124A - The Sedition Law


Understanding Sedition

 Sedition is often seen as a crime associated with public unrest and disturbance of public peace.
Legally, sedition is defined as any form of expression, be it spoken, written, or through signs, that seeks to generate hatred, contempt, or disaffection towards the established government.

Legal Implications

 Sedition falls under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 ("IPC").
It's a non-bailable offense with penalties ranging from imprisonment, including life imprisonment, to fines.
Examples of nonbailable offenses are Criminal Breach of trust (406 IPC), theft (379 IPC), Snatching (379A IPC), Rape (376 IPC), murder (302 IPC), culpable homicide (304 IPC), etc.
Accused individuals face restrictions such as not working for the government, surrendering passports, and appearing in court as required.

Origin of Sedition Law

Sedition, as a legal concept, has its roots in the British colonial era in India. It was introduced and subsequently used as a means to suppress dissent and opposition during the Indian freedom struggle.

During British Rule

The concept of sedition was introduced during British colonial rule in India.
In 1837, British historian and politician Thomas Macaulay played a significant role in its creation. However, it mysteriously disappeared from the legal framework when the Indian Penal Code (IPC) was adopted in 1860.
In 1870, Sir James Stephen recognized the need for a specific provision to address seditious activities, leading to the reintroduction of sedition as Provision 124A in the IPC.
This period witnessed the implementation of severe laws aimed at stifling voices of protest against British rule.
The sedition law served as a colonial tool to suppress criticism and opposition to British rule in India.
Prominent cases include the trial of Jogendra Chandra Bose in 1891 for critiquing the Age of Consent Bill, the prosecution of Bal Gangadhar Tilak in 1897 for his writings in Kesari, and Mahatma Gandhi's sedition trial in 1922. Gandhi famously referred to sedition as "the prince among the political sections of the IPC designed to suppress citizen liberty."

Sedition law in independent India 

Since India was an independent republic, constitutional provisions took precedence over British precedent, and two high courts found it unconstitutional after Independence, invalidating the provision on the grounds that it violated Article 19 of the Indian constitution's fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression.

  1. Tara Singh Gopi Chand v. The State (1951)
  • The first instance in independent India of a court ruling on the constitutional validity of Section 124A of the IPC. 
  • In this judgment, the then Punjab High Court concluded that Section 124A was undeniably a restriction on free speech and expression and pronounced it illegal. 
  • The government attempted to remedy the constitutional problem in the sedition statute as a result of the Tara Singh Gopi Chand decision by passing the Constitution (First Amendment) Act, 1951.
  • The amendment added 'public order' to the list of reasonable limits' in Article 19(2) that might be imposed by legislation on free expression.

    2. Following that, in Kedar Nath Singh v. State of Bihar (1962), the Supreme Court affirmed its legality.

  • Simultaneously, it restricted its application to acts involving "intention or tendency to create disorder" or encouragement to violence. 
  • Thus, as long as they do not inspire disloyalty and hatred or instigate violence, even strongly worded words are not an infraction under this clause.

   3. The Supreme Court established in the Balwant Singh vs. State of Punjab (1995) judgment that just screaming slogans, in this case, “Khalistan Zindabad”, did not constitute sedition.

Arguments in support of Section 124A

Section 124A of the IPC protects the elected government from overthrow attempts, ensuring stability. It should also attract punishment for contempt of government.
However, the abolition of Section 124A may be ill-advised due to its misuse in publicized cases.

  • Combating anti national activity: Section 124A of the IPC is useful in preventing elements of terrorism, secessionism, and antinationalism
  • Maintaining public order: When authorities and police use this section, they take the necessary precautions to stop public unrest and anti national activities. 
  • Examples include activists and students from Jawaharlal Nehru University and an Assamese scholar. Among the notables are Hiren Gohain and journalist Kishorchandra Wangkhem from Manipur.
  • Government stability: It guards against attempts to overthrow the elected government using force or illegal means. An essential requirement of the State's stability is the continued existence of a legal government. 
  • Action for contempt of government: If contempt of court is punishable, then contempt of government should be as well.
  • To put a stop to parallel governments: Many areas in various states are under Maoist insurgency, and rebel groups effectively administer a parallel administration. These organizations openly call for the removal of the state government by revolution. 

In light of this, repealing Section 124A would be unwise simply because it has been incorrectly applied in a few high-profile cases.

