Uploaded on July 27, 2021
The Undemocratic Nature of the Sedition Law
Dr. Mohammad Manzoor Alam
“Majoritarian tendencies, whenever and however they arise, must be questioned against this background of our constitutive promise.” — Justice Chandrachud
In a welcoming move, the Supreme Court of India has directed a notice, asking the center about the validity of the sedition law. Section 124 (A) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) dates back to colonial times, when the British rule strived to suppress the voice of freedom fighters and political activists. The Chief Justice of India, N.V. Ramana, indicating the draconian nature of the law, reminded the government how the law had been employed to crush the spirit of our freedom fighters in the past.
At present, an extensive surge in the cases of sedition exposes how the ruling government is using sedition as a tool to maim the voice of dissent. The number of cases registered under Section 124 (A) of the IPC, skyrocketed by 160 per cent (NCRB, 2016-19). However, the conviction rate witnessed a steep downfall — 33 per cent in 2016 to 3.3 per cent in 2019, which is sufficient to understand the malicious mechanism of the ruling government.
From political activists, farmers, students, journalists to climate activists- all have faced the brunt of the statute. The current scenario insinuates a complete clampdown of political dissent aimed at the ruling government. It is often targeting the people from marginalized communities — Adivasis, Dalits, Muslims, etc., to quench its thirst for pseudo-nationalism. It is no secret that economically vulnerable, religious minorities and people from lower castes have a significant presence in jails. Seven out of ten prisoners in India awaiting trial come from unprivileged backgrounds; one in three inmates is Dalit or Adivasi (NCRB, 2019). The representation inside the prison is illustrative of the social inequalities of our society. Hence, the responsibility of serving justice for the oppressed falls on the shoulder of the “guardian of the largest democracy.”
A brainchild of the British, the law was enacted in 17th century England to weed out criticisms against the monarchy and government. It was not until 1870 that Section 124 (A) was added as an amendment in the IPC, by Sir J. Stephen. After Independence, our lawmakers understood the perils of such laws and thus extensively debated on the constitutionality of sedition, which resulted in dropping of the word ‘sedition’ from Article 13. However, the framers of the constitution could not get away with the essence of sedition.
Interestingly, the sedition law stands invalidated in England since 2009; however, our governments have made no effort to scrap the archaic law. So, the question arises, why, a law introduced by the colonizers that focused on suppressing India’s struggle for freedom and justice is still practiced after 74 years of independence? One of the reasons could be the undivided power and other political benefits the law grants to the ruling party and also to opposition parties. The non-bailable and cognizable nature of the law gives a police officer absolute authority to arrest and investigate even without seeking permission from a court. Consequently, the law has been overtly misused to suit the ruling party's propaganda.
The abuse of the sedition law disrupts the very intrinsic nature of India's democracy — justice, equality, liberty, fraternity, etc. The inherent nature of the law is undemocratic, which is unsuited for a nation that thrives on the principles of the fundamental rights granted by our constitution. World's largest democracy, India, enables citizen to question the shortcomings and criticize the ruling party if needed. Earlier this year, the SC has declared that criticizing the government does not amount to sedition. Thus, it is safe to say that questioning and criticizing government’s policies, schemes, or its response to any crisis, is very fundamental to the democratic nature of India.
The judiciary-the custodian of the fundamental rights, has time and again presented itself as a ray of sunshine in the bleak times of totalitarian governance. Nothing stands above and beyond constitutional rights; therefore, it hangs millions of Indians on a thread of hope for the judiciary, to take the responsibility to annul the law. The only viable solution to this is to strike down the law as it is a misfit for any democratic country. If not, a middle ground could be adopted — reading down some of the provisions of the law as an immediate response to the issue. Stressing on Justice Chandrachud's remark on "preserving the fundamental ethos" of the constitution, can we as a nation, expect the judiciary to pay heed to people's pleas and save the nation from the majoritarian approach of demagogue leaders and "the potential tyranny of the state?"
(The writer is Chairman, Institute of Objective Studies and General Secretary, All India Milli Council)