Sathish Kumar and R. S. Muhilan were on indefinite hunger strike from 25 April to May 4 2012 in Tiruchirapalli prison, Tamil Nadu. Demanding a fair trial, stoppage of new charges being filed against them and the withdrawal of existing false charges against them. They are two among the more than 55,000 people, as co-accused ‘others’, against whom 107 FIRs (First Information Reports) have been filed between September and December 2011 in Idinthakarai, Tamil Nadu (see here; updated information till date is awaited). They are among the 6,800 people of these who face charges of sedition and/or waging war against the state, likely the largest number so charged in colonial or post colonial India in just one police station.
They are among the nearly 200 people arrested following the Tamil Nadu government’s unprecedented (para) militarized crackdown of the local, strong, peaceful ten months long hunger striking People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE) struggling against the setting up of the central government backed Indo-Russian Koodankulam Nuclear Power Project (KKNPP) in coastal Southern Tamil Nadu. Now, they are the only two of these still in prison. And they face legal rigmarole and unending time in prison, with judicial remand being extended, court hearings postponed, bail being denied, being shunted from court to court, finally being granted bail in high court, and then having to face new charges, judicial remand and courts all over again; their bail being rejected yet again in a lower court.
The two are targets of a well planned campaign orchestrated by the Tamil Nadu government, sustained primarily by mainstream media, based on information supplied to it by the Tamil Nadu intelligence (Q Branch) and police. Quietly backed by a heavily invested central government. To castigate these two, and by association the movement and the people involved including the very active members of PMANE’s core struggle committee, such as Udaya Kumar, Pushparayan, Jesuraj, Sivasubramaniam, Rajalingam, as anti-state criminals, naxal/Maoists, extremists and terrorists. Similar to an earlier smear campaign of the central government that linked this predominantly Christian fisher folk movement to foreign funding to portray it as external, instigated and anti-state. And in tune with a smaller scale media (practice) run of last year against Sathish in the context of a protest against Sri Lanka (see here). To delegitimize, and break, the two, their associates, the movement and the very real and informed life and livelihood concerns of the people residing around Koodankulam. While simultaneously legitimizing, and shoring up, the national and state government’s (often contradictory and antagonistic to one another) local, national and international political, economic and defence interests, policies and practices vis-à-vis a growing nuclear industry. Under the pretext of maintaining law and order and fostering local, regional and national economic prosperity powered by so proclaimed ‘clean and cheap’ nuclear energy, by getting rid of those touted as ‘unreasonable extremist protesters who threaten national interest and progress’.
In successive manipulative strokes of administrative brilliance the Tamil Nadu government initially supported the popular PMANE protests since October 2011 and the halting of work at the plant; simultaneously maintained continued surveillance, harassment and pressure on the protesters while also initiating the charges against them; increased power outage in Tamil Nadu to up to 12 hours per day in the last months to garner support of people in other parts of Tamil Nadu for the nuclear plant; reversed its public stand on March 19, 2012 allowing re-commencement of work at the plant citing its own safety findings, a day after a landslide victory for its party in a crucial by election in nearby Sankarankoil; immediately clamped down on the movement and protesters as anti-state using its police, paramilitary, intelligence, legal and media machinery; subsequently ignored PMANE to ‘force’ them to negotiate on the government’s terms and to give up a 9 day indefinite hunger strike undertaken by 15 of its members including its leader Udaya Kumar on March 19, following governmental ‘assurances’ to look into their safety concerns and dismiss the increasingly serious charges hoisted against the arrested protesters; did not follow up on the assurances, and continued pressure and harassment of PMANE including by ensuring that Sathish and Muhilan are kept in prison; and now is demanding from (an indebted) central government that all of the future 2000 megawatts energy produced from the plant go solely towards meeting Tamil Nadu’s energy requirements. To not only brutally and effectively control, manage and weaken a people’s movement but also for this government and its Chief Minister Jayalalitha to appear as truly serving the interests of its people and industries; a Rs. 500 crore ‘development’ grant announced for the area around Koodankulam on March 19 was similarly intentioned, to pacify the local population and to even disrupt the cohesion of the movement by inducing money and associated perks into the picture.
