Sedition Law in India : An Overview

What sedition broadly means

The Section 124A of Indian Penal Code (IPC) lays down in broad terms what sedition is.

Sedition generally means conduct or speech inciting people to rebel against the legally established authority of the State. In a democracy every citizen has the right to question the government. Any criticism becomes sedition only when it leads to incitement of violence or overthrow of rule of law.

Sedition is closely allied to treason. Any criticism becomes seditious only when it should have a pernicious tendency to create public disorder or disturbance of law and order.

What Section 124A states

The Section 124A specifically states 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. The expression disaffection includes disloyalty and all feelings of enmity.

However, the comments expressing disapprobation of the measures of the Government with a view to obtain their alteration by lawful means, without exciting or attempting to excite hatred, contempt or disaffection, do not constitute an offence under this section.

Similarly, comments expressing disapprobation of the administrative or other action of the Government without exciting or attempting to excite hatred, contempt or disaffection, do not constitute an offence under this section.

Sedition law conflicts with the right to speech

The law of sedition conflicts with the fundamental right, the right to speech. The main criticism is that the Section 124A is ultra vires the Constitution of India in the matter of right to speech.

The right to speech is an important safeguard that the Constitution of India provides to the citizens under Article 19(1)(a). It allows the people to express their views on how the government should function and criticize it so as to keep its arbitrary powers under control.

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, as pointed out by the Supreme Court ( SC) in Kedar Nath Singh case.

However, the right to free speech is not wholly unrestricted. It is attached with some restrictions under Article 19(2).  The sedition law act as one of its restrictions. Nowadays the law of sedition has become an arbitrary source of power for the Government to silence the people who criticizes it.

The law which was laid down by the British Government to control Indians is now being used by the Government on the citizens who criticises the Government.

Sedition is defined broadly and vaguely

The words used to define sedition in the statute book are vague and ambiguous. They are open to multiple interpretations without having any certainty. The government is putting those who criticise it behind the bars terming every such criticism as an act of sedition.

History of law of sedition

This law of sedition was first proposed by the British rulers in India in the Macaulay‘s Draft Penal Code 1837. The Section 113 of the Draft Code corresponded to section 124A IPC. But it was not included in the IPC enacted in 1860 by some oversight.  It was added to the IPC in 1870 as Section 124A under the offences against the State.

It was meant to put Indian leaders of independence under prison and to deal with the then rising radical movement. The Section 124A IPC was extensively used to curb political dissent in India. The punishment for sedition was life imprisonment.

In 1898 an amendment was made to it by adding the words “bringing or attempting to bring in hatred or contempt towards the Government established by law is punishable” in Section 124A. It was later amended to increase the punishment to ‘imprisonment for life and/or with fine or imprisonment for three years and/or with fine”.

Later in 1955, it was amended with a lesser punishment of three years imprisonment

Please see the Consultation Paper on Sedition of the Law commission of India for more details.

Some cases in the pre-independence India

Maharani v Bal Gangadhar Tilak

One popular case of sedition was of Bal Gangadhar Tilak. He was accused of sedition not only once but twice.

First, in 1897, when his speech led to the killing of two British officers, he was convicted for sedition in 1898.

The second time, when he was defending Indian revolutionaries by publishing an article in the newspaper Kesari he was convicted for sedition for the second time. But, the Bombay High Court held that the matter disseminated by the petitioner is not per se seditious under 124A of the IPC.

Sedition trial of Mahatma Gandhi

Gandhiji was charged under sedition for writing three politically sensitive articles in his weekly journal Young India.

Gandhiji was tried under section 124-A of the IPC on the charge of “exciting disaffection towards the government established by law in India”. The charges were, “bringing or attempting to excite disaffection towards His Majesty’s Government established by law in British India, and thereby committing offences punishable under Section 124 A of the Indian Penal Code”, through three articles published in Young India.

He was imprisoned for 6 years for inciting disaffection towards the British Government.

Post-independence Scenario

In the post-independence period, the Constituent Assembly debated the issue of treating sedition as a restriction on freedom of speech. There had been serious opposition for inclusion of sedition as a restriction on freedom of speech and expression under the then Article 13 of the draft Indian Constitution. The Constituent Assembly was unanimous in having the word sedition deleted from Article 13 of the draft Constitution.

Jawahar Lal Nehru, while introducing the first Constitution Amendment Bill in 1951, categorically stated that independent India did not need this law. However, the Section 124A IPC includes sedition as a criminal offence since the year 1870.

Constitutional validity of sedition

The constitutional validity of Section 124A has been challenged many a time before various courts. The challenge was on the ground that it was violative of the Article 19(1) (a) of the Constitution, the right to speech.

When people have the right to speech, they would criticize the Government and disagree with its policies. That is the foundation of democracy. The law of sedition is contrary to the right to speech in a democratic system of governance.

The law of sedition, which was being used as a weapon in the hands of British rulers to quell the democratic dissent, still remains as an offence in the free India.

