Defamation / Reputation, Hate Speech, Political Expression
Awan v. Levant
Closed Mixed Outcome
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The Supreme Court of India upheld the constitutional validity of the provisions of the Indian Penal Code that penalized sedition. Kedar Nath Singh had been convicted for sedition and inciting public mischief because of a speech in which he criticized the government and advocated for the Forward Communist Party. The Court reasoned that the penalization of sedition is a constitutionally valid restriction on the right to freedom of expression only when the words are intended to disturb public peace by violence.
The appellant in this case had been convicted for sedition and inciting public mischief because of a speech in which he had criticized Congress, the ruling national party, for its capitalist policies, and instead advocated for the Forward Communist Party. His appeal before the High Court of Judicature at Patna was struck down. On appeal to the Supreme Court, the appellant argued that the Indian Penal Code provisions on sedition violated the right to freedom of expression under Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution. Subsequently, the case was transferred to a Constitutional Bench as Criminal Appeal No. 169 of 1957 and combined with several other matters:
The Supreme Court was tasked to determine the constitutional validity of the offenses of sedition and inciting public mischief. The impugned provisions read as follows:-
Whoever, by words, either spoken or intended to be read, or by signs,
or by visible representation, or otherwise, excites, or attempts to excite,
feelings of disaffection to the Government established by law in India shall be punished with transportation for life or any shorter term to which fine may be added or with imprisonment which may extend to three years, to which fine may be added, or with fine.
Explanation 1. The expression “disaffection” includes disloyalty and all feelings or enmity.
Explanation 2. Comments expressing disapprobation of the measures of the Government with a view to obtain their alteration by lawful means, without exciting or attempting to excite hatred, contempt or disaffection do not constitute an offence under this section.
Explanation 3. Comments expressing disapprobation of the administrative of other action of the Government without exciting or attempting to excite hatred, contempt or disaffection, do not constitute an offence under this section.”
Section 505 penalizes making, publishing or circulating any statement,
rumor or report:
(a) with intent to cause or which is likely to cause any member of the Army, May or Air Force to mutiny or otherwise disregard or fail in his duty as such; or
(b) to cause fear or alarm to the public or a section of the public which may induce the commission of an offence against the State or against public tranquility; or
(c) to incite or which is likely to incite one class or community of persons to commit an offence against any other class or community.
The judgment of the Court was delivered by a bench constituted of Chief Justice B.P. Sinha and Justices A.K. Sarkar, J.R. Mudholkar, N. Rajagopala Ayyangar and S.K. Das.
The Court began by affirming that the impugned provisions are clearly a restriction on the right to freedom of expression, which is protected under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution. The Court’s task was to determine whether these were reasonable restrictions under Article 19(2), which provides that reasonable restrictions may be imposed on certain grounds including ‘public order’. If a restriction is in keeping with Article 19(2), it is constitutionally valid.
The Court emphasized that the phrase “Government established by law” under section 124A must be distinguished from criticism of a specific party or persons. The Court stated that this interpretation finds support from the title of the relevant chapter in the Indian Penal Code, which is headed “Offences against the State”. The Court considered furthermore that since the State machinery is essential in maintaining peace and stability, statements that fall under section 124A would disturb public order. However, the Court held that the offense of sedition is constituted only when the words spoken have the tendency or intention to create disorder or disturb public peace by resort to violence. This is a constitutionally valid restriction on the right to freedom of expression, because the State may restrict speech in the interest of protecting public order.
The Court went on to elaborate that if the provision was interpreted in any other manner, for example to punish speech that merely spreads disaffection or enmity without inciting a violent overthrow of the government, it would be unconstitutional. However, a statute must be interpreted with due regard to the mischief it seeks to correct and its legislative history. Therefore, the Court concluded that Section 124A must be construed to only penalize statements that incite public disorder. Interpreted in such a manner, the provision was constitutionally valid.
For the same reason, the Court also held that Section 505 was constitutionally valid; it was a reasonable restriction on the right to freedom of expression in the interest of protecting public order.
It followed that Appeal no. 169 was dismissed, and appeals nos. 124-126 were remanded to the High Courts for decisions in line with the Court’s direction.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
The Court upheld provisions in the Penal Code criminalizing sedition, which continue to serve as a restriction on freedom of expression, as constitutional. However, the Court significantly narrowed down the provision, holding that the offense of sedition is made out only if the impugned expression intends to disturb public order or public peace by resort to violence.
Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.
Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.
The decision is binding as a decision of a 5-judge bench of the Supreme Court. This binds all lower courts and future benches of the Supreme Court, unless overruled by a larger bench.
Judgments of the Indian Supreme Court are regarded as influential in other common law countries, and this has decision has been cited by courts in Uganda, for example.
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