August 12, 2023 – In a significant step towards safeguarding civil liberties and promoting freedom of expression, the Indian government has announced its intention to repeal the archaic sedition law that has often been criticized for its misuse against activists and journalists. Union Home Minister Amit Shah unveiled a trio of Bills on Friday in the Lok Sabha, aimed at replacing key elements of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), the Criminal Procedure Code, and the Indian Evidence Act.
The announcement of the proposed removal of the sedition law comes as a welcome surprise, especially considering that a mere two months ago, the Law Commission recommended the retention of Section 124A (sedition) of the IPC, albeit with stricter penalties. The Supreme Court’s decision in May of last year to place the sedition law on hold due to concerns over its misuse and chilling impact has further underscored the need for a review.
The roots of the sedition law trace back to 1870, when it was introduced into the Indian Penal Code as a tool that was later used to suppress the freedom struggle, particularly after its expansion in 1898. Despite facing legal scrutiny and being declared unconstitutional by the Punjab High Court in 1951 (Tara Singh Gopi Chand vs The State), the law’s validity was subsequently upheld by the Supreme Court in 1962 (Kedarnath Singh), though its scope was limited.
The proposed Bharatiya Nyaya Sanhita, 2023, which is set to replace the IPC, introduces provisions targeting ‘acts endangering sovereignty, unity, and integrity of India.’ However, concerns remain about the potential for these provisions to be a reincarnation of the sedition law in a different guise.
This move to repeal the sedition law is part of a broader initiative to overhaul the criminal justice system, a process initiated by the government twenty years after the Justice VS Malimath Committee on Reforms of the Criminal Justice System submitted its report to the Home Ministry. While the government’s commitment to reform is commendable, it must proceed with caution to ensure the careful redrafting of substantive criminal law.
The proposed repeal of the sedition law represents a pivotal moment in India’s journey toward a more just and equitable legal framework, one that upholds the principles of democracy, human rights, and freedom of expression.