Sedition Law

The word sedition is derived from the Latin word “Sedition” which means “a going aside”. All separatist tendencies within a State are called seditious. Now the word sedition has come to be applied to practices which tend to disturb internal public tranquillity by deed, word or writing but which do not amount to treason and are not accompanied by or conducive to open violence..

Various British Laws still have their relevancy in the legal framework of India and Pakistan. Previously the British government used to use the sedition laws in order to curb the Nationalist activities in India. The section corresponding to section 124A, the law that defines sedition in the IPC, was originally section 113 of Macaulay’s Draft Penal Code of 1837-39, but the section was removed from the IPC as it was enacted in 1860. Section 124A was introduced by the British colonial government in 1870 when it felt the need for a specific section to deal with the offence in order to preserve peace within the country. It was one of those laws which was mainly enacted to suppress any voices of dissent at that time. Prominent people  who were charged with sedition under this law are Bal Gangadhar Tilak[1] , Mohandas Gandhi. The initial cases that invoked the sedition law included numerous prosecutions against the editors of nationalist newspapers.  The framework of this section was imported from various sources-the Treason Felony Act (operating in Britain), the common law of seditious libel and the English law relating to seditious words. The common law of seditious libel governed both actions and words that pertained to citizens and the government, as well as between communities of persons.

Victims Of Sedition In The Past ( Pre-Independence):

One of the most well known cases are the three sedition trials of Bal Gangadhar Tilak, which were closely followed by his admirers nationally and internationally. The government claimed that some of his speeches that referred to Shivaji killing Afzal Khan had instigated the murder of the much reviled Plague Commissioner Rand and Lieutenant Ayherst, another British officer, the following week. The two officers were killed as they were returning from a dinner reception at Government House, Pune, after celebrating the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria’s rule. Tilak was convicted of the charge of sedition, but released in 1898 after the intervention of internationally known figures like Max Weber on the condition that he would do nothing by act, speech, or writing to excite disaffection towards the government.

Another famous decision was Annie Besant v. Advocate General of Madras[2]. The case dealt with Section 4(1) of the Indian Press Act, 1910, that was framed similar to Section 124A. The relevant provision said that any press used for printing/publishing newspapers, books or other documents containing words, signs or other visible representations that had a tendency to provoke hatred or contempt towards the Government. The Privy Council followed the earlier interpretation of Justice Strachey and confiscated the deposit of Annie Besant’s printing press.

Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister after Independence from Britain, was one of the fiercest critics of the law. During a parliamentary debate on free speech in 1951, he said the sedition law “is highly objectionable and obnoxious…the sooner we get rid of it the better,” according to a summary of the debate in the Hindu newspaper.[3]


[1] Queen-Empress v. Bal Gangadhar Tilak 22ILR Bom 112

[2] Annie Besant v. Advocate General of Madras (1919) 21 BOMLR 867

[3] Read from –  on 24.08.2013



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