It began as a small gathering of people at A. Kumareddiyapuram, a village near Sterlite Copper in Thoothukudi. Seventy-five days on, it has snowballed into a massive public protest, drawing legions of people, political leaders and activists. They are all against the plant’s proposed expansion, fearing health hazards and environmental pollution from the unit. ‘Save Thoothukudi; Ban Sterlite’ is now a popular slogan, one that has pitted the protesters and the political opposition against the company as well as the State environmental regulator.
In the Cauvery delta region, a year-old protest against hydrocarbon projects has morphed into a slew of mass movements that are drawing people from all over the State. A sustained agitation against the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) at Kadiramangalam village in Thanjavur district is nearing its 350th day. Elsewhere, at Erukkattur in Tiruvarur district, an oil spill affected the Pandavaiyaru river bed and a pipeline burst damaged paddy fields. At Nannilam and Mannargudi where the ONGC is exploring new possibilities, public resistance has been strident.
On February 15, 2017, when news broke that Neduvasal was among the 31 contract areas of small fields where exploration of hydrocarbons is to be taken up across the country, residents of the village began a sit-in protest the very next day. The picturesque village square turned into a stage for the protest that went on for 170 days. The stir has been withdrawn temporarily, but the campaign committee is still threatening to revive it, as the Centre has not conceded the demand to shelve the project.
The rest of the country got a taste of the prevailing mood in Tamil Nadu the day the Indian Premier League’s first game in three years in Chennai was about to get under way. Thousands of protesters poured into the roads leading to the stadium in a bid to block traffic and prevent spectators from reaching the venue. Their grievance was that the Centre was delaying the constitution of the Cauvery Management Board, an inter-State mechanism to implement the Supreme Court’s decision on sharing the river’s waters.
Any questioning of the link between the water dispute and the IPL tournament was brushed aside, as the protesters, containing an assortment of political activists of Tamil nationalist groups and film personalities, saw the game as a needless diversion at a time when the State was in a state of boil over the perceived injustice to its farmers. That night’s match got over amidst extraordinary security arrangements, but it was too much for the police to repeat the exercise each time a match was to be played at the M.A. Chidambaram Stadium in Chepauk. So off went the rest of Chennai’s matches in the league to Pune.
When Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Chennai, he stayed away from the roads and used a helicopter to reach the venue of his programme. However, protesters climbed up advertisement hoardings near the airport to show him black flags. Elsewhere, DMK cadre filled the sky with black balloons inscribed with the words ‘Go back, Modi’.
Part of everyday life
Tamil Nadu is one angry State these days. Numerous agitations mark its daily existence. Quiet gatherings, noisy sloganeering, orderly processions and frequent roadblocks, and the occasional breach of police cordons — these form the staple of daily life.
The causes vary from opposition to specific projects to larger issues that impact people’s livelihood such as water disputes and agrarian distress. The farmer in distress, the activist gripped by angst over the threat to the environment, the passer-by moved by the pervasive anguish, the sub-nationalist sensing an opportunity to mobilise support, in short, every angry man or woman, young or old, is drawn to some protest or the other.
Many attribute the prevailing mood to what they call an unprecedented attack of the Centre on Tamil Nadu. And there are others who say the present regime in the State is apathetic towards the people’s issues. It is also seen as a “puppet” of the Centre.
“Today, the whole of Tamil Nadu has turned into a battleground. Every day, wherever you go, there is a protest, a demonstration or a fast under this regime. Ruling party men are only interested in preserving their chair and not worried about people’s problems,” observed DMK working president M.K. Stalin while addressing protesting teachers in Chennai this week.
Given the popular sentiment in favour of the Cauvery Management Board, even the ruling AIADMK organised a day’s fast to highlight the issue. The government is also on the defensive over the scale of the protests. Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswamy and Deputy Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam briefed the Governor earlier this month on the law and order situation and said later they had given “satisfactory replies” to the Governor’s queries.
Says Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) general secretary Vaiko: “In the past it was just imposition of Hindi that led to a popular upsurge, and today, whether it is NEET (a mandatory national eligibility test for medical admissions) the Cauvery dispute or the Neutrino project, or the hydrocarbon exploration plans, the BJP government at the Centre has betrayed the interests of Tamil Nadu.”
