This article titled ‘An Overview of Sedition Law in India.’ is written by Syed Mehdi Hasan and Adil Abbas and discusses the law of sedition in India. I. Introduction It is always a matter of discussion when it comes to Sedition. It has direct contradiction with the Right to Freedom of Speech. It’s a tool in the hands of… Read More »

This article titled ‘An Overview of Sedition Law in India.’ is written by Syed Mehdi Hasan and Adil Abbas and discusses the law of sedition in India.

I. Introduction

It is always a matter of discussion when it comes to Sedition. It has direct contradiction with the Right to Freedom of Speech. It’s a tool in the hands of the state to curb voices and criticisms. British government as well successive governments of independent India used it against protestors.

Freedom of Speech and Expression is the embankment of democratic government. In a democracy, freedom of speech plays a pivotal role in the formation of public opinion on social, political and economic matters. International Organizations have pronounced freedom of speech as a basic fundamental right.

The Constitution of India also guarantees freedom of speech and expression to all citizens.

It includes the right to express one’s views on any issue through both oral and written mediums. Thus, it includes the Right to propagate or publish opinions and freedom of communication. Freedom of Speech is subject to some restrictions too. There has been debates and discussion that Sedition might be used by the government to suppress the voice of peoples but the question arises “Does the free speech needs any sedition law?”

II. Background of Sedition law in India

The basic idea of governance in India was founded on British rule and our Indian Constitution contains many laws that were in effect at that time. Sedition is one of the laws taken from British rule. This section was not included in IPC when the Indian Penal Code was enacted in 1860, sedition was included under section 124A of the Indian Penal Code through Special Act XVII of 1870.

The word sedition is derived from the Latin word “Seditio” which means “discord.

The section related to sedition initially was Section 113, when Thomas Babington Macaulay drafted the Penal Code in 1837. It was added in 1870 to suppress the increasing Wahabi activities between 1863-1870. Sedition law was made a cognizable offence in 1974. The British used this section against Indian leaders seeking independence from them in the 19th and 20th Century. Gandhi Ji, who was charged with sedition in 1922 said “ section 124A is the prince among the political sections design to suppress liberty of citizens.

The first popular case of an offence of Sedition was Queen Empress v. Jogendra Chandra Bose &ors. , (1892) ILR 19 Cal 35 in which editors of Bengali magazines were charged with sedition. The publishers argued that they have not written seditious content they only published it and also contented that penalising people for exercising their rights went against the intention of the law.

The Calcutta High Court held that publishers can’t be set free because the circulation of magazines by them intends to read this by the target audience. The High Court had also underlined the distinction between the terms ‘disapprobation’ (legitimate criticism) and ‘disaffection’ (any feeling contrary to affection). The court come up that since only disaffection is penalised, the offence of sedition does not take people’s rights away

Another judgment in which Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code [IPC], 1860, which deals with Sedition was interpreted and used was Queen Empress v. Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Tilak was charged with sedition for publishing an article in a newspaper. In this case, the word disaffection was interpreted widely by including hatred, enmity, dislike, hostility, contempt and every form of ill-will to the Government.

Disloyalty is perhaps the simplest general term, comprehending every Possibly form of bad feelings to the Government. The Court described Sedition as a lack of affection. As a result, it denotes “hate, enmity, hate, antagonism, disdain, and every other type of ill-will toward the Government.”

The Court went on to say that no one may incite or seek to incite such disaffection and that no one should make or strive to make anybody feel animosity toward the state. An amendment was made in this after Tilak’s case that made it harsher.

After two decades in Emperor v. Bal Gangadhar Tilak, (1917) 19 Bom. LR 211, Tilak was again charged with Sedition and this time the division bench of Bombay High Court The court, in this case, took a relatively liberal stance, rejecting the interpretation of ‘disaffection’ given by the one judge bench of the same court in Queen-Empress v. Tilak, which came out with the broad definition of disaffection as anything adverse to affection. This judgment had a positive impact on free speech because the actual impact of the alleged seditious speech on the public was taken into account while reading the intention of the accused.

III. Sedition law in India

At initial Section 124A of IPC was Section 113 of Macaulay’s Draft Penal Code of 1837-39. The Treason Felony Act of 1848 penalized all seditious expressions, section 124A was parallel with this Act. The intention behind introducing this section was to curb the voices of Indians. Wahabi Movement was also an ostensible reason. James Stephen, the law member of the Governor General’s Executive Council, while introducing the section, peculiarly cited this movement as a major vexation.

