In Tamil Nadu, Stalin’s namesake in the DMK is supporting Lois Sophia, a student and an opponent of “fascism”, as the original had done on another continent, in another century. But the rest of the action at Tuticorin airport, where Tamil Nadu BJP president Tamilisai Soundararajan brought the might of the state to bear on Sophia, a politically engaged student of mathematics and physics who raised the slogan, “Fascist BJP government down, down,” is absurd drama at its political best. Soundararajan’s response, which was to have Sophia arrested, had an unintended consequence: It graphically proved the student’s point. To read opposition as a criminal act betrays a mindset that sits uneasily in a democracy. The police and the law officer who permitted remand are complicit by virtue of their automatism.
Bail has been granted to Sophia, who stands accused under Sections 505 (statements conducing to public mischief) and 290 (causing public nuisance) of the Indian Penal Code, and under Section 75 of the Tamil Nadu City Police Act. But the case against her will proceed. And the matter was given a chilling edge when the state BJP chief spoke to the press. “No innocent girl would use that word,” she said. “I thought I shouldn’t ignore a terrorist… I cannot ignore it if my government is questioned in such a way.” Loss of innocence progressed seamlessly to the charge of terrorism, and the assertion that questioning the government is intolerable. Soundararajan also offered dark, nebulous allusions to Sophia’s links with the Sterlite protests and unspecified Canadian groups.
In isolation, this would have been a mere absurdity, a stray case of political bullying and justice gone wrong. But the context makes it serious and sobering: The recent arrests of “urban Naxals” and their media trial by the Maharashtra police seems to have sharpened an atmosphere in which both ruling party politicians and the agencies of justice find it natural to arrest someone for protesting against the government in office, and designate her a terrorist. The court should have pulled up the police for arresting without serious cause, since Sophia had only repeated a slogan, without any threatening behaviour. But every buck cannot stop with the courts. The government must also address this situation, and strongly discourage the belief that state power can be used arbitrarily against dissenting citizens. There would have been no incident at Tuticorin airport if Soundararajan had taken the one-woman protest with good grace, or if she had reached out to the protester like a mature politician, instead of confirming her accusation by using the might of the state as a weapon to silence and subdue the student.