India needs a law on sedition

India needs a law on sedition

Anyone familiar with the lore of India’s freedom struggle would be aware of the British misuse of the law pertaining to sedition. Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Mahatma Gandhi were tried under this law (section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, or IPC).

In fact, so flimsy was the use of expressions such as “disaffection" and “sedition" that in one of Tilak’s trials, an exasperated Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who was defending him, asked the judge to define disaffection. Pat came the reply: Disaffection is simply the absence of affection.

Today many Indians feel the human rights activist Dr Binayak Sen has been judged according to standards that are not very different from those of a court in British India. There have been calls to repeal section 124A.

The fact is that section 124A is a sparingly used part of the law. By its very nature, offences under the section are of a serious nature and not ordinary crimes. Attempts to change government by lawful means don’t attract prosecution under that law. Criticism of the government, as an explanation to the section states, is certainly not an offence. If that were the case, functioning of the press in the country, nay democracy itself, would become impossible.

Clearly that is not the case in India. Where the law is used it is in situations where individuals make arguments for overthrowing the government or, to give another example, argue for secession in the country. An example of the latter is the case against the Kashmiri secessionist Syed Ali Shah Geelani and essayist Arundhati Roy. No nation-state can tolerate open calls on the part of its citizens for the country to be dismembered or willingly allow a case to be built in favour of secession.

At the same time, it is very true that the law has been, at times, misused, willingly or by a wrong understanding of situations by law enforcers. But such mistakes, which are easily rectified by appeal to higher courts, are very different from what will happen by not having the law.

The country today is infested with fissiparous tendencies on the part of many individuals. In an age of instant communication, the danger from secessionist arguments can hardly be understated. Without the law on sedition, the danger of anarchy in India is very real.

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