Between September and December 2011, 107 FIRs were registered in just one police station – the Koodankulam P.S. – against more than 55,000 people. That is about 30 percent of the total eligible voters in that Assembly constituency. The cases began to be registered within a few months of the new Government assuming power in Tamil Nadu. Of these, 3500 people are accused of “sedition” and/or “waging war against the state” – perhaps the largest number for any police station in independent or British India. The actual numbers of accused and FIRs are likely to be at least double this if the data is updated to April 2012. Ironically, the accused are all part of an 8-month long Gandhian protest against the Koodankulam nuclear power plant. According to local activists, cases are being filed for every day of protest even now.
The methods used by Tamil Nadu police are not unique to the Southern State. From Bhopal to Jagatsinghpur to Kalinganagar and Lanjigarh, and behind the scandalous jailings of two persons for circulating Mamata's cartoon or behind her jailing of several people protesting the eviction of the Nondanga slum near Kolkata, the thinking and the modus operandi of the State is the same – to criminalise dissent.
“This is a parody of law. The frequency and manner in which the Police has filed cases against peaceful protestors clearly exposes that the police's intent never was to uphold the rule of law, but to crush any dissenting voices,” said Sam Rajappa, a senior journalist who led a fact-finding team to Koodankulam in March. The national media has gone to town, and rightly so, over Mamata Banerjee's heavy-handedness against dissenters. But, its stony silence on Jayalalithaa's campaign against people who speak out against nuclear power is curious.
At least two journalists from national newspapers I spoke to said they did not carry the story because they found the 55,000 figure incredible. They spoke to Vijendra Bidari, the SP of Tirunelveli, who rubbished the claims of the protestors. Firstpost.com was, in fact, the only publication that actually did its own enquiries and published a story containing even Bidari's interview. “It is totally wrong. It will be around 40-50 people. They don’t have the FIRs. In multiple cases, the accused are the same. So if you keep adding the same names, the number will be more. It is totally false,” Bidari is reported to have told Firstpost.
But the facts speak for themselves. Take a look at the table compiled by supporters of the struggle based on information from the Police Station. As against Bidari's claim of cases against only 40 to 50 people, just one FIR filed on 21.11.11 accuses “Udayakumar and 3000 others” of sedition and waging war against the state. The accused in this case are not people who want to secede from India. Indeed, just a few months earlier, they were part of the 74 percent of the electorate who turned up to cast their votes. Their alleged crime, in this case, was to have questioned the safety of the nuclear plant and delayed its commissioning.
In pursuing this counter-campaign against its own people, the State Government has placed itself above the law of the land and pursued an openly anti-democratic agenda. Eminent legal scholar Dr. Usha Ramanathan says the law does not permit such arbitrary FIRs. “The State Government is openly coming out and saying “We have the power and the law cannot bind us,” she says. “This use of the Sedition provision, for instance, is a classic case of a State not even needing to hide behind anything, when it is treating itself as in a state of exception in relation to the law.”
In foisting cases, the State Government's motive, Dr. Ramanathan says, is not restoring law and order or apprehending offenders. Rather it is to shut people up. “Because, they know even if all the cases fall at the end of the day it doesn’t matter, because they’ve had their purpose served. You can beat people up, you can put them away. It’s a total abuse of a power that actually doesn’t exist, but which they have managed to cultivate for themselves.”
All these FIRs were filed quietly. No public action was to be taken against the anti-nuke protestors until all democratic electoral rituals were out of the way. On March 18, the bye election to the Sankaran Koil constituency in the same district was held. On March 19, 2012, the Chief Minister deployed more than 5000 heavily armed police to Radhapuram taluka. The district collector declared Section 144 all over the taluk. Police harassed shopkeepers that had shut shop in solidarity with the protestors to open for business. Fisherfolk were being forced to return to sea.
For the next four days, the State tried to isolate the protesting village and terrorise people into giving up their resistance. Protestors and supporters of the movement were picked up and jailed under one or more of the 107 FIRs already registered, or under new cases. Of the nearly 200 jailed, including 21 youngsters, two are still in jail. With the FIRs containing thousands of un-named persons as accused hanging like the proverbial sword over their heads, residents of Idinthakarai are fearful that they will be caught and jailed if they leave their village.
“Pushparayan, Jesuraj and I have been living in an open quater-km-radius prison since March 19, 2012,” writes Dr. S.P. Udayakumar, convenor of the People's Movement Against Nuclear Energy that is spearheading the protests. “Thousands of people sleep around our house at night in order to protect us from possible police action and mid-night arrest. Hundreds of youth protect us round the clock.”
In the week after Jayalalithaa's declaration of support to the plant, police cordons blocked the access of essential supplies and services for protestors in Idinthakarai. Keys to the Panchayat water tank were seized. Fortunately, the protestors had a fair share of fisherfolk among them. At tremendous expense of time and diesel, the protestors managed to bring in drinking water, provisions and milk for their children using their fishing boats through the sea route. “The government also suspended bus services in the area, causing untold hardships to the aged, ailing, and pregnant women needing urgent medical attention,” Rajappa's fact-finding visit concluded.
Owing to public pressure, the undeclared embargo on movement of essential supplies was eased within days. But what remains even today is an uneasy quiet in Tirunelveli district. The stories that local activists tell are quite disturbing. Public demonstrations against nuclear power are not permitted. Private halls and autitoriums in schools and colleges are not available for meeting critical of nuclear energy.
“If we approach a hall owner for a meeting, the next minute the Intelligence Bureau (IB) calls and threatens them,” says Samuel Asir Raj, a professor of sociology who is critical of nuclear energy. Prof. Raj has himself faced state censorship on more than one occasion. On 19 April, Raj organised a meeting on nuclear energy. But he had to tell the IB that the talk was about “Globalisation and the Indian Economy.” Not to be fooled, the IB asked for an advance copy of the presentation.
“It is not right for the police to ask for a copy of a presentation in an academic setting. Academicians cannot be prevented from learning the various sides of a philosophy. How can they deny students an opportunity to understand the different points of view on a matter?” he asks. When asked how the University management manage to stand up to police pressure, Raj laughing says “Fortunately, we don't have a Vice Chancellor.”
The last time he organised a meeting condemning the killing of dalits by the Police in the infamous Manjolai Estate firing, “the VC was spoken to and I was given a talking to.”
Considering what has been thrown at them by the State, the resolve of the anti-nuke protestors in pursuing their peaceful campaign suggests a formidable democratic spirit. On 23 April, the People's Movement Against Nuclear Energy announced the resumption of an indefinite hunger strike starting May 1, the International Workers Day.