India’s Supreme Court puts colonial-era sedition law on hold pending governmental review

Television journalists are seen outside the premises of the Supreme Court in New Delhi, January 22, 2020. REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis

India’s Supreme Court Wednesday said the country’s colonial-era sedition law, which was used by the British to arrest Mahatma Gandhi and other independence movement leaders and was now being allegedly used to jail critics, will be put on hold till the Modi government completes the promised exercise to reconsider and re-examine the legislation. The court directed that all pending trials, appeals, and proceedings with respect to the charge framed under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Clode, which deals with the offence of sedition, be put in abeyance till then.

The law allows the arrest of a person without a warrant if a person is accused of anti-government activities. Senior lawyer Kapil Sibal, representing the petitioners, said there were over 800 cases of sedition across India and 13,000 people were in jail.

The government has been accused of using the law against critics, such as politicians, journalists and activists. The law

criminalises any action that “excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the government”. The punishment can be a fine or a maximum sentence of life in prison, or both.

A three-judge bench presided by Chief Justice of India N V Ramana also said it is of the view that till re-examination of Section 124A is complete, it will be appropriate not to continue usage of the provision by central and state governments and added that the court hopes and expects that the Modi government and the states will restrain from registering any new case, continuing any investigation or taking any coercive measure by invoking it till the review happens.

If any fresh case is registered under Section 124A, affected parties are at liberty to approach concerned courts for reliefs, said the judges. They added that if any such person approaches the courts, “The courts are requested to examine the reliefs taking into account the present order as well as the clear stand taken by Union of India”.

Hearing a bunch of petitions challenging the constitutional validity of the provision, the court had on Tuesday asked the central government if it can direct states to keep cases under the provision in abeyance till the promised exercise is completed, to which the government had equivocated.

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