It is shocking that a chief judicial magistrate has ordered that a case of sedition be registered against 49 prominent citizens for writing an open letter to the prime minister criticising the conduct of the Union government. The letter, written in July, had appealed to the prime minister to take action in the numerous incidents of mob lynching. The CJM, Muzaffarpur, Bihar, ordered action on a PIL filed by a local advocate who felt the letter “tarnished the image of the country and undermined the impressive performance of the prime minister” and supported “secessionist tendencies”. There is little in the open letter signed by the likes of filmmakers Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Shyam Benegal and Mani Ratnam, historian Ramachandra Guha, actor Soumitra Chatterjee and musician Shubha Mudgal, that is even remotely seditious — the law is clear that criticism of the government does not constitute sedition. In fact, the letter needs to be seen as an act of responsible citizens performing their democratic duty of demanding accountability from an elected government.
In 2016, the Supreme Court ruled that the authorities, while dealing with the offences under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, shall be guided by the principles laid down by the Constitution Bench in the 1962 Kedar Nath Singh vs State of Bihar case. The apex court had then said that sedition charges must be applied only to acts involving intention or tendency to create disorder, or disturbance of law and order; or incitement to violence. Recently, Justice Deepak Gupta of the Supreme Court, speaking at a seminar, asked for a re-look at the sedition law, saying the provision was being invoked against those who critical of an elected government. Criticism by itself cannot amount to sedition, he said. The Muzaffarpur CJM seems oblivious of the public debate, including in the judiciary, on the rampant misuse of the sedition law and therefore, the need to keep it under check, if not remove it from the statute book. It is also a reflection of the current toxic political culture that a law officer is emboldened to ignore the directives of the apex court on the sedition law and admit frivolous pleas that are clearly meant to harass those who disagree with the powers that be.
The silence of the Nitish Kumar government in this case is equally telling — it amounts to a tacit endorsement of the magistrate’s misreading of the law. The Patna High Court must step in and take remedial measures so that the judiciary doesn’t get discredited by one law officer.