Police in India’s southern Tamil Nadu state arrested well-known folk singer S. Kovan last week for singing a song at a protest meeting that criticized Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The arrest was in response to a complaint filed by a supporter of Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Kovan, whose music video of the song went viral on YouTube, is currently out on bail, but is charged with promoting communal enmity and disturbing “public tranquility.”
With his controversial songs and provocative lyrics, Kovan, a member of the Makkal Kalai Ilakkiya Kazhagam, or People’s Art and Literary Association, is no stranger to the wrath of the authorities. In 2015, he was arrested for sedition for songs criticizing Tamil Nadu’s state government.
Such acts of government suppression have a chilling effect on freedom of expression.
A 2016 Human Rights Watch report found that India’s laws on sedition, criminal defamation, hate speech, and public order are often used against journalists, activists, artists, writers, and cartoonists to crack down on speech that is critical of the authorities. Yet political and religious leaders in India continue to make hate-filled public comments that have incited violence without facing any consequences. Those publicly critical of Hindu nationalist ideology get labeled “anti-national,” and become vulnerable to both physical attack and prosecution under the sedition laws.
The authorities have also curbed free speech by submitting to demands made by mobs and interest groups. In January, for example, several BJP-led state governments relented after a militant Hindu group demanded a ban on a period drama movie that it claimed would upset some communities. And last November, district authorities in Lucknow city canceled a literature festival after protesters from BJP-affiliated groups disrupted it.
Misguided government efforts to control the proliferation of fake news have provoked outrage. Earlier this month, the Indian government was quickly forced to rescind a policy that would have penalized journalists for publishing undefined “fake news.”
Instead of arresting folk singers, India should work to protect freedom of expression and not empower the political leaders, pressure groups, and mobs who seek to restrict free speech for their own ends.