In this case, we are directly concerned with the question how far the offence defined in s. 124A of the Indian Penal Code is consistent with the fundamental right guaranteed by Art. 19 (1) (a) of the Constitution.
It is common ground that the right is subject to such reasonable restrictions as would come within the purview of cl. (2), which comprises (a) security of the State, (c) public order, (d) decency or morality, etc.
The Government established by law” has to be distinguished from the persons for the time being engaged in carrying on the administration. “Government established by law” is the visible symbol of the State. The very existence of the State will be in jeopardy if the Government established by law is subverted.
Hence any 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.
But the section has taken care to indicate clearly that strong words used to express disapprobation of the measures of Government with a view to their improvement or alteration by lawful means would not come within the section.
Similarly, 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 be penal.
In other words, disloyalty to Government established by law is not the same thing as 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.
It is pertinent to observe that the security of the State, which depends upon the maintenance of law and order is the very basic consideration upon which legislation, with a view to punishing offences against the State, is undertaken.
But the freedom has to be guarded again becoming a licence for vilification and condemnation of the Government established by law, in words which incite violence or have the tendency to create public disorder. 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.
If we accept the interpretation of the Federal Court as to the gist of criminality in an alleged crime of sedition, namely, incitement to disorder or tendency or likelihood of public disorder or reasonable apprehension thereof, the section may lie within the ambit of permissible legislative restrictions on the fundamental right of freedom of speech and expression.
The expression “in the interest of…public order” are words of great amplitude and are much more comprehensive than the expression “for the maintenance of”. Any law which is enacted in the interest of public order may be saved from the vice of constitutional invalidity.
It is well settled that if certain provisions of law construed in one way would make them consistent with the Constitution and another interpretation would render them unconstitutional, Court would lean in favour of the former construction.
The explanations appended to the main body of the section make it clear that criticism of public measures or comment on Government action, however strongly worded, would be within reasonable limits and would be consistent with the fundamental right of freedom of speech and expression. It is only when the words, written or spoken, etc. which have the pernicious tendency or intention of creating public disorder or disturbance of law and order that the law steps in to prevent such activities in the interest of public order.
Viewed in that light, we have no hesitation in so construing the provisions of the sections impugned in these cases as to limit their application to acts involving intention or tendency to create disorder or disturbance of law and order or incitement to violence.
In the case of R.M.D. Chamarbaugwalla v. The Union of India the Court had to choose between a definition of the expression ‘Prize Competitions” as limited to those competitions which were of a gambling character and those which were not. The Court chose the former interpretation which made the rest of the provisions of the Act, Prize Competitions Act valid. The Court held that the penalty attached only to those competitions which involved the element of gambling and those competitions in which success depended to a substantial degree on skill were held to be out of the purview of the Act. The ratio decidendi in that case, in our opinion, applied to the case in hand in so far as we propose to limit its operation only to ….. activities involving incitement to violence or intention or tendency to create public disorder or cause disturbance of public peace.
It is manifest that each one of the constituent elements of the offence under s. 505 has reference to, and a direct effect on, the security of the State or public order. Hence, these provisions would not exceed the bounds of reasonable restrictions on the right of freedom of speech and expression.