The LexGaze Weekly - DECIPHER

The origin of Sedition & Contemporary usage: Understanding the scope and applicability of s. 124-A, the Indian Penal Code, 1860

Arijit Sanyal

Issue 12 | September 06, 2020

Sedition, a front-runner among laws that tend to jeopardize civil rights, has caused lasting ambiguity, leading to conflicts between guaranteed rights and restrictions imposed on the same. Though the existence of the law is questioned, the problem lies in the inconsistent interpretation of the same by the higher judiciary. Ambiguous interpretation and lack of proper guidelines have led to the administration using sedition laws, to stifle public dissent in the past, irrespective of the fact whether or not it caused violence. Hence, this requires referencing the notable judgements of the judiciary to appraise the scope of the law in its true perspective.

Pre to Post Independence Journey

Sedition concerns itself with such acts or attempts which brings or attempts to bring contempt, hatred, disaffection, etc. towards the Government of India and is punishable by imprisonment of three years, which may extend to a life term with fine. The ambiguity caused by this definition of sedition gave the courts carte blanche when it came to adjudicating on allied matters. Though it was generally accepted that Section 124-A of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 is attracted only when an actual attempt is there to cause disaffection, the presiding officer in Queen-Empress v. Tilak, [(1897) I.L.R. 22 Bom. 122] departed from the said practice to include subtle inducement within the scope of sedition.

Over the years the scope of the provision has been diluted and at times expanded which has had serious ramifications on the framework of rights guaranteed by the Constitution of India. As, for instance, in Kedar Nath v. State of Bihar, (AIR 1962 SC 955), the Supreme Court, while upholding the constitutionality of Article 19(1)(a), expressly mentioned that there was a difference between sedition and criticism, and however strong the latter might be, provisions of sedition should not be attracted. Hence, the right approach is to use the provision sparingly in extraordinary circumstances and not as a tool to crush dissent.

What Doesn’t Amount to Sedition?

In light of a sudden rise in charges of sedition, it warrants a recourse to those instances which do not per se amount to sedition and where the authorities need to exercise caution. Speaking of which, government action is bound to attract criticism, and a democratic government ought not to muzzle voices of dissent by resorting to sedition law, as observed in Indra Das v. State of Assam, [(2011) 3 SCC 380]. The general test as observed by the court is, whether such expression leads to violence or creates disharmony. Moreover, in Balbir Singh v. State of UP, [AIR 2000 SC 464], it has been stated that Section 124-A is attracted, only when there is a real apprehension of disharmony and not one based on simple disapprobation.

Similarly, acts such as listening to audio recordings, obtaining passive membership of banned organizations, or publishing anything which strongly condemns any administrative or government action, do not (in any way) excite contempt towards the government. Though the power to repeal the colonial-era law rests with the parliament, it is expected of the judiciary to act rationally and exercise powers under the law sparingly and only in exceptional situations. The right to freedom of speech and expression is already flexible, and dissent and subtle forms of criticism are as important for our democracy as having an elected government in place.

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