India's Kerala government on Monday said it has no plans to implement an amendment to the state police act, which sought a three-year jail sentence and a fine of $135, or both, for anyone who “makes, expresses, publishes or disseminates through any kind of mode of communication, any matter or subject for threatening, abusing, humiliating or defaming a person or class of persons, knowing it to be false and that causes injury to the mind, reputation or property of such person or class of persons or any other person...”
In a statement in Malayalam language, state chief Pinarayi Vijayan said, “Different opinions from different quarters were raised after the amendment was announced".
"Even those supporting the Left Front and those standing for democratic rights expressed their concerns. In these circumstances, we do not plan to implement the amendment. We will seek detailed suggestions from all sections and discuss the issue in the state legislature before taking any further action”, he added.
The decision to amend the law has faced sharp criticism, and even though Vijayan claimed it would not be used against free speech, few believed the argument.
Opposition parties in the state slammed the government for the “harsh and draconian” law to gag the media. Even a constituent of the Kerala government's ruling Left Front, Communist Party of India, expressed its dismay at the move.
Leader of the opposition in the state legislature and former Kerala Home Minister Ramesh Chennithala said it “shows the intolerance of [the] Pinarayi Vijayan government over free speech”.
Amendment to Kerala Police act shows the intolerance of @vijayanpinarayi Govt over free speech.— Ramesh Chennithala (@chennithala) November 22, 2020
This amendment is against the freedom of speech & expression which is a constitutional right. The new law is a tacit move to silence critics & media. Nothing more, nothing less.
The state unit of the nationally governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has also described it as an effort to stifle freedom of expression. “The government is trying to control social media and mainstream media through this 'black law'”.
“The state is witnessing an undeclared emergency. Misuse of the powers of police is becoming widespread. The amendment to Kerala Police Act is an affront to the freedom of speech of citizens”, said K. Surendran, president of the Kerala BJP, at a press conference on Sunday, 22 November.
കേരള പൊലീസ് ആക്ടിൽ 118 എ കൂട്ടിച്ചേർക്കാനുള്ള പിണറായി സർക്കാരിന്റെ തീരുമാനം ജനങ്ങളുടെ അഭിപ്രായ സ്വാതന്ത്യത്തിന് മേലുള്ള കടന്നുകയറ്റമാണ്. സാമൂഹ്യമാദ്ധ്യമങ്ങളെയും മുഖ്യധാരാ മാദ്ധ്യമങ്ങളെയും കരിനിയമം കൊണ്ടുവന്ന് നിയന്ത്രിക്കാൻ ശ്രമിക്കുകയാണ്. : @surendranbjp pic.twitter.com/ziB6OFga7m— BJP KERALAM (@BJP4Keralam) November 22, 2020
Dr J. Prabhash, a political scientist and former pro-vice chancellor at the University of Kerala, earlier in the day told Sputnik that the law leaves immense scope for misuse.
“Most of the intended objectives of the ordinance are not defined, like what is defamation, what is injury to the mind, reputation or property. It gives a blanket power to the police, who can take action anyone even without a specific complaint, since it is a cognisable offense. Moreover, there was no need for a new addition to the law, when the Code of Criminal Procedure, Section 199, which deals with defamation itself, was sufficient to deal with such situations”, explained Dr Prabhash.
Dr Prabhash pointed out that although the immediate reason to bring such an amendment was to contain a series of social media posts exposing alleged corruption charges against political functionaries in the government, it came against the backdrop of an earlier move to centralise all powers with the state chief.
State chief Vijayan has also faced much criticism for alleged favours to his formal principal secretary, who has since been arrested by the federal anti-terror agency the National Investigation Agency (NIA) in a gold smuggling case.
Vijayan was forced to suspend the official, M. Shivshankar, after his alleged complicity with the main accused in the case, Swapna Suresh, a former employee of the consulate of the United Arab Emirates in the state capital Thiruvananthapuram.
The NIA registered a case to probe the international ramifications of the case after the seizure of 30 kilograms of gold worth about $2 million on 5 July at the international airport in the state capital from baggage addressed to the UAE Consulate.