Can a cartoon stir unrest and bring down an elected government. Police in Maharashtra thought so when they had arrested Aseem Trivedi ten years ago for sedition. Then 24, Trivedi had tried to highlight corruption through his cartoons. The sedition case went on for several years before being struck down by Bombay High Court in 2015. The case was gone, but the stigma stayed. And Trivedi, a Kanpur lad, quit the profession forever.
On Thursday, when the Supreme Court put the sedition law in abeyance, Trivedi heaved a sigh of relief. Not only because he was a victim of the IPC’s section 124 (A), but also because he was one of the petitioners seeking scrapping of the law.
From cartoonists to stand-up comedians and satirists to small political activists and opposition leaders, sedition law has been invoked by police in various states at what experts call a very low threshold.
While arguing their case, experts point out the difference between treason and sedition. The first one is an act done against the state while the latter is against the government of the day. And criticising the government, they say, should not be penalised. Some even say that even a court decision should be under the purview of criticism.
In 2016, the Allahabad High Court had held that criticism of the judiciary or a court ruling is not sedition. Former BJP leader and Union minister Arun Jaitley was the petitioner in the case.
Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, which is the law against sedition, was introduced in 1870 by the British government. And it was Thomas Macaulay who had introduced the law while drafting the penal codes. Its purpose was to stop Indian colonial subjects from expressing dissent against Britain's rule. At that time, sedition was also an offence under Britain’s own penal code. While Macaulay's own country expunged the law in 2016, it stays in India.
In the first two hearings, the central government tried to defend the law. But on the third one, on Wednesday, it told the apex court that it was reviewing it. The next hearing will take place in July now, while one of three judges listening to the case, CJI NV Ramanna, retires in August.
So what does the law say? Under British rule, the punishment prescribed was transportation “beyond the seas for the term of his or her natural life”. This was amended to life imprisonment in 1955.
It is still a harsh law and entails a maximum punishment of life imprisonment for anyone who, “by words spoken or written, or by visible representation… brings into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the government established by law.”
And, how did the British use it? During the Independence movement, this law was used extensively to try and crush political dissent. In fact, some of the prominent pre-independence cases where Section 124A was involved were against freedom fighters like Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Annie Besant, Maulana Azad, and Mahatma Gandhi. Tilak faced the case for his writings in Kesari.
As a recent Business Standard editorial sums up, there is an urgent need to scrap the law because political leaders and agencies have applied an increasingly expansive interpretation to a 60-year-old Supreme Court ruling on Section 124A — Kedarnath versus State of Bihar.
This 1962 ruling upheld Section 124A’s legality. However, it ruled that criticism of the government cannot be labelled sedition unless it followed by incitement or call for violence.
But, police in various states continue to invoke this stringent section on frivolous grounds. What has been the result of all of this? There are 800 cases of sedition currently being heard in India and 13,000 people are in jail because of it. So, what do you think? Should such a law continue to be used in a modern democracy like India?