The law came into force under British rule in 1898 to put down a rebellion for independence. It was later used to incarcerate thousands of Indians fighting against colonial rule, including Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Gandhi’s Offense: A Series of Opinion Essays in His Weekly Young India. The independence leader later tested in court that the law was designed to suppress civil liberties.
The language of India’s sedition law is intentionally vague, legal experts say. It can be exercised against anyone who “brings or attempts to bring hatred or contempt, or arouses or attempts to arouse dissatisfaction” with the government.
“This is the most abused law instituted by the British to control Indians,” said Mahua Moitra, a petitioner who is also an opposition member of the Indian parliament. “The government in power must stop using this law to suppress dissent.”
Even after the country gained independence in 1947, the law remained in government books with governments in power, often using it for political gain, according to its critics.
Since Modi came to power in 2014, activists say it has become a common tool for the government and its allies to stifle dissent. In Uttar Pradesh, police accused 28 people of sedition after protesting a law that gave expedited citizenship to foreigners from neighboring countries of all major religious groups except Islam.
The Supreme Court upheld two petitions filed last year, one from a non-profit news organization and the other from a retired Army general, that the law violated India’s constitutional protections of freedom of speech and expression. In June, the court said it was concerned about the impoverishment of the law, comparing it with a “The carpenter is given a saw to make an object which he uses to cut the entire forest instead of a tree.”