279th Law Commission Report Recommends Stricter Sedition Laws

SCO Explains the 279th Law Commission report which recommends increased punishment and wider application of sedition law.


Hello Everyone! I’m Gauri Kashyap and today we’re going to be talking about something that’s been worrying free speech activists in India. This is about the 279th Law Commission Report, which came out on Thursday. 

The law commission report basically supported the highly debated Sedition law, which is under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code. It broadly 

It broadly recommended three things: First, widening the scope of sedition; Second, adding a higher quantum of punishment, and third, incorporating ‘procedural safeguards’ to prevent misuse.

This is the latest development in the debates around Sedition law. The last one was a little over a year ago, when the Union submitted an Affidavit to the Supreme Court in a case called S.G. Vombatkere v Union of India. Here, the Court was hearing challenges to Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code on the grounds that it grossly violated Freedom of Speech. The Union basically came to the Court at that point and said, hold on, before you hear the case on its merits, we agree with you that free speech is important and that colonial laws must be done away with. So let us go back and re-examine sedition law. 

Specifically, in the affidavit, they said that they knew the importance of protecting ‘civil liberties, respect for human rights’, and ‘constitutionally cherished freedoms’. It also said that in the spirit of Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav, which is the celebration of 75 years of India’s independence, the Prime Minister believed that our country needed to work harder to shed colonial baggage. But there was an underlying condition that kept coming up across the affidavit, which was that any reconsideration would keep in mind of ‘sovereignty and integrity of this great nation’.

The 279th Law Commission Report anchored itself to this idea.  The Commission first leaned on Kedar Nath v State of Bihar, which is a 1962 judgement which upheld the constitutionality of sedition, stating that it was a ‘reasonable restriction’ on freedom of speech. 

Reasonable restrictions, they said, clearly includes within its ambit any threat to India’s sovereignty and integrity. The Commission relied on a comment made by National Security Advisor, Mr. Ajit Doval’s in a 2014 address where he spoke of an ominous ‘fourth generation of warfare’ against ‘an invisible army’. They identified these threats as Maoist extremism, insurgency in the North-East, terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir, secessionist movements across the country, and the role of social media. Now, because threats to internal security are inextricably linked to the sovereignty of the country, the Commission found it ‘imperative’ to retain sedition laws. 

In S.G. Vombatkere, the people challenging sedition law argued that counter-terrorism and security laws already exist. Statutes such as the UAPA, 1969, NSA, 1978, and Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act, 1978, among others, of course, already give the Union wide powers to combat any ‘anti-national’ or subversive movements. Why then is sedition law, which concerns speech more than it does insurgency, relevant in these instances? The commission called sedition law the ‘traditional penal mechanism’ to combat terror and said that it provided tools for ‘prompt and effective suppression of disintegrating tendencies’. 

What then of sedition law’s colonial baggage? The Commission wrote that ‘the entire framework of the Indian legal system is a colonial legacy’. Simply being colonial is no reason to repeal a law. Colonial rulers had ‘no choice but to penalise even harmless criticism of their government’. The Commission also clarified that in democratic India sedition laws would only be used against the ‘tendency to incite violence or cause public disorder’. 

 What will happen then, if the law is misused? The Commission quickly put aside any concerns of the misuse of law. The root cause of misuse, they wrote, came not from the law, but from the police who ‘whimsically’ interpret the law. Even if there was misuse, it did not warrant repeal and could be easily ‘reined in by laying down adequate procedural safeguards’. Protecting the country against the ‘sinister agenda’ of subversive forces far outweighed the concerns of misuse.  

Now, after this report, the big question is how will this inform Parliament’s reconsideration or review of Sedition law? What does this mean for the free speech of people like you and me? 

Let us know what you think about the recommendations in the comments below. Check out our website for a point by point breakdown of the recommendations and justifications for each suggestion. 

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