On Sunday, Malayalam novelist and theatre activist Kamal C Chavara became the 13th person to be taken into custody in Kerala in one week after allegations that he had insulted the national anthem.
Chavara was detained in Kozhikode, following a complaint from Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha, the youth wing of Bharatiya Janata Party, stating that one of his Facebook posts – said to be an excerpt from his 2015 novel Smashanangalude Nottupustakam – denigrated the national anthem. He was charged with sedition, though the police on Tuesday claimed that they had dropped the charge.
His arrest came less than a week after 12 delegates at the 21st International Film Festival of Kerala had been taken into custody on December 12 for allegedly failing to stand up while the national anthem was being played at the event in Thiruvananthapuram. The Supreme Court last month directed cinema halls across the country to play the national anthem before each screening and said the audience must stand up for the duration of the song.
Chavara told Scroll.in that he did not know why the police travelled nearly 300 km from Karunagappally, where the sedition case against him was filed, to Kozhikode to detain him. “I am a novelist and theatre activist; I am not a criminal or absconder,” he said. “I would have walked into any police station if the police intimated me.”
Government under fire
The police action against Chavara created a furore on social media and prompted widespread criticism against the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Democratic Front government.
On Monday, VS Achuthanandan, the former chief minister of Kerala and a CPI (M) veteran, denounced Chavara’s arrest. “Dalits, Adivasis, writers and the artists should live freely in Kerala,” he said, and cautioned that if the government did not control the police, it would create the impression that it was moving towards fascism.
Trying to douse the criticism against the party, CPI (M) state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan also promised to take action against police officers who fail to abide by the government policy. “There are police officers who work against the policies of the government,” he told mediapersons in Kozhikode on Tuesday. “Writer Kamal C Chavara should not have been slapped with sedition charges.”
The fire-fighting continued later on Tuesday and reports said Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan had directed the police to drop the sedition charge against Chavara.
The reactions to Chavara’s detention were in stark contrast to the position taken by many in the ruling party after the arrests at the film festival last week.
Defending the police action, Pinarayi’s senior cabinet colleague and state minister AK Balan had said that citizens should respect the national anthem and flag at a time when the country was facing internal and external threats.
Balakrishnan too had justified the police action, saying that only those who were ready to stand for the anthem should attend the film festival.
However, such arrests were not unheard of in the state even before the Supreme Court’s November 30 ruling. In August 2014, when the Congress-led United Democratic Front government was in power, six people were arrested for allegedly disrespecting the national anthem at the state-government run Nila Theatre in Thiruvananthapuram. One of the accused, Salman Mohammed, who was charged with sedition, spent 35 days in prison before coming out on bail.
The ruling CPI(M)’s conflicting reactions to last week’s arrests and detentions are a window into a party that is groping in the dark about how to counter an emerging rightwing in Kerala.
The BJP won its first ever seat in Kerala in the assembly elections in May and the Sangh Parivar is starting to make its presence felt in the state. Some political analysts said that the Left Democratic Front’s ambivalent response to the film festival arrests was a ploy to prevent the Sangh from making political gains from a sensitive issue.
This was seen last week too, when members of the Yuva Morcha had burnt an effigy of film director Kamal, after he criticised the arrest of delegates at the Kerala film festival. Then, on December 15, Sangh Parivar workers marched to Kamal’s house and chanted the national anthem as a sign of protest.
The protesters alleged that Kamal was anti-national, and, giving the incident a communal colour, referred to him as “Kamaludeen”. The police stopped the march a little ahead of the director’s residence.
“I didn’t understand how they could reduce the national anthem to a slogan,” Kamal told the media after the incident.
The chief minister criticised the Sangh Parivar over this incident at a public meeting on Sunday. “Kamal did not need a certificate of patriotism from the Sangh Parivar,” he said. “Such tactics will not work in Kerala. The government will take action against such propaganda.”
Meanwhile, some of the film festival delegates who had been arrested in cases relating to the national anthem told Scroll.in that the police had acted in haste, without verifying the veracity of the complaints against them.
Mohammed, arrested in the Nila Theatre case in 2014, said, “My house was surrounded by police. There was no need to create such a scene in the middle of night.”
He added, “Earlier, the police used to pick only Muslims for insulting national symbols. The current CPI (M) government has begun to detain people from other religions too.”
Vinesh Kumar, a journalist who was arrested during the film festival, said the police did not verify the charges before picking him up. “The police followed instructions from Sangh activists,” he claimed. “They also dragged me holding the collar of my shirt.”
Kumar said he spent one-and-a-half-hours at the police station. “They were clueless on the charges to be slapped on us.”
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