In a surprising turn of events, on Monday, the Centre submitted an affidavit to the Supreme Court, indicating that they will be reviewing the colonial-era law on sedition, under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, and requested that the apex court halt their ongoing scrutiny of it. This stance is a reversal of the previously made arguments in defence of the sedition law, last week. The decision comes amid the ongoing hearings on the sedition law in the apex court, as petitioners have urged the SC to scrap it.
The Centre said in the affidavit, “The prime minister believes that at a time when the country is marking ‘Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav’ (75 years since independence), we need to, as a nation, work even harder to shed colonial baggage that has passed its utility which includes outdated laws, colonial laws and practice.” It has indicated that the SC should not invest time in examining the validity of Section 124A of the IPC as the reconsideration is to be undertaken by the Union government before an “appropriate forum”, where it is “constitutionally permitted”.
“The PM has been cognizant of various views expressed on the subject and has also periodically, in various forums, expressed his clear and unequivocal views in favour of protection of civil liberties, respect for human rights, and giving meaning to the constitutionally cherished freedoms by the people of this country,” read the affidavit. In the context of the possible repealing of the law, the Centre said, “This is an ongoing process. These were laws which reeked of a colonial mindset and thus have no place in today’s India.”
Union Law Minister Kiren Rijiju said that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has already asked to “re-examine and reconsider” the provision of the sedition law, urging to repeal the obsolete law. “The government will suitably take into account views of the stakeholders and ensure that the sovereignty and integrity of the nation are preserved, while re-examining and re-considering the law on sedition,” stated the law minister. Rijiju said that the direction to move forward for this review came directly from PM Modi, and since they are in the midst of this reconsideration the Supreme Court may not get involved.
The affidavit was filed a day before a case was to be heard by the three-judge bench led by the Chief Justice of India, NV Ramana, on Tuesday. The petitioners have challenged the validity of the sedition provision enacted over 150 years ago, in 1860, however, the Centre has requested the SC to indefinitely defer the judgement. On May 7, the government firmly defended the law arguing that it “must be treated as a binding precedent” that has been tested time and time again over the years, and that instances of abuse of the law do not justify the review of the Kedar Nath Singh judgement of 1962. In 1962, the apex court had upheld the validity of the sedition law, and while trying to restrict its scope for misuse, the bench had ruled that unless there is a call for violence, any criticism of the government cannot be interpreted as a seditious offence.
The recent deferment led to All-India Trinamool Congress (TMC) MP Mahua Moitra to make scathing remarks. She is one of the several other petitioners who has called for the sedition law to be scrapped. Moitra called the PM urging to review the sedition law “just a ploy to buy time”, saying that if the government wanted to do something they would have, but since there is a possibility of the law being scrutinised by a larger bench, they deferred the judgement. “This is basically to say ‘stay off, we will do what we want to do’, and they will sit on it for years and years,” added the MP.
Recently, two lawmakers – independent MP Navneet Rana and her husband MLA Ravi Rana – from Maharashtra, were arrested on sedition charges for their statements made against CM Uddhav Thackery. The court later granted them bail, noting that while their statements were “blameworthy” and “crossed the lines of freedom of speech and expression”, they did not invoke sedition under IPC 124A.
The special court in Mumbai said that “political leaders play an important role in facilitating peace and tranquillity” and therefore, they have greater responsibility as they have people who believe and act upon what they say. “However, mere expression of derogatory or objectionable words, may not be a sufficient ground for invoking the provisions contained in Section 124A of IPC,” added the court. The couple who is currently on bail was arrested on April 23 for threatening to recite the Hanuman Chalisa outside the Maharashtra CM’s house. Reportedly, their bail conditions include not talking to the media about the case and partaking in activities for which they were arrested.
On Monday, the Ranas alleged that they were mistreated in prison by the officials and said that they have decided to approach Union Home Minister Amit Shah and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “We are going to Delhi today and meet all the leaders who respect women,” said MP Navneet Rana. She added, “I am going to meet the prime minister, home minister and Lok Sabha Speaker, and tell them how we were ill-treated from the lockup to jail.” She further clarified that she had not violated the court’s orders by speaking to the media after her bail.