The government order allows the police to invoke a colonial era sedition clause — 124-A of the Indian Penal Code.
The government order allows the police to invoke a colonial era sedition clause — 124-A of the Indian Penal Code.
NEW DELHI: The  Maharashtra government has in an order dated August 27 given police powers to take action against those critical of the state or central government if it deemed such critiques to be particularly offensive. Political observers apprehend this could threaten free speech.

The government order allows the police to invoke a colonial era  sedition clause — 124-A of the Indian Penal Code — against any person who “by words, either spoken or written, or by signs or by visible representation or otherwise, brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, dissatisfaction and provoking violence against the central or the state government.”

Former chief minister Ashok Chavan described the government resolution as highly objectionable and said he has sought legal opinion to challenge it. “We will see to it that the rights of the people are not curtailed. This is the state’s attempt to gag people, which is against the Constitution and democracy,” said Chavan.

Police officer-turned-lawyer, YP Singh, termed it a dangerous piece of advice to the police. “This is draconian, they have expanded the earlier definition of sedition. They have given unbridled discretionary powers to a police officer which is not permitted in a democracy. This is unconstitutional and against Article 14 of the Constitution, he said. “This definition of the GR is not an issue, the problem will come up during implementation and if it does come up it could be corrected through judicial review,” said former Maharashtra advocate-general Sunil Manohar.

The Maharashtra home department, however, clarified that it has specifically instructed police officials in the GR that criticism by legal means cannot be a ground for sedition under the  IPC. It said that in the third point in the circular those who lawfully try to change the government without invoking anger or disaffection should not be charged with sedition.

The Bombay high court, while dropping the sedition charge against cartoonist Aseem Trivedi had asked the government to issue guidelines to police on how to invoke the sedition clause. The Mumbai police had arrested Trivedi in 2012 for drawing cartoons that allegedly insulted  the national emblem and Parliament.

But the high court did not find merit in the police case and asked the government to draw up guidelines for the police. The only restrain in the government’s advice to the police is that sedition charges cannot be slapped on those trying to bring change in government through legal means without hatred and contempt. But it is still left to the police to determine whether someone is employing “hatred and contempt” while democratically protesting against the government.

YP Singh pointed out that going by these guidelines, cops can arrest anyone for sedition claiming that his or her criticism undermines or creates hatred against the government. Though the state government circular asks police officers to take the legal opinion of the district legal officer and the public prosecutor before filing a case, Singh said that these safeguards were not enough because the government could have the police book anyone who criticises it.