Rights groups and even the Supreme Court have ruled on the law’s rampant misuse against activists, writers, and students.
India’s Supreme Court has prohibited the government from using a colonial-era sedition law which critics say is often used to stifle dissent, pending review.
The 152-year-old law, which the British colonial government used against Mahatma Gandhi and other leaders of a campaign for independence, remained on the books after India’s independence in 1947 and has been used by governments since then.
“It will be appropriate not to use this provision of the law until further examination is over,” Chief Justice NV Ramana told the court on Wednesday after he ruled that all proceedings under the law, known as Section 124-A , “will be held in abeyance.”
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government had told the court this week it was reviewing the law, which says anyone who brings hatred or contempt, or incites disaffection towards the government, can be punished with up to life in prison.
The Law Commission of India and even the Supreme Court have commented on several occasions on what they have said was a rampant misuse of sedition law against social activists, writers and students.
New Delhi-based lawyer Tanveer Ahmed Mir told Al Jazeera that the high court realized that in a constitutional democracy, “disaffection towards the government cannot be an indictable offense because a monarch basically demands dissatisfaction or affection. ”.
“The problem in the sedition law is the pact of disaffection towards the government of the day. You cannot have a criminal charge of disaffection towards a government in a constitutional democracy,” he said.
Mir said he will request bail on Thursday for Sharjeel Imam, a student jailed under the sedition law since January 2020.
Lawyer Kapil Sibal, who represented the petitioners in the Supreme Court, said there had been more than 800 sedition cases in India and 13,000 people were in jail under the law, the Indian website NDTV said in a report.
The Indian constitution guarantees freedom of speech and expression as a fundamental right of all its citizens.
In response to the court’s order, Federal Law and Justice Minister Kiren Rijiju said the government “respects the court and its independence.”
“But there is a ‘Lakshman Rekha’ [red line] that must be respected by all the organs of the State in letter and spirit. We have to make sure that we respect the provisions of the Indian constitution as well as the existing laws,” he told the Indian news agency ANI.
High Court lawyer Karuna Nundy said the court barring the misuse of the sedition law is a “very significant step forward” and hoped the government would “remove the law”.
“It’s a great thing. The Supreme Court giving the deadline to the central government but at the same time making sure that no new cases are registered and no coercive measures are taken in all cases is a very significant step forward,” he told Al Jazeera.
Bilal Kuchay contributed to this report from New Delhi.