The Supreme Court directive to the government to refrain from imposing Section 124a of the IPC till the review is complete is a welcome and historic decision that has sadly been interpreted and spun to suit narratives. While a section saw it as a follow up to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s affidavit seeking to re-examine the law along with some other colonial laws that have lost relevance in current times, others were of the view that the law is put on hold and is on the way out.
While the very archaic and controversial law can’t be struck down in a day, we must understand that it needs to be revisited to fit into the current times, more in the context of it being consistently and effectively used as a tool to target civil liberties and silence dissent against the establishment. The fact of the matter is that every bitter voice against the government and every opposition to policies cannot be seen as anti-national. On the flip side, we must also admit that those spreading hatred and engaging in activities against the nation, and those who indulge in seditious activities cannot take refuge in a diluted law. The point here is that the need of the moment is to redefine the sedition law by upholding the rights of citizens.
The Court has in the past asked a couple of direct questions on the issue. It had observed that the government has been scrapping many obsolete laws, and was short of understanding why it is not looking at the sedition law which is ‘outdated’. It recalled that the law was used by the British to suppress freedom and used against Mahatma Gandhi and asked whether it is still needed after 75 years of Independence.
The sedition law was enforced during the British rule of India where the main goal was to deny Indians their freedom of expression and opinion. Section 124a of the IPC prescribes a jail term of three years to life term to those trying to incite hatred or contempt or attempts to usher in hatred or disaffection against the government. The downside of the law in its existing form is that it leaves it to the discretion of the government to decide on who qualifies to be booked under sedition, no questions asked. Interestingly, sedition cases rose by a whopping 160 per cent between 2016 and 2019, although the conviction rate has been around 3 per cent. If we may recall, over 3,000 people were charged under the law for opposing the Citizenship Amendment Act in 2019. The Vinod Dua case in 2021 is a recent and classic example of how the Centre views criticism through the prism of sedition.
The court directive is indeed a welcome step towards restoring the freedom of expression in a free democracy. It is time the establishment understands the intrinsic characteristics of democracy and bravado in standing up to criticism and the related discomfort that comes with it. Let’s be reminded that in keeping with the fairness of democracy, the Supreme Court has on several occasions stressed the fact that dissent is like a safety valve of democracy and silencing dissent and creating fear in the mind of people goes beyond the violation of personal liberty and commitment to constitution values.