India’s top court on Wednesday ordered the temporary suspension of the country’s controversial sedition law, putting pressure on the government which has been accused of misusing it to stifle free speech.
The colonial-era law will be paused until the government completes a review, the Supreme Court said. No further cases should be registered under the law until the review is complete, it added, in an apparent rebuke to the government.
Those currently arrested under the law can apply for bail if they are in prison solely for sedition, Rashmi Singh, a lawyer representing the petitioners, told CNN.
This week India’s federal government told the Supreme Court that it was willing to re-examine the law after a series of petitions were filed in the Supreme Court, challenging it and accusing the government of misusing it.
Singh said she was “exhilarated and very relieved” by the Supreme Court’s order.
“It is a great thing and we hope that when the reconsideration happens, they say that it is a colonial-era law,” she said. “This is definitely a positive move in the direction of the sedition law being struck down.”
The law, which was introduced by the British colonial government in 1860, prohibits “words either spoken or written, or by signs or visible representation” that attempt to cause “hatred or contempt, or excite or attempt to excite disaffection,” toward the government. A person convicted of sedition may be imprisoned for more than three years.
Experts have accused India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of using the law to silence activists, journalists and other critics. India has seen an uptick in its implementation since Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his BJP swept to power in 2014.
In 2015, 30 people were charged with sedition, according to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB). In 2020, the most recent year for which data is available, that number had increased to 73.
In January, Rohinton Nariman, a former judge of India’s Supreme Court, hit out at how sedition laws are being used.
He said young people, students and stand-up comedians were being booked for criticizing the government, while others were getting away with calling for genocide against Muslims, referring to comments made during a three-day event in the city of Haridwar in December when right-wing Hindus called on their followers to kill Muslims.