DC Edit | SC stay on sedition law is historic and welcome

It is for the first time in the 150-year history of the law that its operation is being held in abeyance

The Supreme Court’s order on Wednesday that paused the operation of the sedition law, or Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, is historic and welcome for more than one reason.

The 1962 judgment of the Supreme Court in the Kedar Nath Singh case had found the law -- which states that whoever brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the government established by law in India can be held to have committed sedition, and attracts a jail term of up to three years -- to be constitutionally valid though it had imposed certain conditions for convicting a person under it. The order that has come 60 years hence makes it very plain that the law is untenable. This left the court with two options. One, to form a bench larger than the one that had decided the Kedar Nath Singh case to consider the case again, and two, to ask the government, the constitutional body with the mandate to make and unmake laws, to review it. It has chosen the second.

It is for the first time in the 150-year history of the law that its operation is being held in abeyance. During this period, India gained independence from the British colonial rule and became a democratic republic with governments responsible to elected legislatures in place. Yet the law continued to be in force. Nothing shorter than its repeal squares with the demands of a modern democracy; at least a review is happening now.

There are several petitions before the Supreme Court of India challenging the constitutional validity of the law. Scores of persons have been booked under the law since the 1962 judgment for voicing their opposition to the policies and practices of the government of the day. This no longer works as the apex court has asked the Union and state governments not to file new cases or go ahead with the older ones until the review happens.

The course of events that led to the development has some curious elements in it as well. The National Democratic Alliance which runs the government at the Centre and in several states has been accused of indiscriminately using the law to target its political opponents. However, the government, in its affidavit to the Supreme Court has quoted Prime Minister Narendra Modi being in favour of “protection of civil liberties, respect for human rights and giving meaning to the constitutionally cherished freedoms by the people of the country” and that he “has repeatedly said that one of India’s strengths is the diverse thought streams that beautifully flourish in our country”.

This means either the government has read the mind of the judiciary, which has recently castigated governments on several occasions for the misuse of the law, and has decided to make virtue out of necessity and claim credit for the progressive stand or it has come around to the view that India, as a democracy, cannot put down the thoughts of its people, however unpalatable they may be for the government in power. Whichever be the case, the net result will be the strengthening of democracy and its practices in this country. Something to cheer for, indeed.

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