NEW DELHI: It was a most unexpected twist in the legal tale about the country’s struggle to rid itself of the awful law on sedition. Things were going exactly as anticipated when the Centre, in response to a clutch of writ petitions challenging the constitutionality of sedition, maintained that there was absolutely no need for a review. In an affidavit, it described the landmark judgment in the Kedarnath case, which upheld the constitutionality of Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, as a “good law”. It went on to describe that verdict, delivered by a Constitution Bench, as a “binding precedent”.
Then, suddenly, and surprisingly, the Centre declared that it was reviewing the sedition law and went on to request the Supreme Court to defer hearing the writ petitions until it had submitted a fresh affidavit. The abrupt change was a result of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s intervention, ostensibly a part of his programme to review all outdated colonial-era laws. Now it is by no means clear what the Centre proposes to do with sedition – a promise to re-examine and re-consider Article 124A does not quite add up to a promise of scrapping it.
The Law Minister Kiren Rijiju has said that the government will ensure the sovereignty and integrity of the nation is preserved when conducting the review exercise, a general statement that does not throw much light on what is in store. But, at the very least, what the promise of a review holds out, is a drastic reading down of the sedition law, the introduction of checks and balances to prevent its misuse, and the removal of subjective and vague charges such as bringing into hatred and contempt or exciting disaffection towards the government.
In response to the Centre’s change of heart, the Supreme Court has demanded that the sedition law be kept in abeyance and ordered the Centre and State governments not to register any fresh cases under Section 124A. All pending trials and proceedings under this Section are also to be frozen for the meantime. This is a bold order, one that should be unreservedly welcomed. It signals that the Court wants the Centre to conduct a serious re-examination and will not be persuaded unless there is a radical revision of this obsolete and much misused law.
When it comes to sedition, the Modi government and its BJP counterparts in States cannot be absolved for misusing the provision, reflected in the surge in cases, many of them slapped on activists and journalists. But what this change of heart provides is an opportunity to signal that the government is concerned about civil liberties, has the stomach to take severe criticism and is committed to the principle of free speech. This is a law that has been on the statute books for more than 150 years and which the country’s first Prime Minister virtually promised to get rid of. Scrapping it altogether is the best option, but we would have come a long way if we can do the next best thing – ensure against its misuse.