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Egg on face: court asks Maharashtra to hold back sedition circular

Ashwin Aghor | Updated on: 13 February 2017, 4:51 IST

Hold it back

  • The Bombay High Court asked Maharashtra government to put on hold sedition guidelines to police
  • Division Bench asks government to justify its circular on sedition within 2 weeks
  • Ironically, CM Devendra Fadnavis defended the circular on sedition in question on Tuesday

What\'s wrong

  • Harsh provisions of the circular were criticised by politicians as well as common citizens
  • If implemented, the circular will suppress free speech: Advocate Narendra Sharma
  • Ground staff unable to understand intricacies of Section 124A of IPC: Sharma

The Maharashtra government faced the music on Tuesday. The Bombay High Court asked it to put on hold a set of controversial guidelines for the police related to the imposition of sedition charges. And that on a day the chief minister defended the circular in the media.

The Devendra Fadnavis government's circular had stirred controversy by making some harsh provisions in the guidelines for police officers. The guidelines were issued in August.

Not only the government's political rivals like the Congress and the NCP, but millions of citizens objected to the circular on social media.

On Tuesday, a divisional Bench asked the government to justify the circular in two weeks. The Bench comprising Justice VM Kanade and Justice Dr Shalini Phansalkar Joshi was hearing a public interest litigation (PIL).

If the circular is implemented in its present form it will suppress free speech, violating constitutional rights, argued Narendra Sharma representing the petitioners.

The inability of the ground staff to understand the intricacies and legal reparations of invoking Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), which deals with sedition, will create serious problems, Sharma said

"The circular was an attempt to suppress the fundamental right to speech and expression. Ironically, the chief minister, in a letter published in the media today, has defended the circular," Congress spokesperson Sachin Savant said. "It is a slap on the face of the government."

The case

The genesis of the controversy dates back to a January 2012 case against cartoonist Aseem Trivedi, who supported Anna Hazare's anti-corruption campaign.

Trivedi's cartoon allegedly insulted Parliament, the national emblem, the national flag and the Constitution. Following a complaint, the police registered a case against Trivedi under Section 124(A) in Maharashtra's Beed district.

The charges were amended later and additional cases were registered against the cartoonist under the State Emblem of India (Prohibition of Improper Use) Act, 2005. He was arrested on 9 September, 2012 from Mumbai. The sedition charges were, however, dropped the next month.

Following the arrest, Sanskar Marathe and others filed the PIL against the state government. A division Bench said citizens had the right to express their displeasure about a government and their representatives as long as they did not instigate violence or create a law-and-order situation.

Ground staff's inability to understand intricacies of Section 124A to create problems: Advocate Sharma

The Bench comprising the then Chief Justice Mohit Shah and Justice Nitin Jamdar also observed that the cartoon in question, that prompted the police to book Trivedi on charges of sedition, did not have any element of wit, humour or sarcasm.

While passing a judgment on 17 March, 2015 the Bench said the cartoon only expressed anger and disgust and that doesn't attract sedition charges. While the PIL was disposed by the court, it asked the government to issue guidelines to impose sedition charges.

According to the circular the government issued, criticism of people's representatives or the government can not be termed sedition as long as it creates unrest in the society leading to a law-and-order situation.

"Sedition charges can be imposed only when the words or signs or gestures or visuals create hatred, dissatisfaction, enmity or disloyalty about Central or State government and instigates violence leading to law and order situation," according to the circular.

The criticism

Though the circular was issued on 27 August, it drew attention only after a media report about it on 4 September.

The report led to agitated reactions from opposition political parties and the circular was interpreted to be aimed at suppressing the voices rising against political leaders and the government.

"The circular was a classical example of infinite stupidity on part of the government of Maharashtra," said Shreehari Aney, a senior lawyer at the high court.

"Any instructions given to police officers can never be contrary to a citizen's fundamental rights under the Constitution," Aney said.

BJP spokespersons could not be reached for comment.

First published: 22 September 2015, 11:39 IST
Ashwin Aghor @CatchNews

Journalist based in Mumbai.