Sedition and free speech cannot go together


Some issues contrary to the government policies that further pose a threat to the sovereignty of the nation need to be addressed separately by enacting laws like Section 124A to help the government in combating anti-national, secessionist and terrorist elements.

The core issue is to understand that sedition and free speech cannot go together

“Freedom of speech is a principal pillar of a free government; when this support is taken away, the constitution of a free society is dissolved, and tyranny is erected on its ruins”

Benjamin Franklin

New Delhi: The first prerequisite of any democratic set up is the right to free speech and freedom of expression enshrined in Article 19 (1) (a) and the assertion is supported by advocates of liberty oftentimes. But we tend to disregard Article 19(2) which imposed reasonable restrictions on the grounds of security, sovereignty and integrity of the country, hate speech, defamation and contempt of court.

The core issue here is to understand that sedition and free speech cannot go together. That must be the reason our lawmakers did not include sedition as an exception to the right to free speech at the time of drafting the Constitution.

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Some issues contrary to the government policies that further pose a threat to the sovereignty of the nation need to be addressed separately by enacting laws like Section 124A to help the government in combating anti-national, secessionist and terrorist elements.

Thomas Macaulay, a British historian-politician drafted Section 124A in 1837 but was inexplicably left out when the Indian Penal Code (IPC) was enacted in 1860. It was only in 1870 that the section was inserted again by means of an amendment introduced by Sir James Stephen after the need for a specific section to deal with anti-national activities was felt.

Enacting and having such laws in force has become a necessity considering the growing threats to internal security. Using shields under the constitutional freedom and the liberty given by the democratic government here in India, a few organisations and individuals have seized the opportunity to create unrest in the country taking support of hate speech and prerogative, including dividing India.

This can be evident during the so-called protest at Shaheen Bagh followed by violent protests in North-East Delhi in which many, mainly Hindus, lost their lives and their homes were set on fire. Many youths have been picked since then for creating hatred on religious lines and using defamatory statements with an aim to incite the mob mostly from a single community.

Certainly, no sovereign country would allow some of the termite to endanger the social fabric and to tackle anti-social elements; it is needed to handle the issues of hate speech with an iron hand. The particular section will help in protecting the elected government from attempts to overthrow the government with violence and by creating unrest using anti-national forces.

IPC Section 124A says, “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 fine may be added, or with imprisonment which may extend to three years, to which fine may be added, or with fine.”

Although, the definition needs to be amended as the chances of unnecessary arrests can be avoided. According to the data of NCRB, a total 356 cases of sedition were registered and 548 persons arrested between 2015 and 2020 in which 548 persons were arrested and only 12 persons in seven cases were convicted during the period. Considering the fact in mind, the government needs to work on the present sedition law.

While the Supreme Court has now suspended pending criminal trials and court proceedings under Section 124A (sedition) of the Indian Penal Code, the government should revisit the law to make it more relevant without “curtailing” freedom of expression.

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