When women choose to protest, they face forms of harassment to break their spirit.
When you enter Idinthakarai village, the epicentre of the storm swirling around the controversial Kundankulam Nuclear Power Project (KNPP) in Tamil Nadu’s Tirunelveli district, everything appears calm but also quiet in an unreal way. Where are all the people? It is only when you go a little further that you see the shamiana erected in front of the Lourde Matha church and the hundreds of women and children sitting under it. For more than a year now, these women have made the shamiana their home. They sleep, eat, fast, sing songs, raise slogans and each day renew their commitment to the protest against the KNPP.
Until September 10, they did not think twice about the discomfort and hardship. Many of them are from villages some distance away. How do they bathe? Where is the toilet? Some of them say they eat and drink very little through the day so that they can avoid going to the toilet. But they have to feed their children.
To do this, some of them get up before dawn, prepare the food in their homes, and then come back by sunrise to sit in the tent the rest of the day and the night.
On September 20 and 21, when I met some of these women, their spirits were high but their bodies were wounded. Women were in the front row of the protest on September 9 and 10, on the beach of Idinthakarai, to “lay siege to the plant”. Needless to say, the siege was metaphorical, for no one can go anywhere near this highly guarded plant.
Did these women not expect the police to react and break up the protest, I asked Ritamma, a 43-year-old single woman. They genuinely did not, she says. On the 9th, many of the protestors had felt sorry for the women police who were practically fainting in the heat. They had even offered water.
But on September 10, the story was different. Despite the presence of so many women and children, there was a lathi charge and tear gas shells were thrown into the crowd. Men and women ran into the sea to escape the police. But there was no escape.
As a result, scores of women and men, including old men, have been wounded by the lathi or have burns caused by the explosion of the tear gas shells. With these wounds has come the realisation that in a democracy, even a peaceful protest is not tolerated. The women are puzzled about this. What did we do wrong, they ask? Can we not ask questions? Why does no one listen to our questions and talk to us directly?
No simpletons these
Indeed, why does no one listen? You hear words like “misled”, or “instigated” by representatives of the police, the government and the nuclear power establishment. What they are suggesting is that these women lack intelligence, that they are simpletons who can be “misled”. It is assumed that if people are either poor, or unlettered, they have no ability to understand “complex” issues. But for the women in Idinthakarai there is nothing complex about the problem they are facing. Their future has been tied to a technology that has been proven to have devastating consequences in the event of an accident. And an accident can occur from a natural disaster – like a tsunami about which they are well aware, as they were affected in 2004 – or human error. No one can guarantee that there will never be a human error.
That is one side of the story. The other is the specific impact on women when they join a struggle and risk the wrath of the state law and order machinery. Men are beaten, or locked up. But for women there are specific forms of harassment to break their spirit.
Woman after woman spoke about the sexist and abusive language used by the policemen, virtually suggesting that as they were willing to have sex with the leaders of the movement, they should offer the same to them. Some mentioned actual physical molestation. Lavinia, a 29-year-old woman disabled by childhood polio, narrated that she tried to run to save her five-year-old daughter when the lathi charge began, when a policeman grabbed her arm and began dragging her away. When she resisted, he physically molested her. She fell at his feet and begged and was saved when another policeman intervened. “I feel so sad and angry when I think of it”, she says.
That is what all of us should feel – sad but also angry. Why, if women choose to resist, to protest, should they be sexually targeted? And that too by the very people who are supposed to be our “protectors”?
Despite the events of September 10, and the personal humiliation and taunts that these women heard, they remain resolute. You can “mislead” someone for a day. But will anyone volunteer to go through all this for over a year without understanding what she is resisting?