Supreme Court Freezes 152-Year-old Colonial-Era Sedition Law Till It Is Re-Examined

While the colonial provision is being reconsidered, the Supreme Court on May 11 stopped the Centre and States from filing FIRs, pursuing investigations, or using any coercive steps under Section 124A (sedition).

A three-judge bench led by Chief Justice of India N.V. Ramana directed that if a new case was filed under the provision, the accused could approach the court concerned for relief, taking into account the Supreme Court’s order freezing the use of Section 124A for the interim period, as well as the Union’s “clear” stand to reconsider the law in light of authorities’ blatant abuse of the law.

For the time being, the court ordered that appeals and actions under Section 124A be put on hold. Other legal proceedings, on the other hand, would proceed.

The Supreme Court granted the Union of India the authority to issue a directive to states and authorities requiring them to comply with the order.

The court’s interim ruling would be followed until further orders, according to the Bench, which also included Justices Surya Kant and Hima Kohli.

The court stated that it was open to consider bail for any of the petitioners, but that it would not be recorded in the ruling because none of the petitioners would be affected. The sedition case was scheduled for trial in the third week of July.

The order came after the Centre, represented by Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, admitted that the law was out of date, was being misapplied, and needed to be re-examined.

The government had asked the court to put on hold a batch of petitions challenging Section 124A until it completed its “reconsideration process” of the Indian Penal Code’s sedition clause.

The Bench, on the other hand, did not set a timeframe for the law to be reconsidered, presumably because it would entail a protracted legislative process.

“The court is seized of two considerations, the security of the State and the civil liberties of citizens. There is a request to balance both considerations, which is a difficult exercise,” Chief Justice Ramana read out from the short order, prepared after the court took a small break from hearing arguments on Wednesday.

The petitioners’ case, according to the CJI, was that the clauses date back to 1898 and even predate the Constitution.

The court cited Attorney General of India K.K. Venugopal’s comments, citing “glaring instances of abuse of Section 124A,” such as the recent arrests of people for chanting the Hanuman Chalisa.

“Therefore, we expect the re-examination of the provision to be completed and governments to not use the provision in the meanwhile,” the court observed.

In the interest of justice, the Bench said it had to put a stop to the use of Section 124A while the re-consideration process was underway.

Mr. Mehta had argued in the morning, before to the issuance of the order, that Section 124A was a cognisance offence, and that the authorities could not be prohibited from filing proceedings under the provision.

In order to prevent abuse, he advocated that a senior officer at the level of the Superintendent of Police (SP) examine the facts of individual instances prior to the filing of FIRs.

Mr. Mehta had stated that a blanket prohibition or freeze on the prosecution of outstanding cases under Section 124A was not possible.

“We do not know the gravity of offences involved in these cases… Some may also involve charges of terrorism and money-laundering,” Mr. Mehta argued for the Centre.

He stated that the defendants in these outstanding instances could individually seek remedy from the courts.

“There is no reason to distrust the judicial process,” Mr. Mehta said.

He added that bail applications under Section 124A could be heard quickly as well. The law officer urged the court to issue an interim order based on the government’s proposed lines until the sedition law was re-examined.

The petitioners’ senior lawyers, Kapil Sibal and Gopal Sankaranarayanan, objected to the Centre’s plan.

“Section 124A is per se unconstitutional… We have not come to court for a stay of the provision. We want the court to strike it down,” Mr. Sibal contended.

“The Centre says an SP can do pre-FIR registration scrutiny… You have anyone else in mind to do it,” Justice Kant asked the senior lawyer.

“We don’t want to go to anyone… The Section is itself unconstitutional,” Mr. Sibal replied.

“You want us to declare Section 124A unconstitutional today itself… Don’t answer like that,” Justice Kant shot back.

“Many are in jail,” Mr. Sibal said.

Justice Kohli stepped in to clarify that the court was “just looking into what the situation should be in the interim.” The Bench then retired to their chambers to deliberate and prepare the order.

The court suggested on Tuesday that it was inclined to halt its hearings until the administration re-examined the law of sedition. The court, on the other hand, had asked for a concrete response by Wednesday on how it planned to defend the interests of persons who had already been arrested and were facing prosecution under Section 124A. In light of the reconsideration process, the court had also requested the government’s response on whether the use of the British-era law may be suspended.

The Centre filed an affidavit on May 9 stating that it would re-examine Section 124A, citing Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “belief” that the country should work harder to shed “colonial baggage,” including outdated laws, while celebrating 75 years of independence under the banner of “Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav.”