Lois Sofia's detention alarming and dangerous for democracy

Last Updated: Fri, Sep 07, 2018 10:42 hrs
Lois Sofia

Lois Sofia, a student and research scholar exercised her right to freedom of speech as she called out Tamil Nadu BJP President Tamilisai Soundararajan who happened to be on the same flight as hers en route to Tuticorin. The slogan she said in the presence of Ms. Soundararajan, – “fascist BJP government down, down”. She was arrested but then shortly after granted unconditional bail on Tuesday.

A complaint was filed by Ms. Soundararajan with the Tuticorin police, who are currently handling the case. The laws in question according to the police are “IPC Sections 505 (statements conducing to public mischief), 290 (public nuisance) and Section 75 of the Tamil Nadu City Police Act”.

In confronting Ms. Sofia at the airport, the BJP leader decried that the particular wording of choice did not constitute freedom of expression. In a clip circulating on social media, she stated, “She is saying ‘Down with the BJP fascist government’. How is that freedom of expression?

Let’s take a closer look at the laws at play in this case. One of the provisions of the India Penal Code (IPC) that Sofia has been charged with is Section 75 of the Tamil Nadu City Police (TNCP) Act, 1888 as mentioned earlier. The law states that a public servant while performing his/her lawful duty should be spoke to or replied to politely. If there is a breach of public peace, that person will be held under this law and is liable to six months prison or fined up to Rs.1000.

With regards to her conduct onboard the aircraft, post 9/11 there are stiff rules in place by aviation authorities for passenger safety. Some have criticised the student for her behavior onboard.

An important point to keep in mind is that the complaint filed was not by the airline or an aviation authority, but by a politician who didn’t agree with a private citizen’s choice of words. The confrontation took place as passengers were deboarding, not while the aircraft was airborne.

One particular law that comes into focus here is a memo issued by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) last year stating any unruly behavior on board, during embarkation and disembarkation interferes with the performance of the flight crew. As with many laws, the definition of unruly behavior is vague.

As her arrest drew swift condemnation from opposition parties, a larger issue at stake here is what constitutes dissent and free speech & expression. As the Supreme Court stated during a hearing in the aftermath or the arrests of activists late last month, “Dissent is the safety valve of democracy. If dissent is not allowed, then the pressure cooker may burst”. As the Indian Express editorial has noted, the BJP leader by complaining and having Ms. Sofia arrested for dissent has proven the student’s point –

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”.

Context is key with this episode; it’s the latest. It’s the latest after the raids and arrest of activists across the country last month for alleged Maoist links and alleged conspiracies to assassinate the current Prime Minister in the case of one of the arrested activists. The editorial puts it this way –

The recent arrests of “urban Naxals” and their media trial by the Maharashtra police seem 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 as a terrorist.”

The word terrorist is used as Ms. Soundararajan in speaking to the press said in part, “I thought I shouldn’t ignore a terrorist… I cannot ignore it if my government is questioned in such a way”. A loaded term and strong accusation used against someone simply exercising her given rights. There would be no need for the events that followed had Ms. Soundararajan taken the criticism like every politician and public official should; in stride. Instead, she displayed behavior that was disturbing and the events followed were alarming given recent events.

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