Once again the law of sedition has been misused, this time in Tamil Nadu. A >folk singer associated with a radical leftist group has been charged with sedition and committing an act with an intent to cause a riot. His offence: disseminating two songs pillorying Chief Minister Jayalalithaa and her government for its policy of retailing liquor. There is nothing in the compositions that even remotely threatens the state or established government; neither is there anything that encourages violence, beyond calling for the closure of state-run liquor outlets as part of a campaign against government policy. The song has gone viral on social media, and many relate to its central theme. The song delineates with a great sense of irony, in tunes that are catchy, the idea of the state selling liquor while at the same time showering the people with freebies. In a sense, it has captured the present patronage paradigm in the political economy wherein the ruling party poses as the provenance of all welfare, but keeps the people disempowered through alcohol addiction and dependent on state doles. The artist, Kovan, whose real name is Sivadas, has managed to >capture this reality in his songs . While the tenor of one of the songs, as well as caricatures in its video portraying Ms. Jayalalithaa in poor light, may appear defamatory of an individual, it should be remembered that small radical groups using folk forms for political propaganda communicate in strong, yet easily understandable language.
Powerful political figures ought to have it in them to take such criticism in their stride. They must act to address the underlying grievances rather than use repressive measures. The state’s response has been needlessly angry. Kovan’s arrest marks yet another instance of a pliant police force invoking Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, which deals with sedition, with utter disregard for several judicial pronouncements limiting its scope. Courts have deprecated the tendency to invoke this grave charge for mere expressions of critical views. The Supreme Court has said that even words that indicate disaffection towards the government cannot be termed seditious, unless there is actual incitement to violence and intention to cause disorder. In this case, it is particularly disgraceful that the Chennai police have >equated strident criticism of the Chief Minister with an alleged threat to the government established by law. It was only recently that the Maharashtra government withdrew a controversial circular to the effect that strong criticism of public servants could attract the charge of sedition. In 2012, cartoonist Aseem Trivedi was booked for sedition for a cartoon that highlighted corruption. In Meerut last year, the police initially invoked Section 124A, but later dropped it, against a group of Kashmiri students for, of all things, cheering the Pakistan team during a cricket telecast. Given its repeated misuse, it is time this unwanted, outdated, pre-colonial provision was jettisoned altogether.