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A Student Was Arrested in Tamil Nadu for Calling Out the BJP

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Sep 5, 2018

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Here’s the thing Sofia Lois has proven that she understands — words can be weaponized.

Lois knew this when she was writing some of the most comprehensive reportage from Thoothukudi, Tamil Nadu; when giving an interview about the anti-Sterlite protests and the state-sanctioned violence there; and on Monday, when she protested Tamil Nadu’s BJP President Tamilisai Soundararajan’s presence at the airport by shouting, “BJP’s fascist government, down, down.”

Of course, the consequences of speaking out against this government won’t come as a surprise to anyone. Acting on a complaint made by Soundararajan, the police have arrested Lois, who is now spending 15 days in judicial custody and has an FIR filed against her under the Indian Penal Code Sections 290 (punishment for public nuisance in cases not otherwise provided for), 505 (statements conducing to public mischief) as well as Section 75(1) of the Tamil Nadu City Police Act, 1888.

A 28-year-old Masters student at the University of Montreal in Canada, Lois was travelling back to her family home in Thoothukudi with her parents, when she realised the state BJP President was on the same flight as her, and chose to exercise her right to freedom of expression as they were deboarding. There were no threats made, and no names taken; Lois was simply voicing a sentiment, albeit a political one, about the government.

Soundararajan, however, saw these words as something more. Speaking to The Indian Express, she claimed that someone who knew the word ‘fascist’ and who used it (against her party) could not have been ‘innocent.’

“No innocent girl will use that word. I questioned her. She replied that she has the right to freedom of expression. She shouted that slogan and used the word ‘fascist,’ raising her fist and all. I thought I shouldn’t ignore a terrorist, so I filed a petition,” she told reporters.

Soundararajan’s fears seems to hinge on the fact that Lois, whom she calls a “young and seemingly innocent girl” could possess the language and agency to speak out. The BJP leader’s own hypocrisy was highlighted when, on her instigation, more than 10 workers blocked the Lois family’s way out of the airport, hurling abuse and death threats at them. In a video, Soundararajan herself can be seen yelling, held back by a policewoman, as she demands an apology from Lois. Lois insists that she had done nothing wrong.

Since the report, allegations have been hurled against Lois — that she is part of several political groups in Canada and Tamil Nadu, that her social media shows her to be a leftist activist, and that this move was pre-planned and politically motivated. The claim that she is a terrorist, however, stands out.

What is our government telling us, when they criminalise women and minorities for having the agency to speak out about oppression? Amid the recent raids and arrests of activists, the violent reactions of the police when two women waved black flags at a car BJP chief Amit Shah was traveling in, and any push-back against the government labelled as seditious, anti-national, and as good as terrorism, the irony in this case is entirely apparent. To arrest a student for calling the government fascist, is fascism in action. 

On Monday night, as reports of Lois’s arrest were shared on news websites and social media, the hashtag #FascistBJPdowndown was trending, with the DMK President and Leader of the Opposition tweeting, “The state government’s action is against democracy and freedom of expression. It is condemnable. Sofia should be immediately released. If you are going to arrest everyone raising such slogans, how many lakhs of people will you send to jail? I too say that! BJP’s fascist rule down down!”

For ‘innocent girls’ as well as others, words might actually be the most powerful weapon.

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Written By Nadia Nooreyezdan

Nadia Nooreyezdan is The Swaddle’s culture editor. Since graduating from Columbia Journalism School, she spends her time thinking about aliens, cyborgs, and social justice sci-fi. She’s also working on a memoir about her family’s journey from Iran to India.

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