Action taken against Lois Sophia, Sterlite protests show democracy in Tamil Nadu is under threat

By Aashika Ravi

The Bhima Koregaon raids that took place ten days ago have made every Indian, from urban Naxal to Sanghi troll, question the meaning of the word democracy. For media outlets across the country like The WireThe Hindu and The Times of India who condemned the government’s intolerant stance on dissent, breathing room for freedom of speech and expression is the essence of a democracy.

Our idea of democracy was again tested on 4 September when Lois Sophia, a research scholar studying in Canada, was arrested at the Thoothukudi airport for shouting an anti-BJP slogan at the Tamil Nadu BJP chief, Tamilisai Soundararajan, who was travelling in the same flight.

While on board the flight, Sophia apparently shouted “Fascist BJP Government down down!” and according to Soundararajan, continued while following her till the arrivals gate. She and Sophia got into a heated argument, after which Soundararajan filed a complaint with the airport police and Sophia was arrested by the police under IPC Sections 505 (statements conducing to public mischief), 290 (public nuisance) and Section 75 of the Tamil Nadu City Police Act, and sent to 15 days of judicial custody by a magistrate.

In light of this, Manu Sebastian detailed the nature of a magistrate’s role, and how he/she must verify that the accusation is well-founded and not act like a ‘post-office’, mechanically forwarding the accused to the police custody by accepting the police version. Sophia has since got unconditional bail but not before the incident triggered a social media storm about freedom of speech. (The irony of this whole situation is best summed up in this sadly funny tweet.)

 Action taken against Lois Sophia, Sterlite protests show democracy in Tamil Nadu is under threat

Representational image. News18

Many people defended the decision, saying there is a certain decorum to be followed in an aircraft and at an airport, and Sophia’s behaviour was not in line with that. But based on The Indian Express’ reporting, Soundararajan’s police complaint seems to have come from a place of intolerance. “No innocent girl will use that word (fascist). 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,” Soundararajan said.

While the Bhima Koregaon raids got extensive nationwide coverage and rightly so, Sophia’s arrest has the recent outrage over freedom of speech to thank for not going unnoticed. For the longest time, BJP had been to Tamil Nadu politics what Vivek Agnihotri is to Maoists (or anyone really): irrelevant. That is not true anymore. But in any case, those who care about democratic processes should pay attention to Tamil Nadu even though it does not neatly fit a 'sickular vs bhakt' or 'bhakt vs Urban Naxal' playoff.

Instead, the country has been dormant in responding to a crisis of democracy that has intensified in Tamil Nadu over the past few months. (Aside: what if we told you that there are 18 “orphan constituencies” in the state without representatives in the Assembly for four straight sessions and that the Opposition is pushing a floor-test because they suspect the ruling party isn’t in the majority?)

Let’s briefly decipher the mess of state violence, caste politics and cronyism that has been plaguing the residents of Tamil Nadu.

If we go back to May, just 3 months ago, we had the protests in Thoothukudi against mining company Vedanta’s Sterlite plant. Vedanta has always had a dicey reputation when it comes to environmental and humans rights regulations. If you only want to read about this particular plant and problems residents have had since it was established 20 years ago, read this Quartz report.

The most recent round of protests began in February when Vedanta announced plans to expand the facility and add another unit which in subsequent months led to thousands of residents protesting, more than 50 trade associations calling for a shutdown and at least 12,000 shops shutting down.

After 99 days of peaceful protesting, protests turned violent on 22 May, the 100th day, and police opened fire, killing at least 12. Thousands of protesters had organised a march to the District Collector’s office when police lathicharged people and then opened fired. In a submission to the Madras High Court, the Director General of Police claimed that “violence erupted at five different locations, forcing the police to use firearms at four of those places and resort to lathicharge alone in the fifth.”

It is useful to read journalist Jeya Rani because she contextualises the complex relationship that state violence has had with Dalits, tribals and minority communities in Tamil Nadu and how the police are never held accountable. Of the Sterlite protest too, she discusses how due procedure was flouted in police response to the protest. During the protests, horrifying videos of police telling a dying man to “stop acting” and declaring that “at least one (protester) should die” were posted by The News Minute.

“Procedures have been laid down in police manuals on how to handle a public protest. The police should fire tear gas, resort to lathicharge and then water cannon before opening fire. The police is meant to issue a warning over loudspeakers before opening fire. If the protest continues to be ‘violent’, the police is meant to open fire by firing at or below the knees of people and not by targeting their faces and chests. The government instead chose to unleash extreme violence on the protesters in Thoothukudi. The police did not adhere to any procedure and used snipers to shoot protesters. The government now says that shooting was unavoidable since the protests were infiltrated by ‘anti-social’ elements,” Jeya writes.

She goes on to cite previous instances of state violence in Tamil Nadu and how governments always have a script ready. “The state pretends to bring about peace by imposing its violence on public protest. Afterwards, it wraps everything up inside a judicial commission and hopes the issue will go away. To this day, no judicial commission constituted to enquire into state atrocities has ever stood by the people. It has only served the purpose of protecting the police and giving a clean chit to them.”

That was in May. But as recently as 9 August, the Tamil Nadu government has made arrests in the Sterlite case, notably of activist Thirumurugan Gandhi. On the grounds of sedition, no less. Gandhi had brought up the Thoothukudi firing in a United Nations Human Rights Council and was returning when he was arrested from Bangalore International Airport.

Less than a month after the Thoothukudi firing, the government was back to its favourite pastime, this time to contain the growing dissent against the Salem Chennai Expressway project, a Rs 10,000-crore highway proposed to connect Salem and Chennai. Protests had intensified due to forceful acquisition of farmers’ land by the government made possible by legal loopholes.

On 18 June, activist Piyush Manush was arrested under Sections 153 (wantonly giving provocation with intent to cause riot); 189 (threat of injury to public servant); 506 (ii) (criminal intimidation) IPC and 7 (1) Criminal Law Amendment Act and sent to Salem Central Jail. The next day, they arrested student activist Valarmathi whose bail application was rejected twice until she was finally released on 6 July, over two weeks later and over 20 other people, some of whom belonged to the All India Kisan Sabha and were eventually released on 9 July.

In July, we spoke to policy researcher and analyst Manasi Karthik who shed light on the numerous environmental and procedural violations committed by the government in undertaking the project, including loopholes that allowed for land acquisition, licenses issued in retrospect and petitioners finding it difficult to establish locus standi. The government’s behind the scenes liaisons with industries had led to crackdowns on anyone who dared to question them.

“We now have a government that is not only willing to turn a blind eye to flagrant violations by industries but actually take up arms against its own people to aid and abet the unfettered power enjoyed by a select group of industries,” she said.

As of 4 September, in a huge setback for the protesters, the Madras High Court has quashed a petition by NGO Poovulagin Nanbargal challenging the constitutionality of the land acquisition for the Salem Chennai Expressway project.

While the Bhima Koregaon riots and subsequent raids have all strains of communalism and ideologies clashing violently, from Hindutva bhakts to liberals and suspected Maoists, the situation in Tamil Nadu is vastly different. Here, it’s less communalism, and more capitalism that dictates free speech. An incestuous relationship between the state government and foreign industrialists has led to what Karthik calls “a cocktail of corruption and cronyism” which means large scale displacement of the poor and the silencing of anyone who tries to represent them.

But it’s also similar in the way that Dalits, tribals and the lower castes are the ones who suffer the most from state violence and that ultimately, both Tamil Nadu’s reckless industrialisation and the Centre’s intolerance will have the same consequence — death of democracy as we know it.

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Updated Date: Sep 06, 2018 20:10:01 IST