“O ne has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all.” —Martin Luther King, Jr.
In the wee hours of a chilly October morning six years ago, a posse of policemen knocked on the doors of a tiny hut at Tiruchi town in Tamil Nadu where S. Kovan alias Sivadas, a progressive street artiste and singer, was living with his family.
The previous night, the singer, who was part of Makkal Athigaram (People’s Power), an organisation working at the grass-roots level across the State, had performed his now-famous street songs ridiculing the State’s policy of selling Indian-made foreign liquor and destroying people’s lives and livelihoods. The lyric in Tamil, “Moodu TASMACa moodu” (close down the Tamil Nadu Sales and Marketing Corporation liquor shops) had angered the government.
The police said that the songs had demeaned the then Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa. Kovan was arrested and jailed for this act of defiance on sedition and other charges under Sections 124 A (sedition), 153 (whoever malignantly, or wantonly, by doing anything which is illegal, gives provocation to any person intending or knowing it to be likely that such provocation will cause the offence of rioting...) and 505 (1) (b) (c) (with intent to incite, or which is likely to incite, any class or community of persons to commit any offence against any other class or community..) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). He was arrested again in 2018 for criticising Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his song on the Cauvery issue.
Surge in cases against dissent
Kovan was not the lone activist to be harassed. In the past 10 years, Tamil Nadu saw an unprecedented spike in the arrests of rights activists, green warriors, social workers, political leaders and even students and members of the general public who dared to raise their voices against the government’s arbitrary acts that “threatened to disturb the tranquillity of the State”. Even songs of resistance that were the anthems of struggles and revolutions became sources of irritation for the power centres.
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In the past decade, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) ruled the State, with J. Jayalalithaa as Chief Minister in the 2011-16 and 2016-18 periods and Edappadi K. Palaniswami at the helm between 2018 and 2021.
Social activists said that the surge in these cases came in the wake of massive people’s protests against the Koodankulam nuclear plant, to the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation’s (ONGC) drilling plans in the Cauvery delta in Thanjavur, brutal police firing in Thoothukudi on anti-Sterlite protestors in which 14 persons were killed, the proposed Chennai-Salem eight-lane expressway project, and so on.
The police arrested hundreds of people who took part in these protests under various sections of the law, including the sedition law, the National Security Act (NSA), and the IPC’s various provisions.
Decade of intolerance
Hariraghavan, an advocate, was named in 93 cases for participating in the anti-Sterlite protest in 2018. Besides, he was arrested under the NSA, which was however quashed by the Madurai Bench of Madras High Court. The activist Thirumurugan Gandhi of the May 17 Movement faced a series of serious cases, under the NSA and the Goondas’ Act, for his stand on the Tamil Eelam issue.
M. Valarmathi, a 20-year-old journalism student from Salem, was detained under the sedition law in 2018 for opposing the proposed Chennai-Salem Expressway and became the first girl activist in the State to be detained under the Goondas’ Act for distributing pamphlets containing slogans “harming national interests” (“ Act of suppression ”, Frontline , August 18, 2017).
In 2002, the Jayalalithaa government invoked the Prevention of Terrorism Act, 2002 (POTA) against the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) leader Vaiko for his speeches supporting the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Between 2011 and 2012, the Jayalalithaa regime registered a number of cases against more than 9,000 people for taking part in the anti-nuclear plant stirs at Koodankulam.
Even raising slogans against the State or the Centre led to arrests during this decade of intolerance. In February 2021, just prior to the Assembly election, the Salem Police arrested an alleged Maoist sympathiser from Madurai named R. Suresh (45) for raising slogans against the Centre at the funeral ceremony of another suspected Maoist called Manivasagam near Salem. (Manivasagam was killed by the Kerala Police in an encounter in Palakkad district on October 28, 2019.)
Suresh was booked under Sections 120 (B), 188, 121, 121 A of the IPC for waging, or attempting to wage war, or abetting waging of war, against the Government of India, and also under Sections 10, 13, 15, 18 of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967.
In April 2018, the Neyveli Police arrested Tamizhaga Vaazhvurimai Katchi president T. Velmurugan under sedition charges for organising a series of protests against the Centre and the State for their “failure” to secure a fair share of Cauvery river water for Tamil Nadu from Karnataka. He was arrested under Sections 124 A, 153 A and 505 (1) (b) of the IPC.
In February, 2018, the Salem-based environmental activist Piyush Manush was arrested for protesting against the Salem-Chennai eight-lane Expressway and expansion of the Salem airport, under Section 153A of the IPC for “promoting enmity between groups”. Various police stations in Salem had registered cases against him on various occasions under Sections 124A, 143, 188, 147, 448 and 353 of the IPC read with 3 (1) of the Prevention of Damage to Public Property Act.
