Law · Society

Scope of Sedition Law in India

In this article, Vidit Goyal demystifies the scope of Sedition Law in India.

it is necessary for the welfare of the society that genius should be privileged to utter sedition, to blaspheme, to outrage good taste, to corrupt the youthful mind and generally to scandalize one’s uncle.” – George Bernard Shaw

Every state has a duty to prevent any kind of aggression against it by its citizens. There are always some citizens who are not happy with the present government and thus wish to excite hatred among the people for the same and try to incite violence against the state. In legal views, sedition is an overt conduct, for example by verbal words and gathering that tends toward rebellion against the established law and order. Every state thus has laws relating to prevention such incitement of hatred against the state which are known as sedition laws. Sedition is crime and thus every sedition law has a punishment for sedition.

Talking about India, we have a separate section for the offence of sedition under IPC. Section 124A talks about sedition and states that,

Sedition.—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.

But there has always been a debate as the constitutionally or scope of sedition law as it is against the fundamental right of speech guaranteed under Article 19 of the Indian Constitution.

The landmark judgment which has laid down the scope of Section 124A in consonance with Article 19 is Kedar Nath v. State of Bihar[1]. Article 19 (a) is not an absolute right and it contains an exception under clause 2 of the Article which provides for reasonable restriction on the basis of public order, morality, etc. It has been held by the court that sedition law under section 124A is constitutionally valid because the right under Article 19(a) is subject to certain reasonable restrictions as would come within the exception provided under clause (2), (a) public order, (b) decency or morality, etc. Thus, any act within the perview of s. 124A which have the effect of inciting hatred or contempt against the government, or creating disaffection against it, would held the accused liable of this offence because the impression of betrayal to the Government or enmity to it attracts the idea of propensity to public disorder by the use of violent means or incitement to violence. In other words, any written or spoken words, etc., implicitly having the idea of countermining or debasing the Government by violent actions, which form the basis of the term ‘revolution’, have been held penal under section 124A.

At the same time Supreme Court has also limited the scope of Section 124A. The section being aware of the consequences, has taken care to depict in clear-cut way that strong words used to evince criticizing the measures of Government with a view to their improvement by lawful peaceful means would not render an act violative of this section. Similarly, comments, however authoritatively worded, expressing condemnation of the Government’s action, without agitating the sentiments which generate the inclination to cause public disorder by acts of violence, are not seditious. In other words, commenting in strong terms upon the steps taken by Government is not same as prompting detest or disloyalty against the government, to insure the modifications of those acts or steps by lawful means, without exciting those sentiments of antagonism and betrayal implying instigation to public disorder.

Recently, in the month of February, 2016, there rose a political turmoil when the president of JNU Student Union Kanhaiya Kumar spoke some anti-national words in response to his personal defiance against the Kashmir conflict. He on a complaint got arrested on charges of Sedition under section 124-A of Indian Penal Code. Due to this questionable move by government, academicians and activists throughout the country were marching and protesting. While people those are linked with JNU feel that the government is asphyxiating and ruthlessly suppressing dissent, there is another part of the population that believes JNU student council of JNU has long been supporting violence in Kashmir and other anti-national elements which proves that JNU crowd has spoken the seditious words. Basically, Kanhaiya Kumar was supporting Anti-National movements and was criticizing the government for its activities. So many petitions were filed in different High Courts alleging that the arrest violates Article 19(a) which is freedom to speech.

To determine the scope of Section 134A a petition was filed by NGO ‘Common Cause’ and Dr. S.P. Udayakumar (anti-nuclear activist against whom sedition charges have been made). Supreme Court in the recent order[2] dismissing the petition has mandated all the authorities to follow Kedarnath’s case while dealing with the case of sedition. The Petitioners alleged that the Sedition charges are framed against Citizens with a view to instill fear and to scamper dissent and thereby completely violates the sedition principle laid down by bench of Supreme Court in Kedar nath v State of Bihar.[3] Court in its order provided for the strict compliance of Kedar Nath’s Case in which for the very first time scope of sedition as a penal offence was defined and while laying down the scope sedition meant “incitement to violence” or the “tendency or the intention to create public disorder”.


[1]  AIR 1962 SC 955

[2] Writ Petition(s) (Civil) No.(s) 683/2016 dated 5/09/2016

[3] AIR 1962 SC 955

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