In a major victory for right activists and civil society crusaders, the Supreme Court on Wednesday put on hold the 152-year-old colonial sedition law till an “appropriate” Government forum re-examines it and directed the Centre and States to not register any fresh FIR invoking the offence.
Overruling the Centre’s stand on the status of law during the interregnum, a bench headed by Chief Justice NV Ramana also ordered that all ongoing probes, pending trials and proceedings under the sedition law across the country be kept in abeyance. The persons currently facing the sedition charges can approach the courts for bail, said the apex court.
Taking note of the concerns of the Centre, the apex court said the “rigours of Section 124A (sedition) of the IPC is not in tune with the current social milieu” and permitted reconsideration of the provision.
“We expect that, till the re-examination of the provision is complete, it will be appropriate not to continue the usage of the aforesaid provision of law by the Governments,” said the bench, also comprising Justices Surya Kant and Hima Kohli. Any affected party is at liberty to approach concerned courts, which are requested to examine the reliefs sought taking into the consideration the present order, the apex court said.
“This court is cognizant of the security interests and integrity of the State on one hand, and the civil liberties of citizens on the other. There is a requirement to balance both sets of considerations, which is a difficult exercise. The case of the petitioners is that this provision of law… pre-dates the Constitution itself, and is being misused…,” said the Bench, listing the matter in the third week of July.
The order referred to the Centre’s affidavit, which accepted there were divergent views on the law and had also quoted Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s views about protection of civil liberties and respect for human rights. “In view of the above, it is clear that the Union of India agrees with the prima facie opinion expressed by this Court… In light of the same, the Union of India may reconsider the aforesaid provision of law,” it said.
The order said the interim stay granted to some petitioners by the apex court would continue to operate. “All pending trials, appeals and proceedings with respect to the charge framed under Section 124A of IPC be kept in abeyance. Adjudication with respect to other Sections, if any, could proceed if the courts are of the opinion that no prejudice would be caused to the accused,” said the SC.
If any fresh case is registered, the affected parties are at liberty to approach the courts and the courts are requested to examine it, taking into account the present order passed as well as the clear stand taken by the Centre, it said.
The bench did not agree with the Centre’s suggestion that a superintendent of police rank be made responsible for monitoring the registration of FIRs for the offence of sedition. Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for the Centre, had also said the registration of FIRs on the matter cannot be prevented as the provision dealt with a cognisable offence and was upheld by a Constitution bench in 1962.
With regard to pending sedition cases, the Centre suggested that hearing on bail pleas in such matters may be expedited as the Government did not know the gravity of the offence in all the cases and they may have terror or money laundering angles.
“Ultimately, pending cases are before the judicial forum and we need to trust courts,” the law officer told the bench.
The bench, which rose for a few minutes to discuss the orders after taking note of the Centre’s response, came back to pronounce the directions and said it has considered the issues elaborately.
On Tuesday, the bench had asked the Centre to make clear within 24 hours its stand on keeping pending sedition cases in abeyance to protect the interests of citizens already booked and not registering fresh cases till the government’s re-examination of the colonial-era penal law is over.
Asking the Centre to take a clear stand after it had posed the two specific queries, the top court had agreed that a re-look of IPC’s Section 124A be left to the Government.