UPSC MAINS 2019: Sedition and its discontents

Sedition and its discontents


Topic: Sedition and its discontents

Topic in Syllabus: GS Paper 2: Indian Governance


Sedition and its discontents


In recent times, the resort to this section is seen as disturbingly frequent. Activists, cartoonists and intellectuals have been arrested under this section, drawing criticism from liberals that it is being used to suppress dissent and silence critics.


More about on news:

  • Authorities and the police who invoke this section defend the measure as a necessary step to prevent public disorder and anti-national activities.
  • Jawaharlal Nehru University students and activists, Assamese scholar Hiren Gohain and Manipur journalist Kishorchandra Wangkhem are prominent among those booked in recent days.
  • Wangkhem has also been detained under the National Security Act.
  • Liberals and rights activists have been demanding the scrapping of Section 124A from the statute books, arguing that it has no place in a democracy and that it is being invoked even in cases where there is no incitement to violence or tendency to create public disorder.


Sedition meaning:

  • Sedition is overt conduct, such as speech and organization that tends toward insurrection against the established order.
  • Sedition often includes subversion of a constitution and incitement of discontent towards, or resistance against established authority.
  • Sedition may include any commotion, though not aimed at direct and open violence against the laws.
  • A seditionist is one who engages in or promotes the interest of sedition.


Meaning of Sedition under Section 124A of IPC, 1860

“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 shall be punishable with Life Imprisonment”.


Section 124-A:

  • Section 124-A deals with the offence of sedition.
  • The term sedition covers speech or writing, or any form of visible representation, which brings the government into hatred or contempt, or excites disaffection towards the government, or attempts to do so.
  • It is punishable with three years in prison or a life term.
  • It further states expressing disapproval of government measures or actions, with a view to getting them changed by lawful means, without promoting hatred or disaffection or contempt towards the government will not come under this section.



  • The law was originally drafted by Thomas Macaulay
  • Sedition was introduced in the penal code in 1870, a decade after the Indian Penal Code came into force.
  • It was a colonial law directed against strong criticism of the British administration.
  • Its most famous victims included Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Mahatma Gandhi.
  • Gandhi called it “the prince among the political sections of the IPC designed to suppress the liberty of the citizen”.
  • It was not a part of IPC in the 1860s and was even dropped from the law. It was introduced in the IPC in the year 1870
  • Many Indian freedom fighters, including Mahatma Gandhi and Bal Gangadhar Tilak, were charged with sedition during freedom struggle
  • When the first amendment was introduced, which also included detailed limitations on free speech, the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was categorical in his belief that the offence of sedition was fundamentally unconstitutional. He had said ‘now so far as I am concerned [Section 124-A] is highly objectionable and obnoxious and it should have no place both for practical and historical reasons. The sooner we get rid of it the better.’


The following points describe the origin of sedition law:

  • Origin of Sedition law in India is connected to the Wahabis Movement of the 19th century.
  • This was an Islamic revivalist movement and was led by Syed Ahmed Barelvi.
  • Since 1830, the movement was active but in the wake of 1857 revolt, it turned into armed resistance, a Jihad against the British.
  • The British termed Wahabis as rebels and carried out military operations against Wahabis.


Recent sedition cases filed:

  • As many as 47 sedition cases were reported in 2014 alone, across nine states, according to the National Crime Records Bureau.
  • Many of these cases did not involve any violence or incitement to violence. A total of 58 people were arrested in connection with the cases.
  • In September 2001, cartoonist Aseem Trivedi was arrested after a complaint that his cartoons mocked the constitution and national emblem. The charges were dropped a month later following widespread criticism and public protests.
  • In March 2014, 60 Kashmiri students in Uttar Pradesh were charged with sedition for cheering for Pakistan in a cricket match against India. Authorities dropped the charges following legal advice from the law ministry.
  • In August 2014, authorities in Kerala charged seven young men, including students, with sedition after a complaint that they had refused to stand up during the national anthem in a cinema.
  • In October 2015, folk singer S Kovan was held in Tamil Nadu for two songs criticising the state government for allegedly profiting from state-owned liquor shops at the expense of the poor.
  • In February 2016, student leader Kanhaiya Kumar was arrested and charged with sedition for allegedly shouting anti-India slogans. He was later freed on bail.


