Law body revives debate on sedition legislation
As for safeguards, it suggested a preliminary inquiry by a police officer in the rank of Inspector before filing the FIR.
For a government sitting on the fence amid intense pressure to send the colonial sedition law to the shredder, the 22nd Law Commission of India’s recent suggestion to retain it with amendments could possibly have resonated with its thought process. It’s a given that no party with robust nationalism as the cornerstone of its ideological fount can be lenient to anti-national activities. The problem, though, is in how the law is enforced. There are documented instances of its rampant abuse by going after critics like activists, students, journalists, stand-up comedians and protesters for the flimsiest reasons. Should someone who, say, exults if Pakistan wins a sporting event be jailed or won over through affirmative action? According to an estimate, about 80 sedition cases were filed annually from 2014 to 2022, as against 62 during the UPA rule. Nearly 7,136 individuals were charged with sedition during the current NDA rule, as compared to 3,762 when the UPA was in power.
The Centre had last year informed the Supreme Court it wanted to re-examine Section 124A (sedition), urging the latter to put on hold its hearing in a case challenging the legislation. The law has since been frozen. Months later, Justice Ritu Raj Awasthi, former chief justice of the Karnataka High Court, who had upheld the hijab ban, was appointed chairman of the 22nd Law Commission and tasked with studying the sedition law. The Centre will factor in his report before taking its final call.
The report cites the weaponisation of social media to propagate hate and attempts to topple elected governments through violent means to justify the need for the law. Jurists reckon its proposed amendments would make the law even more stringent, as the panel recommended increasing the lower limit of punishment from three years to seven years in jail; the maximum sentence is life imprisonment. The panel also suggested including the phrase “tendency to incite violence”: mere establishment of inclination rather than proof of actual violence or imminent threat to violence would be sufficient to proceed against a suspect. As for safeguards, it suggested a preliminary inquiry by a police officer in the rank of Inspector before filing the FIR. Even if the Centre accepts the report and rams through the amended legislation in Parliament, it can’t duck the SC’s constitutionality test. That perhaps would be the biggest safeguard.