Arguments against Section 124A

  • Section 124A is a vestige of the colonial past that is inappropriate in a democracy. It limits the lawful exercise of constitutionally protected freedom of speech and expression.
  • Constructive criticism is vital for a dynamic democracy because dissent and criticism of the government are essential components of a robust public discourse. They should not be designed to incite dissent. The right to question, criticize, and replace authorities is vital to the concept of democracy.

Sedition in other countries

Sedition is viewed as a draconian law globally, and its terms are vague and subject to interpretation by investigating officers.
For instance, the Coroners and Justice Act of 2009 abolished seditious libel in the United Kingdom, and following the recommendations of the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC), the term "sedition" was dropped in Australia and replaced with references to "inciting violence offenses."

  • International perspectives: Sedition is becoming a severe rule across the world. The British, who instituted sedition to oppress Indians, have repealed the law in their own nation. There is no reason why India should not eliminate this clause.

  • Ambiguous interpretation: The phrases employed in Section 124A, such as "disaffection," are ambiguous and vulnerable to the whims and fancies of the investigating officials.

  • Existence of additional laws: The IPC and the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act both include sections that make "disrupting public order" or "overthrowing the government with violence and illegal means" illegal. These are adequate to safeguard national integrity. Section 124A is unnecessary.

  • Misapplication of the law: The sedition statute is being exploited to suppress political opposition. It includes broad and concentrated executive discretion, which allows for obvious misuse.

  • Ignorance of judicial guidelines: In the case of Kedar Nath Singh vs. the State of Bihar (1962), several guiding principles were established to limit the exploitation of this law. These standards, however, appear to be often disregarded.

  • Incompatible with India's international commitments: India ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in 1979, which establishes globally recognized norms for the protection of freedom of speech. However, abuse of the term "sedition" and arbitrary charging are incompatible with India's international obligations.

Recent Ineffectiveness of Sedition Laws

  • Increasing Usage
    • The use of sedition laws has surged in recent years, raising concerns.
    • The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) began collecting sedition statistics separately only in 2014.
    • In 2014, there were 47 sedition cases, and this number rose to 70 in 2018.
  • Still Uncommon
    • While sedition cases have increased, they remain relatively uncommon compared to other offenses, accounting for less than 0.01% of all IPC crimes.
  • Emerging Hotspots
    • Certain Indian states are becoming sedition hotspots, including Assam, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, and Jharkhand.
    • Between 2014 and 2018, Assam and Jharkhand each had 37 sedition accusations, comprising 32% of all sedition cases.
  • Usage in Protests
    • A significant factor contributing to the rise in sedition cases is their application during protest movements.
    • Movements such as those against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) of 2019 and the Hathras rape case in Uttar Pradesh saw an increase in sedition prosecutions.
    • For instance, over 3,000 demonstrators protesting the CAA faced sedition charges in January. Additionally, over 3,300 farmers were charged with sedition in 2019 during land conflict protests.
  • Low Conviction Rate
    • Despite an increase in sedition cases, only a small number of these cases result in convictions. 
    • Since 2016, only four sedition prosecutions have led to convictions in court.

Challenges and Concerns

One possible explanation for the low conviction rate could be the lack of a firm legal foundation for sedition in India.
Criticisms suggest that seditious expressions can include actions as simple as holding up posters, posting on social media, shouting slogans, or engaging in private conversations.
Notably, individuals from various fields, including students, journalists, authors, academics, and opposition politicians, have faced accusations of sedition.

The recent trends surrounding sedition laws in India highlight the growing usage of these laws, their varying impact across states, and the challenges and concerns raised regarding their application and effectiveness in the modern context.

Law Commission's Perspective on the Sedition Law

The Law Commission rejected abolishing the clause in its 39th Report (1968).
The panel requested in its 42nd Report (1971) that the section's scope be broadened to include the Constitution, the legislature, and the judiciary, in addition to the government created by law, as institutions against which 'disaffection' should not be permitted.
In August 2018, the Law Commission of India issued a consultation document urging that Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, which deals with sedition, be reconsidered or repealed. 

The Law Commission has proposed invoking 124A to only criminalize conduct done with the intent to disrupt public order or overthrow the government via violence and unlawful methods in a consultation paper on sedition.


India is the world's largest democracy, and the right to free speech and expression is a necessary component of democracy. Expressions or thoughts that are contrary to the policies of the current administration should not be labeled sedition. "An expression of frustration over the state of affairs cannot be treated as sedition," the Law Commission correctly stated. There would be no distinction between the pre and post independence eras if the country were not open to constructive criticism. With certainty, national integrity must be safeguarded. Given the legal judgment and the government's support for the law, Section 124A is unlikely to be repealed anytime soon. However, the provision should not be utilized to limit free expression.