India′s Supreme Court suspends controversial sedition law | News | DW | 11.05.2022

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India's Supreme Court suspends controversial sedition law

India's top court suspended authorities from charging people with sedition under a controversial colonial-era law. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has been accused of misusing the law to silence critics.

India's Supreme Court.

The constitution guarantees freedom of speech and expression as a fundamental right to all citizens, but critics say some of India's limitations to this are outdated and becoming overused

India's Supreme Court on Wednesday suspended a controversial colonial-era sedition law.

India's top court said federal and state authorities couldn't levy new charges of sedition against individuals until it completed a review of the law. 

It also suspended pending trials, appeals and proceedings related to sedition charges and added that people charged under the law could seek bail from courts.

India's government said on Monday that it had decided to "re-examine and reconsider" the law but that it remained in force.

Several journalists, politicians and others filed a series of petitions challenging the law in the Supreme Court.

Press freedom in India in serious decline

What the Supreme Court said 

"The rigors of Section 124A [are] not in tune with the current social milieu, and [were] intended for a time when this country was under the colonial regime," India's Chief Justice N.V. Ramana, part of a three-judge bench hearing a petition against the law, said.

"It will be appropriate not to use this provision of law till further reexamination is over," Ramana said.

India's sedition law, or Section 124-A of the Indian Penal Code, came into force in 1860. It was mainly used to punish Indian leaders seeking independence from the British during the 19th and early 20th century.

Section 124A defines sedition as: “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 shall be punished with im­prisonment for life, to which fine may be added."

The British 17th century Sedition Act from which the law stemmed became obsolete in the 1960s and was formally repealed in 2009, though parts of it do endure in other laws concerning treason.

Sedition cases climb during BJP rule

After India's independence in 1947, the law was used by successive Indian governments to silence dissenters, but the number of people charged with sedition steadily went up during the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) rule after 2014.

There were 30 cases of sedition in 2015 and 236 cases of sedition between 2018 and 2020, according to the National Crime Records Bureau.

Senior lawyer Kapil Sibal, representing the petitioners, told the Supreme Court 13,000 people were in jail as a result of the law. 

Is the media crackdown in Kashmir escalating?

BJP accused of misusing sedition law

Experts have accused India's ruling party of weaponizing the law to intimidate and silence critics.

Perhaps most notoriously, a young climate activist was detained on sedition charges in February 2021 for creating a toolkit showing people how they could help India's protesting farmers.

In October 2021, three Kashmiri students were detained on sedition charges for celebrating Pakistan's cricket team's victory over India in a T20 World Cup game.

India's press freedom ranking fell from 142 in 2021 to 150 this year, according to a report compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), placing it just below Turkey and Hong Kong and just above Sudan and Tajikistan.

rm/msh (Reuters, AFP, AP)

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