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It is time to revisit an archaic law introduced by the British to stifle dissent
The arrest of political cartoonist Aseem Trivedi and the state's crackdown on thousands of protestors at Koodankulam have once again brought into focus an archaic provision of the law introduced by the British to stifle political dissent — Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code. Based on a private complaint by a third-year law student, the Mumbai Police charged Trivedi with sedition, besides other offences such as "insulting national honour" and producing "grossly offensive" material that was circulated online. After considerable public outrage, the sedition charges were dropped. Earlier this year, 6,800 protestors opposed to the Koodankulam Nuclear Power Plant were slapped with sedition charges.
In an open letter written while in police custody, Trivedi explains why he refused to get bail. "I will say this again and again. I am not a criminal that I will deposit some money to get bail. Until such time as sedition, an authoritarian British Raj law, is not repealed, I shall remain in jail. I will fight against Indian Penal Code Section 124A (sedition) and against censorship from within jail." Section 124A is in Chapter VI of the IPC, entitled "Of Offences Against the State", which deals with serious offences including waging war against the state. Offences under this section carry punishment that can extend up to life imprisonment, and the charge is both non-bailable and cognisable. All of these indicate the seriousness of the crime. In its wording, the law distinguishes between "bringing into... hatred or contempt, or exciting or attempting to excite disaffection towards the Government established by law" and "expressing disapprobation" against the state (which is permissible).
It is because of the colonial history of Section 124A that sedition was, after a debate in the Constituent Assembly, not included in the list of exceptions to Article 19(1)a — the right to the freedom of speech and expression. The sedition law has survived constitutional challenges based on the exception pertaining to "public order". This exception was introduced in 1951 through the First Amendment to the Indian Constitution, piloted by Jawaharlal Nehru's government. Nehru was aware of the criticism that amending Article 19(1)a might legitimise provisions like sedition that he considered objectionable and obnoxious. While defending the First Amendment in Parliament, he said that just because Article 19(1)a had been amended, it did not put an end to the rest of the Constitution — its spirit, language and objectives. While sedition is not a specified ground for restricting the constitutional right to free speech, Section 124A continues to be on the statute book.
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