When the Bombay High Court dropped the absurd sedition charge against cartoonist Aseem Trivedi, it ordered the Maharashtra government to issue guidelines to the police on how the sedition law may be appropriately implemented. The resulting BJP-led Maharashtra government advisory to the police on Section 124 of the Indian Penal Code makes a mockery of democracy itself. Here is a translation of the five preconditions it has issued.
- Verbal or written, words, gestures or images or other content that expresses hate or contempt or dislike, insult or discontent or enmity or treachery or disloyalty towards the state or central governments in a manner that provokes violence or discontent.
- Written, verbal, gesture/signs or other communication that suggest that these politicians or public servants are representatives of state
- Criticism that intends to create change through legal means and that doesn’t demean or create dislike for the government should not be prosecuted under this section.
- Only obscenity or indecency should not be applied with this section.
- Before this section is applied, opinion of Zilla officials should be obtained. Within two weeks, the the public prosecutor should be consulted.
This advisory has naturally generated significant outrage. The document being in Marathi has prevented many legal commentators who don’t understand the language from commenting, while BJP supporters are attempting to discredit the outrage as false by emphasizing the third point and pretending that that is all the advisory contains.
I am not a lawyer, but my reactions.
- The vagueness of the parameters identifying sedition rival the notorious IT Rules. Similar to them, pretty much anything that reflects badly on the government could be described by such sweeping descriptors. Irritate the government and get booked for sedition seems to be the summary of this point. “expresses hate or contempt or dislike, insult or discontent or enmity or treachery or disloyalty towards the state or central governments” – it covers dislike – you don’t even need to read the rest! Disliking a government could get you arrested? Something like asking for your promised 15 lakh could now go beyond not just getting your promised riches, but also landing in jail for asking for it, because hey, people would be discontented because of this, right?
- This basically amounts to the words/signs being against government representatives. Basically, you can’t criticize the government, ministers, public officials…. the short summary is dissent is now illegal.
- This seems very magnanimous of them with all the nice promotion by organized trolls, but the fact is that it is rather sinister that legal process to address problems gets covered under a law for sedition to begin with, and then you actually don’t have a categoric endorsement of your right to engage the system, you have it as long as you don’t demean the government or create dislike for it. It is actually taking a right you had without restrictions, magnanimously handing it back to you with restrictions, and then promoting the hell out of it because they gave it back at all.
- This is actually the real “magnanimous point”. How generous the government is being, upholding your right to not be prosecuted for sedition over obscenity or indecency. Waitaminit, HOW in the big fat world would either of them be sedition to begin with that their not being has any meaning at all? I doubt that even the sexually repressed Hindutva brigade can anticipate an epidemic of indecency large enough to be a threat to the nation. This is a talking point basically to show that the advisory had a larger aim than creating a set up for people to be arrested and prosecuted for a crime against their motherland for pissing the government off. This point, not having any real stake could even be happily conceded to critics in a compromise.
- Nothing much to comment here. Procedural sho-sha. Let us not even pretend either entity cannot be managed to target whoever the government wants to put six feet under.
In my view, a document that advises punishing people for disliking their government or being discontented has no place in a democracy.
Obviously, the government cannot arrest everyone who criticizes, but once you have “preconditions” like this in place, it basically creates a method to arrest practically anyone the government finds inconvenient. The sweeping vagueness of the laws as well as the discretion allowed to the police (who are controlled by the state) guarantee that they cannot be applied uniformly (and would be absolutely undemocratic if they were). It also guarantees that the state can and will target citizens on whim and is a message for the public to be careful of what they say or face consequences.
There seems to be an organized effort to present this draconian advisory as a requirement emerging from the Aseem Trivedi case. This is a flat out falsehood. This advisory contradicts the High Court guidelines, and as pointed out by Saurav Datta on Twitter, invites contempt of court.
Note: This old post has been edited and updated in light of the damning confirmation that evidence was planted on activists arrested in the Bhima Koregaon case. Sedition is among the charges they face. The government in Maharashtra has since changed and the new government shows every indication of behaving in a more democratic manner. I appeal that the new government relook at these preconditions and issue ones that are more respectful of civil rights and democracy.