NEW DELHI – In a path-breaking order, the Supreme Court on Wednesday put on hold the colonial-era penal law on sedition till an appropriate government forum re-examines it and directed the Centre and states to not register any fresh FIR invoking the offence.
Besides the lodging of FIRs, ongoing probes, pending trials and all proceedings under the sedition law across the country will also be in abeyance, a Supreme Court bench headed by Chief Justice of India N V Ramana ruled.
In its significant order on the law that has been under intense public scrutiny for its use as a tool against expressions of dissent, including on social media, the bench spoke of the need to balance the interests of civil liberties and citizens with that of the State.
This Court is cognizant of security interests and integrity of the State on one hand, and the civil liberties of citizens on the other. There is a requirement to balance both sets of considerations, which is a difficult exercise.
The case of the petitioners is that this provision of law pre-dates the Constitution itself, and is being misused , the bench, also comprising Justices Surya Kant and Hima Kohli, said.
The court listed the matter in the third week of July and said its directions shall continue till further orders.
Sedition, which provides a maximum jail term of life under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code for creating “disaffection towards the government”, was brought into the penal code in 1890, 57 years before Independence and almost 30 years after the IPC came into being. In the pre-Independence era, the provision was used against freedom fighters, including Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Mahatma Gandhi.
Over the years, the number of cases has been on the rise, with Maharashtra politician couple Navneet and Ravi Rana, author Arundhati Roy, student activist Umar Khalid and journalist Siddique Kappan among those charged under the provision.
CJI Ramana, writing the order, referred to the attorney general earlier giving instances of glaring misuse of this provision, like in the case of recital of the Hanuman Chalisa .
Taking note of the concerns of the Centre, the apex court said the rigours of Section 124A (sedition) of the IPC is not in tune with the current social milieu and permitted reconsideration of the provision.
We expect that, till the re-examination of the provision is complete, it will be appropriate not to continue the usage of the aforesaid provision of law by the Governments, it said.
Any affected party is at liberty to approach concerned courts, which are requested to examine the reliefs sought taking into the consideration the present order, the apex court said.
The order referred to the Centre’s affidavit, which accepted there were divergent views on the law and had also quoted Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s favour in protection of civil liberties and respect for human rights.
In view of the above, it is clear that the Union of India agrees with the prima facie opinion expressed by this Court In light of the same, the Union of India may reconsider the aforesaid provision of law, it said.
The order said the interim stay granted to some petitioners by the apex court would continue to operate till further orders.
All pending trials, appeals and proceedings with respect to the charge framed under Section 124A of IPC be kept in abeyance. Adjudication with respect to other Sections, if any, could proceed if the Courts are of the opinion that no prejudice would be caused to the accused, it said.
If any fresh case is registered, the affected parties are at liberty to approach the courts for appropriate relief and the courts are requested to examine the reliefs sought, taking into account the present order passed as well as the clear stand taken by the Centre, it said.
The bench did not agree with the Centre’s suggestion that a superintendent of police ranked officer be made responsible for monitoring the registration of FIRs for the offence of sedition
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for the Centre, had also said the registration of FIRs on the matter cannot be prevented as the provision dealt with a cognisable offence and was upheld by a Constitution bench in 1962.
With regard to pending sedition cases, the Centre suggested that hearing on bail pleas in such matters may be expedited as the government did not know the gravity of the offence in all the cases and they may have terror or money laundering angles.
“Ultimately, pending cases are before the judicial forum and we need to trust courts,” the law officer told the bench.
The bench, which rose for a few minutes to discuss the orders after taking note of the Centre’s response, came back to pronounce the directions and said it has considered the issues elaborately.
On Tuesday, the bench had asked the Centre to make clear within 24 hours its stand on keeping pending sedition cases in abeyance to protect the interests of citizens already booked and not registering fresh cases till the government’s re-examination of the colonial-era penal law is over.
Asking the Centre to take a clear stand after it had posed the two specific queries, the top court had agreed that a re-look of IPC’s Section 124A be left to the government.
Between 2015 and 2020, 356 cases of sedition — as defined under Section 124A of the IPC–were registered and 548 persons arrested, according to data compiled by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB). However, just 12 persons arrested in seven sedition cases were convicted in this six-year period.
The top court, in 1962, upheld the validity of the sedition law while attempting to restrict its scope for misuse.
The bench has been hearing a clutch of pleas challenging the validity of the law on sedition, an issue of intense debate for its alleged misuse to settle political scores by various governments.
“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, reads section 124A (sedition) of the IPC.
In July last year, CJI Ramana said the British used sedition law against Maharma Gandhi and Tilak and asked whether it was still needed.
Among the earliest recorded sedition trials was in 1898 when freedom fighter Tilak was famously in the dock.