The government has tabled a bill that will replace the repressive colonial-era law on sedition—with an even more draconian law. And just in time for Independence Day.
Umm, what exactly is sedition?
Sedition is any action or speech that incites people to rebel against the state. The law—Section 124A of Indian Penal Code (IPC)—defines it so:
Whoever, by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise, brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards, the Government established by law.
The law includes the following clarifications: the expression “disaffection” covers disloyalty and all feelings of enmity toward the state. Comments that challenge government policies or actions—with the aim to “lawfully” alter them—without “exciting hatred, contempt or disaffection” are not an offence.
The punishment: The offence is “cognisable”—which means the police can arrest you without obtaining a warrant. It is also non-bailable—which means you will stay in jail until found innocent. If found guilty, you can serve a maximum term of life imprisonment—with or without a fine.
And this is a colonial law?
Here’s a quick trip down history lane to explain why we still have it in our books—with Pandit Nehru playing a starring role.
Meet Thomas Macaulay: British historian-politician Thomas Babington Macaulay drafted the Indian Penal Code in 1837—and defined the offence of sedition. But it did not become law until 1870. It was mainly used to crush anyone who challenged colonial rule. The first person to be convicted of sedition in 1897: Bal Gangadhar Tilak who was tried three times for the offence. All of them involved his writings. The most famous arrestee: Mahatma Gandhi—who was prosecuted for his newspaper articles in Young India. During his trial, Gandhi declared:
“I have studied some of the cases tried under it [Section 124A] and I know that some of the most loved of Indian patriots have been convicted under it. I consider it a privilege, therefore, to be charged under that section… I am here, therefore, to invite and submit cheerfully to the highest penalty that can be inflicted upon me, for what in law is a deliberate crime and what appears to me to be the highest duty of a citizen.”
The end of ‘sedition’: The constituent assembly considered including sedition in the Constitution—as an exception to the right to free speech—but decided against it. But the infamous Section 124A remained in the Indian Penal Code as law—until it was challenged in a case in the Punjab High Court. The court held the sedition law violated the fundamental right to free speech guaranteed by the Constitution—a decision that galvanised then Prime Minister Nehru into action.
Return of ‘sedition’: In 1951, Nehru introduced the first amendment to the Constitution—to introduce restrictions on free speech (oh, the irony!). Article 19(2) established threats to “friendly relations with foreign states” and “public order” as constitutional grounds for imposing “reasonable restrictions” on free speech. This opened the door to keeping Section 124A as part of the IPC.
Why this matters: It is widely assumed that Nehru adamantly opposed the sedition law, and many quote his remarks in Parliament while introducing the first amendment:
Now so far as I am concerned that particular Section (124A IPC) is highly objectionable and obnoxious and it should have no place both for practical and historical reasons, if you like, in any body of laws that we might pass. The sooner we get rid of it the better.
But in the same speech, Nehru also declared that “we might deal with that matter in other ways, in more limited ways”—but he never did. And his daughter, Indira, made the offence cognisable in 1973—legalising arrests without a warrant.
The Kedarnath case: In 1962, the Supreme Court stepped in to impose restrictions on the use of Section 124A. While it upheld the sedition law, the ruled strictly limited its application. The Kedarnath judgement established a key precedent—often cited by courts to throw out sedition cases. But this has not stopped successive governments—including the UPA—from misusing the law. People have been thrown in jail for everything from protesting the Kundankulam nuclear reactor to celebrating the Indian cricket team’s loss in tournaments.
Quote to note: The law’s definition of ‘sedition’ is so vague that almost any action or speech can become grounds for arrest. And since it is a non-bailable offence, innocent people can spend years in jail waiting for trial—at which point most of these charges are thrown out. As Supreme Court advocate Sanjay Hegde notes, the outcome is often irrelevant:
The point of the sedition law is essentially that of suppressing free speech and free thought, both of which are unpopular with the government. Where a critic can be silenced by the mere fact that there is a possible life sentence—that itself acts as a deterrent. These cases are often invoked against show-piece dissenters so that the rest fall in line. Governments are not really interested in convictions.