The state government used a time tested ally in mainstream media immersed in networks of political, economic and social hierarchies and status quo, to further their tactics for controlling and managing the movement, protesters and their issues. The focus of information and analysis available to the ‘public’, especially in Tamil Nadu, after March 19 when the government started successfully blocking out news from Idinthakarai, became initially Sathish, Muhilan and Vanni Arasu, who based on as yet unsubstantiated past accusations and present charges were scapegoated and judged in and by the public (via the media, especially Sun News) to weaken and suppress PMANE and its concerns. And since then the media focus has been on the situation ‘returning’ to normal and work carrying on efficiently and ‘peacefully’ at the nuclear power plant that is to begin functioning in another ten days and ostensibly solve the energy needs of the state.
Missed by most media because of its investigative, analytical and/or ethical lack, and/or the recent coercion and fear of state reprisal in Tamil Nadu, is a real engagement with the larger worldwide debate and movement on the issue of nuclearization of both weapons and energy; the knowledge, lives, initiatives and strategies of local people involved in struggles against KKNPP; and the reasons why and the means by which struggles, as in Idinthakarai, are being brutally dealt. How a visibly non-violent movement can be recast as violent with extremist links. What violence, visible and invisible, individual and structural, means, including that legitimized, sanctioned and employed by state through its police and (para) military apparatus.
The plant at Koodankulam
How sensationalism and statecraft, state and media interest coincide, to divert precisely from the above focus and instead work to reinstate new found fears and reprisals of struggles by re-establishing as public knowledge, matter of factly and without questioning, linkages between naxalism, extremism and terrorism on one hand and between naxalism and movements on the other. So that naxalism and naxal/suspects/sympathisers are forever (made) available in India to project distrust onto movements to the extent of, easily and without significant opposition, making them a security, and law and order concern available to be dealt with suspicion, indignation and force by the state, and its larger population. And in the case of what is effectively media black out of PMANE and its supporters, a situation to be ignored and replaced by ignorant, and arrogant, defense of a nuclear power plant, its uses and safety features in neo-liberal and statist centered concern solely based on the created necessity and dependence on electric power for personal convenience, and economic gains. A convenient ‘resolution’ of state and corporate interests, and individual and collective neo-liberal citizen aspirations. While injustices continue, grievances are stifled, and dissent trampled upon. In the future as well.
In this context Sathish and Muhilan are made dispensable and pawns in a larger political game, and in a manner that the state actions are not being questioned. Such as those of March 19 when the Tamil Nadu government countered the nearly 100,000 highly informed people organizing their protest against KKNPP based on safety and livelihood concerns, citing international guidelines, expert opinions and people’s experiences in areas affected by nuclear disasters as in Fukushima most recently.
By deploying a 6,000 strong, armed police force including Rapid Action Force, Tamil Nadu Coast Guard and Border Security Force (Kerala) to ensure that Koodankulam remained open for KKNPP staff to work. And that Idinthakarai, the chosen centre for PMANE, was cordoned off through a political police venture, previously unheard of in Tamil Nadu, to intimidate the protesters. Prohibitory orders (Section 144 of Indian Penal Code–IPC) were imposed for nine days, and supply of water, food, milk, electricity, media and supporters coming into the area, including by sea, was cut off for three days. 11 people from PMANE’s struggle committee were arrested from Idinthakarai on various charges including sedition and war against the state. 178 people including parish priests and 45 women and 20 men under the ages of 21 were arrested for threatening death or grievous hurt from nearby Kootapalli when 200 people protested against the state government’s decision.
Poster in Malayalam: "Cancel Koodankulam Nuclear Plant Project, Shutdown All Other Nuclear Plants"
However, 10,000 and more people gathered in Idinthakarai, roads were barricaded, shops were closed, fishing was abandoned, schools were boycotted, and 15 people went on indefinite hunger strike, protesting under siege and protecting themselves against the state power and arrests. And it was this specifically that was sought to be crushed by the hand picked illegal detention and arrests of Muhilan from Kodumudi on March 21, Sathish from Tirunelveli on March 23 and Vanni Arasu from Madurai later on the same day, through the media campaign that ensued around these three as extremists and naxals instigating and leading the PMANE. With drastic implications for the future of Sathish and Muhilan, the movement and future struggles in Tamil Nadu and India. For it is not only this state government that is planning and employing tactics of terror, media suppression and manufacturing public consent for furthering its interests but so do states globally, varying only in the degree to which they employ these tactics in a milieu of ever increasing resistance to expanding state and corporate violent encroachment on people’s lands, lives, livelihoods and lifestyles. And states too learn from one another.