Earlier, in 2017, hundreds of farmers were arrested for protesting against the State and the Centre for permitting ONGC to drill wells in the Thanjavur delta districts for methane gas extraction. At a protest in Kadiramangalam village, farmer leaders Prof T. Jayaraman and P. Maniyarasan were arrested and imprisoned. The Chennai-based cartoonist G. Bala was arrested in 2017 under Section 501 of the IPC and Section 67 of the Information Technology (IT) Act for his caricature in social media of the then Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami and the then Tirunelveli Collector Sandeep Naduri, who found it “offensive”.
In 2018, a 24- year old research scholar named Lois Sofia raised the slogan “Down with the fascist BJP” before alighting from a flight at Thoothukudi. She was arrested following a complaint from a co-passenger, who happened to by the then Tamil Nadu BJP resident Dr Tamilisai Soundararajan, , under Sections 505 and 290 of the IPC and 75 (I) (c) of the Tamil Nadu City Police Act, 1888.
The Tamil Nadu government would often invoke Sections 124, 124 A, 153 a, 153 B, 295 A, 298 and 505 (1) (2) of the IPC against any voice of dissent. Besides, the State, faithfully following the unwritten decree of BJP, liberally used other stringent legal provisions too, such as the NSA, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967, the Prevention of Damage to Public Property Act, 1984, the Information Technology Act, 2000, the Official Secrets Act, and the Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act, 1971.
Also, it never hesitated to invoke the Goondas’ Act, a frequently abused piece of law (“ Alarming act ”, Frontline , October 3, 2014). This law was amended during the Jayalalithaa regime in 2015 to make it harsher.
The 1,298-page report of the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) of the Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India, in Chapter 10A under the “offences against state” category, exposed the Tamil Nadu government’s intolerant attitude towards dissent.
In 2017, Tamil Nadu registered 1,802 cases of “offences against state” under various sections of the law. This number shot up to 2,241 in 2018 and came down to 1,311 in 2019. The State accounted for 17.3 per cent of all such offences, next only to Uttar Pradesh. The rate of total “offences against state” in 2019 was 1.7 (rate being number of offences per 1 lakh population).
In 2019 alone, besides registering 1,311 offences, the State government had booked four cases under Section 124 A of the IPC, 1,031 cases under the Prevention of Damage to Public Property Act, 270 cases under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act and two under the Official Secrets Act. The NCRB data also showed that in 2019, a total of 4,371 cases of “offences against state” were pending trial from 2018 and 1,138 were in trial. Seven cases were declared abated by the court. No case had been withdrawn by the prosecution.
Uttar Pradesh, under Chief Minister Adityanath, was the top-ranking State in resorting to the indiscriminate use of draconian instruments such as anti-sedition laws.
In 2017, the State had registered 2,055 cases under offences against state. This number went up to 2,503 in 2018 and fell to 2,107 in 2019. The State accounted for 27.8 per cent of all such cases in 2019. The rate of total offences against state in 2019 was 0.9.
A few North-Eastern States too had a significant share in the contribution to the disturbing practice of arresting people under sedition charges.
AIADMK in BJP’s footsteps
Speaking to Frontline, D. Ravikumar, senior Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi leader and Member of Parliament from Villupuram constituency, said that this abuse of power in Tamil Nadu during the AIADMK regime in the past decade had close similarities with the BJP-ruled States and the Centre Tamil Nadu was the only non-BJP-ruled State to register a high number of cases of “offences against state”, including sedition, 80 per cent of which were filed against Koodankulam protestors when Jayalalithaa was in power. A total of 139 sedition cases against hundreds of people were registered in the past decade, Ravikumar said. Quoting from a data-based report on sedition cases from a the Article 14 web site, Ravikumar said that nearly 11,000 people had been charged with sedition across the country in the last decade, of which 65 per cent were implicated after Narendra Modi took charge at the Centre in 2014.
The report, he said, found that five States—Bihar, Karnataka, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu—accounted for nearly 65 per cent of all sedition cases registered in the last 10 years. Ravikumar wrote to Chief Minister M.K. Stalin, who recently withdrew cases against many anti-Sterlite protestors as suggested by the Justice Aruna Jagadeesan Commission of Inquiry into the anti-Sterlite protests and violence, asking him to review and withdraw the ‘fake cases’ registered to stifle the voices of democracy in the last decade by the AIADMK.
On June 24, Stalin told the Assembly that the government would consider withdrawal of cases foisted against members of the general public who protested peacefully against projects such as the Salem expressway, ONGC drilling in Thanjavur, and the planned neutrino project in Theni.
The Ministry of Home Affairs Committee for Reform in Criminal Law in 2020 has sought suggestions from the public on whether the applicability of Section 124 should be expanded to include other functionaries, such as judges, the Attorney-General, Advocate-Generals, and the Solicitor General, and whether the offence of sedition under Section 124A requires omission or any amendment in terms of its definition, scope and cognisability. It also wants to know whether “Insults to the National Flag, Emblems and Constitution of India,” should be introduced as substantive offences under the IPC.