In a path-breaking order, the Supreme Court on Wednesday put on hold the colonial-era penal law on sedition till an “appropriate” government forum re-examines it and directed the Centre and states to not register any fresh FIR invoking the offence. Besides the lodging of FIRs, ongoing probes, pending trials and all proceedings under the sedition law across the country will also be in abeyance, a Supreme Court bench headed by Chief Justice of India N V Ramana ruled.
In its significant order on the law that has been under intense public scrutiny for its use as a tool against expressions of dissent, including on social media, the bench spoke of the need to balance the interests of civil liberties and citizens with that of the State.
“This Court is 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”.
“The case of the petitioners is that this provision of law… pre-dates the Constitution itself, and is being misused…,” the bench, also comprising Justices Surya Kant and Hima Kohli, said.
The court listed the matter in the third week of July and said its directions shall continue till further orders. Sedition, which provides a maximum jail term of life under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code for creating “disaffection towards the government”, was brought into the penal code in 1890, 57 years before Independence and almost 30 years after the IPC came into being. In the pre-Independence era, the provision was used against freedom fighters, including Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Mahatma Gandhi.
Over the years, the number of cases has been on the rise, with Maharashtra politician couple Navneet and Ravi Rana, author Arundhati Roy, student activist Umar Khalid and journalist Siddique Kappan among those charged under the provision. CJI Ramana, writing the order, referred to the attorney general earlier giving instances of “glaring misuse of this provision, like in the case of recital of the Hanuman Chalisa”. Taking note of the concerns of the Centre, the apex court said the “rigours of Section 124A (sedition) of the IPC is not in tune with the current social milieu” and permitted reconsideration of the provision.
“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,” it said.
Any affected party is at liberty to approach concerned courts, which are requested to examine the reliefs sought taking into the consideration the present order, the apex court said.
The order referred to the Centre’s affidavit, which accepted there were divergent views on the law and had also quoted Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s favour in protection of civil liberties and respect for human rights.
“In view of the above, it is clear that the Union of India agrees with the prima facie opinion expressed by this Court… In light of the same, the Union of India may reconsider the aforesaid provision of law,” it said.
The order said the interim stay granted to some petitioners by the apex court would continue to operate till further orders.
“All pending trials, appeals and proceedings with respect to the charge framed under Section 124A of 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,” it said.
If any fresh case is registered, the affected parties are at liberty to approach the courts for appropriate relief and 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 Centre, it said.
The bench did not agree with the Centre’s suggestion that a superintendent of police ranked officer be made responsible for monitoring the registration of FIRs for the offence of sedition
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for the Centre, had also said the registration of FIRs on the matter cannot be prevented as the provision dealt with a cognisable offence and was upheld by a Constitution bench in 1962.
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 the cases and they may have terror or money laundering angles.
SC has validated our stand on sedition law: Cong
In the wake of the Supreme Court pausing implementation of the colonial-era penal provision of sedition till the government completes its review, the Congress said on Wednesday that the decision has validated the party’s stand on the law.
Review of scrapping of sedition law was part of Congress manifesto in 2019 but the party was criticised by the BJP which accused it of compromising national security.
Reacting to the court ruling, Congress General Secretary Randeep Surjewala said: “The Congress stand gets vindicated and showing mirror to the government doesn’t surmount to sedition and the rulers should know the public is awaken and its voice can’t be suppressed.”
“The Congress in its manifesto in 2019 had said it will Omit Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code (that defines the offence of ‘sedition’) that has been misused and, in any event, has become redundant because of subsequent laws,” he added.
TMC hails SC decision
The TMC on Wednesday welcomed the Supreme Court’s decision to keep in abeyance the sedition law, contending that the “draconian law” should be scrapped.
Putting on hold the sedition law, the Supreme Court on Wednesday stayed the registration of FIRs, ongoing probes and coercive measures on the matter across the country until an “appropriate forum” of the government re-examines the colonial-era penal law.
“SC once again played a historic role. It has held that all pending cases, appeals and proceedings with respect to charges of sedition framed under 124A of IPC be kept in abeyance and not to use this provision till further re-examination is over. Kudos,” TMC national spokesperson Sukhendu Sekhar Ray tweeted.