A circular issued by the Maharashtra government has run into controversy for ostensibly trying to invoke sedition charges for critcising the political establishment. Zeeshan Shaikh explains.
What is the controversy about ?
In August, the BJP-led government in Maharashtra came out with a circular with guidelines that specify when the police can arrest a person on sedition charges under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code. The guidelines have been criticised by many as an attempt to stifle the democratic right of people to criticise the government.
What do these guidelines say?
The circular list four major recommendations which the police are supposed to keep in mind before invoking sedition charges. The first says that for Section 124A to be invoked, “words, signs or representations must bring the Government (Central or State) into hatred or contempt or must cause or attempt to cause disaffection, enmity or disloyalty to the Government and the words/signs/representation must also be an incitement to violence or must be intended or tend to create public disorder or a reasonable apprehension of public disorder”. In other words, criticism of the government that can cause law and order problems.
The second guideline says that criticism of a politician or a public servant can attract sedition charges if it shows them as representatives of the Central or state governments. The exact words in the notification are: “words, signs or representations against politicians or public servants by themselves do not fall in this category unless the words/signs/representations show them as representative of the Government”.
The third clause says that comments expressing disapproval or criticism of the government with a view to obtaining a change of government by “lawful means” are not seditious under Section 124A.
The last recommendation says that obscenity or vulgarity by itself should not be taken into account as a factor or consideration for deciding whether a case falls within the purview of Section 124A of IPC.
Why were the guidelines issued?
The guidelines are part of a draft that the then Congress-NCP government submitted to the Maharashtra High Court in October 2012. The court was hearing a public interest litigation against the arrest and detention of Kanpur-based cartoonist Aseem Trivedi under sedition charges.
Trivedi, who was part of Anna Hazare’s campaign against corruption, had drawn cartoons parodying India’s national symbols and the political class and had been arrested in September 2011 by the Mumbai Police.
In March this year, the High Court rejected the sedition charges against Trivedi, saying that people cannot be charged for sedition for simply criticising the government. It also said that it did not want to dwell on the matter further as it had been assured by the government that it would circulate the guidelines to all police stations in the district.
Nearly five months later, the Devendra Fadnavis government came out with the circular that had the original directives presented to the High Court as well as a Marathi translation of the directives. The devil is in the translation.
What was wrong with the translation?
All the guidelines, except the second one, have been translated without any form of editing. The second guideline — which says that “words, signs or representations against politicians or public servants by themselves do not fall in this category unless the words/signs/ representations show them as representative of the government” — has been edited in Marathi to say, “The charges should be invoked only if words, signs or representations shows politicians or public servants as representatives of the government”.
The Congress, which had originally drafted these rules when it was in power, claims that such an order is open to interpretation and will curtail the fundamental rights of a citizen to criticise the government.
What is the state government’s defence?
The state home department has claimed that that the rest of the recommendations makes it clear that criticism of the state within the confines of the law is permissible. The department has also said that the entire circular was based on the draft that was submitted and approved by the Bombay High Court. Changing the directives now, it said, would invite contempt of court.
“The circular clearly says that criticism of the government and elected representatives does not constitute sedition,” said Additional Chief Secretary Home K P Bakshi.
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