Hyderabad printing press raid raises questions on freedom to publish a book

Seizing books under preparation is a more severe restriction than pre-censorship, which is not permitted under fundamental rights of our Constitution. Time and again, Supreme Court said state cannot impose prior restrictions before ‘expression’

Hyderabad police raid on Navya Printers: Does a mere suspected link with Maoists or mentioning the expression ‘Maoists’ etc., provide power to the police to seize material and arrest the printer of a press?

On November 12, acting on an alleged “tip-off”, the Hyderabad police raided a printing press, Navya Printers, which was publishing a book on the top Maoist leader and Central Committee member Akkiraju Hargopal, alias Ramakrishna, alias RK. The Maoist leader had died recently in October of natural causes.

The police seized over 1,000 copies of the book, which is a compilation of the late Maoist leader’s interviews, literature and biography, apart from computers, pen drives and stacks of printed paper sheets (unbound). An FIR was filed against the owner of the printing press, A Ramakrishna Reddy and his wife Sandhya Rani, which is registered at the Amberpet Police Station in Hyderabad under Section 8(2) of Telangana State Public Security Act, 1992.

The details of the case are this: A complaint was filed by T Sridhar, Additional Inspector of Police, who alleged that Ramakrishna Reddy was assisting and promoting unlawful activities by printing books with banned Maoist ideology and attracting youth towards Maoism. The complaint said that the late Maoist leader Akkiraji Hara Gopal (or RK)’s picture was on the title of the book ‘Sayudha Shanti Swapnam’ and the book contains banned Maoist ideology. 

The FIR stated that Ramakrishna Reddy confessed that his wife Sandhya told him that her friend Sirisha had asked her to print 1,000 books of her late husband Akkiraji Hara Gopal alias RK, in memory of him. Further, the FIR added that at the request of his wife Sandhya, the couple had started publishing the books with “fondness on the banned Maoist Party without taking any amount…” Ramakrishna Reddy was ‘taken into custody’ and then released after being issued a notice under Section 41A of Code of Criminal Procedure.

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Ramkrishna Reddy and his wife V Sandhya Rani, who belongs to the Progressive Organization of Women, have been served with a Form of Notice of Appearance under Section 41(A) Criminal Procedure Code, which is a peaceful alternative to arrest, and is basically served to question the persons who have been given the notice. However, there is no time or date mentioned in the Form.

In the raid, the police also seized 513 imposed books, 1,000 copies of the book, 487 loose forms, 25 aluminium printing plates, two Dell Desktop computers, and two CPUs, one pen drive, two bill books, DVR etc.

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What Section 8(2) of Telangana State Public Security Act, 1992, under which the couple has been charged, says:

Control of commodities, etc. (1) If in the opinion of the State Government it is essential for the purposes of the security [of the area to which this Act extends] or the maintenance of public order [in the said area] or any part thereof to restrict the removal of any commodity, article or thing [from the said area] or such part, the State Government may, by general or special order, direct that no person shall remove such commodity, article or thing [from the said area] or without the permission in writing in the City of Hyderabad of the Commissioner of Police and elsewhere of the Collector:

Provided that nothing in this sub-section shall apply to any goods to which the Supply and Prices of Goods Act, 1950 (LXX of 1950) applies.

(2) If any person contravenes any order made under sub-section (1) he shall, on conviction, be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year, or with fine or with both

The Telangana State Public Security Act, 1992, is really the Telangana version of Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, which allows the government to declare an association as unlawful, restrict movements of persons and commodities etc. If the government notifies a particular organisation as ‘unlawful’, every member of such association becomes a person punishable up to three years of imprisonment. 

Interestingly, every person who takes part in meetings or activities of any such association, or contributes or receives or solicits any contribution for the purpose of any such association, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years or with fine or with both. It is enough if one is a member or associate with or contributes etc., to be convicted as a criminal.

The police need to prove that the organisation was notified as ‘unlawful’, and the accused is a member or associated with it. No further action needs to be alleged or proved. This makes the law very draconian. 

Whether the Navya press belonged to Maoist party; its proprietor and his wife are members of the party or contributed to that party are the allegations, which the prosecution has to prove. As the ‘offence’ alleged was punishable with less than seven years jail, they were not arrested but a notice of ‘presence’ at stipulated time was issued, which if defied will lead to arrest.

Meanwhile, the person accused under Section 2(e) of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention Act) need not commit these activities, it is enough that if he is a member, attends a meeting, or contributes or associates with it.  A person who has not committed any wrong is vulnerable to be charged with ‘membership’ of unlawful ‘association’ without indulging in any unlawful activity. This is against basic principle of criminal law that says none could be punished without mens rea or actus reus, i.e., criminal intention and prohibited criminal act.

Writing an article on RK can be a contribution. Does it mean no one should publish anything about RK because he was the leader of a banned organisation?  If someone in the government does not like that writer, he could be easily booked under this harsh legislation and vulnerable to be sent to jail for three years. This law cannot be protected under ground of ‘public order’, and hence it cannot be a constitutionally valid provision of law.

