Pointing to its “enormous power of misuse”, the Supreme Court on Thursday asked the Centre why it should not scrap the colonial sedition law that was once used to oppress leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi and Bal Gangadhar Tilak.
The government’s top law officer, attorney general K.K. Venugopal, submitted that the entire law need not be struck down and that the court could lay down strict guidelines so that the provision meets its legal purpose.
The court observed that indiscriminate use of Section 124A (sedition) in the Indian Penal Code (IPC) is like a saw in the hands of a carpenter who cuts the entire forest instead of a tree.
“Unfortunately, continuance of this law after 75 years… This government has been scrapping many obsolete laws. We don’t know why they are not looking into this law? Continuance of this law is a serious threat to the functioning of institutions and individuals’ liberty,” said a bench headed by Chief Justice of India N.V. Ramana.
Putting the central government on notice over a clutch of petitions that have pressed for striking down Section 124A (sedition) of the IPC, the court emphasized that it was concerned about the “misuse of the law and lack of accountability of the executive and the investigating agencies”.
The court’s comments come amid a spike in the number of sedition cases. Between 2016 and 2019, according to data from the National Crime Records Bureau, the number of such cases rose by 160% to 93. But in 2019, the conviction rate in such cases was a mere 3.3%.
“There is no dispute that it is a colonial law and was used by the British to suppress freedom and was used against Mahatma Gandhi, Bal Gangadhar Tilak. Is this law still needed after 75 years of independence? Do you have to keep it in the statute book?” the bench, which also included justices A.S. Bopanna and Hrishikesh Roy, asked Venugopal.
Solicitor general Tushar Mehta sought time to place the Centre’s response on record.
The penal provision is punishable with a jail term ranging between three years to life, with or without a fine.
On Wednesday, the bench requested the attorney general to assist it in adjudicating a petition filed by S.G. Vombatkere, a former army officer. This petition questioned the constitutional validity of Section 124A, and sought a directive to quash all proceedings under the section pending with the police and courts across the country.
On Thursday, as the matter commenced, Venugopal pointed out that there were at least two other cases on the validity of Section 124A pending before other benches of the Supreme Court and hence, the CJI bench could hear all these matters together. At this point, senior counsel Shyam Divan submitted that the Editors Guild of India has also filed a petition for striking down the sedition law and their petition should also be clubbed.
The bench then agreed to hear all these matters together.
“If you see the history of this section, the conviction rate is very low. The enormous power of misuse of this section can be compared with a carpenter given a saw. Instead of cutting a tree, he cuts the entire forest,” the bench said.
“Take the 66A IT Act—thousands of cases were registered even after it having been struck down. If the police want to fix somebody, it can invoke 124A also. Everybody is a little scared when this section can be invoked. These are all issues which need to be looked into… If a political party wants to suppress dissenting voices, they can use this law to book others,” said the bench, adding it will examine all these cases on Section 124A after two weeks.
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