Rohan J Alva's 'A Constitution to Keep': Sedition and Free Speech in Modern India

The book that provides a 360-degree view of the much-debated law of sedition.
 A Constitution to Keep
A Constitution to Keep

With advance praise from legal experts, Rohan J Alva's A Constitution to Keep is an important work that demystifies a crucial aspect of constitutional law for the common reader.

The book published by Harper Collins is a definitive account of the law on sedition in India, and is set to release on March 15.

Created during British imperial rule with the specific intent to silence those who questioned it, from the mid-1800s until 1947, sedition as sanctified in Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code was often used to quell the voice of the people. It rightfully earned the ire of those who fought for India’s independence.

A newly independent India’s Constitution made a clean break with the past. It contained a free speech right, which did away with the law on sedition. But then, through a series of events, which include a dramatic constitutional amendment that altered freedom of speech, Section 124A came back to life. In 1962, the Supreme Court declared that this law was saved by the Constitution. But, six decades later, in the summer of 2022, the Supreme Court suspended Section 124A and questioned the need for such a law in modern India.

Drawing on a wealth of archival material, Constituent Assembly debates, and Indian and global jurisprudence, A Constitution to Keep traces the history of the law on sedition over the decades. It makes a compelling case for granting heightened constitutional protection to political speech and shows how it can be done while ensuring the purity of national discourse.

About the Author

Rohan J Alva
Rohan J Alva

Rohan J. Alva is a counsel practising in the Supreme Court of India. He graduated with an LL.M. from Harvard Law School, where he focused on constitutional law, and which he read for on numerous scholarships including as a Tata Scholar and on a Harvard Law School Scholarship. He holds a B.A. in History from Loyola College, University of Madras, and an LL.B. from Campus Law Centre, University of Delhi, where he was Editor of the Delhi Law Review. His first book, Liberty After Freedom: A History of Article 21, Due Process and the Constitution of India, was published in January 2022.

Praise for the Book 

‘Rohan J. Alva’s book is a brilliant account of the troubled history of the law of sedition. A Constitution to Keep makes a compelling case for the repeal of not only the law of sedition in Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, but similar provisions in the UAPA that enable the government to imprison any person who criticizes the government. Section 124A is now suspended by the Supreme Court in view of its misuse and Parliament has been asked to reconsider its continuance, but there is no indication of any move to omit this section. Through this work, Alva clearly demonstrates that sedition cannot pass muster in a democracy.’ — Arvind P Datar, Senior Advocate, Supreme Court of India, and eminent author.

‘In this brilliant exposition, Rohan J. Alva unravels a novel dimension to the interpretation of the free speech clause. He convincingly argues that political critique of governmental affairs ought to be put beyond the realm of State regulation. As Alva rightly propounds, unless there is demonstrable and imminently inevitable harm to State security (not just a mere “tendency”), free speech cannot be proscribed. A Constitution to Keep is a must-read, which tolls the death knell for the penal provision of sedition and other laws of the same ilk. It is a timely reminder to the State that invoking draconian laws for normal political criticism is like lifting the sledgehammer to swat a fly––which would only end up causing severe damage to the State’s democratic credentials.’ — KV Vishwanathan, Senior Advocate, Supreme Court of India, and Former Additional Solicitor General of India.

Regarding the book, author Rohan J Alva says,

“The Indian Constitution is a grand document. One of its most important features is the fundamental right to free speech. Yet there is a tension because this important civil right is compelled to coexist with the law on sedition. There is perhaps no other law from the colonial era that has generated as much controversy and interest as the law on sedition. There is perhaps no other law with which the freedom struggle for India’s independence is so intimately intertwined. Today every citizen yearns to understand how the Constitution can be utilised to prevail over such laws. I believe my book helps the people to get a good grasp of the issues at stake and appreciate the abiding importance of free speech rights and its role in preserving and improving Indian democracy. The promise of India’s freedom lies in the right to free speech. The need for the realisation of this promise is the central message of the book.”

Commenting on the fibre of the book, Swati Chopra, Associate Publisher, HarperCollins India, says,

“With A Constitution to Keep, Rohan Alva spotlights an aspect of India’s Constitution that is key to the functioning of the country’s democracy. A colonial era law that was used to stifle the voice of the people prior to 1947 should have been anomalous in the Constitution of independent India. Yet, the law on sedition continues to exist due to legal, political and historical complexities, all of which are explored and explained at length in this book. It should be read by anyone who feels strongly about the health of India’s democracy and the right to free speech that should be central to it.”

Alva's previous book on Liberty After Freedom also received many a commendation from The Week, Hindustan Times, Business Standard, The Telgraph, KK Venugopal, Attorney General for India, Michael Klarman, The Charles Warren Professor, Harvard Law School, Richard Albert, Professor of World Constitutions and Director of Constitutional Studies, The University of Texas at Austin among others

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