A young research scholar studying in Canada has been granted bail by a magistrate in southern Tamil Nadu after being charged with causing nuisance on a flight by shouting slogans. Seated near the president of the BJP’s Tamil Nadu unit, the woman, Lois Sophia, seems to have vented her anger on a “fascist BJP government” and was later engaged in an argument at Thoothukudi airport. She may have acted irresponsibly in making such a remark inappropriately in a public space and should have been admonished rather then dragged to the police on the strength of a complaint from a senior politician and put in judicial remand for 15 days. What the action thrust upon the local police by a formal complaint shows is a growing climate of intolerance to any sort of criticism of the ruling party. The question is where we are heading as a free country if the merest sign of protest is throttled in this manner.
As citizens of a democracy, it is the right of people to be able to criticise anyone, a political party or even a religion, provided it is done within accepted norms of public behaviour and doesn’t amount to a vituperative attack on an individual. The politician, Tamilisai Soundararajan, could have laughed it off or, even if she wished to make an issue of it, there were ways to take it up than with this kind of extreme aggression. A tolerance of different viewpoints and opinions should be part of our democratic culture. Tensions of the moment ahead of crucial national elections should not be allowed to obstruct the acceptance of different political persuasions. There must be space for the expression of dissent without fear of being branded as an opponent of the government or denounced as a terrorist waging war against the State.
The instance of intolerance in southern Tamil Nadu can’t be seen in isolation as it is happening in a chain of events, including the action against educated activists on the premise that they are sympathisers of Maoists. If they are active collaborators of enemies of the State, the facts must be put in front of the judiciary and criminal culpability proved in court. The persecution of anyone seen as an opponent of government policies, however misplaced their points of view may be, has become the new normal, particularly in Tamil Nadu, which was rent asunder by the police opening fire and killing 15 protesters recently in the face of a focused agitation against a copper smelter factory. Similar actions in earlier cases amounting to persecution of a writer, a cartoonist and a student activist suggest a pattern of intolerance of anyone voicing dissent. It is the people in power who need to show tolerance towards political dissenters too.