SC to hear Arun Shourie’s plea against sedition law on May 5

Sedition under the IPC is a non-bailable provision

New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Thursday posted for hearing on May 5 a plea filed by former Union minister Arun Shourie seeking direction to declare the sedition law unconstitutional arguing that it is “heavily abused”.

Advocate Prashant Bhushan mentioned the matter for a listing of the case saying it was filed in July last year. A bench headed by Chief Justice of India NV Ramana posted the matter for hearing on May 5 saying it will be heard along with similar pending cases.

Shourie in his plea has said that cases are being filed against citizens for “exercising their freedom of speech and expression”.

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Section 124-A (sedition) under the IPC is a non-bailable provision.

It makes any speech or expression that “brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the Government established by law in India” a criminal offence punishable with a maximum punishment of life imprisonment.

According to Shourie’s petition, “the definition of sedition (Section 124-A) was vague and incapable of accurate appreciation by the common citizen and the law enforcement agencies/ police”.

The petition, filed by advocate Prashant Bhushan on Shourie’s behalf and the NGO Common Cause, claimed that sedition is a colonial law used expressly to suppress dissent by the British in India.

It sought a direction “declaring Section 124-A of the Indian Penal Code as unconstitutional”.

Yesterday, the apex court posted to May 5 for the final hearing of a batch of petitions challenging the constitutional validity of the offence of sedition under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code.

It granted time till this week’s end to the Centre to file its response on the pleas after Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for the Centre, sought two days to file a reply.

The bench posting the matter for final hearing on May 5 also made it clear that no adjournment would be granted in the case.

Earlier, the top court issued notice to the Centre on the plea filed by former army officer Major-General SG Vombatkere (Retd) challenging the constitutional validity of the sedition law. Editors Guild of India, Journalists Patricia Mukhim and Anuradha Bhasin had also approached the apex court against sedition law. Among other petitions NGO PUCL’s petition is also pending which has sought direction to strike down the law.

Last year, CJI Ramana questioned the Central government on the requirement of sedition law even after 75 years of independence and observed that it was colonial law that was used against freedom fighters.

While pointing out that sedition law was used against freedom fighters like Mahatma Gandhi and Bal Gangadhar Tilak, the apex court had asked Attorney General KK Venugopal, appearing for the Centre, why it can’t be replaced. It had observed that the Centre has repealed many stale laws and enquired why the government is not looking into repealing Section 124A (which deals with the offence of sedition) of the IPC.

The Bench asked AG, “It’s a colonial law, it was meant to suppress the freedom movement, the same law was used by British against Mahatma Gandhi and Bal Gangadhar Tilak etc. Is this law still required to exist after 75 years of independence?”

It had further said that the court was concerned about the misuse of such laws.

Chief Justice of India had also said that the apex court will look into the plea challenging the Constitutional validity of section 124A while adding that the “situation on the ground is grave… if one party does not like what the other is saying, Section 124A is used… It is a serious threat to the functioning of individuals and parties.”

Attorney General had told the bench that section 124A need not be struck down and only guidelines are set out so that section meets its legal purpose.

CJI had said, “use of sedition is like giving a saw to the carpenter to cut a piece of wood and he uses it to cut the entire forest itself”.

The top court had further told Attorney General that the conviction rate under Section 124A is very low.

Major-General Vombatkere (Retd) challenged the Constitutional validity of the sedition law on the ground that it causes a “chilling effect” on speech and is an unreasonable restriction on free expression, a fundamental right.

He submitted that Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, which deals with the offence of sedition, is wholly unconstitutional and should be “unequivocally and unambiguously struck down”.

Earlier, a different bench of the top court had sought a response from the Centre on a plea challenging the Constitutional validity of sedition law, filed by two journalists — Kishorechandra Wangkhemcha and Kanhaiya Lal Shukla — working in Manipur and Chhattisgarh respectively.

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