Sedition and the Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression


In India, the right to freedom of speech and expression is endowed under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution. Free speech allows the conveyance of an individual’s ideas and opinions. Its expression is instrumental in permitting individuals their aspiration of achieving a sensation of self-fulfilment. A liberal democracy is characterised by governance by the self (in India through a choice-based representation) and affording the individual to market its modulating opinion across all hues. In such a society, a conflict between the State and the individual’s opinion is bound to exist. Punishing or curtailing an individual for depreciating the authority of the judicial system or State contradicts the abstract theory of the promotion of a right to free speech and expression.

Jurisprudence on free speech and constitutional morality

According to Bhatia[1], two trajectories pertaining to Indian free speech exist. Firstly, the “moral paternalistic” approach and secondly, the “liberal autonomous approach”. The former does not endow individual’s abundant freedom since it views individuals as corruptible and intrinsically ferocious with a tendency to engage in violence. The latter approach is relatively more tolerant and permissive viewing individuals as entities competent to decide for oneself, this approach respects an individual’s intellectual capabilities has relatively fewer restrictions imposed on them. Bhatia further constructs on Kant’s ideology elucidating on the equality of individuals. Relying on the premise that all individuals are equivalent, every individual’s ability to communicate and express oneself should be of equal. Subsequently, no fringe nor political nor majoritarian group should be in a position to asphyxiate the expression of another. He further relies on the Athenian philosophy that drew an inverse nexus between free speech and slavery.[2]

Dworkin[3], similarly provided two justifications as the underlying basis for the arguments advocating free speech. Firstly, permitting individuals to converse and express themselves freely allows the promotion of good policies and serves as a check on relatively poor ones, for this approach an inherent comprehension of the concept of free speech is required. Secondly, a broader justification is the equal endowment of autonomy to individuals and the corresponding appreciation and respect for their right to speak freely.

Bhatia[4] further stipulates the “constitutionalising” of all dimensions of free speech. He promotes the extension of protection of free speech and in the scenario where such protection is unfeasible and impracticable, it should be restrained solely by the Constitution based on certain values and principles of the Constitution as opposed to the prevalent social convictions of the qualifications of morality and decency which have a tendency to be ambiguous and non-uniform.

Constitutionality of Section 124-A[5] IPC

The Supreme Court had constitutionalised and limited the scope of sedition in Kedar Nath Singh v. State of Bihar[6] by restricting it to instances where individuals through their speech and expression disrupt the law or provoke and incite violence. However, in practice and past trend showcases that despite the existence of this stipulation, sedition charges are levied on individuals for mere criticism of the Government in the public arena, mere expressions of detest and abhorrence for State policies, religion and showcasing contempt against what is morally acceptable in our society.

Thus, prevailing present day practices are not in accordance with the judicial intention at the time of articulation of the Kedar Nath judgment[7]. Based on this premise and the following grounds, certain reasons provide why sedition laws should be repealed from the Indian nation State.

Firstly, the overbreadth test should be applied to a provision to gauge its constitutionality. If a provision is excessively ambiguous, very subjective pertaining its applicability and its breadth very expansive, this could lead to obscurity in its practice and its overbreadth could serve to its detriment. Applying this test to Section 124 of the Penal Code, the exact interpretation of the word “disaffection” is uncertain and indeterminable. Despite, the elaboration of the terminology in the explanation to the section to be inclusive of disloyalty and feelings of enmity, the skyline of this provision is nebulous. Article 19(1)(a) endows individuals the fundamental right to freedom and expression which is reasonably restricted by Article 19(2) in the interest of public order when pertaining to sedition. However, in India, recent trend showcases the application of sedition under the IPC being charged on individuals on grounds barring the instances limited to interest of public order. Given the haziness in the practical applicability of this provision, it should be rendered unconstitutional.

Secondly, this test is further extended to the vagueness test, whereby an individual should be aware of articulation of the provision, what it seeks to condone and the consequences attached. Given the obscurity attached with the provision, an individual may be dubious to the horizons of the provision which would lead to a negative externality such as the chilling effect.

Thirdly, Section 124-A IPC cements a certain chilling effect on the generic public. This section identifies sedition as a criminal offence and attaches with the provision excessive damages and penalties for instances of sedition. In India, however, sedition charges in practice are not limited to solely instances “in the interest of public order” but also extend to occurrences of defamation, deviations from the accepted standards of morality and decency, etc. In the backdrop of substantial punishments, the provision serves as a disincentive on the freedom of speech endowed to citizens under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution.

Fourthly, despite limiting the scope in the 1962 provision, the Court did not establish a reasonable nexus[8] between a speech and its role as an instrument to the causation of public disorder. Although, in recent years the courts have initiated the identification of occurrences whereby this nexus exists, there is no absolute provision in existence. In the absence of such a provision with the restriction imposed in Article 19 of the Constitution, the chilling effect may supersede in society, which is in a direct contradiction of the articulation of the freedom endowed under Article 19(1)(a).

