Freedom of Speech – Defamation, Sedition, etc.

Sedition Law


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: Section 124A IPC

Mains level: Sedition law and Free speech

The Supreme Court suspended pending criminal trials and court proceedings under Section 124A (sedition) of the Indian Penal Code, while allowing the Union of India to reconsider the British-era law.

What did the SC say?

  • All pending trials, appeals and proceedings with respect to the charge framed under Section 124A of the IPC be kept in temporary suspension.
  • The court also restrained centre and states from registering FIRs, continuing investigations or take coercive measures under Section 124A.

What is the Sedition Law?

  • Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code lays down the punishment for sedition. The IPC was enacted in 1860, under the British Raj.
  • The then British government in India feared that religious preachers on the Indian subcontinent would wage a war against the government.
  • Particularly after the successful suppression of the Wahabi/Waliullah Movement by the British, the need was felt for such law.
  • Throughout the Raj, this section was used to suppress activists in favor of national independence, including Tilak and Mahatma Gandhi, both of whom were found guilty and imprisoned.

Do you know?

Queen-Empress v. Bal Gangadhar Tilak (1897) was the first case in which Section 124A was defined and applied. Again in 1908, when Tilak was tried under same section, then young barrister and a staunch protagonist Mohammed Ali Jinnah defended Tilak.

What is Sedition?

  • The Section 124A defines sedition as:

An offence committed when “any person 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”.

  • Disaffection includes disloyalty and all feelings of enmity.
  • However, comments without exciting or attempting to excite hatred, contempt or disaffection, will not constitute an offense.
  • Sedition is a non-bailable offense.
  • Punishment under Section 124A ranges from imprisonment up to three years to a life term with/without a fine.

Sedition as a cognizable offense

  • Sedition was made a cognizable offense for the first time in history in India during the tenure of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1973, that is, arrest without a warrant was now permissible.
  • In 1962 the Supreme Court of India interpreted the section to apply only if there is, say, “incitement to violence” or “overthrowing a democratically elected government through violent means”.

Is it constitutionally valid?

  • Violative of FRs: Two high courts had found it unconstitutional after Independence, as it violated the freedom of speech and expression.
  • Reasonable restrictions: The Constitution was amended to include ‘public order’ as one of the ‘reasonable restrictions’ on which free speech could be abridged by law.
  • Kedar Nath Case: Thereafter, the Supreme Court, in Kedar Nath Singh v. State of Bihar (1962) upheld its validity.
  • Limited use: At the same time, it limited its application to acts that involve “intention or tendency to create disorder” or incitement to violence.
  • Strong criticism doesn’t amount to sedition: Thus, even strongly worded remarks, as long as they do not excite disloyalty and enmity, or incite violence, are not an offence under this section.

Why the controversy now?

  • Frequent use: In recent times, the resort to this section is seen as disturbingly frequent.
  • Curbing dissent: Activists, cartoonists and intellectuals have been arrested under this section, drawing criticism from liberals that it is being used to suppress dissent and silence critics.
  • Misuse for propaganda: Authorities and the police who invoke this section defend the measure as a necessary step to prevent public disorder and anti-national activities.
  • Irrelevance: Many of them have also been detained under the National Security Act and UAPA.

What is being debated about it?

  • Demand for its scrapping: Liberals and rights activists have been demanding the scrapping of Section 124A.
  • Provision is outdated: It is argued that the provision is “overbroad”, i.e., it defines the offence in wide terms threatening the liberty of citizens.
  • Various calls for its reconsideration: The Law Commission has also called for a reconsideration of the section.
  • Tyranny of the law: It has pointed that Britain abolished it more than a decade ago and raised the question of whether a provision introduced by the British to put down the freedom struggle should continue to be law in India.
  • Doctrine of severability: Some argue that a presumption of constitutionality does not apply to pre-constitutional laws as those laws have been made by foreign legislature or bodies.

Need for such law

  • There are some tendencies exist even today who wish to overthrow the state apparatus and constitutional scheme of India.
  • It falls on the judiciary to protect Articles 19 and Article 21 of the Constitution.
  • Undue exercise of free speech has led to overture of ordinary dissent into an anti-national insurrection or uprising.
  • There are areas in the country that face hostile activities and insurgencies created by rebel groups, like the Maoists.
  • There must be restrictions on expressing unnecessary contempt or ridiculing of the Government beyond certain limits.

Way forward

  • India is the largest democracy in the world and the right to free speech and expression is an essential ingredient of democracy.
  • The sedition law should not be abolished as some measures are needed to check communal violence & insurgency activities like Naxals.
  • The definition of sedition should be narrowed down, to include only the issues pertaining to the territorial integrity of India as well as the sovereignty of the country.
  • Section 124A should not be misused as a tool to curb free speech.


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