NEW DELHI: Expressing shock over the "enormous misuse" of the colonial era penal law on sedition, the Supreme Court on Thursday asked the Centre why it is not repealing the provision used by the British to "silence" people like Mahatma Gandhi and to muzzle the independence movement.
A Bench headed by Chief Justice N V Ramana and comprising Justices A S Bopanna and Hrishikesh Roy agreed to examine the pleas filed by the Editors Guild of India and Mysore-based retired major general S G Vombatkere and issued notice to the Centre, saying its main concern is the "misuse of the law."
Attorney General K K Venugopal, who was asked to assist the bench in dealing with the case, defended the provision and said it be allowed to remain in the statute book and the court may lay down guidelines to curb the misuse.
The petitions have challenged the constitutional validity of Section 124(A) on sedition in the IPC. Its non-bailable provision makes any speech that “brings into hatred or contempt or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the Government” a criminal offence punishable with a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
“Mr Attorney (General), we want to ask some questions. This is the colonial era law and the same law was used by the British to suppress freedom movement. Is it still necessary to keep this in statute even after 75 years of independence?” the Bench asked.
It also referred to an alarming misuse of section 66 A of the Information Technology Act even after the top court set it aside long back and observed: “It can be likened to a carpenter who is asked to cut wood, but cuts the entire forest. That is the impact of this law.”
Only on Thursday, the Union Home Secretary wrote to all state governments and union territories not to use section 66A struck down by the Apex Court and withdraw the charges framed under it.
“A factionist can invoke these types of (penal) provisions to implicate the other group of people,” the CJI said, adding that if a particular party or people do not want to hear a voice, they will use this law to implicate others.
The bench wondered at the continuance of the sedition law in statute book for last 75 years and said: “We do not know why the government is not taking a decision when it has been getting rid of many stale laws."
The bench said that it was not blaming any state or government, but unfortunately, the executing agency misuses these laws and “there is no accountability".
It said if a police officer in a remote village wanted to fix a person then he can easily do so by using such provisions. Moreover, said the bench, there was very low percentage of convictions in sedition cases and these are the issues which are needed to be addressed.
Senior advocate Shyam Divan, appearing for the Editors Guild of India, said a separate plea has been filed by the journalists’ body challenging the validity of section 124A (sedition) of the IPC and that the plea can also be tagged along with the present one. He said that besides challenging the validity, the Guild has also sought framing of guidelines to curb misuse.
The bench was hearing the fresh plea by former army officer, Major-General S G Vombatkere (Retd), challenging the Constitutional validity of section 124 A (sedition) of the IPC on grounds that it causes a "chilling effect" on speech and is an unreasonable restriction on free expression, a fundamental right.
The petition says there is need to take into account the "march of the times and the development of the law" before dealing with Section 124-A.