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Sophia’s Arrest Tells Us That Being Anti-Fascist Is Now Officially Anti-National

Pointing fingers about who did it first is a neat schoolyard bully trick but for adults who care about democracy, the struggle is with the fascists who are doing damage today.

We had a curious situation a few days ago where being anti-fascist made you anti-national: activists against fascism were arrested. Just as people were coming to grips with that anomaly in a democracy, a young woman was arrested at Tuticorin airport for shouting, “Fascist BJP government down down” as a flight from Chennai landed at Tuticorin. Lois Sofia, 28, was arrested when BJP MLA Tamilisai Soundarajan, who took the slogan personally, filed a complaint. The police, ever ready to help their political masters, arrested the student for “public mischief” and “public nuisance”.

Every now and then, the prime minister of India will make some banal comment about how he deplores murder in the name of the cow or encourages constructive criticism. This is a well-worked-out policy. The more banal the comment from Narendra Modi, often during his little radio chats on the importance of washing your hands after every meal, the more licence to those who want to lynch Muslims and Dalits or pinch free speech. As usual, those who “disobey” Modi use the peg of “nationalism” to justify their actions.

No matter how offensive the BJP MLA found Sofia’s comment, it did not warrant an arrest. Politicians go on rallies where they and their followers launch savage attacks on their opponents. The whole population of India perhaps should file complaints of “public nuisance” against all political speeches. That would certainly reduce noise pollution levels across the country and increase peace of mind.

But more seriously. The arrest of Sofia by an over-zealous police force and an outraged if somewhat immature politician is just one small example of how democracy is being gradually eroded. The arrests of civil rights activists and lawyers from various parts of India, on charges stretching from a plot to assassinate the prime minister to encouraging violence at Bhima Koregaon this January, are one of the strongest statements from this government on how dissent will be treated in India.

The Pune police questioned people for owning books, for being ‘intellectual”, for having portraits of Dr BR Ambedkar on their walls instead of pictures of gods and goddesses. It is fine training that is given at India’s police academies, where reading books is seen as a criminal act. Every dictatorship in the world has objected to books, remember that.

The usual excuse at this moment is to start a history lesson on who cracked down on dissent first. Was it Lord Rama or Emperor Ashoka or was it all Aurangzeb and his natural successor Jawaharlal Nehru? This sidestep into history, factual or fabricated, is a deflection tactic to make the dissenter defensive. But whatever happened in the past, no matter how reprehensible, does not condone what is happening now. Pointing fingers about who did it first is a neat schoolyard bully trick but for adults who care about democracy, the struggle is with the fascists who are doing damage today.

There is no future for India as a democracy if civil rights activists, who fight for the neglected and the dispossessed, become the enemy. There is no future for democracy in India if the courts allow judicial custody for a citizen who shouts “down with fascism”. There is no future for democracy in India when the actual culprits of the violence against Dalits at Bhima Koregaon roam free because they are part of the Hindutva universe, while those who fight for Dalit rights have to face trumped up charges.

Many objected, and with some good arguments, about why they didn’t join into the “#MeTooUrbanNaxal” movement on social media, started against a minor film-maker who wanted to make “lists” in good old Nazi style. They felt that the term, ‘Urban Naxal”, as a synonym for “anti-national”, was not being taken seriously enough because it was a dangerous way of tagging activists as targets. But I would argue that by large numbers jumping in and identifying as “Urban Naxals”, the term became a joke rather than a threat. And that is why all those who called themselves “Urban Naxals” did it. To defang the ass, sorry, asp.

In all this, one must not forget that the disaster that was demonetisation, the fall rupee, rising fuel and inflation, collapsing infrastructure plus the collapse of various high-profile initiatives like cleaning India or even one river in India must be covered up. These arrests, the cries of “anti-nationalism” are part of this strategy of smoke and mirrors.

You get fooled, we face the venom. Simple.

The author is a senior journalist. 

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