• On June 15, 2021 while hearing a petition filed by Major General (retired) SG Vombatkere who has challenged Section 124A of the IPC which deals with the offence of sedition, Chief Justice of India N V Ramana observed that the “colonial law” was used by the British to silence Mahatma Gandhi and Bal Gangadhar Tilak.
  • In his plea, Vombatkere has challenged the constitutional validity of the sedition law on the grounds that it has a “chilling effect” on speech and poses an unreasonable restriction on the fundamental right of free expression. Article 19 (1) (a) of the Constitution guarantees Indian citizens’ freedom of speech and expression.
  • “The enormous power of this section can be compared to a carpenter being given a saw to make an item, but uses it to cut the entire forest instead of a tree. That’s the effect of this provision,” CJI N V Ramana said in an open court.
  • CJI cited the example of how Section 66A of the Information Technology Act continues to be used even after being struck down by the court in 2015. The CJI’s remarks has also opened the floor for debate and introspection on the court’s own judgment in 1962, in the Kedar Nath case, which upheld Section 124A.
  • Mahatma Gandhi once termed the Section 124A as the “prince among the political sections of the Indian Penal Code designed to suppress the liberty of the citizen”.

When was the sedition law introduced in India?

  • The sedition law which is enshrined in Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) was introduced by the British government in 1870 to tackle dissent against colonial rule.
  • Section 124A states the following, “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 a fine may be added; or, with imprisonment which may extend to three years, to which a fine may be added; or, with fine.”
  • “In 2019, 93 cases were on the ground of sedition as compared to the 35 cases that were filed in 2016. The same constitutes a 165% increase. Of these 93 cases, chargesheets were filed in a mere 17% of cases and even worse, the conviction rate was an abysmally low 3.3%.” National Crime Records Bureau reports show that in 2019, 21 cases of sedition were closed on account of no evidence; two were closed being false cases and six cases held to be civil disputes.

When was sedition law used against Gandhi and Tilak?

  • The first known instance of the application of the law was the trial of newspaper editor Jogendra Chandra Bose in 1891. Other prominent examples of the application of the law include the trials of Tilak and Gandhi. Apart from this, Jawaharlal Nehru, Abul Kalam Azad and Vinayak Damodar Savarkar were also charged with sedition.
  • In 1922, Gandhi was arrested on charges of sedition in Bombay for taking part in protests against the colonial government. He was sentenced to six years in prison but was released after two years because of medical reasons.
  • Before Gandhi, Tilak faced three trials in cases related to sedition and was imprisoned twice. He was charged with sedition in 1897 for writing an article in his weekly called Kesari and was sentenced to 12 months imprisonment. He was tried again in 1908 and was represented by MA Jinnah. But his application for bail was rejected and he was sentenced to six years.