New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Thursday asked the Centre why does the sedition law, which was used by British colonial masters to suppress the freedom movement and freedom fighters, including Mahatma Gandhi and Bal Gangadhar Tilak, continues to exist 75 years after Independence as it expressed concern over its widespread misuse and lack of accountability of the government that invokes it.
Chief Justice N.V. Ramana, heading a bench also comprising Justice A.S. Bopanna and Justice Hrishikesh Roy, said, “It's a colonial law. It was meant to suppress the freedom movement, the same law was used by British against Mahatma Gandhi and Bal Gangadhar Tilak etc. Is this law still required to exist after 75 years of Independence?”
“Our concern is misuse of the law and the lack of accountability. Why does it continue in the statute book after 75 years of our Independence,” CJI Ramana reiterated.
Chief Justice Ramana added that people are “scared” to speak their mind, especially against acts of authorities, because they fear that the sedition law will be invoked against them.
Referring to Section 66A of the Information Technology Act which continues to be invoked and thousands of cases are still being registered under it even after it was struck down by the top court way back in 2015, CJI Ramana said that they will look into the plea challenging the constitutional validity of Section 124A (sedition).
The top court’s concern over the widespread misuse of the sedition law found expression when it said, “The situation on the ground is grave... If one party does not like what the other is saying, Section 124A is used... It is a serious threat to the functioning of individuals and parties,”
CJI Ramana further said, “This is like if a police officer wants to fix anybody in a village for something, he can use Section 124A... People are scared.”
In an apparent reference to the Modi government’s drive to unburden the statue book by repealing archaic and antiquated laws, CJI Ramana told attorney general K.K.Venugopal, “Your government has repealed many stale laws, I do not know why is your government not looking into repealing Section 124A of the IPC?”
Mr Venugopal, who was present in the hearing as the court had sought his assistance in dealing with the challenge to the constitutionality of sedition law, suggested that instead of striking down the law, the court may frame guidelines so that section meets its legal purpose.
The top court’s concern and strongly-worded observations over the misuse of sedition law came in the course of the hearing of a petition by a retired Major General S.G. Vombatkere who has challenged the constitutionality of Section 124A IPC (sedition law).
Maj. Gen. Vombatkere has contended that the sedition law is based on a vague definition of “disaffection towards Government” and is an "unreasonable restriction on the fundamental right to free expression guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) and causes constitutionally impermissible ‘Chilling Effect’ on free speech.”
Issuing notice to the Centre and tagging the petition with an earlier matter that will come up for hearing on July 27, the court said that Maj. Gen. Vombatkere has sacrificed his entire life in the service of the country and we cannot say it is a motivated petition.
A top court bench comprising Justice Uday U Lalit and Justice Ajay Rastogi had on July 12, 2021, sought response from the Centre and the attorney general on a similar petition by two journalists from Chhattisgarh and Manipur, challenging the constitutional validity of the offence of sedition.
In the earlier matter in which notice was issued on July 12, the petitioners petitioners — Kanhaiya Lal Shukla and Kisorechandra Wangkhemcha — had argued that the sedition law clearly infringes the fundamental right under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution that guarantees that "all citizens shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression”.
The sedition law was meant to suppress the freedom movement and was used by the Britishers to silence Mahatma Gandhi and others, the court noted.
Some guidelines may be laid down to curb misuse of sedition law, Attorney General K K Venugopal said while defending the validity of the provision.
The bench was hearing a fresh plea by former army officer Major-General S G Vombatkere (Retd) challenging the Constitutional validity of section 124 A (sedition) of the IPC on grounds that it causes a "chilling effect" on speech and is an unreasonable restriction on free expression, a fundamental right.