Pushed against the wall, with a media black out in effect, having to defend against charges of Naxal links, needing to get languishing PMANE members and supporters out of Tiruchirapalli jail where all the arrested were finally kept and additional non-bailable charges of sedition and/or war against the state were hoisted on most of them, facing ongoing police intimidation in Idinthakarai, and with the state government paying no heed to the deteriorating health conditions of the 15 hunger strikers the indefinite hunger strike was called off on the 9th day. And then media emphasized the end of the movement and the fast paced work to start the project. A developmental success story. No questions asked. Even as for now in India 45 nuclear power plants are to be set up in the next 25 years.
Relay hunger strike in Idinthakarai
If Sathish and Muhilan’s hunger strike, the ongoing relay hunger strike by hundreds in Idinthakarai and the latest indefinite hunger strike by nearly 350 women and youth from May 1, May Day, is not making news. If anything critical of KKNPP, and indeed of other nuclear power plants in the making such as Jaitapur in Maharashtra and other developmental projects, is being shut out in the media and in schools. If work can continue with KKNPP, and other projects, without any adherence to the minimal safety audits and guidelines nationally and internationally prescribed. If dominant discourse can be produced to establish nuclear, and even other energy sources such as bio fuel, as clean, safe and cheap. If costs taken into account with KKNPP, and other projects, are solely economical about infrastructure and outcomes and not about its implications for health, life and livelihood of local populations given that there is no such thing as safe radioactive production, use or disposal whatever the latest safeguards. If local consent does not matter and any amount of local sacrifice is justifiable to provide for the demands of a fast growing economy and urban and even rural populations. If what constitutes modern development, national progress, energy dependence and national security is taken for granted. If the state can continuously manage protests against the functioning, authority, apparatus, officials, leaders and the very existence of states and corporations, by labeling protesters, protests and movements as extremist. If the state can continue to create an environment of fear through impunity of its actions, to deter expressions of critical speech, opinion and action also by real intimidations, threats, mental and physical violence and repercussions for protesters, their family, friends, associates, groups and concerns. If the mainstream media, with few credible exceptions, not only complied with the literal blackout on news about PMANE and their supporters, imposed and coerced by Tamil Nadu government, but also served its questionable interests. Then something needs to be done to reverse this situation, at the least a creation of space where critical discussions can take place, not only through media but also through alternative means. Without it being suppressed.
Without Sathish and Muhilan having to fend for themselves, categorized as they are as naxals, so that no one, not even most human rights upholding individuals and groups (can afford to) support them. Especially Sathish who is a Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) detainee out on bail but facing trial, even though POTA was repealed in 2004, but significantly not retrospectively and so a few cases like his are still active. In the current political climate of political witch hunting it becomes next to impossible to publicly support someone like him, not high profile, from a moderate socio-economic background, highly politically active, not indulging in violent acts but with a POTA case and hence with an unresolved naxal history. And this is precisely why the Tamil Nadu government used him as an example and instrument to highlight its ‘vigilant’ role in ‘securing’ it and its citizens against ‘internal threats’ to its ‘progress’, to keep him and Muhilan, an active PMANE struggle committee member with no active case against him, continually in prison even now, to suppress any remanants of PMANE and dissenting voice. So that the two can be used again as well, for similar ends. Should we not not allow this to happen, not only to lives, struggles and conerns for people more famous and ‘clean’ like Binayak Sen, but for the relatively unkowns and ‘dubious’ such as Sathish and Muhilan. Who though available for use as political pawns, are in fact also the one that the state fears the most, as people who are local, grassroots, vocal and unafraid of the state. And who are protesting even from inside the prison, against injustices meted out to them, playing with their lives, in the full knowledge that their story, their struggle, their hunger strike will not be covered by the media and may have no bearing on a state bent upon keeping them and PMANE in their place, silent. So, its also for us to take up the cause of (their) justice, outside the prison, even if this is dangerous for our own well being.
(An edited version of this article is also available at http://kafila.org/2012/05/07/koodankulam-anti-nuclear-struggle-continues-deepa-rajkumar/#more-12596)