Section 124-A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), 1860, defines sedition in wide, expansive terms, and punishes the offender with imprisonment for life.
(i) 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, the government established by law; or (ii) Whoever by the above means excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the government established by law, has committed the offence of sedition.
The punishment prescribed varies from imprisonment up to three years to life imprisonment, with fine or without it.
One explanation of disaffection includes disloyalty and all feelings of enmity. Two other explanations say that disapprobation of the measures or administrative action etc. of the government to obtain their alteration by lawful means is not an offence.
Before partition of the sub-continent, a number of landmark cases on sedition were decided by the Federal Court as well as the Privy Council. These two high judicial bodies had taken diametrically opposite positions on the meaning and scope of sedition as a penal offence. The Federal Court in Niharendu Dutt Majumdar vs King Emperor (1942) FCR 48, held that “public disorder or the reasonable anticipation or likelihood of public disorder is the gist of the offence”.
These judges were of the view that sedition implies resistance or lawlessness in some form. In all these cases the point that has been emphasised is that if there is no incitement to violence, there is no sedition.
In case of Kedar Nath Singh vs State Of Bihar on 20 January, 1962, the Supreme Court dealt in detail section 124A and upheld it.
“If we accept the interpretation of the Federal Court as to the gist of criminality in an alleged crime of sedition, namely, incitement to disorder or tendency or likelihood of public disorder or reasonable apprehension thereof, the section may lie within the ambit of permissible legislative restrictions on the fundamental right of freedom of speech and expression,” the apex court said. However, it said that the expression “in the interest of…public order” are words of great amplitude and are much more comprehensive than the expression “for the maintenance of” law.
“Any law which is enacted in the interest of public order may be saved from the vice of constitutional invalidity. If, on the other hand, we were to hold that even without any tendency to disorder or intention to create disturbance of law and order, by the use of words written or spoken which merely create disaffection or feelings of enmity against the Government, the offence of sedition is complete, then such an interpretation of the sections would make them unconstitutional in view of Art. 19(1) (a). It is well settled that if certain provisions of law construed in one way would make them consistent with the Constitution, and another interpretation would render them unconstitutional, the Court would lean in favour of the former construction,’” the apex court said, emphasizing that the provisions of the sections read as a whole, along with the explanations, make it reasonably clear that the sections aim at rendering penal only such activities as would be intended, or have a tendency, to create disorder or disturbance of public peace by resort to violence.
The explanations appended to the main body of the section, the Supreme Court said, make it clear that criticism of public measures or comment on Government action, however strongly worded, would be within reasonable limits and would be 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 that the law steps in to prevent such activities in the interest of public order. So construed, the section, in our opinion, strikes the correct balance between individual fundamental rights and the interest of public order.”