New Delhi: Brushing aside the Centre’s opposition to putting the sedition law on hold, the Supreme Court on Wednesday restrained the Centre and state governments from registering fresh cases under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code. The court dismissed the Union government’s assertion that registration of cases under the penal section could not be prevented and ordered that all sedition law proceedings pending before different courts across the country, including ongoing investigations, be put in abeyance.
The Supreme Court said its directions will remain in force until further orders are passed. It ordered the Centre to issue a directive to all state governments and Union territories to prevent any misuse of the law in question -- Section 124A IPC.
Applying the brakes on the invocation of the sedition law and allowing the Union government to "re-examine and reconsider" the provisions of Section 124A, Chief Justice N.V. Ramana, heading a special bench that also included Justices Surya Kant and Hima Kohli, said: "We hope and expect that the state and Central governments refrain from registering any FIR, continuing any investigation or taking any coercive measures by invoking Section 124A IPC while the aforesaid provision of law is under consideration."
Referring to the arguments of the petitioners that the provision of the sedition law predates the Constitution itself and was being misused, the CJI said: "Therefore, we expect that till the re-examination of the provision is complete it will be appropriate not to continue the usage of the aforesaid provision of law by the governments."
Directing the Centre and the states to desist from invoking Section 124A IPC till the reconsideration exercise is over, the court ordered: "All pending trials, appeals and proceedings with respect to charges framed under Section 124A IPC be kept in abeyance. Adjudication with respect to other sections, if any, could proceed if the courts are of the opinion that no prejudice would be caused to the accused."
Anticipating the possibility of a fresh case being registered under the penal section, the court in its order said: "If any fresh case is registered under Section 124A IPC, the affected parties are at liberty to approach the concerned courts for appropriate relief. The courts are requested to examine the reliefs sought, taking into account the present order passed as well as the clear stand taken by the Union of India."
At the start of the hearing on Wednesday, opposing the suggestion to put the sedition law in suspension, solicitor-general Tushar Mehta told the court that the registration of cognisable offences under Section 124A IPC cannot be prevented as it is a mandate of the law. However, to prevent its misuse, the solicitor-general said that an FIR under Section 124A will be registered only if the concerned superintendent of police is satisfied that the facts of a case involve an offence of sedition. He said such an officer will take the responsibility of his "satisfaction" that an offence under Section 124A IPC has been committed.
With regard to pending sedition cases, the Centre suggested that hearing on bail pleas in such matters may be expedited as the government did not know the gravity of the offence in all cases and they may have terror or money laundering angles. "Ultimately, pending cases are before the judicial forum and we need to trust the courts," the law officer told the bench.
Mr Mehta argued that passing any other order would amount to staying the operation of statutory provisions, upheld by the Constitution Bench, that too in proceedings at the instance of a third party where no aggrieved person is before the court.
Appearing for the petitioners challenging the constitutionality of Section 124A, senior lawyer Kapil Sibal noted that sedition was not a cognisable offence when it was upheld by the five-judge Constitution Bench in the 1962 Kedar Nath Singh case. It was made cognisable only in 1973. He said that a provision of law that is prima facie unconstitutional cannot be kept alive and invoked at the satisfaction of the SPs. He said that such a provision was already there.
Referring to the sea change in the law since the 1962 Constitution Bench ruling, Mr Sibal urged the court to strike down the law or in the interregnum till the Centre was reconsidering it, to put it on hold.
Piqued at Mr Sibal’s insistence on striking down the sedition law or putting a stay on it, Justice Kant said: "What is this argument of striking down the provision? Can it be struck down today? We are looking for a stable solution as an interim arrangement."
Taking note of the concerns of the Centre, the court said the "rigours of Section 124A (sedition) IPC is not in tune with the current social milieu" and permitted reconsideration of the provision.
The court listed the matter in the third week of July for further hearing and said it was "cognizant of security interests and integrity of the State on one hand and the civil liberties of citizens on the other. There is a requirement to balance both sets of considerations, which is a difficult exercise."