Also read: Three States and their endeavour to keep GOs out of public domain

RK – guest of AP Government

The late Maoist leader Akkiraju Haragopal aka RK

What is ironic is that Maoist leader Akkiraju Haragopal aka RK was a friend, and a special guest of Andhra Pradesh government, when the then Chief Minister of AP, Y S Rajasekhar Reddy invited Naxalite leaders to participate in negotiations held with Naxalites (Maoists) to find a solution to the armed struggle. RK died recently in Chhattisgarh. 

When he was residing in a government guest house, hundreds of people queued up before his room with representations about their problems. People reposed trust and confidence in him for their day-to-day problems, not in the people’s elected leaders. 

The police claimed to have acted without a complaint. Initially, it was not known under what law the police had seized the books. Seizing books under preparation is a more severe restriction than pre-censorship, which is not permitted under fundamental rights of our Constitution. There are provisions of restrictions on ‘expression’, rights after publication under Article 19(2). Time and again, the Supreme Court said that the state cannot impose prior restrictions before ‘expression’.

The state or police have powers to impose restrictions on the grounds of security only after publication of books, but not before. Unless there is an immediate threat to security, there cannot be restrictions on freedom of speech and expression under Article 19(2) of the Constitution.

Nobody knows what was the content that police found as a threat to security of the nation of public order. The police claimed they were ‘tipped of’, and conducted a raid and confiscated the material along with a thousand unfinished books on RK’s life. Ramakrishna Reddy was ‘taken into custody’ and then released after issuing notice under Section 41A of Code of Criminal Procedure. Police are yet to discover a penal provision to book the ‘book’.

Newspapers and TV channels have freely published a series of articles on the life of Maoist leader RK. His wife Sirisha claimed that she was compiling the articles published in newspapers and adding other material into this book called ‘Saayudha Shaanti Swapna’ (Dream of Peace of Armed struggle). The Navya press does not belong to any banned organisation and they had no history of publishing anti-security books. 

The police officers told the media that the books were seized because they alleged that the material pertains to the Maoist party and its associate Amrula Bandhu Mitrula Sangham. Addl DCP reportedly said that they suspected Ramakrishna Reddy of cooperating with Maoists and working for them, and the seized material has been sent for forensic analysis. The police officer added that an analysis of the material revealed details pertaining to the Maoist Party and the Amarula Bandhu Mitrula Sangham.

Meanwhile, Sandhya Rani has denied that her husband had any connection with Maoists. They had just accepted to print a book as part of their business.

Powers of the police

Police have powers to search and seize under the Criminal Procedure Code to prevent crimes of piracy, obscene literature, or material violating intellectual property rights. The government also has power to ban circulation of a particular book on the grounds of ‘national security’, ‘public order’ and in the interest of preventing violence between two groups or communities. It has to be proved however that the material under publication clearly presents a threat to security. ‘Clear and Present’ threat means the material should have a high potential power to trigger riots or violence.

Does a mere suspected link with Maoists or mentioning the expression ‘Maoists’ etc., provide power to the police to seize material and arrest the printer of a press?

The police raid or seizure cannot be justified simply because the book was about the life and thoughts of RK. They can do so only when the content of that book can possibly cause a riot or violence or communal strife.

In Delhi, in 2019, the police seized 4,000 pirated NCERT books from a person who was publishing them. A college dropout, he was illegally printing NCERT books to sell them as the official circulation of books was not sufficient and there was a huge demand for them. The seizure was justified since it was done to prevent the crime of privacy and protect intellectual property rights of NCERT. 

The police also can seize the printed books on the grounds of obscenity and threat to public order or security. But they have to justify whether they can invoke those grounds.

The law says if any book, drawing, painting, representation, if taken as a whole, is lascivious or appeals to prurient interest and tends to deprave and corrupt the persons who read, see or hear the matter contained will come under the purview of obscenity. Otherwise, it is not obscene.

If a publication mentions ‘Maoists’ or about the life of RK, that itself cannot be considered as a threat to security. If done, it will amount to abuse of police powers.

If any newspaper, or book, or any document, wherever printed appears to the state government, to contain any matter, the publication of which is punishable for claims with respect to sedition, promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language etc., promoting disharmony, outraging religious beliefs and obscenity, the state government may, by notification declare every copy of the issue of the newspaper containing such matter, and every copy of such book or other document to be forfeited to government, and may seize the same wherever found in India. 

It is an open-ended high power in the hands of the local police officers prone to be misused. Even if the achievements of RK are explained in a book, how can anybody say that a book would result in provocation of violence?

The Telangana government has banned 16 organisations using the Telangana Public Security Act, 1992, declaring them as unlawful associations and ‘new front organisations of the proscribed Communist Party of India (Maoist)’. After three months, this ban order was withdrawn. Incidentally, Amarula Bandhu Mitrula Sangham is not a banned organisation.

As per the Constitutionally guaranteed right under article 19(1)(a), the police should not have seized the books in print. They should have only acted if the book contents posed any security threat after publication. Civil rights organisations are rightfully condemning the action as a breach of freedom and right to publish a book.

The writer is a former Central Information Commissioner

(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not reflect the views of The Federal.)

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