Opinion: Sedition Law Being Repealed? Not By A Long Shot

Spin doctors would have you believe that Section 124-A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), aka the sedition law, is being repealed. Forget about an in-depth examination, even a cursory reading of the proposed changes reveal that it is, in fact, being altered to make it even more draconian.

The sedition law was enacted by the British in 1870 and was added to the IPC in order to deal with the Wahabi Movement. Ironically, the law still exists in India even though the United Kingdom, which enacted this statute in this country, abolished it in 2009. During the Indian freedom movement, this law was used to curb the voices of freedom fighters, such as Mahatma Gandhi, Bal Gangadhar Tilak and others. Now, it is used to stop journalists, professors, human rights activists and civil society members from raising their voices.

The then Chief Justice of India, NV Ramana, questioned the need for laws like sedition, as they jeopardize the essence of democracy. Its use had been kept in abeyance following a Supreme Court order in May 2022. The court had given the government time to relook the sedition law. This was in lieu of several advocates urging the Supreme Court to strike down sedition as an offence in any form. The 22nd Law Commission Report suggested that sedition should be well defined. The Union government has decided to do the opposite of that.

The sedition law, the National Security Act (NSA), and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), have become prime instruments for stifling dissent and silencing the voices of those views that are contrarian to the government.

Of these three laws, the NSA is the oldest, going back over 200 years. It was enacted by the British in 1818. It gives the government absolute power to detain anyone it considers a potential threat to the nation. During the protests over the CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) and NRC (National Register of Citizens), this law made headlines when a doctor was detained by the Uttar Pradesh government for his speech at a university. Even though the Allahabad High Court released him later, saying the Act was wrongly invoked in his case, the Uttar Pradesh government never apologised to him, and he never received any compensation for his wrongful arrest.

The UAPA also dates back to the colonial period. In 1908, the Indian Criminal Law Amendment Act first defined unlawful association in order to break the back of the Indian national movement. The 16th amendment to the Constitution in 1967 laid the foundation for the enactment of the UAPA. The Act gave overarching powers to the Union government to ban organisations.

This law has been amended several times in independent India to widen its scope and increase its potential for misuse by introducing phrases like 'public order' and 'friendly relations with the state'. It was again amended by the Union government in 2019, giving the police powers to arrest without establishing that the arrested person had connections with a banned organization. This has made it easier for the government to arrest student activists, civil rights advocates, journalists and even professors without an iota of proof.

Some of the stringent provisions of the UAPA bring into question the constitutional validity of this law. A person booked under the UAPA can be detained without charge for up to 180 days. Moreover, bail under this Act is extremely difficult to obtain. Many of those accused and booked under the UAPA and on charges of sedition have been languishing in jail and have been denied their fundamental rights. The story of tribal rights activist, Father Stan Swamy, is one of the many horrors that has been well documented.

The rampant misuse of these archaic laws has increased over the years. But what about conviction? A reply by the government in the Lok Sabha revealed that only 2.2 per cent of cases registered under the UAPA in the 2016-19 period resulted in convictions by courts. According to the National Crime Records Bureau's (NCRB) figures, the number of people charged grew by 160 % in the same period.

Often when a person is charged under any of these draconian laws, the process itself becomes the punishment. The legal proceedings drag on for years. They spend months and years in jail, and lose their livelihood and their dignity in the eyes of society.

These three laws are legacies of the colonial era and were used to throttle Indian aspirations and force foreign rule down the throats of an unwilling population. These statutes are being weaponized. Are we back in 1923?

(Derek O'Brien, MP, leads the Trinamool Congress in the Rajya Sabha.)

Additional Research: Chahat Mangtani

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.