The Maharashtra government has told the Bombay High Court that it will either withdraw its guidelines on sedition or issue fresh ones, ending people's apprehension that the government was bent on crushing any voice of opposition or criticism. The government claimed that there were errors in the translation of the Marathi circular, although Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis had initially written a scathing reply to a senior journalist, defending the circular.
The circular had created fear among public that its vagueness and ambiguity may make them prone to misuse.
"The words, signs or representations must bring the government (Central or state) into hatred or contempt or must cause or attempt to cause disaffection, enmity or disloyalty to the government and the words/signs/representation must also be an incitement to violence or must be intended or tend to create public disorder or a reasonable apprehension of public disorder," said the first clause of the submission made by Maharashtra Advocate General to the Bombay High Court in March this year. The court was hearing a Public Interest Litigation filed by lawyer Sanskar Marathe against the slapping of sedition charge on cartoonist Aseem Trivedi in the year 2012.
The second clause said, "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."
But, the government brought in its ambit all "politicians and public servants" while issuing the circular on 27 August this year. The second clause of the circular, which has been challenged before the court, reads, "The section should be used only when such written or oral words, gestures or expressions are aimed at politicians or public servants."
This was seen as the government's attempt to contradict the submissions it made before the court. The Advocate General had said that the criticism against politicians and public servants by itself does not fall in the category of sedition. The Bombay High Court had, in its March 2015 judgement, observed that any critical comments which do not incite violence would not fall under the category of sedition. "It is clear that the provisions of section 124A of IPC cannot be invoked to penalise criticism of the persons for the time being engaged in carrying on administration or strong words used to express disapprobation of the measures of government with a view to their improvement or alteration by lawful means. Similarly, comments, however strongly worded, expressing disapprobation of actions of the government, without exciting those feelings which generate the inclination to cause public disorder by acts of violence, would not be penal." The court had upheld a citizen's right of fair criticism of the government. "A citizen has a right to say or write whatever he likes about the government, or its measures, by way of criticism or comments, so long as he does not incite people to violence against the government established by law or with the intention of creating public disorder," it had said.
"The most important problem with the guidelines issued by the Maharashtra government is that it dilutes the very object of section 124A of IPC. According to the law and its interpretation by the courts, hatred towards the country was the basis of slapping this charge. But these guidelines want to give privilege to the politicians, administrators. This is an unqualified concept which has been introduced. They can't enjoy such a privilege under section 124A," said advocate J Shekhar who has moved the PIL seeking quashing of the circular.
"And if the government wants to amend the law, it should do it through legislature. It can't amend the law by issuing a circular and guidelines," he said further.
The Supreme Court, in its various judgements, has upheld the importance of protecting the fundamental rights of the citizens. Recently, the Bombay High Court too expressed shock at the Maharashtra government's circular. "Is the government trying to stop the entire opposition?" the division bench headed by Justice Kanade had asked.
K. P. Bakshi, Additional Chief Secretary (Home), Maharashtra government, was not available for comments despite repeated attempts.