Tamil Nadu

Folk singer arrested on sedition charge

Print edition : November 27, 2015

Folk singer S. Kovan. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

THE video shows knots of women and children on a busy street listening and watching intently to the beats of the “parai”, a traditional percussion instrument even as a singer wearing a red bandana around his forehead sings in Tamil, “Moodu TASMACa moodu” (Close down the TASMAC shops). The reference is to the government-owned Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation, which has the monopoly over the sale of liquor in the State.

This song and another on the sale of arrack and its socio-economic impact on the lives of people in the State went viral on social media recently after it was uploaded. The videos soon caught the attention of intelligence sleuths of the State police’s cyber wing, who then hotfooted it to the doorsteps of the folk singer-cum-lyricist of the songs, S. Kovan alias Sivadas, in Tiruchi in the wee hours of October 30.

The songs are highly critical of the ruling dispensation for running liquor shops and claim that liquor has ruined the lives and livelihoods of poor families. Despite a popular demand that the State should bring in total prohibition, which gained currency recently after the death of the anti-liquor activist Sasi Perumal near Kanyakumari during an agitation (Frontline, September 14, 2015), the existing policy on the sale of liquor continues. A Minister declared on the floor of the Assembly that it would not be possible to bring in prohibition because that would lead to the sale of illicit liquor.

The videos of the two songs are, according to the police, “demeaning”. They said one of the videos lampooned the Chief Minister and carried a picture of Prime Minister Narendra Modi meeting her at her residence a few months ago, and it was accompanied by objectionable references. “It is seditious,” said a senior police officer.

A few persons, especially those in the BJP, castigated the singer and his organisation as “anti-national”. But rights activists see no debasing material in the songs. “The State government is represented by the Chief Minister. Who else can we criticise for running the TASMAC shops? She is the present head of the State administration, which runs the liquor trade through its TASMAC outlets,” said an anti-liquor campaigner.

However, the manner in which Kovan was arrested from his house in Tiruchi evoked widespread condemnation from all. He, according to his lawyer Jim Raj Milton, was hauled into a police van and taken to an unknown destination in Chennai. When the voice against his detention, which activists call undemocratic, rose to a crescendo, the police produced him before a city magistrate late in the evening after charging him under Sections 124 (a) (sedition), 153 and 505 (1) (b) (c) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). He has been remanded in judicial custody for 15 days at Chennai’s Puzhal Central Prison. The sedition law, a British relic which Gandhiji opposed, has, of late, been used frequently by State governments to suppress dissent, political or otherwise, and freedom of expression.

Amnesty International India has sought his release. In a statement released on October 30, 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.” He added: “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.”

The main charges against the singer are that he attempted to create hostility among various groups and incited people against the State and its Chief Minister. Raids were conducted at a house in Thanjavur belonging to another activist, a friend of Kovan, for uploading the videos of the songs on the Internet. A case was also registered against the Tamil website vinavu.com, which uploaded the songs on its site.

Kovan is a leader in the Maiya Kalaikuzhu (Central Art Troupe) of Makkal Athikaram (Authority of People), a wing of the radical Left-leaning outfit Makkal Kalai Ilakkiya Kazhagam (People’s Arts and Literature Association, MKIK). The organisation has been active among disadvantaged groups such as Dalits and the poor, highlighting socio-economic and cultural issues. The 52-year-old radical lyricist-cum-singer has, through his singing, been creating awareness among the people at the grass-roots level on the adverse effects of the neoliberal policies of the government.

He highlighted local issues, too, such as illegal sand mining, environmental degradation, prohibition, the Koodankulam nuclear reactor and so on, in his songs. Besides, he used to sing against religious majoritarianism. In his song “Sollatha Sogam” (Untold grief), he depicted the audacious attempt to construct all Muslims as anti-national. Kovan’s anti-liquor songs, activists claim, are not anti-government but anti-TASMAC. “He has been on the streets for three years now motivating people who happen to be the victims of myriad exploitations. The anti-liquor songs, two years old now, contain caustic references to the policies of the Chief Minister, which the ruling dispensation finds unsavoury and unpalatable,” said one of his close associates.

The lyrics go thus: “While an idly costs Re.1 (in Amma canteens where local bodies sell subsidised food), using public convenience costs Rs.5. The State government fills its coffers with TASMAC revenue from the same people to whom it distributes freebies too.” The lyrics are loaded with such references to the State’s dualism,.

The AIADMK government’s intolerance of dissent is not new. The police have shown no qualms in invoking draconian laws to detain, arrest and incarcerate those who criticise the government and its head.

Recently, the government amended the Goondas Act to enable the police to detain any suspect even for a first-time offence. The Assembly passed it despite stiff opposition from activists groups. Many political leaders and even the media are facing defamation cases in the State. Even works of art and literature containing what the State felt was “blasphemous and seditious” were banned in the recent past and its authors faced charges.

“Here is a State where even positive criticism is viewed as ‘negative’. It is sad that those at the helm of affairs treat anything that is dissent as ‘personal and rebellious’. This level of acute intolerance is dangerous to democracy,” said A. Marx, a human rights defender.

Songs of resistance have given voice to various struggles and revolutions all over the world. Many artistes campaigned against the British during the Independence struggle through their songs and plays in streets and on stages. “Art is the main disseminator of messages, socially or otherwise, to the masses. It is a time-tested tool, which MKIK and Kovan are using to their fullest advantage. And today’s social media plays a primary role,” said Marx.

Ilangovan Rajasekaran