and not retrospective effect”. CJI DY Chandrachud made it clear that as long as Section 124A remained in the statute book, the “challenges need to be assessed accordingly” and no new law will change the status of the thousands of criminal cases still to be prosecuted under Section 124A.
The five-judge Constitution bench will look at the decision of a five-judge Constitution bench that had in 1962 upheld the validity of Section 124A. The popular sentiment today is to strike down Section 124A altogether and be done with it. The 1962 judgment (Kedar Nath Singh versus State of Bihar) only tested Section 124A against Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution and not against Article 14 (equality before law).
The proposed Bharatiya Nyaya Sanhita Bill, which is before the Parliament Standing Committee, does not have a matching provision like Section 124A, but Section 150 of the ‘Sanhita’ while giving the stick to “sedition” resorts to the words “endangering sovereignty, unity and integrity of India” to spell out the offence. With the Bharatiya Nyaya Sanhita Bill, sedition got a longer name, which senior advocate Kapil Sibal said was more “draconian” and “much worse”.
“Prosecutions will go on”, Sibal warned. Other problems with Section 124A include that it does not distinguish between “state” and “government”, and the ‘state’ cannot always be ‘government’. The fact of the matter is the colonial era sedition law should have gone with the British Raj but it did not and continues to be used indiscriminately by successive governments of independent India to curb dissent.
The moment a government resorts to Section 124A that government turns authoritarian and by that reckoning almost every Indian regime since Independence has been authoritarian and the Modi government has had its share of authoritarian streaks. But then nothing should be surprising as Section 124A was a British Raj law to suppress opposition to foreign colonial rule; target Indian nationalists.
The pity is, all governments since Independence have been aping the colonial government. The law has been used to silence the critics of the government including journalists, students, academia, and political adversaries. The sedition law has wide applicability and carries a maximum sentence of ‘life’. But it is the process that is the punishment.
Every time there is a new Parliament session demands for putting the sedition law to rest are made. But nothing happens. In 2022, the Supreme Court had put a hold on the use of Section 124A. It was considered that if Parliament did not act on the controversial law, the Supreme Court would rule on its constitutionality. Ensuring India’s compliance with international human rights is another reason why Section 124A should go. That said, old wine in a new bottle is out of the question. The Supreme Court should stand firm, not buckle under. Only an early decision by the top court will put an end to this blackmail.
Bottom-line, the British repealed its own sedition law in 2009, what is India waiting for – Armageddon? In India, sedition cases have risen by 30 percent during Modi Raj. That is huge – 500 sedition cases involving 7000 people, according to one count. The talk is people are being charged under Section 124A for cracking Modi jokes. It is funny but it isn’t funny. Laughing could attract Section 124A. (IPA Service)