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Has Maharashtra just made criticism of politicians sedition?

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

The policy

  • Circular purportedly equates government\'s criticism with sedition
  • It was issued after the Bombay HC\'s order in Aseem Trivedi case
  • The BJP says it\'s just precautionary guidelines for the police

The outrage

  • The opposition says the circular is draconian and arbitrary
  • It\'s meant to suppress criticism of the \"failed BJP government\"
  • Legal experts say it\'s a restriction on the freedom of expression

The BJP government in Maharashtra has landed in yet another controversy. The Home department has issued a circular that purportedly equates criticism of people's representatives with sedition.

The Leader of Opposition Radhakrishna Vikhe Patil has demanded that it be withdrawn immediately as has the Legislative Council leader Dhananjay Munde. Several other parties, including the NCP, have slammed the circular as unconstitutional.

Senior Congress leader Narayan Rane claimed the circular will suppress citizens' right to freedom of expression. "It's a clear attempt to suppress the media, which is the fourth pillar of our democracy." He added that his party will decide the further course of action after consulting legal experts.

Called to account

The roots of the controversy lie in a case registered against cartoonist Aseem Trivedi in January 2012. He had drawn a cartoon in support of Anna Hazare's anti-corruption campaign which drew criticism for "insulting" the country's parliament, emblem, flag and Constitution.

Trivedi was arrested on 9 September 2012 and charged with sedition. Though the charge was soon dropped in the wake of public outrage, lawyer Sanskar Marathe filed a PIL in the Bombay High Court challenging the invoking of the sedition law.

After hearing the case for over two years, a bench of Chief Justice Mohit Shah and Justice Nitin Jamdar ruled on 17 March 2015 that citizens have the right to express displeasure about their government and representatives as long as it does not instigate violence.

The court observed that Trivedi's cartoon expressed anger and disgust, which are not grounds for applying the charge of sedition.

The court also ordered the state government to draft guidelines for imposition of the sedition charge. The circular issued on 27 August is a consequence of this order.

@INCIndia: This government has failed on all fronts, the circular is meant to suppress its criticism

It instructs the police that "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 instigate violence leading to a law and order situation".

This was interpreted as being aimed at suppressing criticism of government and political leaders, and caused outrage.

A delegation of the Congress even called on Governor CV Rao, demanding that the circular be scrapped.

"The government has been a failure on all fronts. In this situation, everyone would criticise the government. The objective of the circular clearly is to suppress those voices, including of the media," said party spokesman Sachin Savant.

In good faith

The BJP, however, dismissed the allegations. Its spokesman Keshav Upadhye said, "Let me clear one thing. This is not a GR. These are guidelines issued as per the high court's orders. If anyone has any objection to the HC order, they can challenge it in the appropriate forum."

He insisted that the guidelines do not impinge on the freedom of expression or put restrictions on the criticism of government and political leaders.

"On the contrary, it is a step towards strengthening the constitutional and democratic rights of the people," Upadhye said. "As per the guidelines, only such criticism that instigates violence and distrust for the government leading to a law and order situation will attract the charge of sedition."

The guidelines are crystal clear and there is no need to panic, journalist Praveen Bardapurkar

He added that the police will have to consult the local law officer before imposing a sedition charge and get it approved by the advocate general within two weeks. "I fail to find any substance in the criticism of the state government."

Senior journalist Praveen Bardapurkar supported Upadhye's view. "These are just guidelines, not a GR. They are no binding. This issue has cropped up due to misinterpretation of the guidelines by sections of the media," he said. "In my opinion, the guidelines are crystal clear and there is absolutely no need to panic."

Matter of interpretation

Legal experts though are divided. Senior Bombay High Court lawyer Uday Warunjikar said, "The guidelines are draconian and arbitrary. It is nothing but unreasonable restriction on the freedom of speech and expression. I hope the government withdraws the circular as early as possible."

He added that the "wording of the guidelines is yet to be approved by the high court."

Advocate Ganesh Sovani, however, said the criticism wasn't justified. "This circular is in consonance with the verdict delivered by the high court."

The guidelines are essentially precautions to be taken by the police while deciding complaints of alleged sedition, he added.

"There is a double check involved if the charge of sedition is to be invoked," the advocate said, referring to the need for the police to consult the local law officer and the advocate general. "All this has been done to ensure invoking of sedition is foolproof in all respects."

Besides, Sovani pointed out, the circular clarifies that its instructions "are not per se exhaustive, but other relevant factors are also required to be kept in mind depending on the case."

First published: 6 September 2015, 12:36 IST
Ashwin Aghor @CatchNews

Journalist based in Mumbai.