New Delhi: Putting the ball back in the Narendra Modi government’s court, the Supreme Court on Tuesday asked the Centre if lodging of sedition cases under Section 124A Indian Penal Code (IPC) could be put in abeyance till the re-examination of the colonial-era law.
Giving time to the Centre to respond on "specific issues" -- putting the sedition law in abeyance and protecting the rights of those already charged under it -- Chief Justice N.V. Ramana, heading a bench also comprising Justices Surya Kant and Hima Kohli, adjourned the hearing and posted the matter for May 11 (Wednesday).
Expressing concern at the misuse of the sedition law, the CJI said: "There are concerns. Cases are pending… the law is being misused. How we are going to protect people against misuse?"
Justice Kant said: "Judgments are delivered, even in the Kedar Nath Singh case… but who bothers? At the ground level, the police and lower-level state functionaries are operating (enforcing the law). You issue the direction that till it is under consideration, keep Section 124A in abeyance."
"You will take two to three months for reconsideration. Till such time, why not the Union home ministry sends a directive to the states that matters under 124A be kept in abeyance," Justice Kant told solicitor- general Tushar Mehta.
Resisting the suggestion to keep the sedition law in abeyance till the process of reconsideration is over, the solicitor-general described the suggestion as "hazardous to stop the use of the penal law", saying that it had never happened.
At which, Justice Hima Kohli said: "That is why we are telling why you, as the Central government, don’t indicate to the states that since you are applying your mind to it, not to take action under the sedition law."
The court, that was to decide whether a three-judge or five-judge bench should hear the batch of pleas challenging the validity of the sedition law, took note of the Centre’s fresh stand that it wanted to "re-examine and reconsider" it.
Quoting the Centre’s recent affidavit, which referred to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s views on issues like the shedding of "colonial baggage", protection of civil liberties and respect of human rights, the bench said: "Our specific query is on two issues. One is about the pending cases and the second is how the government will take care of future cases till the reconsideration. These are two issues. Nothing else."
It asked Mr Mehta to apprise the Centre’s stand by Wednesday. Referring to the possible "misuse" of the provision, the bench said even the attorney-general had said how the law was invoked even for chanting "Hanuman Chalisa" and asked the Centre to come up with its response.
"We are making it very clear. We want instructions. We will give you time till tomorrow. Our specific queries are: one about pending cases and the second, as to how the government will take care of future cases," said the bench.
At the start of the hearing, referring to the Central government’s decision to "re-examine and reconsider" the sedition law, the solicitor-general urged the court to defer its hearing till the reconsideration process was over. As senior advocate Kapil Sibal opposed Mr Mehta’s request, Chief Justice Ramana, reading from the Central government’s affidavit filed on May 9, said: "They are doing a serious exercise (and) it should not appear that we are unreasonable."
Referring to the Centre’s affidavit stating its decision to "re-examine and reconsider" the colonial-era law, senior lawyer Gopal Sankaranarayanan said it was part of a disturbing trend where there was a change in the position of the government just before crucial hearings and mentioned the instance of the right to privacy.
Both Mr Sibal and Mr Sankaranarayanan appeared for the petitions challenging the sedition law.
When the solicitor-general sought to link the sovereignty and integrity of the country with Section 124A IPC, Mr Sibal said the sedition law related to the government and had nothing to do with the State, as such drawing a distinction between the government and the State. Mr Sibal that the State is only mentioned in Article 19(2) of the Constitution, providing for reasonable restrictions on the right to freedom of speech.
The court is hearing pleas filed by the Editors Guild of India, Maj. Gen. S.G. Vombatkere (Retd), veteran journalist-politician Arun Shourie and others challenging the constitutionality of Section 124A IPC (sedition). During the hearing, the court said its main concern was the "misuse of the law", leading to a rise in the number of cases.