The word sedition is placed in Section 124 A of the Indian Penal Code. It’s a non-cognizable and a non-bailable offence. At the time of Commencement of Constitution, Sedition was not acceptable to the framers of the Constitution but it remained as it is in the Indian Penal Code. After independence in the case of Romesh Thapar v. State of Madras, and Brij Bhushan &anr. v. State of Delhi, Hon’ble Supreme Court strongly favoured free speech.

The court said that freedom of speech couldn’t be restricted except on grounds defined in Article 19(2). In the first amendment in the year 1951, two additional restrictions, namely, ‘friendly relations with Foreign State’ and ‘public order’ were added to Article 19(2) following the Court’s order in Ramesh Thapar’s case.

IV. Right to freedom of speech and expression vis-à-vis with Sedition

Under Indian Constitution, the right to freedom of speech and expression is enshrined under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution. Free speech allows people to convey their thoughts and express their beliefs. Freedom of speech and expression includes propagation, not one’s views only.

It also includes the right to publish the views of other people. Every democratic government gives great importance to the freedom of every citizen of the country. Without this, it is not possible to develop the logical power of the people, which is necessary for the proper functioning of democratic government.

Freedom of speech is one of the most important characteristics of a democracy. In a democratic country, citizens have a right to choose their respective representative, and the right to voice their choices. However, all citizens of this country have the right to express their views and opinions and the right to speak freely without any restrictions, it must be kept in mind that with those rights, they also have certain duties as citizens of India to perform. When the State and the citizens perform their own duties then democracy can function in its best possible way and think first on a national level, and then on an individual.

We the people of India elected the Leader of this nation. The same people who elect those leaders and put their confidence in them, should have a right to ask questions, give suggestions, or have conflicting opinions, and leaders must hear our voices.

After increasing the number of Wahabi activities between 1863 and 1870 that posed a challenge to a colonial government than British introduced Sedition in the Indian Penal Code 1870 to prohibit speeches that excite or attempted to excite disaffection towards the govt. established by law in India. Thus, after the Wahabi movement sedition laws were introduced in India.

Balwant Singh & anr. v. State of Punjab, in this case, the Indian govt. booked Balwant Singh and others under section 124A of Indian Penal Code just for raising the slogan ahead of cinema in Chandigarh on 31st October 1984 “Khalistan Zindabad……… Raj Karega Khalistan!”, but the court refuse to penalize the appellants. Supreme Court held that raising some slogan only a couple of times by the two lonesome appellants did not constitute any threat to the government of India nor spreading any kind of enmity towards any people or government.

V. Overview of Kedarnath judgement

The Allahabad High Court within the Ram Nandan v. State, AIR 1959 All 101 decision had to make a decision to the constitutional validity of Section 124A of the IPC. The High Court of Allahabad declared Section 124A of the IPC void by holding that the ministers who formed an area of the Govt. were men who frame important questions of policy and wish a robust opposition in Parliament.

The Supreme Court in 1962 in Kedarnath Singh v. State of Bihar overruled the Allahabad High Court decision, the Hon’ble Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of Section 124A of the IPC and differentiated between disloyalty to the Government and commenting upon the orders and bills passed by the Government without inciting public disorder through acts of violence.

The petitioner, in this case, criticized the ruling national party, Congress, for its capitalist policies had been booked for sedition and inciting public mischief. His appeal has been struck down before the High Court of Judicature at Patna. The petitioner argued before the Supreme Court that the Indian Penal Code provisions on sedition violated the right to freedom of speech and expression is enshrined under Article 19 (1)(a) of the Constitution of India.

Supreme Court restricted its scope for misuse. Criticising the government is not an offence, subversion of the government is an offence. Expressing a non-violent opinion is a democratic right of every citizen of the country, inciting violence against the state is a crime.

The definition of sedition law is too wide and vast. Though sedition law was found unconstitutional by several judgments, the Supreme Court overruled all of them declaring the Constitutional validity of the sedition law.

VI. Other cases on sedition

We have many other cases in which sedition charges have been registered but in most of the cases accused gets bail, as per the crime in India report, Sedition cases get up in 2019 but only 3 per cent of the sedition cases resulted in convictions.

The verdict of the Federal Court in Neharendu Dutt Majumdar v. King Emperor, Neharendu Dutt was convicted for sedition and the sentence was upheld by the High Court of Calcutta. Chief Justice of the Federal Court Maurice Gwyer overruled the High Court judgment and applied the post- 1832 English law test of direct incitement to the law of sedition. He said that mere criticism of an existing system of government was not punishable under the sedition law and Majumdar was acquitted of sedition.

