The cry for imposing prohibition in Tamil Nadu had picked up steam a few months ago, with virtually every opposition party backing the demand. But it was a song about the state’s alcohol problem—by folk singer Kovan, or Sivadas—that disagreed with the state government. It responded with a gag reflex: a sedition case was slapped against Kovan, whose lyrics weren’t very charitable to chief minister J. Jayalalitha.
The way the Chennai police swooped down on his house in Tiruchirapalli in the middle of the night and arrested him has again sparked a debate. The major question is on the misuse of the sedition law, described as archaic, to tackle dissent. Opposition parties and activists are asking why such a serious charge is being slapped on someone speaking up about a social problem—one they too are fighting, and one the government should be canvassing against. Jayalalitha’s five-year term ends in mid-2016, and with elections looming, her rivals say she’s trying to divert attention from her aide V.K. Sasikala, whose relatives are said to have made a controversial big-ticket purchase of a multiplex.
Actress-turned-politician Khushboo, national spokesperson for the Congress, says what Kovan—a member of the Makkal Kalai Ilakia Kazhagam or People’s Arts and Literature Association (PALA), a radical left arts and literature outfit—has sung is something the Congress has been fighting for. “We’ve been asking for complete prohibition (in Tamil Nadu), and the song depicts what’s actually happening here,” she say. The demand for prohibition had intensified in August when activst Sasi Perumal died during a demonstration outside a liquor shop in Kanyakumari. Tasmac, the state marketing corporation, which controls liquor retail, is at the centre of the prohibition issue. Tasmac shops, Kovan’s song ‘Oorukku ooru sarayam’ says, take back all the freebies people receive—mixer-grinders, fans, goats. What has possibly angered Jayalalitha and her party is the video of the song, which shows a woman dressed like the chief minister pouring out drinks to people. It has found many viewers.
“It is ridiculous. He can criticise the party, and politically he can criticise the government. But an individual...that too a woman!” says C.R. Saraswathi, spokesperson for Jayalalitha’s AIADMK party. “They can ask for the closure of liquor shops, they can say such things in the right manner. But they are putting a bottle in a chief minister’s hands.... And they are criticising her using such vulgar words.” She says party workers are hurt and enraged that such a personal attack is being made against their leader.
For the 53-year-old Kovan, who has been a left-leaning activist and member of PALA since 1985, controversy is not a new thing. Jim Raj Milton, Kovan’s advocate, says his client’s songs, including the one about liquor, have been on the vinavu.com website since early October. Apparently, the police are still looking for the person who runs the website. But, says Milton, the fact that the police went to arrest Kovan at 2.30 am on October 30 made it clear that they wanted to terrorise his family. Kovan’s son S. Saruvagan has moved the Madras High Court, fearing that the government could invoke the National Security Act, 1980. “Examining the prima facie content of all cases registered by the police will prove that the intention is to tarnish my father’s name and show him up as an anti-social element,” he says.
Rights groups have taken up Kovan’s cause, considering that our sedition laws are a vestige of the colonial era. Human Rights Watch says the government should enforce the limitations set by the Supreme Court on the use of the sedition law. It also says our sedition laws run contrary to our international human rights obligations.
The PALA describes itself as a Marxist-Leninist organisation which has been functioning since 1980. Its song troupe is well known in Tamil Nadu and it has been bringing out a magazine called Pudiya Kalacharam (New Culture) for the last 35 years. “During 1991-96, the first term of the Jayalalitha government, we faced around 100 cases of sedition just for placing posters, issuing leaflets and speaking in meetings. The application of sedition cases was quite common during her rule in 1991-96. Later, it somewhat subsided,” says Maruthaiyan, general secretary of PALA. The organisation also takes up issues such as illegal sand-mining and quarrying, but the protests against liquor shops have been gaining momentum in recent months. This, he claims, is because the government hasn’t been implementing court orders against liquor shops, as in the case of the Kanyakumari protest, in which activist Perumal died. It’s common enough now to hear activists and the opposition quoting instances of schoolchildren getting drunk, thanks to easy access to Tasmac shops.
“The point is, the choice of words (in Kovan’s song) has become a pretext to file a case. Maybe even then it can attract only a defamation case, nothing more,” reckons political commentator Gnani Sankaran. “Again, you have to look at it in a different perspective.... I couldn’t justify the usage of such words in the song....but all folk songs are known to use a colloquial language.”
Tamil Nadu, being a fairly large state, is also one of the country’s bigger liquor markets. But it’s quite common to hear voices in even big alcohol companies say that it isn’t an easy place to do business, because of the clout local distillers enjoy. Kovan, in his songs, also took aim at local distiller Midas Golden Distilleries, whose directors are said to be close to the chief minister’s aide.
“They are pointing out one Midas, but all the other factories belong to DMK people, everyone knows that,” says Saraswathi, the AIADMK spokesperson. “And where were all these protesters four years ago when the same shops were running? The Congress is saying close the liquor shops here, but have they closed the shops in Karnataka? In Kerala, they are asking for 10 years. It’s only because of the elections that these parties are creating problems now. They have nothing else to say about our government, because all the schemes are going well and reaching the people.”
However, a lot of the noise over the past week has had to do with a report in The Hindu, which the AIADMK’s political opponents have been quick to jump at. The report, which comes at an uncomfortable time for the ruling party, said the directors of Midas were also associated with a company called Jazz Cinemas, which recently bought an 11-screen multiplex called Luxe, located in Velachery.
“This is the time to deviate attention from something,” says Khushboo, of the Congress, reasoning that the action against the singer took a while coming, though his videos were online for weeks. “You just divert the attention of the people when you look at the song itself...actually every party in Tamil Nadu has been voicing the need for prohibition.” But when in power, Jayalalitha and her party have not been averse to wielding the heavy hand. The archaic sedition law is a handy weapon.