Sedition found in other Laws:

The following are some laws which cover Sedition law:

  • Indian Penal Code, 1860 (Section 124A)
  • The Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 (Section 95)
  • The Seditious Meetings Act, 1911 &
  • The Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (Section 2(o) (iii)).


What are the activities that are Seditious in nature?

In India, what constitutes as ‘Sedition’ is highly debated. As per the Indian Penal Code, for an act to be called “seditious”, it should have the following components:

  • Any words, which can be either written or spoken, or signs which include placards/posters (visible representation)
  • Must bring hatred/contempt/disaffection against the Indian Government
  • Must result in ‘imminent violence’ or public disorder.
  • As per the interpretation of the Court on Section 124-A of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 the following acts have been considered as “seditious”
    • Raising of slogans against the government – example – “Khalistan Zindabad” by groups. Raising of slogans by individuals casually once or twice was held not to be seditious.
    • A speech made by a person must incite violence / public disorder for it to be considered as seditious. Subsequent cases have gone to further interpret it to include “incitement of imminent violence”.
    • Any written work which incites violence and public disorder.


Constitutional validity of Section 124-A:

  • Two high courts had found it unconstitutional after Independence, as it violated the freedom of speech and expression.
  • The Constitution was amended to include ‘public order’ as one of the ‘reasonable restrictions’ on which free speech could be abridged by law.
  • Thereafter, the Supreme Court, in Kedar Nath Singh v. State of Bihar (1962) upheld the validity of Section 124-A
  • At the same time, it limited its application to acts that involve “intention or tendency to create disorder” or incitement to violence.
  • Thus, even strongly worded remarks, as long as they do not excite disloyalty and enmity, or incite violence, is not an offence under this section.


Cases related to it:

Kedarnath Singh v. State of Bihar

  • It was held that the law is constitutional and covered written or spoken words that had the implicit idea of subverting the Government by violent means.
  • With an intention to create public disorder, Citizens can criticize the Government as long as they are not inciting people to violence against the Government.
  • Supreme Court upheld the validity of Section 124A, it limited its application to acts involving intention or tendency to create disorder, or a disturbance of law and order, or incitement to violence.


Balwant Singh and Anr v. State of Punjab

  • After the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, the accused had raised the slogan “Khalistan Zindabad” outside a cinema hall.
  • It was held that two individuals casually raising slogans could not be said to be exciting disaffection towards the Government. Section 124A would not apply to the circumstances of this case.


Romesh Thapar v. State of Madras

  • The petitioner contended before the Supreme Court that the said order of banning his paper ‘Cross Roads’ by the Madras State.
  • It has contravened his Fundamental Right of freedom of speech and expression conferred on him by Article 19(1) of the Constitution.
  • The Supreme Court held that the Article 19(2) where the restriction has been imposed only in the cases where problem to public security is involved. Cases where no such problem could arise, it cannot be held to be constitutional and valid to any extent.
  • Supreme Court quashed the order of Madras State and allowed the application of the petitioner under Article 32 of the Constitution.


The following acts are not considered seditious:

  • Improvement or alteration by lawful means with the disapproval of the measures of government.
  • The strong words which are expressing disapprobation of actions of the Government and not encouraging those feelings which generate public disorder by acts of violence.
  • To improve the condition of the people or to secure the alteration of those acts by lawful means without the feelings of enmity and disloyalty which involve excitement to public disorder or the use of violence.


