Last Friday, the Tamil Nadu police arrested the folk singer S Kovan on charges of sedition. The 52-year old Mr Kovan had recorded hard-hitting songs pointing a finger at the chief minister of Tamil Nadu, J Jayalalithaa - and her government, of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazagham or AIADMK - of profiting from the sale of liquor in the state's chain of alcohol shops under the Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation, or TASMAC. There are about 6,800 state-run alcohol shops in Tamil Nadu, and TASMAC earned just under Rs 24,000 crore a year in 2013-14. Mr Kovan, an outspoken Dalit rights activist, has sympathised with other hot-button issues before the prohibition movement, but his songs on alcohol attacking Ms Jayalalithaa have touched a particular nerve, with his supporters saying they have been seen over 400,000 times on YouTube. It is, however, entirely questionable as to whether they constitute sedition.
Mr Kovan's arrest under Section 124(A) of the Indian Penal Code, which lays out the penalties for sedition, is a reminder that this colonial-era law is prone to misuse. Police who wish to take a dissenter into custody frequently use the latitude the law grants them. This is in spite of judgments of the Supreme Court that have strictly circumscribed the limits of sedition, given the Constitution's guarantee of free speech. Yet chief ministers across the country have used their control of police forces and the inherently draconian nature of the sedition clause to harass, arrest, and incarcerate dissenters. Ms Jayalalithaa has used the provisions of the same law to arrest Mr Kovan. Recently, public outrage forced Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis to announce that he was scrapping a government order that empowered the state police to invoke sedition against "whoever, by words, either spoken or written, or by signs or by visible representation, is critical of politicians, elected representatives belonging to the government". Ironically, this mandate was handed to the police following a demand from the Bombay High Court that the government frame clearer guidelines on the use of the sedition clause; the impetus for that demand from the court was the dismissal of the sedition case brought against the cartoonist Aseem Trivedi by the previous state government, during which the judges pointed out that there was in that case "no allegation of incitement to violence or the tendency or the intention to create public disorder". In Gujarat, the leader of the Patidar agitation, Hardik Patel, was arrested on sedition charges soon after he was released on bail in a case filed against him on another charge. Earlier, in Gujarat, under Narendra Modi's leadership, several journalists were arrested on sedition charges that were later squashed.
The sedition law, as the courts worry, is near-impossible to implement without slipping into arbitrary quashing of dissent. Station officers in the police have the right to pick sections of the penal code they wish to use in an arrest, and sedition is a particularly easy choice when it comes to dealing with dissenters - even if those cases are thrown out years later. But the temptation to use this clause to incarcerate those who criticise the police or the government of the day continues to prove irresistible. Like many other parts of India's penal code, the sedition law was drafted for a very different time, when India was a colonised country. More than six decades years after independence, police and criminal-law reform is overdue. It is wise to start with the sedition law, which is so regularly and easily abused.