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The Big Picture – Maharashtra Order: What is Sedition?

The Big Picture – Maharashtra Order: What is Sedition?



The debate over what constitutes sedition, an act against state as described under section 124A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), has been revived. The issue has cropped up again following a circular issued by the Maharashtra government; with guidelines to the police detailing when and in what circumstances they can evoke the sedition charge. This comes five months after the Bombay high court had rejected the charges of sedition against a cartoonist. The Maharashtra government’s circular is being seen as violation of the freedom of speech as well as dangerous as any criticism of a politician or elected representative can be considered as sedition. The larger issue is whether the colonial concept of sedition should still be in the statute books.

The circular containing guidelines to police with regard to invocation of IPC Section (124-A), says sedition clause can be invoked against “whoever, by words, either spoken or written, or by signs or by visible representation, is critical of politicians, elected representatives belonging to the government.” However, the section will not be invoked against those trying to bring change in government through legal means without hatred and contempt.

Legal experts say that the Maharashtra government’s notice on sedition charges has been found to be against the spirit of a High Court order. They say that the definition of sedition is quite clear in legal provisions and a High Court order has further clarified what does not include sedition. The High Court, in March 2015, had said that a citizen has a right to say or write anything critical about the Government, or its measures, as long it does not incite violence or intended to disrupt public peace and create disorder. The HC had also directed the police to “scrupulously implement” new guidelines issued by the Maharashtra government that place checks on filing of frivolous sedition cases. The issue had been raised during the hearing of a public interest litigation dealing with the arrest of Mumbai-based cartoonist Aseem Trivedi in 2012 and the charges of sedition brought against him under Section 124A for drawing “objectionable” cartoons.

However, the new circular has excluded certain key words from the high court’s guidelines so that it now states, “Words, signs or representations to be treated as seditious if they are against a person who is shown as representative of the government” whereas the original HC paragraph read, “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 vagueness of this clause has people flaying the circular as it could amount to gagging. Experts say that commenting on or criticizing the government or its actions is not the same as disloyalty.

Sedition is an offence where words, signs or visible representations are aimed at attracting hatred or enmity against a government. Under Section 124-A of the Indian Penal Code, the maximum punishment for sedition is life imprisonment. The SC had earlier upheld the constitutionality of the section but clarified that only activities involving incitement to violence or intention or tendency to create public disorder or cause disturbance of public peace could amount to sedition. A five-judge constitutional bench of the SC in 1962 in Kedar Nath vs State of Bihar had held that “comments, however strongly worded, expressing disapprobation of actions of the Government, without inciting violence, would not be penal.”

The recent state’s circular was issued on the basis of guidelines submitted by the former advocate general and recorded by the HC in its March 2015 judgment while dropping a 2011 sedition charge against cartoonist Aseem Trivedi for his cartoons to protest corruption. As safeguard, the guidelines require a “district law officer and later a public prosecutor” to give their written opinion before a case is registered. But most legal experts say these safeguards are not enough.

A PIL has also been filed in the High Court against the circular. The High Court has granted two weeks to the state government to file its reply on this public interest litigation (PIL), which has sought trashing of a government circular defining guidelines for police to slap sedition charges.