When cartoonist Aseem Trivedi was booked for sedition by the Mumbai crime branch for offensive cartoons, the whole focus shifted on this law. This law was started by the British who ruled India, as a way of controlling the freedom fighters, but in recent times the law has gained prominence for being notorious and contentious.
From writer-activist Arundhati Roy to cartoonist Aseem Trivedi and now these Kashmiri students, this law is a double-edged sword that can be offensive at times and can fall under freedom of speech in some other cases.
What is sedition?
As per the Indian law, sedition is any form of speech, action, writing that incites hatred against the established order and harms the systematic peace of the country. Seditious words written against the ruling government and authority is called ' seditious libel'.
Indian constitution's chapter VI deals with offences against the state and sedition is charged under Section 124A of the IPC. The punishment includes imprisonment for life and added fines. Imprisonment can be for life-time or for three years based on the nature of seditious charges.
Sedition as defined in the IPC is, "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, Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution says, all citizens have the right to freedom of speech and expression. This right to freedom of speech and expression incorporates protection for austerely censuring existing government structures, policies, and administrative schemes, coupled with protection for suggesting and recommending the development of other system. Article 19 (2) of Indian Constitution says that, every citizen of the country holds the right to air his or her opinion through print or electronic media with restrictions imposed.
How did it all start?
Many Indians in the past have been charged under this act. Prominent freedom fighters charged with sedition law include Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Mahatma Gandhi. Section 124A was introduced by the British colonial government in 1870 when it felt the need for a specific section to deal with the offence.
Students charged with sedition, a poll-gimmick say experts:
Students who cheered for Pakistan during the Asia Cup were charged under sedition. This resulted in CM of Jammu and Kashmir, Omar Abdullah fuming and reaching out to Mulayam Singh Yadav and Akhilesh Yadav, the CM of Uttar Pradesh instantly. He also stated that some of these students were recipients of President's scholarship and a serious introspection was needed.
Supporting this point, writer and noted lawyer Saurav Dutta says, "The elections act as catalyst in such situations and the very same students who are offered scholarship will end picking up arms after such a treatment. The whole purpose of providing aid to help students get educated is defeated in the long-run".
He also adds, "There is grey area in implementation of sedition law in India and citizens are expected to refrain from commenting on governance. The law is misused mostly and people won't be able to criticise authority in the long-run which is a failure of democracy".
"If a person accused of sedition is ultimately proved not guilty of that charge, the process of going through the charge itself is so arduous for any person. The process really becomes the punishment. Sedition offence was inserted in IPC during the British era. The British wanted to muzzle Indians who would revolt against the British rule. The meaning of sedition then was obviously very broad. If our legislature wishes that sedition continues to be an offence in IPC, its definition should be narrowed down so that the discretion with police on what can attract a charge of sedition is extremely limited", says lawyer Karthikeya Tanna.
Advocate Shruti Desai adds, "We have good drafted laws, but as far as Sedition is concerned, it requires clarification. The landmark judgment of Supreme Court in Kedar Nath case was a good judgement but the law's application as per case-by-case has changed over time".
On the question of students supporting Pakistan team, Tanna added, "Even though the act of supporting the Pakistan team can be worthy of criticism and can be frowned upon, particularly if made in reckless disregard of the violence it could have provoked, a charge of sedition isn't fair".
As per experts, the sedition law has been amended numerous times and needs to be either updated keeping in mind the current global context or needs to be completely discarded.
Explaining why supporting Pakistan drew such response from the state, some experts concluded that any reaction that is nationalistic in approach is determined by relationships shared by state and country with the opponent country. Hence, if Indians support Australia, it is not seditious but if India supports Pakistan, it is termed seditious.
The bottom-line of the case is that, if the state does not make amends with the charges filed, the repercussions will be negative for students. The Lok Sabha elections are just a month away and major players are trying to garner votes under any pretext. "Mulayam Singh Yadav was responsible for Muzzafarnagar riots and now this crisis. The irony in the case is that, political parties have to cater to their target groups as well as balance it out with nationalistic ideals. Elections come and go but state must think about these students lives" added Dutta.
Landmark cases and glaring examples:
Maneka Gandhi versus Union of India:
In this case, the Apex Court held that the freedom of speech and expression is not confined to geographical limitations and it carries with it the right of a citizen to gather information and to exchange thought with others not only in India but abroad too.
As per the judgement, criticising and drawing general opinion against policies and governmental decisions within a reasonable limit that does not incite people to rebel is consistent with freedom of speech and expression.
Arundhati Roy and others were charged under sections 124A (sedition), 153A (promoting enmity between classes), 153B (imputations, assertions prejudicial to national integration), 504 (insult intended to provoke breach of peace) and 505 (false statement, rumour circulated with intent to cause mutiny or offence against public peace when she spoke at "Azadi-the Only Way" ?conference in Jammu and Kashmir.
The filing of the FIR came following a directive from a local court on a petition filed by Sushil Pandit who alleged that Geelani and Roy made anti-India speeches at a conference on a senior police official said.
Roy and Geelani had shared the dais with Maoist sympathiser Vara Vara and others. Geelani was heckled by the audience.
In 2011, a nation wide anti corruption movement India Against Corruption gathered pace in the leadership of a veteran Gandhian Anna Hazare demanding Jan Lokpal Bill. Aseem Trivedi joined the crusade and started a cartoon based campaign, Cartoons Against Corruption to support the movement with his art. He launched a website www.cartoonsagainstcorruption.com consisting of his sharp anti corruption cartoons targeting corrupt system and the politicos. He displayed his cartoons in the MMRDA ground, Mumbai during the hunger strike of Anna Hazare.
But, his website was suspended by Crime Branch, Mumbai on the first day of the protest, when he received an email from BigRock, the domain name registrar with which his website was registered, saying, "We have received a complaint from Crime Branch, Mumbai against domain name 'cartoonsagainstcorruption.com' for displaying objectionable pictures and texts related to flag and emblem of India. Hence we have suspended the domain name and its associated services."
Binayak Sen was accused of sedition by the Chhattisgarh government for allegedly supporting the outlawed Naxals and thereby violating the provisions of the Chhattisgarh special public security act (CSPSA)and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act 1967. He was later acquitted due to lack of evidence.
Kedar Nath Singh:
The speech by Kedar Nath Singh was, "To-day the dogs of the C.I.D are loitering round Barauni. Many official dogs are sitting even in this meeting. The people of India drove out the Britishers from this country and elected these Congress goondas to the gaddi and seated them on it. To-day these Congress goondas are sitting on the gaddi due to mistake of the people. When we drove out the Britishers, we shall strike and turn out these Congress goondas as well".
After recording a substantial volume of oral evidence, the learned Trial Magistrate convicted the accused person both under S.124A and 505-(b) of the Indian Penal Code, and sentenced him to undergo rigorous imprisonment for one year.
The convicted persons preferred an appeal to the High Court of Judicature at Patna, the Court upheld the convictions and the sentence and dismissed the appeal. Finally it was held that, Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code which makes sedition an offence is constitutionally valid.
Though the section imposes restrictions on the fundamental freedom of speech and expression, the restrictions are in the interest of public order and are within the limit of permissible legislative interference with the fundamental right.
Below is the recent Tweet by Omar Abdullah:
Have just spoken to CM UP who has assured me he will personally look in to the matter of the Kashmiri students in Meerut.
— Omar Abdullah (@abdullah_omar) March 6, 2014
Also read Omar abdullah's reaction to sedition charges: Jammu and Kashmir CM Omar Abdullah fumes over sedition charges against students