'Why keep colonial law used to silence Gandhi, Tilak?' SC on sedition law
New Delhi, July 15, 2021
The Supreme Court on Thursday questioned the Centre on the utility of having a sedition law even after 75 years of gaining independence from the British, and also frowned on the misuse of the law by the police against people.
A bench headed by Chief Justice N.V. Ramana said: "It is a colonial law used by the British to silence Mahatma Gandhi, (Bal Gangadhar) Tilak. Still, it is necessary after 75 years of independence?"
"I am indicating what I am thinking," the Chief Justice told Attorney General K. K. Venugopal
Citing the example of continued usage of Section 66A of IT Act, which was quashed, but abused to arrest thousands for airing their views, the top court pointed out that the sedition law (Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code) is also not immune to misuse by police to fix persons who speak against the government.
"It is like you give a saw to a carpenter and he will cut the entire forest. This is the impact of this law," the Chief Justice said.
He noted that police officers in a village can invoke the sedition law, and all these issues are required to be examined.
"My concern is the misuse of law. There is no accountability of executing agencies. I will look into it," he said.
"The government has already taken out several stale laws, why don't you look into this," the CJI told Venugopal, adding that "everybody is a little scared when this section is invoked".
The AG replied that he completely understands the concern of the top court and submitted the court can lay down fresh guidelines to restrict the use of the sedition provision only for protection of nation and democratic institutions.
The Chief Justice said the situation on the ground is grave, and if one party does not like what the other is saying, Section 124A is used.
"It is a serious threat to the functioning of individuals and parties," he added.
At this, the AG reiterated that the top court can lay down the parameters on the usage of the law, instead of taking out the entire law.
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta submitted that once the Centre files its counter affidavit on the PIL by Maj Gen S.G. Vombatkere (retd), the court's task will be easier.
On the AG's request, the Chief Justice said pending petitions challenging the validity of sedition law will be tagged together and issued notice to Centre on Vombatkere's petition. He pointed that Vombatkere had served the country for very long and the petition cannot be termed motivated.
The bench, which also comprised Justices A. S. Bopanna and Hrishikesh Roy, also pointed out that if one examines the history of use of Section 124A, it will be apparent that the conviction rate is very low.
The top court's observations came on Mysuru-based Vombatkere's plea challenging the constitutional validity of Section 124A which carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.
The plea argued that a statute criminalising expression based on unconstitutional, vague definitions of "disaffection towards government' etc. is an unreasonable restriction on the fundamental right to free expression guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) and causes constitutionally impermissible "chilling effect" on speech.