A court in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu granted bail on Tuesday to a student a day after she was detained for describing the ruling party as “fascist”.
Lois Sofia raised slogans saying “BJP is fascist; down, down, BJP” when she spotted a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Tamilisai Soundararajan on board a flight from Chennai to Thoothukudi on Monday.
Sofia was arrested on charges of creating “public nuisance” and “public mischief” after the BJP leader filed a complaint, an official at the women’s police station in Thoothukudi told Al Jazeera.
“Me and my wife were taking a flight back home with our daughter yesterday. She had shouted ‘BJP is fascist; down, down, BJP’ in the Tamil language when she spotted a BJP leader called Tamilisai,” Sofia’s father Dr A A Samy told Al Jazeera from Thoothukudi.
Sofia was arrested for shouting a slogan. The complaint was filed by Tamilisai Soundarajan. She has now been released on bail. We #StandwithSofia for exercising the freedom to dissent. Tweet @DrTamilisaiBJP & ask her to 'Remember Article 19 (1) (a) of the Indian Constitution'. pic.twitter.com/Xcdg10VjWe
— Amnesty India (@AIIndia) September 4, 2018
“When we landed at the airport, BJP party supporters surrounded us and threatened us, saying, ‘We will kill you’. It was very upsetting,” he said.
“We were later brought to Thoothukudi police station where, after several hours, they arrested my daughter,” he added.
Al Jazeera tried to reach out to Soundararajan, chief of the Tamil Nadu state unit of the BJP, but the calls went unanswered.
The local court had initially sent Sofia, a research student at a Canadian university, to judicial detention for 15 days. The court reversed its decision after public outrage.
“The government is trying to silence dissenters who are speaking out against this regime’s attempts to crush the people, be it students or activists or intellectuals,” Supreme Court lawyer Prashant Bhushan told Al Jazeera.
BJP supporters and some social media users, however, claimed she created a disturbance in a public place that warranted penal action.
Political analyst Sumanth Raman cited air safety laws to say that “a fight inside an aircraft can be dangerous”.
The brief arrest comes amid concerns over a crackdown on dissent in the South Asian nation under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Last week, the arrests of prominent activists who work with marginalised groups created massive outrage across India, prompting Modi to respond.
“The condition of our country is such that any attempt to discipline is called undemocratic. If someone calls for discipline, he is branded as autocratic,” Modi said while speaking at an event in New Delhi in a veiled reference to the controversy.
On social media websites, the arrest of Sofia stirred outrage. Her name was the top trend on Twitter in India on Monday morning.
In recent years, people have been arrested for sharing a Facebook post, showing black flags to ruling party chief, allegedly cheering a rival cricket team, or not standing up in a cinema when the national anthem is being played.
Earlier this year, two women students of Allahabad University were arrested after they waved black flags at a passing car carrying BJP chief Amit Shah. Both women were dragged, with one of them grabbed by her hair and beaten by a policeman.
Left-wing student groups have been vocal against Modi government, many of whom have faced police action.
In February 2016, student leaders Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya were arrested under draconian sedition charges for allegedly being part of an event where anti-India slogans were reportedly raised. The charges remain unproven and they were later freed on bail.
A similar “frenzy” is being manufactured now, says student leader Shehla Rashid.
“This is all in preparation for the elections, they are trying to cover up for their policy failures like demonetisation (note ban),” Rashid told Al Jazeera from New Delhi.
“Sofia being arrested for saying BJP is fascist is utter nonsense. This is not a crime,” she added.
Tamil Nadu student arrested for shouting "Fascist" at a BJP leader. Except for the politician and the police, the irony is visible to all.
— Sachin Kalbag (@SachinKalbag) September 4, 2018
India’s Supreme Court headed by the Chief Justice Dipak Misra will hear a plea this week challenging the recent arrests of a clutch of human rights activists.
“Dissent is the safety valve of democracy. If you don’t allow the safety valve, the pressure cooker will burst,” Justice Dhananjaya Yeshwant Chandrachud, who is among the three judges hearing the case at the top court, observed last week.
Rights groups such as the Human Rights Watch and Amnesty have criticised the government for cracking down on activists.
“The crackdown on human rights defenders in India is a grave challenge to the freedom to dissent and violates constitutionally guaranteed human rights,” an Amnesty International statement said recently.