The Tamil Nadu government must immediately release Dalit folk singer and activist S Sivadas, popularly known by his stage name Kovan, who was arrested on 30 October over two satirical songs criticizing the state government and chief minister. Kovan faces charges including sedition, provocation with intent to cause a riot and public mischief.
“It is absurd for the Tamil Nadu government to arrest someone essentially for making fun of it. By arresting Kovan for sedition, the state government is sending the message that any criticism of the chief minister and government policies will not be tolerated”, said Abhirr VP, Campaigner at Amnesty International India.
“All Indians should be free to criticize their government. The Tamil Nadu government must respect Kovan’s constitutional right to freedom of expression and drop all charges against him.”
Kovan heads the cultural wing of the Makkal Kalai Ilakkiya Kazhagam, or People’s Art and Literary Association, a 30-year-old group in Tamil Nadu which performs folk songs and street plays on socio-economic issues.
He was arrested over the lyrics of two songs, ‘Moodu Tasmac Moodu’ and and ‘Ooruku oru Sarayam’. The songs, whose videos were uploaded to the internet, call for the Tamil Nadu government to close government-run alcohol shops in the state. A line in one song says that the state chief minister was rejoicing while people were dying from alcoholism.
A Saravanan, a spokesperson of the organization, told Amnesty International India, “The government is harassing and intimidating us so that we stop our work. Kovan was only trying to show how alcohol is destroying the lives of many people in the state. We will challenge the arrest and ensure that our work continues”.
India’s archaic sedition law, which criminalizes any act or attempt “to bring into hatred or contempt, or…excite disaffection towards the government” has been used on several occasions by state governments to harass journalists and activists. The law violates international standards on freedom of expression.
In August, the Maharashtra state government issued a circular which suggested that speech against a government representative would amount to sedition. The circular was withdrawn in October following widespread criticism.
“The sedition law must be urgently repealed. Public officials should have a thicker skin to dissent and criticism, and not keep rushing to lock up their critics,” said Abhirr V P.
Use of Archaic, Abusive Law Spotlights Need for Repeal
(New York, November 3, 2015) – Police in India’s Tamil Nadu state arrested a folk singer under the country’s abusive sedition law, highlighting the need for its repeal, Human Rights Watch said today. Tamil at his home in Tiruchirappalli district on October 30, 2015, for two songs that criticize the state government for allegedly profiting from state-run liquor shops at the expense of the poor.
“The police appear to have arrested Kovan for sedition in a misguided attempt to shield the chief minister from criticism,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “A law that is repeatedly used to arrest singers, cartoonists, and writers has no place in a democracy – and should be repealed.”
The Indian government should enforce Supreme Court limitations on the colonial-era sedition law and repeal the measure, which is regularly abused by local authorities to silence peaceful dissent, Human Rights Watch said.
Kovan is a member of the Makkal Kalai Ilakkiya Kazhagam, or People’s Art and Literary Association, which has long used art, music, and theater to educate marginalized communities and raise issues of corruption, women’s rights, and rights of Dalits (formerly known as “untouchables”). In his recent songs, he blamed the government for choosing revenue from liquor sales over people’s welfare.
Koyan’s family alleged that plainclothes police officers, who refused to show identification, came in the middle of the night to arrest Kovan. Kovan’s lawyer told Human Rights Watch that the police officers violated legal procedures, refusing to tell the family where they were taking him. To find out about Kovan’s whereabouts, his lawyer filed a habeas corpus petition in Madras High Court and the court told the police to follow legal guidelines. Kovan was then produced before a magistrate as per procedure and was remanded in judicial custody for 15 days. The police also reportedly tried to arrest the owner of the website, vinavu.com, on which the songs were first uploaded.
Local rights groups and opposition political parties promptly condemned Kovan’s arrest, and his songs were widely shared on social media and republished on some news websites.
Section 124A of India’s Penal Code prohibits any words either spoken or written, or any signs or visible representation that can cause “hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection,” toward the government. However, in a landmark 1962 ruling, Kedar Nath Singh v State of Bihar, the Supreme Court ruled that unless the accused incited violence by their speech or action it would no longer constitute sedition, as it would otherwise violate the right to freedom of speech guaranteed by the constitution. That ruling has been upheld in numerous judgments since, but the police continue to file sedition charges.
The sedition law has been misused in many other cases, Human Rights Watch said. In Orissa and Chhattisgarh states, sedition cases have been filed against activists and lawyers suspected of supporting armed Maoist groups. In December 2010, a court in Chhattisgarh sentenced Dr. Binayak Sen, a vocal critic of the state government’s counterinsurgency policies against the Maoists, to life in prison for sedition, despite finding no evidence that he was a member of any outlawed Maoist group or that he was involved in violence against the state. Sen has appealed the verdict. While granting him bail, the Supreme Court once again upheld the right to dissent, saying possessing Maoist literature did not make Sen a Maoist: “We are a democratic country. He may be a sympathizer. That does not make him guilty of sedition.”
In September 2012, the authorities in Mumbai arrested political cartoonist Aseem Trivedi on sedition charges after receiving a complaint that his cartoons mocked the Indian constitution and national emblem. The charges were dropped a month later after public protests and furor on social media. In March 2014, authorities in Uttar Pradesh charged 67 Kashmiri students with sedition for cheering for Pakistan in a cricket match against India. The Uttar Pradesh government dropped the charges only after seeking a legal opinion from the law ministry. In August 2014, authorities in Kerala charged seven young students with sedition, acting on a complaint that they refused to stand up during the national anthem inside a movie theater.
In August 2015, the government in Maharashtra state issued new guidelines to police on sedition which, if implemented, could have been used against people for mere criticism of the authorities. The government was forced to withdraw the guidelines in October, following protests by civil society organizations and a high court order directing it to withdraw or issue a new circular.
India’s sedition law is also contrary to the country’s international human rights obligations, Human Rights Watch said. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which India ratified in 1979, prohibits restrictions on freedom of expression on national security grounds unless they are provided by law, strictly construed, and necessary and proportionate to address a legitimate threat. Such laws cannot put the right itself in jeopardy.
“India’s Supreme Court has imposed sharp limits on what construes sedition and yet its rulings are repeatedly flouted by police and state governments to harass and arrest people who dare to criticize the government or its policies,” Ganguly said. “As long as this relic of the British era remains on the statute books, it will continue to be used to restrict peaceful expression.”