'Retaining Sedition law can serve only government', says Former Law Commission member

Law panel recommendation on sedition law has worrying aspects for a democratic country, says leading SC advocate Kirti Singh
Behind bars under sedition charges: In this representational image, former JNU student leader Umar Khalid. (File photo | PTI)
Behind bars under sedition charges: In this representational image, former JNU student leader Umar Khalid. (File photo | PTI)

NEW DELHI: On May 24, 2023, the Law Commission of India released its 279th Report on 'Usage of the Law of Sedition'.

The report not only recommends the retention of the Sedition Law, which is of the colonial era but also seeks to enhance the prescribed punishment -- from three to seven years in jail.

Former Law Commission member and senior Supreme Court advocate Kirti Singh, spoke to Preetha Nair about the 279th report of the 22nd Law Commission on the 'Usage of the Law of Sedition'. 

What is your assessment of the recommendations put forth by the 22nd Law Commission proposing the retention of Section 124A of the IPC encompassing the sedition law, along with an escalated minimum punishment?

I am deeply concerned that the law is being retained and strengthened with only a few safeguards, which hardly qualify as a safeguard. The report has no place in democratic countries where freedom of speech holds great importance.

The provision of Section 124A of the IPC seeks to punish a speech or writing that incites or attempts to incite hatred, contempt, or disaffection towards the government established by law.

First, the expression ‘disaffection towards the government’ is a vague definition and constitutionally weak. In the past few years, this law has frequently been used to silence any form of dissent or questioning of the government.

In my view, the Sedition Law should be abolished. The Supreme Court has repeatedly emphasised that fundamental rights are organic.

The commission cites various threats faced by the country, including secessionist movements, militancy, and ethnic conflicts in the northeastern states, as one of the reasons for advocating the retention of the law…

This is very problematic. Even the British did away with sedition laws because they recognized that they could not use such a law against their citizens. The British introduced the sedition law to suppress the Indian press of that time from criticizing the British government and to silence Indians who raised their voice against colonial rule. 

The Law Commission seems to think that a similar situation exists on social media, where radicalization against India is propagated and the government is targeted with hatred. The sedition laws are cited as a reason for the government to combat anti-national interests and secessionist elements.

It is incorrect to say that the laws we currently have are inadequate, as we already have the draconian anti-terror law, UAPA. Some elements of the UAPA should also be abolished. The law must align with both substantive and procedural due process under Article 21.

The government, however, has stated that the Law Commission’s proposals are not binding. During your tenure as a member of the Law Commission, your proposals on acid attacks were successfully enacted into law…

If the government accepts the proposed law on sedition, it will deeply affect the democratic fabric of our country. In such a scenario, rather than upholding the rule of law, it will establish the rule of the government in power. 

The enactment of proposals into law is contingent upon the government’s discretion. If the government is inclined to do so and if a specific agenda is at play, it will pursue it. There is a concern that such a process could be exploited. 

The criticism is that the Law Commission report lacks depth and was prepared without public consultation. What is your take? 

The Law Commission failed to acknowledge the widespread misuse of the law. In the proposal, there was not a single mention of how extensively the law is being misapplied. Although a chapter on police misconduct was included, it fell short of addressing the issue adequately.

There should have been extensive consultations. It appears that the Law Commission was determined to retain Section 124(A). Instead of providing relief to citizens, the report is likely to have the opposite effect. 

In May last year, the SC kept the Sedition Laws in abeyance, saying it would hear arguments in favour of striking down the colonial-era law. Do you think the law panel proposals did not take into consideration various SC judgments? 

The provisions have been extensively utilized, leading to a staggering increase in charges under this section by 160% between 2016 and 2019, as per the NCRB statistics. Surprisingly, the conviction rate remained only at 3%. Mahatma Gandhi famously remarked that sedition was intended to suppress the freedom of citizens.

It is evident that the Supreme Court recognized the misuse of the law, which prompted it to impose a ban on all trials, appeals, and proceedings related to charges framed under Section 124(A), keeping them in abeyance. 

The Law panel now has recommended the inclusion of the word “tendency” in sedition law. Many fear that it is problematic… The panel asserts that the phrase “tendency to incite violence or cause public disorder” is defined as a “mere inclination to incite violence or cause public disorder,” rather than requiring proof of actual violence or an imminent threat of violence.

If this interpretation implies that a mere inclination to incite violence and support public disorder is sufficient to invoke this draconian provision, even when it is not desired, it renders the provision vague. 

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