09 Sept, 2016
The Supreme Court’s latest order, on September 5, should be seen as the last word on sedition cases. While hearing a Public Interest Litigation (PIL), the Court made it crystal clear that authorities were to adhere to the Kedar Nath judgment, which explains what is sedition and importantly what is not. The Court said, “we are of the considered opinion that the authorities while dealing with the offences under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code shall be guided by the principles laid down by the Constitution Bench in Kedar Nath Singh vs. State of Bihar…”
This is a wake-up call to state governments, the police and the judiciary. The rampant abuse and misapplication of the law of sedition to ensnare people from all walks of life - journalists, activists, artists, writers, and intellectuals - must cease. The legal position on the law was settled 15 years after India’s independence. In the Kedar Nath judgment, the Supreme Court clarified that allegedly seditious speech and expression may be punished only if the speech is an “incitement” to “violence” or “public disorder”, making it plain that the act of merely criticizing government or its policies does not amount to sedition. In later cases, the Court established further limits on sedition (here and here).
This limited scope of what actually constitutes sedition is neither understood nor respected by the police. The National Crime Record Bureau statistics of 2014 show police registered 47 cases of sedition across states and a total of 58 individuals were arrested. But only one person was convicted. These numbers prove that far too many people are prosecuted with no cause. The Supreme Court’s order is a clarion call to enforcement authorities to abide by the letter of the law.
The order is a welcome and needed caution in the midst of rapidly shrinking space for legitimate and democratic dissent. As the agency which books individuals for sedition, it is imperative that the police, particularly arresting and investigating officers, be absolutely clear on what is seditious and what is not. It is for police leadership at all levels to ensure sufficient, wide-reaching guidance and education to ensure that prescribed limits of sedition are well understood across the police rank and file and no unjustified arrests are made.