The Centre had been hemming and hawing on sedition — a relic of the colonial era — for a while now. Two days after spiritedly defending this archaic legislation, it surprisingly adopted a conciliatory stance, stating in an affidavit that it is amenable to re-examining and reconsidering the provision at an “appropriate forum”. One way of nipping this equivocation in the bud was to deliver a clear message. The Supreme Court — the foremost custodian of liberty in India — has done just that. In a historic judgment, the highest court of the land has ordered that the sedition law under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code be kept in abeyance till the government re-examines it. The interim order implies that existing proceedings, including pending trials and appeals, would be kept in abeyance and that neither the states nor the Centre can lodge fresh first information reports under this section. Moreover — this is equally important — those lodged in prison can approach relevant courts for bail. Apart from its progressive tenor, this judgment is yet another instance of the apex court’s ability to achieve a fine balance between the reach of the judiciary and the executive. It must, however, be noted that the executive’s position on the matter has been consistently regressive. Earlier, the Narendra Modi government had even argued that instances of abuse of the provision — there are quite a few — cannot offer grounds for reconsidering a binding judgment by a Constitution bench.
Mr Modi’s government must now act on the momentum generated by the enlightened judiciary. This is because even though the conviction rate under sedition is poor — 13 out of 13,000 accused had been found guilty according to one estimate — the provision is a weapon that governments — including Mr Modi’s regime — employ routinely to harass citizens and stifle their freedoms. The Supreme Court has been acutely aware of this history of repression across decades and has mentioned it during these deliberations. Apparently, the Centre’s U-turn on the matter has come on the behest of the prime minister whose stated objective is to rid India of the baggage of outdated laws. If this is true, Mr Modi must take things further. Sedition has no place in a functioning democracy. The executive must get rid of it. That will mitigate — somewhat — persistent public concerns with the Bharatiya Janata Party’s propensity to use regressive laws to crush dissent and criticism.