Stronger Suppression of ‘Dangerous’ Speech a Must, Says Law Commission

DESK BRIEF: In its 279th Report, the Law Commission recommended broadening the scope of sedition and increasing quantum of punishment.

On Thursday this week, the 279th Law Commission Report was published in support of the contentious sedition law under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, 1860. It recommended widening the scope of sedition, a higher quantum of punishment, and incorporating ‘procedural safeguards’ to prevent misuse.

A little over a year ago, the Union submitted an Affidavit to the Supreme Court in S.G. Vombatkere v Union of India, promising a reexamination of the sedition law. The Affidavit boasted an allegiance to the ‘protection of civil liberties, respect for human rights’, and ‘constitutionally cherished freedoms’. In the spirit of Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav, the Prime Minister believed that the nation needed to work harder to ‘shed colonial baggage’. 

The underlying condition to review sedition laws, peppered across the Affidavit, was that any reconsideration would keep in mind the protection of the ‘sovereignty and integrity of this great nation’. The 279th Law Commission Report anchored itself to this idea. 

The Commission leaned on Kedar Nath (1962) which upheld the constitutionality of sedition law stating that it is 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 the National Security Advisor, Mr. Ajit Doval’s address from 2014, 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 in ‘propagating radicalisation against India’. Threats to internal security being inextricably linked to sovereignty of the country, the Commission found it ‘imperative’ to retain sedition laws. 

In S.G. Vombatkere, those 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, 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? Calling sedition law the ‘traditional penal mechanism’ to combat terror, the Commission stated that S.124A 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’. In democratic India, the Commission clarified, S.124A would only be used against the ‘tendency to incite violence or cause public disorder’. 

Any concerns of misuse of the law against political dissent was swiftly set aside by the Commission. The root cause of misuse, they wrote, came not from the law, but from the police who ‘whimsically’ interpret the law. Misuse does not warrant repeal, and it could be ‘reined in by laying down adequate procedural safeguards’. Protecting the country against the ‘sinister agenda’ of subversive forces far outweighs any concerns of misuse.  

The Report arguably defeats the purpose of the petition before the Supreme Court, the Court’s concerns of its misuse, and the Union’s promises in its Affidavit. How will this inform Parliament’s reconsideration process, and free speech?