And the new law will be even worse???
Some quick context: In May 2022, the Supreme Court ruled on a number of petitions challenging the sedition law. It gave the government time to review the law—as it had demanded—but put all “pending trials, appeals and proceedings” related to sedition charges “in abeyance.” According to legal experts, while the Court did not repeal the law, it at least made bail the rule in all sedition cases: “The court has made its intent clear. It does not want a single person booked under Section 124 to be kept in prison while the reconsideration of the law is happening.”
The government’s big move: On Friday, the government introduced three new bills that together will completely overhaul the criminal justice system. Home Minister Amit Shah said the intent is to replace colonial-era laws—which are a sign of “ghulami”. This will include the “complete repeal” of the sedition law. The choicest quote:
The laws that will be repealed... the focus of those laws was to protect and strengthen the British administration, the idea was to punish and not to give justice. By replacing them, the new three laws will bring the spirit to protect the rights of the Indian citizen.
Say hello to Section 150: The dreaded Section 124A is indeed history. It will be replaced instead by Section 150 of the Bharatiya Nyaya Sanhita Bill (as in, Indian Justice Code). Listed under Offences against the State, it says:
Whoever, purposely or knowingly, by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or by electronic communication or by use of financial mean, or otherwise, excites or attempts to excite, secession or armed rebellion or subversive activities, or encourages feelings of separatist activities or endangers sovereignty or unity and integrity of India; or indulges in or commits any such act shall be punished with imprisonment for life or with imprisonment which may extend to seven years and shall also be liable to fine.
What the critics say: Legal experts say the government has not repealed sedition but redefined it:
[M]aking any act endangering sovereignty or unity and integrity of India an offence, Section 150 seeks to take within its sweep almost everything, including a speech, a book or an article, a drama or an act – everything that Section 124A of IPC currently penalises as sedition.
Its language is equally vague—to allow for continuing misuse of the law. For example: “encouraging feelings of separatist activities”—which “could include a lot of political speech and literature, even if it does not lead to any violence against the state.”
Sedition plus: In fact, Section 150 is far more expansive than its predecessor:
The inclusion of “by use of financial means” creates an ambiguity especially because the notes on the proposed clauses do not provide any explanation — for that or anything else in the new law. There is also no clarity on what the term “subversive” means for the purpose of this clause. The endeavour seems to be to make the current sedition law wider but without the safeguards that judicial pronouncements have created so far.
In other words, the limits imposed by the Kedarnath judgement and other SC rulings on the sedition law will no longer apply:
Sedition, under the Indian law and as per Supreme Court judgments, required very harsh words and some action showing uprising against the country. What the government has now done is that words by themselves will attract anti-national activities. So, it is even worse than the old provision,”
More punitive: The proposed law also increases the possible jail term from three to seven years—but with dangerous ambiguity: “The clause prescribes life imprisonment, or, imprisonment up to seven years—without prescribing anything in between, or laying down guidelines for imposition of sentence.” The old law also allowed a person to get away with just paying a fine. Under Section 150, jail time is mandatory.
Point to note: The government has taken a sledge hammer approach—including other clauses that reinforce the effect of Section 150. For example: Section 111:
Interestingly, the proposed legislation has introduced a new offence of “terrorist act” that does not exist under the IPC. The Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) currently defines “terrorist act” in slightly narrower terms to specify that such an offence would be attracted when the integrity and sovereignty of India are threatened.
However, concerningly, clause 111 of the Bill broadens the ambit of the offence to go beyond the threat to the state by including any act “to disturb public order” as a terrorist act if it causes “damage or destruction of property or disruption of any supplies or services essential to the life of the community, destruction of a Government or public facility, public place or private property.”
Under such a law, some experts argue, even the farmer protests could be defined as a terrorist act.
The bottomline: Happy Independence Day
The Hindu has the most details on the three new bills—but is behind a paywall. NDTV lays out the details of Section 150. Chitranshul Sinha in Indian Express offers a strong critique of the clause—as does this reported piece in Hindustan Times. Our previous Big Story has lots more on the sedition law—and the Court ruling that put it in abeyance.