From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :
Prelims level : Not much
Mains level : Paper 2- Section 124A of IPC
By order dated May 11, 2022, a Bench presided over by the Chief Justice of India, has directed that the petitions challenging the Section 124A be listed for final determination in the third week of July 2022; and that in the meantime suspend the use of Section 124A IPC.
Historical background of Section 124A
- With effect from 1870, (as amended in 1955), Section 124A of the Penal Code read:
“Whoever by words, spoken or written, brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection, towards the Government established by law in India shall be punished with imprisonment for life…”.
- “Sedition” is the vaguest of all offences known to the criminal law.
- In colonial times, it was defined expansively in order to uphold the majesty of British power in India.
- Before 1950, there were several Court decisions in operation on Section 124A; amongst them was Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s case (1897).
- Absence of affection: In Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s case the Privy Council declined to grant leave to appeal, affirming that “disaffection” only meant “absence of affection in any degree towards the British rule or its administration or representatives”, and that exciting of mutiny or rebellion or actual disturbance of any sort was “absolutely immaterial”.
- With the establishment of a Federal Court by the Government of India Act, 1935, in Niharendu Dutt Majumdar And Ors. vs Emperor the Federal Court held that if the language of Section 124A were to be read literally “it would make a surprising number of persons in India guilty of sedition and that no one, however, supposes that it is to be read in this literal sense”
- However, in 1947 it was precisely in this literal sense that the interpretation of Section 124A was reiterated by a Bench of five judges of the Privy Council (AIR 1947 P.C. 82) in which it was declared that: “If the Federal Court had given their attention to Tilak’s case (1897) they should have recognised it as an authority… by which they were bound”.
- With the advent of the Constitution of India on January 26, 1950, this interpretation of Section 124A became “the law in force immediately before the commencement of the Constitution”.
Section 124A after 1950
- Article 372: It stated that all laws in force in the territory of India immediately before the commencement of the Constitution shall continue in force therein until altered or repealed or amended by a competent legislature or other competent authority.
- Protected due to Article 19(2): In 1962, in criminal appeals arising from the states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court held that though Section 124A “clearly violated” the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression in Article 19(1)(a), it was not unconstitutional only because it was protected from challenge by the words “in the interests of public order” in Article 19(2).
This background has now become pertinent and relevant, because in a fresh batch of writ petitions filed in 2021, the constitutionality of Section 124A (IPC) has been once again challenged in the Supreme Court.