Offence of Sedition and Freedom of Speech and Expression: Where to draw the line.


    Walking the Tightrope: Sedition and Freedom of Speech in India


The conflict between the state’s authority to uphold order and the individual’s right to freedom of speech and expression continues to be a sensitive topic in the dynamic environment of democratic countries. Sedition, as defined by Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, is a particularly contentious legal offense in India. Finding a firm boundary that protects national interests without infringing upon fundamental liberties is the difficult part. This article discusses the precarious balance between freedom of speech and seditious activity by looking at legal doctrines, pertinent statutes, and landmark decisions.

Understanding Sedition

Any act that “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 excites disaffection toward the Government established by law in India” (code) is considered sedition, according to Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code. This concept begs many problems, particularly in a country where variety of thought and expression is a pillar of democracy. Freedom of speech and sedition laws have frequently been in conflict.

Tossing out this statute, however, might be the answer to this never-ending argument. However, we cannot undervalue the significance of a country’s security. The updated legislation must state unequivocally that only individuals who disturb the peace or incite violence should be penalized under this law This law’s necessity will always be a contentious topic. Making ensuring that misuse of sedition laws does not restrict our fundamental right to express ourselves freely should be our top priority.

Freedom of Speech and Expression

Freedom of speech and expression is a fundamental right guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution. However, Article 19(2) allows for reasonable restrictions on this right in the interest of the sovereignty and integrity of India, security of the State, friendly relations with foreign countries, public order, decency, or morality. The critical task is to harmonize these provisions.

Several legal principles help in understanding the nuances of sedition and freedom of speech.

clear and Present Danger: The principle of Schenck v. United States1 (Schenck v. United States, 1919)states that speech can be limited if it presents a clear and immediate danger to the state. This principle can be used in India to decide if the speech in question poses a direct threat to national security.

Imminent Lawless Action: The principle established in the case of Brandenburg v. Ohio2  states that the government can only limit free speech if it is likely to lead to immediate illegal actions. In India, it is necessary to establish a direct connection between seditious speech and any resulting violence or rebellion.

Overbreadth Doctrine: In order to avoid misuse of laws, the breadth and vagueness of a law must be assessed. The Supreme Court of India acknowledged the significance of limiting the scope of the sedition law in Ram Manohar Lohia v. State of Bihar (1966).3 (Dr. Ram Manohar Lohia vs State Of Bihar And Others, 1965)

Precedent-Setting Case Laws

Kedar Nath Singh v. State of Bihar4 (1962) (Kedar Nath Singh vs State Of Bihar, 1962): This landmark case clarified that criticism of the government does not amount to sedition unless it incites violence or public disorder. The court reaffirmed the significance of the “imminent lawless action” principle.

This case is often considered the cornerstone for interpreting Section 124A of the IPC. Kedar Nath Singh, a member of the socialist party, was charged with sedition for making a speech criticizing the government. The Supreme Court in this case made several crucial observations:

  1. The court’s ruling was that criticizing the government is not considered seditious unless it leads to violence or public unrest. The court emphasized that using strong language against the government or expressing disapproval of government actions does not amount to sedition.

1 249 U.S. 47 (1919).

2 395 U.S. 444 (1969).

3 1966 AIR 740, 1966 SCR (1) 709

4 1962 AIR 955, 1962 SCR Supl. (2) 769

  1. The “clear and present danger” test was applied. The law will only be invoked in case of immediate threat to public order or national security, according to the court ruling. c. The court upheld Section 124A but narrowed its interpretation, offering free speech protection.

Shreya Singhal v. Union of India (2015):5 (Shreya Singhal vs U.O.I, 2015)

The case upheld the key principles of freedom of speech and expression. The Supreme Court invalidated Section 66A of the IT Act, which was being used to suppress online dissent. The judgment reinforced the need for a precise and stringent interpretation of legal provisions.

In this landmark case, the Supreme Court addressed the issue of freedom of speech concerning online expression and the Information Technology Act. The act contained certain provisions that were being misused to curtail online dissent.

  1. In its ruling, the court declared Section 66A of the IT Act unconstitutional, as it was too vague and broad, which could lead to arbitrary interpretations and misuse.
  2. The verdict highlighted the importance of having clear and well-defined legal provisions to restrict speech and prevent any misuse. It also emphasized that any limitations on free speech should be narrowly tailored to protect legitimate interests, without going beyond what is necessary.

Shreya Singhal’s case not only dealt with sedition but also highlighted the need to scrutinize other laws and provisions that might infringe upon freedom of speech and expression.

