India's Supreme Court on Wednesday put its contentious sedition law on hold so that Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government can re-examine the colonial legislation.
Critics say the controversial British-era law is widely used in the world’s largest democracy against dissenting voices, and the top court is hearing a challenge to annul it.
Dozens of journalists, activists, politicians, intellectuals and ordinary citizens have been charged with the draconian law in recent years for criticising Mr Modi’s government, as well as other state politicians.
A bench of Chief Justice NV Ramana and Justices Surya Kant and Hima Kohli ordered that the offence of sedition under Section 124A of Indian Penal Code be kept in “abeyance” until Mr Modi’s government reviews it.
The bench also ordered both central and state governments to “take coercive steps” in all pending proceedings under the provision until the government's review is complete.
“It is clear that central government agrees that rigours of Section 124A are not in tune with the current situation and it was intended for the time when country was under colonial law. Thus, the centre may reconsider it,” the court ordered.
“It will be appropriate not to use this provision of law till further re-examination is over. It would be appropriate to put the provision in abeyance.”
Those already slapped by the charges can approach court for bail.
The top court is hearing a clutch of petitions filed by journalists and a parliamentarian challenging the validity of the law, under which convictions can result in jail terms ranging from three years to a lifetime.
Mr Modi’s government had initially defended the legal provision arguing that “isolated incidents of misuse” do not necessitate its removal.
But on Monday, the government told the court that it was considering re-examining the law as Mr Modi is committed to “shed colonial baggage including colonial laws and practices”.
The sedition law was introduced in the country in 1870 to crush rebellious voices, including freedom fighters such as Mahatma Gandhi, but successive Indian governments have used the legal provision.
Since India’s independence in 1947, the law has been contested in the courts several times and critics have cited its abolition in Britain in 2009.
However, successive governments have defended it, saying the law is required to tackle terrorists, secessionists and insurgents.
While critics have long demanded the abrogation of the law, saying it is rampantly misused, clamour has grown in recent years for its repeal after a spate of sedition complaints filed against activists, journalists, actors and ordinary citizens for criticising politicians and government policies.
Low conviction rate
A total of 736 cases of sedition were registered from 2010 to 2020, according to the National Crime Records Bureau. Nearly half, or 356 cases, were registered after 2014 when Mr Modi took power.
Though the number of cases are rising, the conviction rate in sedition cases is generally very low due to lack of evidence.
Just 12 people were convicted in the six-year period, according to the NCRB statistics. But India’s sluggish judiciary means many remain in jail for long periods.
Senior lawyer Kapil Sibal, representing the petitioners, told the court that 13,000 people were in jail charged with sedition.
Last year, a 22-year-old climate activist was arrested after she shared a document intended to help farmers protesting against agricultural laws.
She was given bail after a court rejected police claims that she was part of a “larger conspiracy”.