Climate activist Disha Ravi, arrested for sedition for sharing a toolkit related to farmers protest, was released from the Tihar jail after the judge pronounced the bail order. “The crime of Section 124A cannot be invoked to minister to the wounded vanity of the governments, ”said Additional Sessions Judge Dharmender Rana, and he said the government of any democratic country cannot put the citizen behind bars only because they do not agree with the government, this will be against natural justice.

On 7th April All India United Democratic Front MLA Aminul Islam was sent to central Assam’s Nagaon jail for sedition and other charges granted bail by the Gauhati High Court. Many other cases have been registered against sedition but in most of the cases accused get bail, as per the crime in India report, Sedition cases rise up in 2019 but only 3 per cent of the sedition cases resulted in convictions.

Delhi High Court in Pankaj Butalia v. Central Board of Film Certification and ors. , held that while judging the cases Of sedition, it is extremely important to take into consideration the intention.

In the case of Arun Jaitley v. State of U.P, Allahabad High Court opined that a critique by a writer of a judgment of the Supreme Court on National Judicial Appointment Commission does not amount to an act of sedition, it is merely constructive criticism.

The above-cited cases clearly show the misuse of Sedition law that is prevailing since independence. The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) claimed the speed of sedition cases increased by 160%, while the conviction rate fell from 33.3% (2016) to 3.3% (2019). Sedition is misused against those who criticize the government… policies and dared to stand against the government.

Security of state is the reason why Sedition law still exists but this argument is pointless as we have special laws like the National Security Act, 1980, UAPA (Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967 for National Security and also section 121-140 of Indian Penal Code, 1860 that deal with national security.

VII. Conclusion

Sedition law is more often misused in many cases. The people who criticized those who are in power or any politician are arrested by police officials. Sedition law restricts the right to freedom of speech and expression which is the fundamental right of every citizen. Article 13(1) of the Indian constitution states that all laws in force in the territory of India immediately before the commencement of this constitution shall be void if they are inconsistent with the Fundamental Rights.

The broad definition of sedition as contained in the statute book is going against the freedom of speech and expression, it is the duty of police and administration to consider that they should not book a person under the charge of sedition until and unless the ingredients of as enunciated by the Apex Court in 1962 to the effect that words uttered excite people to violence or tendency to make public disorder so as to put unnecessary restrictions on the freedom of speech or expression.

For the proper functioning of a democracy, it is important that its citizens pointing out the loopholes in the government policies indulge in constructive criticism. Expressions used in such thoughts might be Harsh and disagreeable to some, but that doesn’t render the actions to be branded seditious.

The Parliament of the UK abolished the offence of sedition in 2009. In Australia, the National Security Legislation ( Amendment) act 2010 abolished the term sedition.

Talking about Sedition Chief Justice Ramana said “The use of sedition is like giving a saw to the carpenter to chop a bit of wood and he uses it to cut the entire forest itself.”

While delivering a lecture Former Supreme Court Judge Deepak Gupta said that “Right to question the government is the essence of democracy sedition law should be shown the door as soon as .” It’s a time to strike down Sedition in India.


1. 6 things you didn’t know about the law of sedition, Available Here.

2. Queen Empress v. Jogendra Chandra Bose &ors., Available Here.

3. Queen Empress v. Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Available Here.

4. Emperor v. Bal Gangadhar Tilak, (1917) 19 Bom. LR 211, Available Here.

5. Section 124 A, Available Here.

6. Romesh Thapar v. State of Madras, Available Here.

7. Brij Bhushan &anr. v. State of Delhi, Available Here.

8. Balwant Singh & anr. v. State of Punjab, Available Here.

9. Ram Nandan v. State, Available Here.

10. Kedarnath Singh v. State of Bihar, Available Here.

11. Neharendu Dutt Majumdar v. Emperor, Available Here.

12. Saurabh Trivedi, Farmers’ protests | 22-year-old activist Disha Ravi arrested, sent to Delhi Police custody, Available Here.

13. Assam MLA Aminul Islam arrested for “communal remark” over COVID-19, Available Here.

14. Pankaj Butalia v. Central Board of Film Certification and ors., Available Here.

15. Arun Jaitley v. State of U.P, Available Here.

  1. Law Library: Notes and Study Material for LLB, LLM, Judiciary and Entrance Exams
  2. Legal Bites Academy – Ultimate Test Prep Destination
Updated On 18 Oct 2021 1:49 AM GMT
Syed Mehdi Hasan and Adil Abbas

Syed Mehdi Hasan and Adil Abbas

Next Story