Claiming that it is “fully cognizant of the various views” being expressed on sedition law, the Center Monday told the Supreme Court that it “has decided to re-examine and re-consider the provisions of Section 124A (that deal with the offence) ” and urged it to defer hearing on petitions challenging the Constitutional validity of the law until such exercise is carried out “before an appropriate forum”.
In a brief affidavit, the Ministry of Home Affairs said that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has “periodically, in various forums, expressed his unequivocal views in favor of protection of civil liberties, respect of human rights, and giving meaning to the constitutionally cherished freedoms by the people of the country”. The PM, it added, “has repeatedly said that one of India’s strengths is the diverse thought streams that beautifully flourish in our country”.
“The government of India being fully cognisant of various views being expressed on the subject of sedition and also having considered the concerns of civil liberties and human rights, while committed to maintain and protect the sovereignty and integrity of this great nation, has decided to re -examine and reconsider the provisions of Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code which can only be done before the competent forum”, the affidavit said.
In view of this, the government “respectfully submitted that this Hon’ble court may not invest time in examining the validity of Section 124A once again and be pleased to await the exercise of reconsideration to be undertaken by the Government of India before an appropriate forum where such reconsideration is constitutionally permitted”.
It did not specify any time frame for this “re-consideration.”
The government said that while there is unanimity on the need for a statutory provision to deal with acts against sovereignty and integrity, there are also concerns about its abuse for purposes not intended.
“…so far as section 124A is concerned, there are divergence of views expressed in public domain by various jurists, academicians, intellectuals and citizens in general. While they agree about the need for statutory provisions to deal with serious offenses of divisive nature affecting the very sovereignty and integrity of the country, acts leading to destabilizing the government established by law by means not authorized by law or prohibited by law. Requiring a penal provision for such purposes is generally accepted by everyone in legitimate state interest. However, concerns are raised about its application and abuse for the purposes not intended by law”, said the affidavit.
Referring to the PM’s views, it said he “believes that at a time when our nation is marking ‘Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav’ (75 years since independence), we need to as a nation work even harder to shed colonial baggage that has passed its utility, which includes outdated colonial laws and practices. In that spirit, the Government of India has scrapped over 1500 outdated laws since 2014-15. It has also ended over 25,000 compliance burdens which are causing unnecessary hurdles to people of our country. Various offenses which were causing mindless hindrances to people have been decriminalized. This is an ongoing process. These were laws and compliances which reeked of a colonial mindset and thus have no place in today’s India”.
Hearing the petitions, a three-judge bench, headed by Chief Justice of India NV Ramana, had asked the Center to apprise the court of its stand vis-a-vis Section 124A. The bench also wondered if it should refer the matter to a larger five-judge Constitution bench in view of the 1962 decision of a Constitution bench in the case Kedar Nath Singh vs State of Bihar, and sought the views of the Centre, the petitioners and Attorney General KK Venugopal on this.
In the Kedar Nath Singh case, the apex court had upheld the validity of the sedition law while attempting to restrict its scope for misuse. It had held that unless accompanied by incitement or a call for violence, criticism of the government cannot be constructed as a seditious offence.
Attorney General KK Venugopal said there was no need for any reference and that Kedar Nath Singh is good law.
The Center too, in written submissions in reply to the limited question of whether to refer or not, said the decision was “long standing, settled”, had stood the test of time and needed no reference to a larger bench. It said that instances of its abuse can’t be a justification for its reconsideration and that the “remedy” for any such abuse, “would lie in preventing such abuse on a case-to-case basis”.
The note had said that the 1962 judgment had achieved a “delicate balance” between the imperatives of “proportionality, fundamental freedom of speech and expression and the countervailing interest of the State to regulate.”