Freedom of Speech – Defamation, Sedition, etc.

Sedition Law: A Threat to Freedom of Expression in India


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: Section 124A IPC, Freedom of Speech

Mains level: Ambiguity around the Sedition law, concerns and recommendations

sedition law

Central Idea

  • In its 279th Report, the Law Commission of India has recommended the retention of Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, commonly known as the Law of Sedition, along with enhanced punishment for the offense in the name of national security.

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

Historical Perspective

  • Section 124A of the IPC was introduced during the British Raj in 1870 to suppress dissent and protest against the colonial government.
  • 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.

Two notable interpretations which added to the ambiguity surrounding the sedition law

  1. Queen Empress vs Bal Gangadhar Tilak (1897)
  • In this case, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, a prominent freedom fighter, was charged with sedition for writing articles in a Marathi weekly called Kesari that invoked Shivaji and were seen as inciting disaffection towards the British government.
  • The court held that sedition encompassed the act of exciting disaffection towards the government, even if it did not incite rebellion or violence.
  • This interpretation broadened the scope of the offense to include political hatred of the government.
  1. Niharendu Dutt Majumdar And Ors. vs Emperor (1942): Federal Court.
  • The court acquitted the accused, and Chief Justice Sir Maurice Gwyer explained that the essence of sedition lies in public disorder or the reasonable anticipation thereof.
  • According to this interpretation, sedition would be committed only when there is incitement to violence or disorder.

Constitutionality of Sedition

  • Violation of Freedom of Speech and Expression: The sedition law, as defined in Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, infringes upon the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution. It criminalizes acts that bring hatred, contempt, or disaffection towards the government, which curtails the citizens’ ability to express their political dissent and discontent.
  • Democratic Principles: Disaffection towards a government, which is subject to change through the electoral process, cannot be treated as a criminal offense. The sedition law restricts the democratic principles of public debate, dissent, and accountability.
  • Omission from the Constitution: During the drafting of the Indian Constitution, the Constituent Assembly deliberately excluded sedition as a reasonable restriction on the freedom of speech and expression. This omission signifies the Assembly’s intent to safeguard the citizens’ right to express their opinions, including dissenting views on the government.
  • Ambiguity and Misuse: The broad wording and lack of precise definition allow for arbitrary interpretations, leading to the stifling of legitimate dissent and the targeting of individuals or groups critical of the government. This misuse undermines the rule of law and constitutional protections.
  • Chilling Effect on Free Speech: The existence of a sedition law creates a chilling effect on free speech and expression. The fear of potential sedition charges discourages individuals from openly expressing their opinions and engaging in robust public discourse, inhibiting the free flow of ideas and opinions necessary for a healthy democracy.
  • Conflict with International Standards: International bodies such as the United Nations Human Rights Committee have consistently expressed concerns about the misuse of sedition laws and called for their repeal or amendment to align with international human rights standards.

sedition law

Inconsistencies regarding the sedition law in India

  • Interpretational Inconsistencies: The Tilak case (1897) interpreted sedition as exciting disaffection towards the government, even without inciting violence or rebellion. However, the Majumdar case (1942) acquitted the accused by emphasizing that sedition requires a tendency to incite violence or disorder.
  • Varying Judicial Approaches: The Supreme Court’s approach in the Kedarnath case (1962) further adds to the inconsistencies. While the Court upheld the constitutionality of the sedition law, it narrowed its application to only acts that incite violence. The Court’s attempt to retain sedition despite acknowledging its exclusion from the draft Constitution and concerns over its severity creates a contradictory stance.
  • Lack of Clarity in Statutory Language: The language of Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, which defines sedition, lacks precision and clarity. The vague terms such as hatred, contempt, and disaffection make it susceptible to subjective interpretations and misuse by law enforcement authorities. This lack of clarity contributes to the inconsistent application of the sedition law.
  • Conflict with Constitutional Principles: The sedition law, as it stands, conflicts with constitutional principles, particularly the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution. The broad interpretation of sedition and its criminalization of political dissent and disaffection towards the government infringe upon citizens’ constitutional rights.
  • Disparity with International Standards: International bodies, including the United Nations Human Rights Committee, have expressed concerns about the misuse of sedition laws and recommended their repeal or amendment to align with international human rights norms. This disparity highlights the inconsistencies between the sedition law in India and global standards.

Way ahead: Recommendations to strike a balance

  • Repeal or Substantial Reform: Given the inconsistencies, ambiguity, and potential for misuse, there is a strong case for the repeal or substantial reform of the sedition law. This could involve narrowing the scope of the offense, clarifying the language, and aligning it with constitutional principles and international human rights standards.
  • Precise Definition: The sedition law should be defined more precisely to avoid ambiguity and subjective interpretations. A clear and specific definition would help establish the boundaries of the offense, ensuring that it is not misused to suppress legitimate dissent or criticism.
  • Balancing National Security and Freedom of Expression: Any reform or amendment to the sedition law should strike a balance between protecting national security and safeguarding freedom of expression. This can be achieved by focusing on acts that pose a genuine threat to public order, incite violence, or endanger the integrity of the state while ensuring that peaceful dissent and criticism are not stifled.
  • Judicial Clarity: The judiciary should provide consistent and well-defined guidelines for the interpretation and application of the sedition law. Clear guidelines would help prevent arbitrary enforcement and provide greater clarity on the limits of the offense.
  • Safeguards and Procedural Reforms: Implementing safeguards and procedural reforms can help prevent the misuse of the sedition law. This may include requiring higher standards of evidence, ensuring transparency and accountability in investigations and prosecutions, and providing avenues for redress in cases of wrongful or frivolous charges.
  • Public Awareness and Sensitization: There is a need for public awareness campaigns and sensitization programs to educate citizens, law enforcement authorities, and the judiciary about the nuances of freedom of expression and the potential pitfalls of the sedition law.
  • International Dialogue and Learning: Engaging in international dialogue and learning from best practices can provide valuable insights for reforming the sedition law. Studying the experiences of other democratic countries and considering international human rights standards can help shape more effective and rights-respecting legislation.


  • The interpretation and application of Section 124A have been inconsistent, leading to misuses and abuses by law enforcement authorities. The Law Commission’s recent recommendations for enhancing punishment and incorporating the tendency to incite disorder fail to address the core issue of the law’s unconstitutionality. It is imperative to reevaluate and repeal the sedition law to protect and uphold the democratic values of free speech and expression in India.

Also read:

Sedition Law in India


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