Explained: What Tilak, Gandhi and Nehru said about IPC Section 124A, the Sedition Act

Wednesday (May 11), the Supreme Court remained all pending trials, appeals and proceedings relating to Section 124A, which deals with the charge of sedition, until the Union Government completes its Colonial Era Provision review exercise .

The court is hearing a batch of petitions to strike down the law, which has been used by the British against several leaders of India’s freedom struggle. Lead attorney Kapil Sibal on Tuesday cited statements made by Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru on Section 124A, and said they had wanted the provision struck down.

What were some of the major sedition cases filed against nationalist leaders by the colonial government, and what did they say about the law?

Bal Gangadhar Tilak

The Lokmanya was tried three times for sedition and imprisoned twice.

In 1897 he was charged with sedition for having “excited and attempted to excite feelings of disaffection towards the government by the publication of certain articles…in (his newspaper) the Kesari in its issue of June 15, 1897”.

The government also claimed that a speech given by Tilak, in which he referred to the murder of General Adilshahi Afzal Khan by Shivaji in 1659, was behind the assassination of Poona’s plague commissioner, Walter Rand. , by the revolutionary Chapekar brothers in 1897. .

In April 1908, teenage revolutionaries Khudiram Bose and Prafulla Chaki accidentally killed two European women in Muzaffarpur in a bomb attack targeting British magistrate Douglas Kingsford. Chaki committed suicide before he could be arrested; Bose was arrested and hanged. Tilak published a strong defense of the revolutionaries in Kesari and was quickly arrested for sedition.

In July of the same year, Tilak was accused of having “incited hatred and contempt, and aroused disloyalty and feelings of enmity towards His Majesty and the government” by his writings in Kesari.

He wrote: “This, no doubt, will inspire much hatred against the people belonging to the rebel party. It is not possible to remove British rule from this country by such monstrous acts. But leaders who wield unlimited power must always remember that there is also a limit to humanity’s patience.

Tilak refused a lawyer and chose to plead his own case. During his defense, he violently attacked the sedition charge. He argued that as a British subject he was entitled to certain legal rights, such as freedom of speech, which he was denied. “The question is whether I was within my rights and whether a subject of Her Majesty in India can or cannot enjoy the same freedom enjoyed by British subjects at home and Anglo-Indians here,” he said. he told the court.

He pointed out that the prosecution could not prove either that he had criminal intentions in his writings or that these criminal intentions could have influenced society as a whole. Tilak was found guilty and sentenced to six years’ imprisonment with transportation.

Mahatma Gandhi

In March 1922, Gandhi was charged with sedition for writing three articles in his weekly Young India. Shankarlal Banker, the owner of the newspaper, was also charged under section 124A of the IPC.

Rather than pleading innocent to the charge of spreading disaffection (sedition), Gandhi declared that since he had no affection for the colonial government, it was his moral duty to disobey unjust laws. Sibal recalled that Gandhi had described Section 124A as “the prince among the political articles of the Indian Penal Code aimed at suppressing the liberty of the citizen”.

Gandhi also said, “Affection cannot be manufactured or regulated by law. If one has no affection for a person or system, one should be free to express disaffection fully, as long as it does not contemplate, promote or incite violence. But the section under which Mr. Banker and I are charged is one under which the mere promotion of disaffection is a crime. I have studied some of the cases tried under this section (Section 124A) and know that some of the most beloved Indian patriots have been convicted under this section. I therefore consider it a privilege to be charged under this section.

Gandhi therefore reversed the moral and political association of sedition, announcing that the spread of disaffection against an immoral government was necessary for those who considered themselves nationalists.

In his 1921 article, ‘Tampering with Loyalty’, Gandhi wrote: “…Sedition has become the credo of Congress. Any non-cooperator undertakes to preach disaffection with the government established by law. Non-Cooperation, although a religious and strictly moral movement, is deliberately aimed at the overthrow of the government and is therefore legally seditious under the Indian Penal Code.

Jawaharlal Nehru

Nehru was charged with sedition in 1930. Like Gandhi, he too failed to defend himself in court and pleaded guilty to Section 124A. He told the magistrate, “There can be no compromise between freedom and slavery, and between truth and lies. We have realized that the price of freedom is blood and suffering – the blood of our own compatriots and the suffering of the noblest in the land – and that price we will pay in full measure…” (Quoted in Chitranshul Sinha: “ The Great Repression: The Story of Sedition in India’, Penguin Viking, 2019)

Although used by the colonial state to target nationalist leaders, the sedition law continued to exist in independent India. However, Nehru understood the problems with this and told parliament that “the sooner we get rid of it the better”.

During the debate on the First Amendment which imposed “reasonable limits” on the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression guaranteed by Article 19(1)(A), he declared: “Return to Article 124A of the Indian Penal Code. Now, as far as I’m concerned, this particular section is very objectionable and abhorrent and it should have no place for practical and historical reasons, if you will, in any set of laws that we might pass. The sooner we get rid of it, the better. »

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