It is abuses such as these that make the law look like ‘an ass’. Some students of a university in Meerut cheer the victory of Pakistan over India in a cricket match and are charged with sedition under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code. So absurd is the charge that the police drop it at the first hint of public outrage. But the episode serves a useful purpose — it raises serious questions about India’s outdated sedition law. If cheering a supposedly unfriendly foreign team in a sporting event can attract sedition charges, there is something seriously wrong with the law. There are two basic reasons why a civilized society should not have such a sedition law. First, it is a threat to the people’s right to freedom of speech and expression. As such, it is in conflict with the fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution. Second, such a law is easily turned by the State into a weapon with which to silence critics and dissidents. In fact, the existence of this law violates the basic principles of a democratic system.
The history of Section 124A of the IPC makes it totally out of place in the current Indian context. The law was enacted by the British in 1870 to deal with sporadic protests against the foreign rule in India. In subsequent decades, the law was used in order to imprison leaders of the freedom movement such as Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and Bal Gangadhar Tilak and also to silence the critical media. Gandhi had wanted the law to be scrapped and Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of free India, too, had expressed a similar wish. Strangely, though, no government in the past six decades took the necessary steps to strike down the law. Worse, several governments — at the Centre or in the states — periodically used the law against critics. Two of the most recent victims of the law were Binayak Sen, the human rights activist, who was charged under the law for supposedly campaigning for the Maoists’ cause, and Arundhati Roy, the writer, because of some controversial remarks on Jammu and Kashmir. In a judgment in 1962, the Supreme Court justified the use of the law only in the event of an armed revolt against the State or of a direct provocation to violence. However, a vindictive State can always bend such a law to suit its own agenda. The safest course is to scrap a law that is a constant threat to individual freedom.