Sedition and Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution

  • The Concept of Free Speech has attained global importance and all have supported it as a basic fundamental right of a human being. In India, such rights are provided under Part-III and Article 19 of the Indian Constitution.
  • Courts have been given the power to act as guarantors and protectors of the rights of the citizen. Article 19(1)(a) secures the ‘freedom of speech and expression’ but it has been bound by the limitation which has been given under Article 19(2) which states the permissible legislative abridgement of the right of free speech and expression.
  • Section 124A of the IPC is ultra vires the constitution in as much as it infringes the fundamental right of freedom of speech in Article 19(1)(a) and is not saved by the expression “in the interest of public order”.
  • As the expression “in the interests of public order” has a wider connotation and should not be confined to only one aspect of public order, then the Section 124A is not void.
  • Section 124A IPC is partly void and partly valid. In Indramani Singh v. State of Manipur, it was held that Section 124A which seeks to impose restrictions on exciting mere disaffection is ultra vires, but the restriction imposed on freedom of speech and expression covered under Article 19(2) can be held intra vires.


Law Commission view:

  • In an earlier report in 1968, the Law Commission had rejected the idea of repealing the Section.
  • In 1971, the panel wanted the scope of the section to be expanded.
  • It called for covering the Constitution, the legislature and the judiciary, in addition to the ‘government to be established by law’.
  • It meant that ‘disaffection’ against all these institutions should not be tolerated.
  • The only dilution it mooted was to modify the wide gap between the two jail terms prescribed (either three years or life).
  • It called for fixing the maximum sanction at seven years’ rigorous imprisonment with fine.
  • The Law Commission has said that a person should not be charged with sedition for “merely expressing a thought that is not in consonance with the policy of the Government of the day”.
  • It has said that the stringent sedition law should be invoked only in cases “where intention” behind the act is to “disrupt public order or to overthrow the Government with violence and illegal means”.


Supreme Court view:

  • The Supreme Court has clarified that sedition charges cannot be brought against a person merely for raising a voice against the government or its policies
  • The authorities, while dealing with offences under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, shall be guided by the principles laid down by the Constitution Bench in Kedar Nath Singh vs State of Bihar.
  • The court had clarified in its 1962 verdict that a “citizen has a right to say or write whatever he likes about the government, or its measures, by way of criticism or comment, so long as he does not incite people to violence against the government established by law or with the intention of creating public disorder”
  • The court had clarified that comments, however strongly worded, expressing disapproval of government actions, without exciting those feelings which generate the inclination to cause public disorder by acts of violence was not sedition.


National Crime Records Bureau Statistics on Sedition:

  • When all the crimes are committed against the state or government, it disturbs public order. According to the data from 2014-2016 of NCRB, 165 people were arrested on the charge of sedition.
  • During 2014, 47 cases were reported under sedition. Of the total sedition cases, Jharkhand and Bihar have reported 18 cases and 16 cases respectively.
  • Besides, 5 cases in Kerala, 2 cases each in Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Chhattisgarh and Himachal Pradesh were also reported during 2014.
  • According to the NCRB, the latest crime data shows the cases of sedition fell from 2014 to 2015.
  • A total of 30 sedition cases were registered in 2015, less than in 2014. Tamil Nadu topped the list for committing the crime against state including sedition. Of the 6,986 cases were registered in 2016, 1,827 cases were reported from Tamil Nadu, followed by U.P. 1,414, Haryana 1,286 and Assam 343 cases.
  • In the last three years across the country, 165 people were arrested on the charge of sedition.
  • According to the reports of NCRB, 111 people were arrested in four state i.e., 68 in Bihar, 15 in Haryana, 18 in Jharkhand and 10 in Punjab.



Sedition is the serious offence in the violation of Article 19. So there is a need that sedition laws should have expressly contained words which satisfied the restrictions of Article 19(2). The purpose of restricting speech under Sedition Act is the protection of National Security. Sedition laws should be interpreted and applied according to the guidelines given by the Supreme Court.


Sample Question:

What do understand by sedition? Why India needs to get rid of its sedition law? Discuss.