A Maharashtra home department circular laying down guidelines for the police to invoke charges of sedition hasled to criticism that it’s a move to muzzle public opinion. One of the provisos is that the charge of treason can be invoked if criticism of politicians or public servants, in their capacity as representatives of the government, is seen as causing hatred or contempt.
The circular was issued last week after the government had submitted in the Bombay high court, in the case related to sedition charges against cartoonist Aseem Trivedi in March this year, that it would lay down guidelines for invokingsection 124 A of the Indian Penal Code. Trivedi was arrested in Mumbai on September 9, 2012, for sedition after a case was filed against him in Beed on the charge that his cartoons denigrated parliament and other national symbols. The court has set Trivedi free saying his cartoons did not incite violence and only expressed anger at the state machinery.
The Congress, the Nationalist Congress Party and the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena have termed the guidelines regressive, saying they will be used to stifle valid criticism of the government, its ministers, ruling party legislators and officials. Their worry is that the guidelines are open to interpretation by the police and this could led to their misuse.
State home secretary KP Bakshi told HT: “Criticism against the policy of the government and the elected representatives does not attract the provision of this section [IPC section 124 A] but defamatory statements against politicians may attract action.”
The circular states that if words or signs or representations by someone causes hatred, enmity, contempt, disloyalty against government, and can “also be an incitement to violence or intends to cause public disorder”, charges of treason can be invoked. The circular, however, clarifies that comments expressing disapproval against government with a view to obtain change in government by lawful means cannot be seditious. It also states that vulgarity and obscenity by itself should not be taken into account for this charge.
The home department has defended the circular claiming that it was issued in accordance with the high court order.
Mihir Desai, the lawyer who defended Trivedi, said: “The high court order had included the submission made by the Advocate General then that certain guidelines, via a circular, would be issued to the police for invoking sedition charges. But the guidelines have not been issued by the court.’’
He said, “These conditions must obviously be read in conjunction with each other especially with regards to inciting violence, public disorder. But, one can’t say how the government or a police officer will interpret this circular. If it is selectively interpreted then it can be challenged in the court.’’
The home department in a press release clarified its stance late in the evening. It said: “Advocate General had submitted [in the high court] that guidelines would be issued to the police for invoking charges under section 124 (A). These guidelines as submitted before the court have just been translated into Marathi in the circular. Criticism against government made through legal methods will not attract sedition.”
But critics of the circular ask who is to guarantee that a stinging denigration of a state minister via a tweet or a meme will not be interpreted as leading to disloyalty and enmity against the ruling government and inciting public disorder. They saysection 124 A should be done away with.