Constitutionality of Sedition
SG Vombatkere v Union of India
The Supreme Court will decide if Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, that criminalises sedition, is unconstitutional.
Petitioners: S.G. Vombatkere, Editor's Guild, Arun Shourie, Anil Chamadia, PUCL, Mahua Moitra, Patricia Mukhim, Anuradha Bhasin, Journalists Union of Assam, Kishorechandra Wangkhemcha, Kanhaiya Lal Shukla, Amooda Broadcasting, Shreya Broadcasting
Lawyers: Kapil Sibal, Gopal Shankarnarayanan, C.U. Singh, Salman Khurshid, Colin Gonsalves, Sanjay Parikh, Vrinda Grover, Shyam Divan, Prashant Bhushan, Rajeev Dhavan
Intervenors: Sashi Kumar; Foundation for Media Professionals; Dr. Sanjay Jain
Respondent: Union of India
Lawyers: AG K.K. Venugopal, SG Tushar Mehta
Does the criminalisation of sedition violate the Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression?
Is the criminalisation of sedition a ‘reasonable restriction’ on the Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression?
Does the criminalisation of sedition violate the Right to Equality?
Does the criminalisation of sedition violate the Right to Life and Personal Liberty?
Two journalists, Kishorechandra Wangkhemcha and Kanhaiya Lal Shukla have been charged with sedition for posts and cartoons published on social media platforms. They have filed a writ petition challenging the validity of Section 124A IPC that criminalises and provides punishment for sedition.
Kishorechandra Wangkhemcha (from Manipur) has had three FIRs filed under Section 124A against him for comments and posts made on Facebook. The comments and posts criticised the Government of Manipur for its management of a crisis at the Manipur University; called the Chief Minister of Manipur an ‘agent of the Prime Minister’; and criticised the comments made by politicians and their family members against members of the Schedule Tribe Community. Kanhaiya Lal Shukla (from Chattisgarh) posted cartoons on Facebook that depicted fake encounters by the police.
The petitioners contend that Section 124A infringes upon an individual’s right to freedom of speech and expression guaranteed by Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution, 1950. They state that Section 124A does not impose a reasonable restriction. Therefore, it does not fall under the restrictions to the freedom of speech and expression allowed under Article 19(2).
Further, the petition highlights that the precedent set in Kedar Nath Singh v. State of Bihar is obsolete. This is because the social circumstances in 1962 may have required reasonable restriction of the nature discussed in Section 124A. However, since then, alternative laws concerning safety, security and public order have been passed, making Section 124A redundant.
The petitioners also noted that the vagueness of the provision makes for arbitrary application and misuse. This is detrimental to freedoms guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a).
Three Intervention Applications have been filed to support Wangkhemkcha’s arguments in this case. The intervenors are third parties who wish to be heard by the Court in the interest of justice, without becoming parties in this matter themselves.
The first intervenor, senior journalist Mr. Sashi Kumar, argues that the vague language of s 124A has been misused to term dissent against the government as sedition. He relies on Constituent Assembly and early Parliamentary Debates to state that the intention of sedition law was not to criminalize dissent.
The second intervenor, law professor Dr. Sanjay Jain, gave an overview of sedition laws in other countries to aid the Court to analyse the law contemporarily. He argues that fresh deliberations over s 124A are required, since it was enacted by a colonial government to curb anti-colonial movements. The third intervenor, Foundation for Media Professionals, makes similar arguments about the pre-constitutional nature of the provision.
On 16th July, 2021, a 3-judge Bench consisting CJI Ramana,Justice Bopanna and Justice Roy, tagged three other petitions to be heard along with Kishorechandra Wangkhemkcha’s. These challenges to Section 124A have been filed by retired Major General S.G. Vombatkere, Aamoda Broadcasting Company Pvt. Ltd., and Editors Guild of India, respectively. Editors Guild’s petition highlights the increasing misuse of Section 124A to intimidate journalists.
A similar petition has been filed by civil rights group People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL). It is also likely to be tagged along with Wangkhemcha’s petition.