New Delhi: The Supreme Court Wednesday put on hold all pending trials, appeals and proceedings, with respect to charges under the sedition law — section 124A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) — till the Centre completes its exercise in re-examining its provisions.
A three-judge bench of the Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice N.V. Ramana, also said that in the interest of justice, it “hopes and expects states and Centre will refrain from registering any fresh FIR, continue with investigation or take any coercive measure by invoking section 124A of IPC, while the law is under consideration”.
To balance the security and integrity of the state and civil liberties — which the court described as a difficult exercise — the bench said if any fresh case is registered, the affected parties are at liberty to approach the concerned courts for appropriate relief. In such a situation, courts, the bench ordered, are expected to examine the relief sought, taking into account its Wednesday’s order, as well as the clear stand taken by the Union of India in reviewing the law.
The Victorian-era sedition law prescribes penalty of imprisonment, or fine, or both, for “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” in India.
Concern of pending cases, further arrests
The bench is seized of a batch of petitions challenging the constitutional validity of the law. In response, the Centre had Monday filed an affidavit, informing the top court that it had decided to re-examine the provisions of section 124A of the IPC, in wake of the criticism against the law’s “application and abuse”. It had, therefore, urged the bench to put on hold its hearing in the matter.
On Tuesday solicitor general Tushar Mehta quoted from the Centre’s affidavit to highlight the union government’s decision, taken at the top level, to impress upon the bench to postpone the hearing. The plea was opposed by the petitioners, who demanded further arrests under the law should be stayed till the Centre comes to a final decision.
While the bench agreed to Mehta’s request to adjourn the hearing and observed the Centre had undertaken a serious exercise on the subject, it voiced similar concerns as expressed by the petitioners.
The court had asked the solicitor general how the Centre intends to protect the interest of those already booked under section 124A and if the law can be kept in abeyance till the review is on.
Taking note of the Centre’s affidavit, the court in its order Wednesday observed that even the central government had acknowledged the bench’s previous view that the rigours of section 124A may not be in tune with the current social scenario. The law, it went on to say, was intended for a time when this country was under the colonial regime.
“In the light of the same, UOI may reconsider the aforesaid provisions of the law,” said the court, which also took cognizance of Attorney General K.K. Venugopal’s submissions made last week in the matter.
Venugopal, who had been called upon to assist the bench, had cited the arrest of Member of Parliament Navneet Kaur Rana, and her MLA husband Ravi Rana, in Mumbai last month, over their alleged threat to recite the Hanuman Chalisa outside Maharashtra chief minister, Uddhav Thackeray’s residence, as an instance of misuse of the law.
“Therefore, we expect that till the re-examination (by Centre) of provision is complete, it will be appropriate not to continue the usage of the law, in view of the clear stand taken by the Union of India,” the court said, extending liberty to the Centre to issue directives to the states or union territories to prevent misuse of section 124A. Such directions may continue till further orders are passed, the court added.
‘Constitutional validity of law upheld’
Mehta, who opened the arguments Wednesday, responded to court’s suggestion to keep the operation of the law in abeyance. He said the law, whose constitutional validity was upheld in 1962 by a constitution bench of the Supreme Court, mandates registration of a case if a cognizable offence takes place.
The Centre, he added, was open to sending directives to states to scrupulously follow the top court’s guidelines issued in the Vinod Dua case in 2021, in which the SC had quashed a sedition case brought in against the late journalist over a YouTube show. In addition to that, he added, instructions will be issued that an FIR under section 124A shall not be registered without the approval of Superintendent of Police, who shall in writing state the reasons for booking a person on charges of sedition.
“He (SP) shall be responsible if the matter goes to court. Once there is a cognizable offence and has been held as valid by constitution bench, the government or the court cannot, by interim order, stay the effect of it,” Mehta told the bench.
On pending cases, Mehta asked the bench to direct courts to decide bail applications expeditiously. He said without knowing the gravity of the offences alleged in the FIRs pending trial, it may not be reasonable to question the judicial wisdom of judges who are hearing the cases.
“To pass any other order would virtually amount to staying the operation of a provision, which upheld by the constitution bench,” Mehta adding, saying the Centre may not be able to complete its review exercise before July.
The solicitor general further argued that none of the petitioners before the top court were individuals who are charged with the offence. “To pass an interim order with regard to a cogzinable offence at the behest of third parties in a PIL jurisdiction will be a bad precedent,” Mehta contended.
(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)