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[Issue #4] Sedition v/s Freedom of Expression


  • What is Sedition:- Section 124-A of the Indian Penal Code defines Sedition. The offence consists in exciting or attempting to excite in others certain bad feelings towards the government.
  • Why in news: Because of the ongoing case against the students of Jawaharlal Nehru University.
  • Salient Features of Sedition :- It has historical and constitutional perspectives, which are explained below.
  • Conflict between Sedition and Freedom of Speech :- Freedom of Speech cannot be absolute, it has to be curtailed in the interest of the society for maintenance of public order.
  • Why the law of sedition should be repealed :- It is detrimental for the freedom of speech and expression, which is our fundamental right.
  • Why the law of sedition should stay:- To maintain public order.
  • Conclusion:- India of the 21st century does not require a law used by the colonial government to suppress India’s voice.

What is Sedition?

Section 124A of the IPC defines sedition and 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, the government established by law; or
  • whoever by the above means excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the government established by law, has committed the offence of sedition.

The punishment prescribed varies from imprisonment up to three years to life imprisonment, with fine or without it.

The first explanation says that disaffection includes disloyalty and all feelings of enmity.

The News

This is particularly important in the context of the ongoing case against the students of Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Salient Features

Historical Perspective Sedition was not a part of the original Indian Penal Code(IPC) enacted in 1860 and was introduced in 1870.

Britishers  famously used the clause in three separate, successful trials of Bal Gangadhar Tilak, and, also, later, in prosecuting Mahatma Gandhi in 1922.

Constitutional Perspective The Constitution bench of the Supreme Court explained the amplitude of sedition for the first time in 1962 in the case of Kedarnath Vs. State of Bihar (1962). 

The court held that “public disorder or the reasonable anticipation or likelihood of public disorder is the gist of the offence”.  The court was of the view that sedition implies resistance or lawlessness in some form and it was emphasized  that if there is no incitement to violence, there is no sedition.

So, as per the Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court, a person can be charged with sedition only if there is incitement to violence in his speech or writing or an intention to create disorder.

Sedition v/s Freedom of Speech

Sedition Freedom of Speech
The words which directly provoke violence or which directly threaten the maintenance of public order deserve censure is unquestionable, especially given India’s constitutional structure. It is abundantly clear that freedom of speech and expression within the Indian legal tradition includes within its ambit any form of criticism, dissent and protest. It cannot be held hostage to narrow ideas of what constitutes “anti national” speech and we hope that the courts will step in not merely to defend free speech but also pass strictures on those who abuse the legal process to create a chilling effect on constitutional rights.

The Argument Against Sedition

  • At its core, it is a devastating provision that is meant to assist in crushing all opposition to the ruling dispensation.
  • Its use continues to have the effect of chilling free speech and expression in India.
  • Section 124-A of the IPC negates the right to dissent, which is an essential condition of any reasonable government.
  • Viewed thus, it is Section 124-A that is “anti-India”, that is opposed to the idea of a legitimate, liberal democratic state

The Argument for Sedition Law

  • To maintain the public order
  • It would act as deterrence for anti-social elements.


Despite the strict construction adopted by the Supreme Court, the law enforcement agencies have always used it against artists, public men, intellectuals, et al for criticising the governments. In fact the Supreme Court itself did not apply these strict principles to the speech of Kedarnath and his conviction.

The Supreme Court, being the protector of the fundamental rights of the citizens may step in now and declare Section 124A unconstitutional. India of the 21st century does not require a law used by the colonial government to suppress India’s voice.

The line between dissent and treason may be thin to some, but the ability to distinguish between the two is a constitutional duty of the state. And given the history of its misuse and its incompatibility with a modern Constitution, Section 124-A of the IPC ought to be junked altogether.

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