Understanding Sedition

Sedition, an offence under the Indian Penal Code, 1860 is currently the most widely and fiercely debated issue. The debate is over what is considered to be sedition and how, when, why and under what circumstances various individuals and organizations have been charged under sedition law.  The debate is also on whether the Government of the day is using the sedition law to silence its critics, detractors and the opposition.  The affected and their supporters are echoing the idea of deleting the section dealing with sedition from the Indian Penal Code terming it to be archaic as well as draconian.

The purpose of this write-up is not to legally dissect sedition related cases but to decipher what amounts to sedition under the Indian Penal Code, 1860 also to have a bird’s eye view at some of the instances of sedition related cases, the current circumstances under which sedition charges have been filed on some of the individuals/ as organizations and whether such circumstances would have warranted a charge under sedition law.

For the benefit of the beginners let us first attempt to find out the literal meaning of the word sedition.  Sedition has its roots in the Latin words “sed” and “itio”, “sed” meaning “apart” and “itio” meaning “going”.  Deducing from this “sedition” would literally mean “going apart”.

While the Little Oxford Dictionary defines the word ‘sedition’ as “conduct or speech inciting to rebellion”, the Online Oxford Dictionary at www.oxforddictionaries.com defines ‘sedition’ as “conduct or speech inciting people to rebel against the authority of a state or monarch”.

From the above it becomes very clear that any conduct or speech by any person which incites or provokes people to rebel against the Government or the authority of the Government is an act of sedition.  It is to be noted here that the conduct or speech can be an attempt to incite rebellion that need not actually result in a rebellion by the people.

Now let us try to understand sedition as per the Indian Penal Code, 1860.  Sedition is defined under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code which reads thus:

Whosoever, 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.

Explanation 1: The expression “disaffection” includes disloyalty and all feelings of enmity.

Explanation 2: Comments expressing disapprobation of the measures of the Government with a view to obtain their alteration by lawful means, without exciting or attempting to excite hatred, contempt or disaffection, do not constitute an offence under this section.

Explanation 3: Comments expressing disapprobation of the administrative or other action of the Government without exciting or attempting to excite hatred, contempt or disaffection, do not constitute an offence under this section.

From the above it is clear that all acts which brings or which attempts to bring hatred, contempt or disaffection towards any Government established by law in India amounts to sedition.  In the explanation disaffection is provided an inclusive meaning which says those actions of disloyalty and a feeling of enmity towards the Government is disaffection.  When the section mentions Government established by law, it can be either Central or State Governments as also the organizations directly under Central or State Government.

It is interesting to note the acts defined under Section 124A to bring or attempt to bring hatred or disaffection against the Government.  The section says whosoever brings hatred or disaffection or attempts to do so:

  1. by words, either spoken or written – this may include speeches, publications, editorials, broadcast, messages through pamphlets, handouts or any medium including electronic etc
  1. by signs – may include mark, symbol, motion or gesture etc against any Government
  1. by visible representation – this probably may include drawings, cartoons, hoardings, banners etc propagating against the Government
  1. otherwise – by any other means not included in the above

Thus the offence of sedition is brought out by committing any of the above acts against the Government of the day.

Further expression of disapprobation i.e. a strong disapproval typically on moral grounds of the measures of the Government with an intention to get it altered or of the administrative or other action of the Government do not amount to sedition as per explanations 2 & 3 to Section 124A.  However, disapprobation should not bring or attempt to bring contempt or hatred or disaffection against the Government.

If one were to look at prominent historical cases of sedition, Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Mahatma Gandhi were charged by the British, since their actions were perceived to be against the British Empire.

Post-independence there are various cases of individuals, media houses and organizations on whom/which sedition charges have been slapped.  

Under the present circumstances when some individuals and organizations have been charged under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 there is an atmosphere of intense passion and showing up of pent-up emotions as to why they need to be charged under Section 124A and why not.  The recent cases of Kanhaiya Kumar and Amnesty International needs special mentioning.  Since the mentioned cases are sub-judice it will be improper to comment on the same.

However, one should express caution while expressing their intentions through speech, writing or otherwise and understand that there is a very thin line dividing freedom of expression as permitted by the Constitution and expression amounting to an offence against the State.  This thin line of division is the cause of the alleged misuse of this law as also Section 124A attaining draconian status.  The Central and State Governments are alleged to have misused the sedition law to stamp out dissent against the Government machinery.  While it is agreed that ordinary slogan shouting and protests against the Government cannot be termed as sedition, acts which amounts to taking sides with terrorists and states harboring terrorists cannot and must not be left unattended to by the law.  Further the situation becomes more complex when individuals/organizations try to garner support for nations with whom the State of India is continuously fighting a low intensity war.  When the individuals/organizations try to polarize the society through their acts, such acts definitely amount to a threat to the security of the State.

While it is for the courts to decide on the correctness of the charging of Kanhaiya Kumar and Amnesty International under sedition, one must understand that the actions of the before said parties were certainly not favoring the Indian Government.  While the speech of one was favoring the terrorist who masterminded the Indian Parliament attack, the other organization charged for sedition allegedly gave a platform for pro-Kashmir-azadi propaganda, which is a separatist movement agenda again a threat to the unity and security of the Indian State.

As discussed before, the sedition law is in force to bind the ‘ruler’ with the ‘ruled’.  If the ‘ruler’ under any circumstance is threatened by the ‘ruled’, for the time being, it is this sedition law that the ‘ruler’ will enforce upon the ‘ruled’, however archaic or draconian it may be.

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