In Shreya Singhal v. Union of India[9], the Court laid that regardless of the degree of derogation and insult, a certain degree of proximity needed to exist between the utterance and the potentiality of public disorder. This is progressive step in the direction of laws pertaining to sedition as it further limits the scope of sedition. The Court in the case positioned the requirement for a substantive and a procedural analysis of the restrictive law concerned to determine its reasonability.

Thus, whilst applying the fundamentals of this case to Section 124-A IPC, a substantive analysis would showcase the provision to be excessively broad in the interpretation of “disaffection”, thereby fulfilling the overbreadth and vagueness test. The procedural analysis of the punishment would prove it be a draconian provision. Given the obscurity concerning the actual materialisation of disorder and violence, life imprisonment as a punishment for the mere potentiality of inciting violence through speech seems to be superabundant, thereby fulfilling the chilling effect. Thus, the restriction on free speech and its recognition as an offence under Section 124-A IPC does not seem reasonable.

Schenck v. United States[10], elucidated the required proximity between the utterance of speech and incitement of violence. It lays the possibility of danger or the intent to bring it about must be imminent or immediate. This case established the “bad tendency test”.[11] Brandenburg v. Ohio[12], laid the “clear and present” danger test, whereby the State was prohibited by the US Constitution from repressing speech and its advocacy barring the possibility of it causing an immediate harm to law by an illicit act or if it aimed at causing such an action. In the US under the 1st amendment, further speech is promoted as opposed to necessitating silence to remedy bad or injurious speech. Thus, in the US even though some sedition laws have been retained, the courts are dispensing extensive protection to the right of free speech.

In India, such a linear demarcation does not exist and in the scenario where the implementation of such tests are attempted, reasonable restrictions serve as a hindrance. Even though such tests was applied in Arup Bhuyan v. State of Assam[13], the Supreme Court has rejected such tests in other cases resulting in no fixed applicability.

India’s sedition law is derivative from the colonial era. In 2009, the Britain abolished its sedition laws to endorse the freedom of speech and expression. This abolition was on the premise that such laws were in contradiction to Britain’s human rights commitments and were also responsible in inducing a chilling effect on the right to freedom of speech and expression.

In 2007, New Zealand abolished its sedition law based on the Crimes (Repeal of Seditious Offences) Amendment Act, 2007[14]. It has addressed comparable offences under other conventional criminal provision.[15]


Thus, articulation of Section 124 of the Penal Code appears to subdue and extinguish any forms of dissent present in society. Such a tendency contradicts the inherent ingredients which characterise a democracy. The existence of such provision in a State aiming to progress appears obsolete. The punishment associated with it render the provision draconian. The continuance of such a provision induces a chilling effect on the freedom of speech and expression, which is a supposed fundamental right provided under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution. There is a need for India to progress and alter its sedition laws in accordance with the transitions in society. Further, given sedition covers a broad ambit of actions, each act should be governed by its individual provisions, rather than one generic offence with such a stringent punishment.


 *  2nd year student of LLB, Jindal Global Law School, Sonipat.

[1]  Bhatia, Gautam, 2016, Offend, Shock, or Disturb: Free Speech under the Indian Constitution. 1st Edn., Oxford University Press, USA.

[2] Mehta, Avantika, 2016, Offend, Shock, or Disturb: The limitations to free speech in India. Hindustan Times,<>.

[3]  Venkataramanan, K., 2016, How free can free speech be?, The Hindu, <>.

[4]  Venkataramanan, K., 2016, How free can free speech be?, The Hindu, <>.

[5]  124-A. Sedition.—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 in [India], [***] shall be punished with [im­prisonment for life], to which fine may be added, or with impris­onment which may extend to three years, to which fine may be added, or with fine.

        Explanation 1.—The expression “disaffection” includes disloyalty and all feelings of enmity.

        Explanation 2.—Comments expressing disapprobation of the meas­ures of the Government with a view to obtain their alteration by lawful means, without exciting or attempting to excite hatred, contempt or disaffection, do not constitute an offence under this section.

        Explanation 3.—Comments expressing disapprobation of the admin­istrative or other action of the Government without exciting or attempting to excite hatred, contempt or disaffection, do not constitute an offence under this section.

[6] 1962 Supp (2) SCR 769 : AIR 1962 SC 955.

[7]  1962 Supp (2) SCR 769 : AIR 1962 SC 955.

[8]  Parthasarathy, Suhrith, 2016, Sedition and the Government, The Hindu, <>.

[9]  (2015) 5 SCC 1.

[10]  1919 SCC OnLine US SC 62 : 63 L Ed 470 : 249 US 47 (1919).

[11]  Liang, Lawrence, 2016, Interview: Sedition and the Right to Freedom of Expression. The Wire, <>.

[12]  1969 SCC OnLine US SC 144 : 23 L Ed 2d 430 : 395 US 444 (1969).

[13]  (2015) 12 SCC 702.

[14]  Crimes (Repeal of Seditious Offences) Amendment Act, 2007, <>.

[15]  Dutta, Damayanti, 2016, The Sedition joke: Going from bad to worse, <>.

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