The Supreme Court’s order staying all proceedings, including trials and appeals, with respect to cases filed under Section 124A of the IPC, known as the sedition law, till the central government completes its promised review of its provisions, is welcome. The court has also cautioned states against filing any fresh sedition cases during this period. This amounts to suspending the law and keeping it out of operation, and the judegment is therefore very important. The court issued the order while hearing petitions for scrapping the colonial law which has been widely misused by the government to suppress the fundamental rights of citizens. In existing cases, the accused will now have the right to seek bail, and if fresh cases are registered, the accused can complain to the court and seek relief.
In promising to review the sedition law, the government had merely wanted to stall the court’s consideration of the law, and it has for the time being succeeded in it. But it may not have expected the court to suspend the operation of the law. It was when the court was about to start hearing arguments on petitions against the draconian law that the government made the offer to have the law reviewed by the appropriate forum, presumably parliament. This offer lacks credibility because just a few days earlier, the government had strongly defended the law and asked the court to dismiss all petitions challenging it. It had said that the court’s 1962 Kidar Nath judgement, which had upheld the law, was a “binding precedent” and the cases of misuse of a law did not warrant its abolition.
The government did not give any reason for the sudden change of mind, except to suddenly say that it wanted to shed the colonial baggage and was committed to civil liberties and citizens’ rights. It had not thought of scrapping or changing the sedition law when other colonial laws were scrapped. Its commitment to rights and liberties, given its record of misuse of the sedition law to silence critics and dissenters, is dubious. Its commitment to the draconian law was also clear from its opposition to the stay on its operation. The government also gave no time frame for its review. In view of all this, it is unlikely that the government would scale down or substantially dilute the law, let alone scrap it. It should be noted that the petitions before the court have sought the scrapping of the law. Since the government’s offer to the court was much less than that, the court could have continued to hear the case. Still, the stay, having defeated the government’s intention behind its review offer, is a victory for citizens’ rights, at least for now.