The Supreme Court of India called a British-era sedition law “colonial” last week and questioned if it is still needed 75 years after independence.

During a hearing on a petition challenging the law, Chief Justice NV Ramana said the law may have passed its time.

The top court made it clear that it is concerned about the abuse of the law by law enforcement authorities to muzzle free speech and send journalists, activists, and dissenters to prison.

On May 14, police in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh filed a sedition case against two Telugu news channels, TV5 and ABN channel.

Lok Sabha, or the lower house of the parliament, MP Raghuram Krishnam Raju allegedly criticized the state government and Chief Minister YS Jaganmohan Reddy during a program aired on the stations.

Similarly, the editor and executive editor of an online news portal, The Frontier Manipur, were charged with sedition in January for the publication of an article that allegedly “openly endorsed revolutionary ideologies and activities,” according to the First Information Report, or police complaint, lodged against them.

In another case of apparent misuse of the law, senior Congress leader Shashi Tharoor and six senior journalists were booked for sedition for violence during a tractor rally in the national capital of New Delhi on Jan 26.

Police lodged the cases after receiving a complaint alleging that “digital broadcast” and “social media posts” by the defendants were responsible for violence during the rally by farmers, who were opposing farm laws proposed by the government in Delhi.

Low conviction rate

According to the National Crime Records Bureau data, 30 cases were registered in 2015, 35 in 2016, 51 in 2017, 70 in 2018, and 93 in 2019.

In 2019, 96 people were arrested and charge sheets were filed against 76 and 29 were acquitted. Only two were convicted by the courts.

Of the 56 arrested in 2018 on sedition charges, charge sheets were filed against 46 and just two were found guilty by the courts.

Similarly in 2017, 228 people were arrested, with charge sheets filed against 160 but only four were found guilty.

Similar arrests and convictions rates have been recorded through the years.

Activists oppose sedition law

Activists have opposed the law and expressed concern about its rampant misuse to suppress voices of dissent.

Social activist Medha Patkar said those in power and civilians must have an equal relationship.

“But these days, the government believes that those protesting against any move or action of the government or authorities are anti-national,” she told Anadolu Agency.

“Those who raise basic questions or question the implementation of any law are considered as traitors. The government is not only misusing it but they are also overusing the sedition law. In most cases, the charges against the people are not proved in courts, yet people are being put in prison and they spend years behind bars while the trial continues.”

Patkar said the aim is to scare people so they do not question or oppose the government.

Senior Supreme Court lawyer Ehtesham Hashmi said the central government is misusing laws to arrest those fighting for people and raising voices against the government.

“The Chief Justice of India has finally joined the chorus against the sedition law,” he told Anadolu Agency.

What is the sedition law?

According to section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, when any person by words, signs or visible representations spoken or written, or in any other manner attempts to incite hatred or contempt or excites or attempts to excite disaffection toward the government, that person can be punished under the sedition law under the Act.

In India, sedition is a non-bailable offense and punishment range from three years to life imprisonment and fines.

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