Tamil Nadu remains on top when it comes to public agitations, making it the most restive State in the country.
Going by official data, the State reported 20,450 agitations in 2015. Though the number was less by 500 compared to the total number of protests the previous year, the State was still leading the country with Punjab (13,089), Uttarakhand (10,477) and Delhi (10,039) scaling up the line. Political parties organised 8,312 agitations, again the highest among States, followed by government employees, labour organisations, students and communal groups.
The common reasons for such protests are public dissatisfaction with the authorities over deficiency in basic services such as health care, education, transport, drinking water and public distribution system.
But police said the system here was more liberal in according permission to agitations. Hence, the numbers were on the higher side.
In 2017, the State was witness to a series of protests by students, members of Tamil organisations and others who demanded that jallikattu, the traditional adventure sport of taming the bull, be permitted unconditionally.
The agitations, which even saw an unprecedented gathering of a few lakh people on the Marina Beach here, were so intense that the government had to pass an ordinance urgently to declare the traditional sport as legal.
Another round of protests that forced the government to act in the recent past was the staunch opposition of students owing affiliation to various Tamil organisations to Sri Lankan team playing IPL in Chennai during 2013.
Responding to the protests, the then Chief Minister Jayalalithaa wrote to the Prime Minister asking him to advise the BCCI to prevail upon the IPL organisers not to allow Sri Lankan players, officials, umpires and support staff to take part in the tournament in Tamil Nadu.
Though thousands of protests are organised across the State, mostly in cities, there has not been much violence. In 2015, police said 21 civilians and 25 police personnel were injured when security agencies used mild force or adopted other means to disperse the protesters.
But why do people come to the roads so often? Do public agitations serve the intended purpose? People’s Union of Civil Liberties national general secretary V. Suresh says Tamil Nadu has a long history of people challenging the rule of elites and authority.
“The higher number of agitations is accounted by the fact that the bureaucracy and political executive do not respond to peoples’ issues in time forcing them to protest. ”
Describing Tamil Nadu as a “police state”, Mr. Suresh cited instances where children holding placards on environmental safety while opposing the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Project were booked on sedition charges and people protesting for drinking water near Coimbatore were arrested on terrorism charges.
However, police officials in the State have a different view. In a democracy, expression of protest by individuals or groups is a normal phenomenon.
Peaceful gatherings that are organised to convey a message to society or create awareness should not be brought under the category of protests.
An officer said the system of reporting the number of agitations and other crime-related data to the Union Government agencies was transparent and effective in Tamil Nadu compared to other States.
“Most of the protests require deployment of adequate police personnel, intelligence gathering and traffic diversions. A sizeable strength of the force is diverted to public agitation and VIP bandobust on a daily basis affecting routine policing. The police are by and large liberal in giving permission to protests,” said former Chennai Police Commissioner and retired Additional Director-General of Police T. Rajendran.
In Tamil Nadu, organisers of agitations or any public gathering have to seek police permission at least five days in advance, excluding the date of the event.
Mylapore MLA and former Director-General of Police R. Nataraj said the political awareness in Tamil Nadu was high compared to other States.
“The golden principle in policing is regulation should be the norm and ban an exception. It is always preferable to regulate demonstrations since denial will lead to serious law and order problems, making enforcement of ban order difficult,” he said.