As ironies go, this one is rich. A circular in Maharashtra containing guidelines aimed at preventing the misuse of the law relating to sedition appears to endanger freedom of speech and expression. The Bombay High Court has now >stayed the August 27 circular , pending a decision on its constitutional validity. The controversial aspect of the circular is that it seems to tell police personnel that strong criticism of public servants can possibly attract the sedition charge if it shows them as “representatives of the Union or State government”. The circular was an offshoot of a judgment by the High Court in March this year on the question whether the police were right in slapping the sedition charge against a cartoonist in 2012. Though the charge was dropped subsequently, the court reminded the authorities that sedition as an offence requires the element of incitement to violence and disaffection against a government established by law, and mere criticism of government policy or public servants will not attract the provision. The Advocate General had said the government would come up with guidelines as a circular to police personnel on when and how Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code may be evoked. It seems a point in the High Court order that sedition will not be attracted by words or signs or representations against politicians or public servants, unless they were shown to be representative of the government, was loosely translated in Marathi to the effect that any criticism against politicians and public servants representing the Union or State government would attract the charge.
The potential for mischief from the circular has been stalled by the court order now, but the fact is that police officers continue to invoke Section 124A indiscriminately. Flagrant instances in recent times include the >registration of a sedition case against cartoonist Aseem Trivedi , one of the petitioners against the latest circular, for cartoons produced in 2012 highlighting corruption, and the >attempt to book some Kashmiri students in a university in Meerut last year for cheering for Pakistan in a one-day cricket match against India, using a pre-Independence era provision that was meant to suppress the freedom movement. While the possibility of groups and individuals promoting disaffection against a lawful government still exists, there is little justification to invoke the sedition charge against political movements unless they promote violence and public disorder. Instead of ad hoc attempts to put in place loose safeguards and guidelines, the government would do well to review such outdated penal provisions. Legislation exists to deal with unlawful activities and armed movements. There is no need to criminalise words spoken or written, however strong and provocative they are in their criticism of the state.