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India: Folk singer jailed for sedition

Indian folk singer S. Kovan, center, is taken towards a police vehicle after he was produced before a court in Chennai, 4 November 2015
Indian folk singer S. Kovan, center, is taken towards a police vehicle after he was produced before a court in Chennai, 4 November 2015

AP Photo/Arun Sankar K.

This statement was originally published on hrw.org on 3 November 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. S. Kovan, 52, was arrested 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. “A law that is repeatedly used to arrest singers, cartoonists, and writers has no place in a democracy – and should be repealed.”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.

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.

Kovan'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. 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 October 2015, Gujarat police arrested Hardik Patel, spearheading protests to demand quotas in education and government jobs for his community, and charged him with sedition in two separate cases. Five of his associates are also accused of sedition.

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. 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.”

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