A recent order of the Maharashtra government laying down guidelines to police for invoking the Indian Penal Code section's 124A pertaining to sedition set off a wave of protests here on Friday from both the opposition as well as social media users.
The government order, which follows the guidelines of the Bombay High Court last March for invoking the provision and has been sent to all police stations in the state, has triggered a storm of protests on social media networks with many criticising it as "draconian", "anti-democracy", "dangerous", etc.
Leader of Opposition Radhakrishna Vikhe-Patil, of the Congress, hit out at the government, saying the guidelines are intended to strangulate the democratic rights of the people.
"The state government has failed on all fronts and appears to have misused the guidelines for its own convenience. This is condemnable.... they have been issued so that the people do not criticize the government's failure on various fronts, including the drought in the state," he said.
Terming it as an attempt to suppress the Opposition, senior Congress legislator Sanjay Dutt demanded immediate withdrawal of the guidelines which would treat any criticism of politicians as treason.
Republican Party of India-A president Ramdas Athawale said that if these guidelines are objectionable, he would meet Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis and launch an agitation against them.
Bharatiya Janata Party state president Raosaheb Danve allayed apprehensions over the guidelines and while some other state BJP ministers supported them.
The order is rooted in the sedition charges slapped in 2012 against cartoonist Aseem Trivedi for his cartoons during the India Against Corruption movement headed by Anna Hazare.
Trivedi was arrested on charges of insulting the national emblem, the parliament and the Constitution through his illustrations, but following a nationwide outcry, the state government had dropped the charges against him.
Ruling on a public interest litigation filed by lawyer Sanskar Marathe who contended that the IPC's section 124A curbs the freedom of speech and expression guaranteed under the constitution, a division bench of the Bombay High Court comprising of Chief Justice Mohit Shah and Justice N. M. Jamdar held sedition cannot be invoked whenever the government is criticised, unless it leads to violence and public disorder.
The court also framed guidelines and set preconditions for police to adhere while applying the sedition charge, which have now been issued in the form of a government resolution by Deputy Secretary K.A. Gaikwad on August 27.
These include: Words/signs/representations must bring government (central or state) into hatred or contempt or cause or attempt to cause disaffection, enmity or disloyalty to it, must also be incitement to violence or intended to create public disorder/reasonable apprehension of it.
Those against politicians or public servants by themselves do not fall in this category, unless they show them as representatives of the government.
Comments expressing disapproval or criticism of government to obtain a change of government by lawful means, without any of the above, are not seditious.
Written legal opinion citing reasons pertaining to the above, must be obtained from the district law officer, followed by the written legal opinion of the state public prosecutor within two weeks.
However, obscenity or vulgarity by itself would not be considered under the sedition law as they are covered by other sections.