International human rights organisations, Amnesty International and the Human Rights Watch, have strongly criticised the Tamil Nadu government’s decision to arrest and impose sedition charge against folk singer S Kovan for writing satirical songs criticizing the state government. While the Amnesty International has demanded immediate release of Kovan, a statement from the Human Rights Watch said “a law that is repeatedly used to arrest singers, cartoonists, and writers has no place in a democracy – and should be repealed.”
Abhirr V P, Campaigner at Amnesty International India, said 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 a statement by the 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,” it said, adding that 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 The circular was withdrawn in October following widespread criticism. “The sedition law must be urgently repealed.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,” Abhirr said.
Human Rights Watch
Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said the police appear to have arrested Kovan for sedition in a misguided attempt to shield the chief minister from criticism. “A law that is repeatedly used to arrest singers, cartoonists, and writers has no place in a democracy – and should be repealed.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,” said the statement.
Calling the arrest a misguided attempt to shield the chief minister from criticism, the statement recalled many other cases in Orissa and Chhattisgarh where sedition cases had been filed against activists and lawyers suspected of supporting armed Maoist groups.
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.”