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Indian Supreme Court temporarily suspends ‘colonial-era sedition law’

The Supreme Court on Wednesday suspended the registration of FIRs, ongoing inquiries, and coercive actions on the topic across the country until the government’s ‘proper forum’ re-examines the colonial-era criminal statute. A bench led by Chief Justice N V Ramana issued a landmark decision on the law, which has been the subject of intense public criticism, saying there was a need to balance the interests of civil liberties and people with those of the state.

Taking the Centre’s concerns into account, the Supreme Court stated that the ‘rigours of Section 124A (sedition) of the IPC are not in line with the present social context’ and allowed the provision to be reconsidered. The panel, which also included Justices Surya Kant and Hima Kohil, asked the Centre and states not to file any new FIRs using sedition allegations till the sedition legislation is ‘reconsidered’. The court scheduled the case for the third week of July and stated that its orders would be followed until additional orders were issued.

The highest court stated that any impacted party is free to approach appropriate courts, which are asked to review the reliefs sought in light of the current ruling. ‘We hope and anticipate that the states and the Centre would refrain from registering any FIR, continuing any inquiry, or using any coercive measures by invoking section 124A of the IPC till the abovementioned provision of the legislation is re-considered,’ the bench ruled.

‘The attorney general, on the previous date of hearing, had given some glaring examples of misuse of the sedition law like in a case of recital of Hanuman Chalisa’…Therefore, we expect that till the re-examination of the law is complete, it will be appropriate not to continue with the usage of the aforesaid provision of the law by the governments,’ the chief justice of India said in the order.

The panel rejected the Centre’s proposal to appoint a superintendent of police to supervise the filing of FIRs for sedition. The Centre further stated that the filing of FIRs on the incident could not be avoided because the clause dealt with a cognisable violation and was affirmed by a Constitutional Court in 1962. The bench, which rose for a few minutes to review the orders after taking note of the Centre’s answer, returned to give the orders and stated that it had carefully weighed the problems.

Referring to the Central Government’s position, it stated that the Union of India concurred with its preliminary thoughts on the punitive clause, which may be examined by the relevant forum. It prolonged temporary orders affording relief to persons accused of sedition. All current cases, appeals, and actions relating to the provision of sedition would be suspended, and adjudication of other offences, if any, might proceed, according to the decree. Furthermore, it empowered the Centre to issue directions to the states to prevent the provision from being abused.

Earlier, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, arguing for the Centre, informed the court of the Centre’s position and opposed the request to halt the execution of the law. Regarding outstanding sedition cases, the Centre requested that hearings on bail applications in such instances be accelerated because the government did not know the nature of the offence in all cases and they may contain terror or money laundering aspects. ‘Ultimately, outstanding cases are before judicial forums, and we must trust courts,’ the law officer told the bench.

On Tuesday, the bench directed the Centre to state its position on maintaining ongoing sedition proceedings in abeyance in order to protect the interests of persons already arrested and not registering new cases until the government’s review of the colonial-era criminal code was completed. The Supreme Court consented to leave a re-examination of Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code to the government after asking it to express a clear view after posing the two specific questions.

According to data produced by the National Crime Records Bureau, 356 cases of sedition – as defined under Section 124A of the IPC – were reported between 2015 and 2020, with 548 people detained (NCRB). During this six-year span, however, just 12 people arrested in seven sedition trials were convicted. In 1962, the Supreme Court affirmed the constitutionality of the sedition legislation while striving to limit its potential for abuse. The bench has been considering a slew of petitions challenging the constitutionality of the sedition legislation, which has sparked heated discussion due to different governments’ alleged use of it to settle political scores.

‘Whoever, by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise, brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards, the Government established by law in [India], shall be punished with imprisonment for life, to which fine may be added, or with imprisonment for three years, to which fine may be added, or with fine,’ Section 124A (sedition) of the IPC states.


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