What were the facts in Kedar Nath Singh v State of Bihar (1962)?
In 1953, Kedar Nath Singh, a member of the Forward Communist Party from Bihar, got into trouble after he took on the ruling Congress during a rally at Begusarai, where he said, “Today, the dogs of CBI are loitering around Barauni [in Begusarai]. Many official dogs are sitting even in this meeting. The people of India drove out the British from the country and elected these Congress goondas to the gaddi. As we drove out the British, we shall strike and drive out these Congress goondas as well. They have today established a rule of lathis, bullets in the country. We believe in revolution which will come, and in the flame of which, capitalists, zamindars and Congress leaders will be reduced to ashes, and on their ashes will be established a government of the poor and the downtrodden people of India.”
The fiery speech led to his conviction and imprisonment by a first class magistrate on sedition charges, and an appeal to the Patna High Court was struck down. Then 1962, an appeal by Singh came before the Supreme Court, in which he questioned the constitutional validity of Section 124A, contending it stifled his right to free speech under Article 19 of the Constitution.
The top court had its task cut out, since it had to lay down the law in the face of two directly conflicting interpretations of Section 124A by British era courts. The two previous judgments, one from 1942 and the other from 1947, expressed contradictory views on whether the incitement to violence or a tendency to disturb public order was a necessary ingredient of the offence under Section 124A.
And, what did the Supreme Court rule?
In a Landmark verdict,
a Constitution Bench of the top court upheld the validity of section 124A (sedition) of the IPC, but also attempted to restrict the colonial-era law’s scope for misuse by trying to demarcate the difference between which acts amounted to sedition and which ones did not.
The five-judge Bench comprised Chief Justice BP Sinha and Justices AK Sarkar, JR Mudholkar, N Rajagopala Ayyangar and SK Das.
It said that any act that had the “effect of subverting the Government” by violent means or creating public disorder would come within the definition of sedition. It also upheld Section 505 (statements conducive to public mischief) as constitutionally valid.
“Acts within the meaning of s. 124A which have the effect of subverting the Government by bringing that Government into contempt or hatred, or creating disaffection against it, would be within the penal statute because the feeling of disloyalty to the Government established by law or enmity to it imports the idea of tendency to public disorder by the use of actual violence or incitement to violence. In other words, any written or spoken words, etc., which have implicit in them the idea of subverting Government by violent means, which are compendiously included in the term ‘revolution’, have been made penal by the section in question,” ruled the top court.
However, the court ruled that disapproval of the measures of government with a view to their improvement or alteration by lawful means is not sedition. It held that “comments, however strongly worded, expressing disapprobation of actions of the Government, without exciting those feelings which generate the inclination to cause public disorder by acts of violence” would not attract the penal offence.
The court added that “commenting in strong terms upon the measures or acts of Government, or its agencies, so as to ameliorate the condition of the people or to secure the cancellation or alteration of those acts or measures by lawful means, that is to say, without exciting those feelings of enmity and disloyalty which imply excitement to public disorder or the use of violence”, is not sedition.
“A citizen has a right to say or write whatever he likes about the Government, or its measures, by way of criticism or comment, so long as he does not incite people to violence against the Government established by law or with the intention of creating public disorder,” it further maintained.
While the court did read down S.124A, Kedar Nath’s appeal was rejected, after the Bench held that his words did not fall within the purview of the definition of sedition as had been interpreted in the verdict.