By Neerad Pandharipande & Kishor Kadam
A tablet on the second floor of the Bombay High Court recalls one of the most famous criminal cases held there and pays tribute to the convict-freedom fighter Bal Gangadhar Tilak. The tablet Tilak's statement after his conviction in a sedition case: “In spite of the verdict of the jury, I still maintain that I am innocent. There are higher powers that rule the destinies of men and nations; and I think, it may be the will of Providence that the cause I represent may be benefited more by my suffering than by my pen and tongue.”
Nearly a century later, the legal provision of sedition continues to be a point of controversy in India. While it was then invoked to deal with slogans of ‘poorna swaraj’, it is now invoked to deal with slogans of ‘azadi’, whether from India or within India.
As per the Indian Penal Code, sedition has a very wide definition which lends itself to multiple interpretations — ‘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, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards, the Government established by law in India, shall be punished with imprisonment for life, to which fine may be added, or with imprisonment which may extend to three years, to which fine may be added, or with fine.’
As a result, states appear to differ widely in their interpretation of what constitutes sedition. Data from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) reveals that an overwhelming majority of cases under this section are from just two states, Bihar and Jharkhand. The two states account for as many as 34 out of 47 sedition cases across the country in the year 2014. Several major states, including Maharashtra, Gujarat, Jammu and Kashmir and Tamil Nadu did not see any cases of sedition during this period.
The judiciary, too, has had differing interpretations of the controversial provision. The Delhi High Court, while granting bail to JNU students’ union president Kanhaiya Kumar, said that the thoughts reflected in the slogans allegedly raised by the students cannot be claimed to be protected by freedom of speech. The court said that the students enjoy freedom of expression only because our borders are guarded by the armed forces.
On the other hand, in a highly publicized case, cartoonist Aseem Trivedi had been booked for sedition. In response to a plea challenging the case against Trivedi, the Bombay High Court said, “A citizen has a right to say or write whatever he likes about the government… so long as he does not incite people to violence.’, an article in The Hoot said.
Two prominent cases from the pre-independence era also reflect the varied ways in which sedition could be interpreted. An analysis on the Bombay High Court’s website of the sedition cases against Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Mahatma Gandhi pointed out that while Tilak’s writing was guarded and cautious, Gandhi’s writing was more open and strident. However, Gandhi was treated with ‘restraint and respect’, while the judge’s remarks in Tilak’s case were ‘intemperate,’ the article noted.
So, while the ‘anti-national’ label is used with increasing frequency and vociferousness, it could be relevant to look at the history of the ‘sedition’ clause which is being used as a legal measure in such contexts. The judicial history of the provision suggests that there is much disagreement over what it means in reality.