The casual resort by the police to the sedition clause continues to cause concern
The arrest of K. Raghu Ramakrishna Raju, an MP from Andhra Pradesh, on the grave charge of sedition, is yet another instance of the misuse of the provision relating to exciting “disaffection” against the government. The police in different States have been invoking sedition, an offence defined in Section 124A IPC, against critics of the establishment and prominent dissenters. It is not surprising that Mr. Raju, a vocal detractor of A.P. Chief Minister Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy, is sought to be prosecuted. However, his arrest is unwarranted, considering that he is being accused of only speech-based offences relating to his diatribe against his party leader and CM. It has predictably, and not without justification, invited charges of political vendetta. Even if one were to accept at face value the prosecution’s claim that his speeches stoked hatred against communities — he had referred to alleged rampant conversion activities in the State — and attracted prosecution under Section 153-A or Section 505, was his arrest necessary? These offences attract a prison term of only three years and, under the Arnesh Kumar ruling (2014) of the Supreme Court, there is no need to arrest a person for an offence that invites a prison term of seven years and less. Further, even sedition, which allows a maximum sentence of life imprisonment, also prescribes an alternative jail term of three years.
Mr. Raju has alleged ill-treatment while in CID custody. The Supreme Court has directed that he be examined at the Army hospital in Secunderabad in neighbouring Telangana. His bail petition is likely to be taken up later this week. It is unedifying to note that the CID has also named in the FIR, two television channels to which he gave interviews. While the legal process will take its course, it is once again time for a reflection on the need and relevance of the offence of sedition, a colonial-era provision used to imprison people for political writings in support of Indian independence, to remain on the statute book. That State governments and various police departments are known for the casual resort to prosecution under this section is a poor reflection of the understanding of the law among civil servants everywhere. It is now fairly well known that the section is attracted only if there is an imminent threat to public order or there is actual incitement to violence — ingredients that are invariably absent in most cases. In addition, it remains vaguely and too broadly defined (the term ‘disaffection’ is said to include ‘disloyalty’ and ‘feelings of enmity’), warranting a total reconsideration. Recently, the Supreme Court decided to revisit the constitutionality of this section. While a judicial verdict will be welcome, it would be even more protective of free speech if the Centre abolished the provision.