Punitha Pandian, editor of Dalit Murasu and publisher, says that when there is a strong government, only the opposition party carries out protests on major issues. “With the State government largely seen as a puppet of the Centre, Tamil nationalist groups and film personalities are fighting to gain political mileage.”
He feels these protests will largely subside when a stable and strong government is formed in the State.
Fuelled by mistrust
The opposition to several central projects is seen in the context of what some believe is the imposition of “hazardous projects” on Tamil Nadu. There is mistrust among the people about the Centre’s intentions. J. Jakkaiyan, a resident of Chinna Pottipuram, in the vicinity of the location of the proposed neutrino lab, says they have no reason to trust the scientists.
“They have decided to set up the project here. Hence, whatever concerns we raise, they will hide the truth to convince us.”
Acknowledging that some of the concerns raised against the project were far-fetched, G. Sundarrajan from Poovulagin Nanbargal, who has moved the National Green Tribunal against the INO project, says the track record of departments like the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), which co-funds the project, had to be blamed for the lack of trust.
According to A. Marx, human rights activist, while opposition to the Union government is legitimate on most issues, it is not necessary to see all the projects in the same context. “We must be able to judge a project based on its individual merits and concerns,” he says.
When it comes to public agitations, Tamil Nadu hovers at the top of the country. In 2015, the State witnessed 20,450 protests, most of which were organised by political parties, government employees and trade unions.
The harried police force has its hands full right from the crack of dawn across the State, as they have to make security arrangements for agitations of all hues. Unless there is specific information of a gathering turning violent, police usually grant permission to requests for organised forms of protest. Police officers say a lenient view is taken of even flash protests, if the purpose is in public interest. The principle that regulation should be the norm and ban an exception is followed in the State which has likely increased the number of protests, they say.
There is some kind of an agitation on almost all working days. For the police, the whole day goes in regulating traffic, arresting the protesters if they refused to disperse or indulge in violence, detaining them in marriage halls and finally releasing or remanding them by evening.
“A sizeable number of police personnel are deployed for the purpose. This affects routine policing like crime prevention/detection. Petitioners who come to police stations have to wait for several hours to meet senior officers since they are busy with agitations,” a police official says. The death of Anitha, a 17-year-old Dalit MBBS aspirant, spawned a series of protests by students across the State last year against NEET. “I do not want to go into the merits and demerits of the protests. The percentage of flash strikes and protests has witnessed a rapid increase ever since protests erupted over jallikattu and NEET. There is no sign of an end to it yet,” says a senior police officer in Tiruchi.
The public have got used to some sort of protest influencing their routine. “We have seen all forms of protests — road block, rail roko, attempt to lay siege to an Air Force Station, Central Government offices being invaded, as well as novel protests at the monthly farmers grievances day meetings to highlight one or the other issue. We know there is no end to the protests and though we are not immune to stirs, we have gotten used to it,” says S. Prakash, a marketing professional in Thanjavur.
Stage set by jallikattu
The present mood can be traced to an unprecedented gathering of people last year. The State then witnessed the extraordinary phenomenon of people coming together, many of them students, demanding that jallikattu, the traditional adventure sport of taming the bull, be permitted unconditionally. Besides protests across the State, the agitation at the Marina in Chennai hit the headlines. There, too, a relatively small assembly of youth swelled into a few lakhs of people. In a matter of days, the State government was forced to promulgate an urgent ordinance to give legal status to jallikattu, prohibited earlier by the Supreme Court.
But the roots of the protest were in Madurai. A small group of youth, which squatted in Palamedu on January 13, 2017, triggered a mammoth uprising. The resolute crowd that had gathered in Palamedu refused to move out of the vaadivasal , the gate through which bulls are let into the arena.
After that protest began the unusual practice of closing down the beach for the public on days the police suspect it would be overrun by agitators. The jalllikattu protest showed how even urbanites were identifying themselves with cultural markers drawn from agrarian and rural life; it marked the coming together of groups and individuals beyond political parties to frame an agitation profile for themselves. It was indeed short-lived, and the same enthusiasm and upsurge in popular sentiment as the jallikattu agitation saw may not be back. However, its underlying resonance is seen in the manner in which popular causes are getting wide public support.
(with inputs from S. Vijay Kumar, B. Kolappan, S. Ganesan, L. Renganathan, S. Sundar, C. Jaisankar, Pon Vasanth B.A., J. Praveen Paul Joseph, R. Sivaraman and Udhav Naig)