The Tamil Nadu government is palpably in error in invoking the penal provision of sedition against the author of a book that it banned last month. The book, Meendezhum Pandiyar Varalaaru (“Resurgence of Pandya History”), a Tamil work by K. Senthil Mallar, argues that the Pallars, a Dalit community, had once ruled southern Tamil Nadu. Extracts given in the government notification ordering forfeiture of all copies of the book suggest the author has made loose assertions and claims about various groups, as well as sweeping generalisations about different castes. Though such writing is ill-advised in these hypersensitive times, the May 30, 2013 government notification surely exaggerates when it claims that “the content and language employed by the author clearly reveals his intention to spread hatred and disharmony among communities in the guise of research and thereby to cause disturbance to the public peace and tranquillity.” A book that runs to more than 600 pages and purports to be based on research ought not to be banned simply because its thesis and arguments are controversial. While historians, scholars and others have the right to refute or critique the author’s claims, or even campaign against the book being taken seriously, the government cannot decide on the authenticity or historicity of events in his book or indeed the accuracy or acceptability of opinions found in it.
In any event, regardless of whether the ban amounts to a reasonable restriction on the author’s freedom of expression, the slapping of sedition charges seems to be an invidious attempt to throttle him and the viewpoint he represents. The book’s contents may, at a stretch, perhaps attract legal provisions relating to creating disharmony between different sections of society, but definitely not sedition. Sedition involves promoting disaffection against the government established by law, but it is doubtful whether merely making some explosive claims about sections of society can come under its ambit. In recent times, the use of the sedition charge in Tamil Nadu and elsewhere has been questionable. It was invoked against activists engaged in the prolonged agitation against the Kudankulam nuclear project in a bid to portray the protest as anti-national activity. For those who see this book’s subject as a form of Dalit assertion and an effort by an oppressed community to reconstruct its past, the ban as well as the sedition case against the author may mean that alternative histories are being suppressed by the authorities to placate dominant communities. There is indeed a strong case to question the State’s approach without undermining its legitimate right to take steps to maintain communal harmony.