New Delhi: Chhattisgarh chief minister Bhupesh Baghel on Saturday said that the sedition law must not be invoked for critical social media posts and ordered the immediate release of a man arrested for “spreading rumours” about power cuts.
Mangelal Agarwal was taken into custody on Wednesday for posting about power cuts in a video on social media.
Welcoming every kind of “constructive criticism,” Baghel wrote in a statement on Twitter: “People have the right to express themselves. We support that freedom. We had promised in our manifesto to repeal the sedition law. Arresting people for criticism is the practice of other governments.”
According to The Telegraph, he also said in Delhi on Saturday that laws exit to deal with those who spread “baseless rumors” and “create mischief” and that sedition ccharges should not be levied in such cases.
Agarwal, who hails from Musra Dongargarh in the district of Rajnandgaon, was booked for sedition and for intending to cause fear and alarm in the public under Indian Penal Code Sections 124A and 505(1)(2), Dainik Bhaskar reported.
However, according to the Indian Express, the sedition charge was later dropped. DGP D.M. Awasthi told the newspaper that while the charge was added based on the complaint, it was later dropped as it did not stand.
The electricity company that Agarwal mentioned in his video, the Chhattisgarh State Power Holding Company Limited, filed the complaint, which led to the arrest. In the viral video, Agarwal claimed that an inverter company had been colluding with the Chhattisgarh government, and that state funds were being used for this purpose. As a result, he said, there would be electricity cuts lasting 10-15 minutes every 1-2 hours and more people would be forced to buy inverters.
The video went viral on Facebook.
CSPHCL alleged that Agarwal was deliberately trying to tarnish chief minister Bhupesh Baghel’s image.
The Congress party’s Twitter page has been sharing quotes from power claiming that there were longer and more frequent power cuts during the BJP government. It also said that the saffron party was spreading fake news.
भाजपा वालों को यह समझना होगा कि अफवाह आपकी नाकामी ढकने का एक अस्थायी विकल्प हो सकता है, स्थायी नहीं।
“तुम जितना झूठ हमारे बारे में फैलाओगे, हम तुम्हारा उतना सच जनता के बीच लेकर आएंगे” pic.twitter.com/ujAFXZdE60
— INC Chhattisgarh (@INCChhattisgarh) June 14, 2019
Shailendra Shukla, chairman of the Chhattisgarh State Electricity Board, told citizens that electricity company workers were committed to ensuring a continuous supply of electricity and advised them to stay away from misleading reports. Electricity companies blamed the cuts on the increased demand for electricity in the summer, along with storms and other unforeseen local circumstances, which cause disruptions in supply, Dainik Bhaskar reported.
Before the sedition charge was reportedly removed, the BJP had hit out at the Congress for using it to stifle dissent. “While the Congress had promised to repeal the sedition law, the party itself is now misusing it to implicate and threaten common men. If spreading rumours is such a big offence, then so far several Congressmen should have been put behind bars. Congress was elected to power through false campaign only,” India Today quoted Santosh Pandey, BJP MP from Rajnandgaon, as saying.
As The Wire has previously reported, the Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that sedition is constituted by written or spoken words which “have the effect of bringing contempt or dissatisfaction or the idea of subverting government by violent means”. In Kedar Nath Singh v State of Bihar, the apex court said that if comments, however strongly worded, do not have the tendency to incite violence, cannot be treated as sedition.
The court also ruled in Balwant Singh v State of Punjab that raising pro-Khalistan slogans cannot amount to sedition as it evoked no response from the other members of the community.
The Twenty First Law Commission, in a working paper, also noted that criticising the government does not amount to sedition and that “people have a right to express dissent and criticise the government”. It said a higher threshold should be set to prosecute people for sedition law. “Sedition as an act of trying to destabilise the government should only be invoked in cases where there is a real threat or actual use of violent means to overthrow the democratically elected government,” the report said.