The Left Democratic Front (LDF) government led by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan is facing strongest ever criticism from the free-speech defenders and liberals over the amendment of Kerala Police Act which is allegedly draconian and unconstitutional.

It was on Saturday that Kerala governor Arif Mohammed Khan signed the Kerala Police Act Amendment ordinance to curb growing attacks on social media against women and children.

Apart from political parties and rights organisations across the country, people from various walks of life have come up with the strong allegation that the amended Act is similar to the 66A of the IT Act, 2000 which was struck down by supreme court in 2015.

In the backdrop of strong response received from various corners, the chief minister has come up with the clarification that the new amendment to the Kerala Police Act will not in any way be used against free speech or unbiased media activity. Anyone is free to make any strong criticism within the limits of the Constitution and the legal system, said the chief minister. But the demand to withdraw the amendment is getting louder.

The cabinet had proposed the 118 (A) amendment to the Kerala Police Act, 2011 on October 21 and the governor had kept it pending. But the ordinance was approved on Friday adding section 118 (A)  to the Act.

According to the amendment, “Whoever 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 persons or class of persons, or any other person in whom they have interest shall on conviction, be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years or with fine which may extend to ten thousand rupees or with both.”

Defenders of free speech argue that the new Act is similar to the 66A of the IT Act which was struck down by the apex court. According to the scrapped Section 66A of the IT Act, “Any person who sends by any means of a computer resource any information that is grossly offensive or has a menacing character; or any information which he knows to be false, but for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years and with fine.”

When scrapping section 66A of IT act the supreme court had said that the provision “clearly affects” the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression enshrined in the constitution.

“When judicially-trained minds can reach on different conclusions while going through the same content, then how is it possible for law enforcement agency and others to decide as to what is offensive and what is grossly offensive,” the bench asked, adding, “What may be offensive to a person may not be offensive to the other.”

CPM had welcomed the apex court verdict repealing the section 66 (A) of the IT Act saying it not only defends civil liberties and fundamental rights of citizens but also sends the “correct message” to state governments like West Bengal’s that they cannot suppress dissent.

Senior advocate and activist Prashant Bhushan said that the amended Kerala police Act is similar to the scrapped section 66A of IT act and it is draconian and bound to be abused to silence dissent. “Please don’t shame the Left by having a CPIM government enact a draconian law”, activist Kavita Krishnan wrote on twitter. The amendment also invited criticism from opposition parties. Senior congress leader P Chidambaram said that he was “shocked by the law made by the LDF government of Kerala making a so-called ‘offensive’ post on social media punishable by five years in prison.

Shashi Tharoor MP said that the law responds to several cases of offensive tweets/ posts/ comments abusing and threatening women, but it is so loosely drafted that it could also be used against political opponents, journalists and critics. “This law can and will be challenged in the courts, because any political attack on social media against a party or “class of persons” (eg “Sanghis” or “libtards”) could attract its provisions. It must be revised to narrow its application to flagrant cases of abuse and threats only”, he said.

Opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala has alleged that the amendment is against fundamental rights of a citizen. Section 118 (A) would be misused against persons who criticise government and it also would be used to control media firms which criticize government.

Muslim League leader and deputy leader of opposition M K Muneer said that the amended Act might be used against those who are criticising government and the move of government shows that Kerala is moving towards a ‘Deep Police State’ controlled by rulers. The act is against individual freedom and freedom of expression. “We cannot allow the amendment of the Act without any discussions or debate,” he said.

Kerala Union of Working Journalist (KUWJ) has demanded that the government should withdraw the amended Act. A statement issued by the union said that the amendment will give ‘uncontrolled power’ to police and government to curtail freedom of press. The amended Act would be widely misused and it would land the media persons in jail. The government should be ready to repeal the law which is undemocratic, says the statement.