Bilal Ahmed Kaloo v. State of Andhra Pradesh (1997):6 (Bilal Ahmed Kaloo v. State of Andhra Pradesh , 1997)

The court made it clear that merely shouting slogans against the government is not enough to be charged with sedition. The speech must specifically incite violence or public disorder in order to fall under Section 124A. In the case of Bilal Ahmed Kaloo, he was

5 AIR 2015 SC 1523

6 1997 7 SCC 431

charged with sedition for raising slogans against the government. This case is important because it discusses the level of severity needed to invoke Section 124A.

A) The court clarified that expressing discontent or sloganeering against the government does not amount to sedition. To invoke Section 124A, there must be a direct connection between seditious speech and incitement to violence or public disorder.

This case highlights the importance of interpreting the sedition law rigorously in order to prevent it from being used to stifle legitimate criticism or dissent.

These legal cases provide a nuanced understanding of the balance between sedition and freedom of speech in India. They emphasize that charges of sedition must be justified by a clear and present danger to the state, and that narrow and precise legal provisions are important. They also highlight the protection of free speech as a fundamental right, even when it involves criticism of the government. These legal principles and interpretations help to draw the line between sedition and freedom of speech, preserving the democratic principles of India while safeguarding the nation’s interests.

Drawing the Line

The line between sedition and freedom of speech must be drawn carefully. The government should ensure that the sedition law is not wielded as a tool to stifle dissent or silence critics. Sedition charges should only be imposed when there is a clear and present danger to the security of the state, as interpreted through the principles laid down by the judiciary The struggle between free speech and sedition laws dates back to colonial times. The sedition law was first enacted in India in 1870 and was initially used by the British to repress opposition and independence fighters. Several nations, including the UK, New Zealand, and Ghana, have since repealed this statute, but India is still in compliance with it. The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) reported 76 sedition charges in 2021.

Notably, charges have also been brought against media and journalists under this law. It’s important to distinguish seditious actions from simple criticism. Though it’s not unrestricted, freedom of speech is invaluable in democracies. The Indian Constitution’s Article 19(1)(a) acknowledges the need for some limitations, including those that protect national sovereignty and integrity, stop incitement, and hate speech.

In conclusion, 

striking a balance between the Offence of Sedition and the Freedom of Speech and Expression in India is essential to maintaining the integrity of the nation’s democratic ideals. While sedition laws have their place in preserving national security, they should be applied with great caution to protect the cherished right to freedom of speech and expression. The evolving legal principles and the wisdom of the judiciary play a pivotal role in navigating this complex terrain and ensuring that the line is drawn in a manner that safeguards democracy while preserving national interests.

Frequently asked questions

  1. How does the interpretation of Section 124A of the IPC align with Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution which guarantees freedom of speech and expression?

Interpreting the extent of acceptable limits under Article 19(2) is necessary to strike a balance between Section 124A and Article 19(1)(a). In an attempt to bring this into harmony, the Supreme Court limited the scope of Section 124A to comply with constitutional guarantees of free speech by holding that sedition laws should only be used to actions that encourage violence or cause public disturbance in Kedar Nath Singh v. State of Bihar (1962). However, discussions about whether the law’s existence automatically restricts freedom of speech because of its expansive wording persist.

  1. In what ways have the judicial precedents in India shaped the understanding and application of sedition laws?

The legal precedents set by instances such as Kedar Nath Singh v. State of Bihar (1962) and Balwant Singh v. State of Punjab (1995) have limited the definition of sedition by highlighting the necessity of inciting violence or public disruption. But inconsistent lower court readings and differing applications of these cases highlight the difficulties in drawing precise borders in the law regarding sedition, prompting calls for more specific judicial standards or legislative changes.

  1.  How does the sedition law in India compare with international standards on free speech and the regulation of hate speech?

The international standards support limited speech limitations only in situations where there is direct incitement to violence, as evidenced by agreements such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which India is a party. In contrast to these criteria, India’s sedition statute is frequently criticized for its expansive use. Examining the ways in which other democracies control discourse against the state and the degree to which they punish sedition could be part of a comparative examination.


Bilal Ahmed Kaloo v. State of Andhra Pradesh , 3483 (Supreme Court 1997).

Brandenburg v. Ohio, 395 U.S. 444 (U.S. Supreme Court 1969).

code, I. p. (n.d.). 124A Sedition.

Dr. Ram Manohar Lohia vs State Of Bihar And Others, 709 (Supreme Court of India 1965).

Kedar Nath Singh vs State Of Bihar, 769 (Supreme Court of India 1962).

Schenck v. United States, 249 U.S. 47 (U.S. Supreme Court 1919).

Shreya Singhal vs U.O.I, 1523 (Supreme Court of India 2015).

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