Sedition — illogical equation of government with state

This article aims to explore the concept of sedition and the recommendation of the law commission on sedition, highlighting the illogical equation often made between the government and the state. The Law Commission has suggested keeping the sedition offense in the penal law but with certain safeguards. This recommendation goes against the prevailing views in the judiciary and politics that India might not need this outdated colonial practice anymore.

Understanding Sedition:
  • Sedition refers to acts or expressions that are perceived as inciting violence, public disorder, or contempt towards established authority. It is commonly employed as a tool to safeguard the integrity and stability of the state.
  • Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code defines sedition as an act where someone uses words, signs, or any other means to bring hatred, contempt, or disaffection towards the government established by law. The punishment for sedition can range from imprisonment for life, along with a fine, to imprisonment for up to three years, along with a fine.
  • The problem with this section is that it does not clearly explain what exactly constitutes sedition. It merely mentions the law without properly defining or understanding the term.
History and background
  • The sedition law, originally drafted by Thomas Babington Macaulay in 1837, defines it as an act that brings hatred, contempt, or disaffection towards the established government in India. The British Colonial government included this charge in Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code in 1870 to suppress the writings and speeches of Indian freedom fighters.
  • Prominent leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Lokmanya Tilak, and Jogendra Chandra Bose faced sedition charges for their comments on British rule. The law imposes non-bailable offenses with imprisonment ranging from three years to life, along with fines. Additionally, it results in the loss of government job opportunities and seizure of the person’s passport. It is worth noting that the United Kingdom abolished the sedition charge in 2010.
  • The Constituent Assembly, which was responsible for drafting the Indian Constitution, debated whether or not to include a provision for sedition. Ultimately, they decided against it, fearing that it would be used to suppress dissent and violate the right to freedom of speech and expression.
Law Commission on sedition

The Law Commission on sedition recommends incorporating the ratio decidendi of the Kedarnath Singh ruling to address the ambiguities surrounding sedition. This inclusion would bring greater clarity to the interpretation and application of the provision. The proposed amendments aim to strike a balance between safeguarding fundamental rights and maintaining social harmony.

Punishment Parity and Safeguards
  • The law Commission on sedition suggests amending the punishment under Section 124A to ensure consistency with other offenses in Chapter VI of the IPC. This would prevent disparities in the severity of punishments for similar offenses.
  • Additionally, to prevent potential misuse, the Commission proposes the issuance of model guidelines by the Central Government. These guidelines would provide a framework to prevent arbitrary use of the sedition law.
The Fallacy of Equating Government with State:
  • The equation of the government with the state, particularly in cases of sedition, is a flawed premise. It undermines core democratic principles.
  • This equation implies that any criticism or dissent against the government equates to an attack on the state itself. It limits the space for open dialogue and constructive criticism.
Government as a Transient Entity:

Governments are transient bodies that derive their authority from the people through elections. They represent a particular political ideology or party. Their policies and actions are subject to scrutiny and criticism. However, as a larger entity, the state encompasses the people, the constitution, and the institutions that endure beyond any specific government.

The Importance of Dissent in Democracy:

Dissent plays a crucial role in a vibrant democracy, allowing citizens to voice their concerns and hold the government accountable. Silencing dissent through the weaponization of sedition can stifle democratic discourse, limit freedom of expression, and create an environment of fear and self-censorship.

Safeguarding Freedom of Expression:

Sedition laws exist in many countries. Balancing their application with freedom of expression is crucial. Clearly defining boundaries between threats to public order and legitimate criticism is vital. This prevents misuse of sedition charges to suppress dissent.

International Standards and Sedition:

International human rights frameworks, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, emphasize the significance of freedom of expression and the right to dissent. Countries should align their sedition laws with these standards to ensure the protection of civil liberties.

Misuse of Sedition Laws:

Instances of the misuse of sedition laws have surfaced in recent years, with governments exploiting them to stifle dissent and target political opponents. Such actions erode public trust, undermine democratic institutions, and hinder the development of an inclusive society.

Conclusion:

The flawed equation of the government with the state in cases of sedition undermines democratic values. Governments must embrace criticism and dissent as essential elements of a healthy democracy. Striking a balance between sedition laws and freedom of expression, while preventing their misuse, will enable societies to cultivate an environment that values open discourse. It will encourage constructive dialogue, and upholds civil liberties.

The Way Forward:

To address these challenges, it is imperative to review and reform sedition laws in line with democratic principles. Governments should encourage an environment that fosters open dialogue, constructive criticism, and peaceful resolution of differences. By doing so, societies can create a space that promotes progress, inclusivity, and respect for civil liberties.

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