SC to hear in January pleas challenging constitutional validity of IPC provision on sedition

The Supreme Court on Wednesday said it will hear in January a batch of pleas challenging the constitutional validity of the IPC provision on sedition, months after the Centre introduced in Parliament bills to replace the colonial-era penal statutes, proposing among other things the repeal of the sedition law.

Chief Justice D Y Chandrachud said he would constitute an appropriate bench to hear the matter.

It appointed advocates Prasanna S and Pooja Dhar as nodal counsel to facilitate the compilation of case laws and other statutory material before the hearing.

The apex court had earlier declined to accept the Centre’s fervent request that reference of the petitions to a larger bench be deferred as Parliament is in the process of “re-enacting” the provisions of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and a bill has been placed before a standing committee.

The court had said assuming that the bill, which proposes among other things the repeal of the sedition law and introduction of a new provision with a wider definition of the offence, becomes a law, it cannot be applied with retrospective effect.

The bench had observed that Section 124A (sedition) of the IPC continues to remain in the statute book, and even if the new bill becomes a law, there is a presumption that any new law in the penal statute will have prospective and not retrospective effect.

It had noted the constitutional validity of Section 124A was tested by the apex court on the basis of a challenge that it was ultra vires to Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution in the 1962 judgement of Kedar Nath Singh versus State of Bihar.

Article 19(1)(a) relates to the right to freedom of speech and expression.

The 1962 judgement had upheld the constitutionality of Section 124A and held it was in harmony with Article 19(1)(a).

The bench had observed it needs to be noted that when the five-judge constitution bench had ruled on the validity of Section 124A in 1962, the challenge to it on the ground that it violated Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution was tested only with respect to that Article.

It had said at that time there was no challenge on the ground that Section 124A of the IPC violated Article 14 (equality before law) of the Constitution.

The top court had said the appropriate course of action for the three-judge bench would be to direct that the papers be placed before the CJI so the pleas could be heard by a bench of at least five judges since the 1962 decision was by a constitution bench.

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On August 11, in a landmark move to overhaul colonial-era criminal laws, the Centre had introduced in the Lok Sabha three bills to replace the IPC, CrPC and the Indian Evidence Act, proposing among other things the repeal of sedition law and introducing a new provision with a wider definition of the offence.

The top court had on May 11 last year put on hold the penal law on sedition till an “appropriate” government forum re-examined it and directed the Centre and states to not register any fresh FIR invoking the provision.

Besides the lodging of FIRs, ongoing probes, pending trials and all proceedings under the sedition law across the country will also be in abeyance, the top court had said.

The law on sedition, which provides for a maximum jail term of life under section 124A of the IPC for creating “disaffection towards the government”, was brought into the penal code in 1890, a full 57 years before Independence and almost 30 years after the IPC came into being.

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