Chennai: A 28-year-old research scholar was granted unconditional bail on Tuesday, a day after being arrested for raising slogans against the central government in the presence of the state Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) chief, in what critics said was the latest example of the Tamil Nadu government’s crackdown on dissent.
Lois Sofia was arrested at Thoothukudi airport for raising slogans against the BJP government on a flight in the presence of the party’s state president Tamilisai Soundararajan.
Sofia, who was on her way home from Canada where she is pursuing her higher studies, was booked under three charges of causing nuisance following a complaint by Soundararajan that she raised slogans of “fascist BJP government… down, down".
A magistrate’s court awarded her unconditional bail on Tuesday, after she was remanded to 15 days judicial custody on Monday night.
Soundararajan said Sofia raised her fist and shouted, “Down with fascist BJP government". “I felt that there may be some organization that is supporting Sofia. So I filed a complaint to the airport authorities," she said.
M.K. Stalin, the president of the opposition Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), condemned “the anti-democratic action by the Tamil Nadu government to curb the freedom of expression. If you are going to arrest everyone who says that, how many people will you imprison? I will also say! ‘Down with BJP’s fascist government’," he tweeted.
The arrest follows a clampdown on activists across the country and the slapping of charges under laws such as the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), National Security Act (NSA) and, in Tamil Nadu, the Goondas Act. Those against whom charges have been slapped include activists, lawyers and others who have voiced their dissent against government policies and projects. In Tamil Nadu, they include environmental activists who have protested in the last few months against a copper smelting unit of Vedanta’s Sterlite Industries and the central government’s eight-lane highway project between Chennai and Salem.
Sofia had been writing articles against both Vedanta and the ₹ 10,000 crore highway project.
Terming the arrests an extraordinary situation, A. Marx, Tamil Nadu chapter president of the Peoples Union for Human Rights, said, “All basic rights to question and criticize the government have been curbed… have never seen a worse situation than this in Tamil Nadu."
Last month, Thirumurugan Gandhi, co-coordinator of the May 17 Movement, an organisation fighting for the rights of Sri Lankan Tamils, was arrested on charges of sedition when he returned after attending a United Nations Human Rights Council session at Geneva.
At the UNHCR, he spoke on the killing of 13 people at Thoothukudi in a police firing during the anti-Sterlite protests. He was charged in 40 cases, including under provisions of the NSA and UAPA.
A year ago, he was arrested under the Goondas Act for holding a candle light vigil to commemorate those who were killed during the war in Sri Lanka, prompting a condemnation by a UN working group on arbitrary detentions.
Student-activist Valarmathi, actor Mansoor Ali Khan and environmentalist Piyush Manush were arrested in June for raising their voice against the highway project.
Advocates K. Hariraghavan and S. Vanchinathan who were giving legal aid to the anti-Sterlite protestors were arrested for “instigating the people" during the protest against the now closed copper smelter plant. Over 90 cases were filed against Hariraghavan, including some under sections of the National Security Act.
A case was booked in August against documentary filmmaker and advocate Divya Bharathi, as the trailer of her documentary Orutharum Varela (Nobody Came), which criticised the state and Centre and highlighted the plight of the fishing community during Ockhi cyclone, last year, allegedly had “objectionable content". The film was released on You Tube on Saturday.