Some cases in the post-independence period

Romesh Thapar v. State of Madras

After independence, Section 124A IPC came up for consideration for the first time in the case of Romesh Thapar v. State of Madras.

In this case, the Madras Government had banned the Red Cross newspaper owned by the petitioner. He contended before the SC that the act of the Government was violative of his Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression under Article 19(1) (a).

The apex court quashed the order. The court declared that unless any speech or expression threaten the security of or tend to overthrow the State, any restriction upon it would not fall within the reasonable restrictions under the Article 19(2) of the Constitution.

Kedar Nath Singh v. State of Bihar 

In the case Kedar Nath Singh v State of Bihar, the petitioner was charged under sedition for speeches made by him against some Government officials. He was convicted for sedition by the Magistrate Court in Patna and the order of conviction was upheld by the Patna High Court.

He challenged the constitutional validity of Section 124A in the SC on the ground that it was violative of the Fundamental Rights mentioned under Article 19.

The SC upheld the constitutional validity of the Section stating that Article 19(2) allows the Government to put restrictions on fundamental rights including Freedom of Speech.  The Court struck a balance between the right to free speech and expression and the power of the legislature to restrict such right.

The court clarified that Section 124A could not be used to stifle free expression. It could only be utilised when the seditious remark in question incited violence or would cause public disorder.

Kedar Nath Singh’s speech did not amount to sedition since he was criticising the Congress party but not the Government even. Above all the speech did not incite ant violence.

The judgement made it amply clear that the Section 124A on sedition makes it penal only those activities that have a tendency, to create disorder or disturbance of public peace leading to violence. The criticism or comment on any government action, however strongly worded it is, would go consistent with the fundamental right of freedom of speech and expression.

It is only when the words, written or spoken, etc. which have the pernicious tendency or intention of creating public disorder or disturbance of law and order then only the law of sedition steps in to prevent such activities in the interest of public order. So, the section on sedition strikes the correct balance between individual fundamental rights and the interest of public order.

Balwant Singh and ors v State of Punjab

In the case of Balwant Singh and Ors v. State of Punjab [(1995) 3 SCC 214], the appellants shouted slogans on the day of murder of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The court found that the appellants had only shouted slogans a few times and the slogans had not resulted in any other law and order issue.

The court held that the raising some slogan only a couple of times by the two lonesome appellants, which neither evoked any response nor any reaction from anyone in the public can not attract the offence of sedition under Section 124A IPC.

What the law commission says

The law Commission of India in its Consultation Paper on ‘Sedition’, published on August 30, 2018, stated that while the offence of sedition must be preserved to maintain national integrity, but it should not be utilised to stifle free speech.

The paper adds, “In a democracy, singing from the same songbook is not a benchmark of patriotism. People should be at liberty to show their affection towards their country in their own way. For doing the same, one might indulge in constructive criticism or debates, pointing out the loopholes in the policy of the Government. Expressions used in such thoughts might be harsh and unpleasant to some, but that does not render the actions to be branded seditious. Section 124A should be invoked only in cases where the intention behind any act is to disrupt public order or to overthrow the Government with violence and illegal means”.

It continues, “Dissent and criticism are essential ingredients of a robust public debate on policy issues as part of vibrant democracy. Therefore, every restriction on free speech and expression must be carefully scrutinised to avoid unwarranted restrictions”.

Nothing is seditious unless it creates public disorder

Any criticism in good faith by any citizen cannot be considered sedition. The right to speak up and criticize the Government that rules them is the fundamental right of every citizen. Their right should not be taken away by imposing oppressive law of sedition on them.

In short, the crime of sedition lies in the intention with which the language is used. In fact, what is punishable is the intentional attempt to rouse disaffection against the state. Unless the words used or the actions in question do not threaten the security of the State or of the public or lead to any sort of grave public disorder, the act would not fall within the ambit of section 124-A of IPC. It excludes any criticism in good faith.

Sedition requires toning down

The law of sedition may not be wholly unconstitutional. It becomes an offence only if the words, spoken or written, are accompanied by disorder and violence and/ or incitement to disorder and violence.  Mere acts of hooliganism, disorder and other forms of violence cannot be considered sedition.

The sedition law needs to be toned down, if not fully abolished. The law should not be used to arrest people for making cartoons, morphing images of political leaders, and using social media to criticise governmental inactions. In case such activities have a criminal element in it, it should be dealt with under the law of defamation or something else.

Additional reading

  1. Kedar Nath Singh v State Of Bihar (1962 AIR 955) at
  2. Romesh Thapar v State of Madras (1950 AIR 124), at
  3. Emperor v Bal Gangadhar Tilak on 9 November, 1916, at
  4. Balwant Singh and Ors v State of Punjab, at
  5. The Law Commission of India: Consultation Paper on Sedition, at
  6. Gandhi, M K: Great Trial of 1922, at