Sedition Law: An Overview


By Tashmayee Sarkhel

Published on: 01th August 2022 at 20:15 IST

The article entails sedition, the law, and notable cases related to it during pre-independence and post-independence, its development of it, and its current status.

Sedition is a state-sponsored crime. Though sedition has the same final result as treason, it is usually limited to the charge of organizing or encouraging resistance to the government in a way (such as through speech or writing) that is less harmful than treason.

Sedition is a serious offense punishable by penalties and up to 20 years in jail, and it relates to inciting revolt or violence against a legitimate authority with the intent of overturning or destroying it. With historical references, the following is an outline of this specific offense against the government.

Section 124A:

Sedition is punishable under Section 124A[1] of the Indian Penal Code. During the British Raj, the Indian Penal Code was enacted in 1860[2]. Section 124A is found in Chapter VI[3] of the Code, which deals with state offenses. Sections 121 to 130[4] make up Chapter VI, with sections 121A[5] and 124A[6] being added in 1870. The British administration in India at the time was concerned that Muslim preachers on the Indian subcontinent might start a jihad against it. The need for such legislation became apparent after the British successfully suppressed the Wahabi or Waliullah Movement.

This clause was used to oppress national independence campaigners throughout the Raj, including Lokmanya Tilak and Mahatma Gandhi, who were both found guilty and imprisoned. The clause continued to be criticized in independent India for impeding the right to free speech. During the reign of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1973, sedition was made a cognizable offense in India for the first time in history, allowing for arrest without a warrant. The Indian Supreme Court construed the clause in 1962 to apply only if there is “incitement to violence” or “violent overthrow of a democratically elected government.” On May 11, 2022, The Supreme Court of India put this statute on hold indefinitely, pending further review.

Cases under pre-independence:

The first known case under the clause was Queen Empress v Jogendra Chunder Bose[7], which was heard in the Calcutta High Court in 1891. The Age of Consent Act, 1891[8], was challenged in Bose’s piece, which was published in his own Bengali magazine Bangobasi. The Act was dubbed “forced Europeanization” and a “gag order” on Hindus, who were considered legally incapable of resisting the Act. The government claimed that Bose incited revolt; in his jury instructions, Chief Justice William Comer Petheram defined “disaffection” as “an emotion opposed to attachment, in other words, dislike or hatred,” and related it to disobedience against the government. Despite this, Bose was released on bond and the case was dismissed.

The sedition trial of Lokmanya Tilak in 1897 is historically significant. Tilak, a trained lawyer, was also politically active in the independence movement. He founded and published two daily newspapers, Kesari in Marathi and Mahratta in English, both from Pune. Professor RP Karkaria gave a talk to the Royal Asiatic Society in Bombay in 1894 about the Maratha king Shivaji. This became a yearly event celebrating Shivaji’s coronation anniversary. Tilak published stories of the event three years later in “Shivaji’s Utterances,” an essay that functioned as an attack on the colonial authorities. Tilak’s case was ruled over by Justice Arthur Strachey, who broadened the interpretation of Section 124A. The attempt to incite “feelings of hatred” against the government, according to Strachey’s view, was also a type of sedition. Tilak was found guilty by a jury and was sentenced to 18 months in prison. Tilak was charged with sedition over two Kesari pieces, “The Country’s Misfortune” (12 May 1908) and “These Remedies Are Not Lasting” (12 May 1908) respectively (9 June 1908). Tilak was found guilty and sentenced to six years in jail in Burma under the newly enacted Section 124A.

Cases under post-independence:

Section 124A was deemed unlawful by the Punjab High Court in 1951. The Allahabad High Court issued a similar judgment in 1959, concluding that it violated the fundamental right to free speech. The Indian government took the case to the Supreme Court of India, which found in 1962 that speeches critical of the government or political parties were not illegal while upholding the legislation as relevant to separatism by persuasion or force; this decision diluted the provision.

Several renowned authors, creative workers, activists, and politicians have been charged with sedition under Section 124A IPC in the twenty-first century. Praveen Togadia, the then-general secretary of the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), Simranjit Singh Mann, Binayak Sen, author Arundhati Roy, cartoonist Aseem Trivedi, student activist Rinshad Reera, and climate activist Disha Ravi are all examples.

Development and current status of the law:

When Thomas Babington Macaulay drafted the Penal Code in 1837[9], the part dealing with sedition was included as Section 113[10]. It was, however, excluded from the actual Code for unclear reasons. It was finally inserted in 1870[11], at the recommendation of James Fitzjames Stephen, the colonial government of India’s legal officer at the time. The Raj created this part under the heading “Exciting disaffection” in response to rising Wahabi activity and fears that Muslim preachers might stir religious strife in the Indian subcontinent. During Indira Gandhi’s presidency, the 1973 Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC)[12], which superseded the 1898 CrPC[13], made sedition a crime for the first time.

The Allahabad High Court pronounced the sedition legislation unconstitutional in the case Ram Nandan v State[14], heard in 1958. The law was likewise invalidated by the Punjab high court. In 1962, the Supreme Court reinstated sedition in the Constitution, understanding the clause to apply only if there is “incitement to violence.”

The colonial-era law was stopped on May 11th, 2022, by the Supreme Court of India. The court stated that the statute had been utilized by governments to suppress dissent and was out of date. Hundreds of those who had been imprisoned under the statute have now been granted bail. The verdict does not repeal the sedition statute; it just puts it on pause for the time being, and no new charges can be filed under it until the government completes its ongoing assessment.


Section 124A was repeatedly criticized in post-independence India, with the restriction of free speech being singled out. When the Indian Constitution’s First Amendment was passed in 1951, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru sought to “get rid of it [Section 124A] as written,” preferring to deal with sedition-related issues through other ways. Following the 2016 protests at Jawaharlal Nehru University, several commentators have urged for the repeal of sedition laws. The Law Commission of India published a consultation paper in 2018 asking for the law to be amended or repealed. The opposition Indian National Congress (INC) included an explicit proposal to repeal Section 124A in their platform during the 2019 Indian general election.

Apart from all the relevant situations, the sedition law offers safeguards against attempts to destabilize an elected government, and places having parallel governments in the country would be vulnerable.


Section 124A of IPC

Law Commission of India Consultation Paper on Sedition Law

  1. The Indian Penal Code, s.124A
  2. The Indian Penal Code, 1860
  3. The Indian Penal Code, chapter VI
  4. The Indian Penal Code, a.121 – 130
  5. The Indian Penal Code, a.121A
  6. The Indian Penal Code, a.124A
  7. Queen Empress v. Jogendra Chunder Bose
  8. The Age of Consent Act, 1891
  9. The Indian Penal Code, 1837
  10. The Indian Penal Code, s.113
  11. The Indian Penal Code, 1870
  12. Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973
  13. Code of Criminal Procedure, 1898
  14. Ram Nandan v State, 1958

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