The Thoothukudi fables

The Thoothukudi firings of May 22 have been read as linear narratives, as specific reports without possessing the power of storytelling. The Thoothukudi violence needs a storyteller to capture the eloquence, the poignancy of anecdotes. One has to see the fables not as remote fragments, morsels of a marginal India, but as a microcosm of what is happening everywhere. Thoothukudi has to be treated as an early warning system for the emerging threats to Indian democracy.

Three tales

One cannot even begin with a “once there was” because Thoothukudi is a collection of three tales. Time determines the depth and level of story. It is, first, a tale that began over 20 years ago when the Sterlite plant shifted from Maharastra to Tamil Nadu. It is also a tale that began 100 days before the firing, when housewives, children and villagers created a community of protest which found its one-lakh-strong epicentre at Thoothukudi. Yet the tale from Thoothukudi is just over a fortnight old when we focus around the scandal of the firings.

The euphemism of media reports is intriguing. They are generally dubbed as shootings or firings, they are not called killings, blatant acts of murder. The symbolism of a sniper and the needlessness of his violence no longer belongs to the Gaza strip. Terror is at home in Thoothukudi and elsewhere as state terror extends its tentacles world-wide.

Thoothukudi is global and local in a different sense. It reflects the new conversation between a decade of oral history, the complaints, the everyday gossip of people dying, of children fainting in school, the moment when the eventless history of environmentalism clashes with the trauma of the Internet. That the Internet was suspended in the area after the killings makes one realise that it is not in Kashmir alone that such events take place. Time becomes critical because suddenly the silence of waiting, the epidemic of little prayers, the little protests around every village combine to show that Sterlite is not just one company town but a state of mind. It introduces us to the company towns of the mind, the new panopticons which are spreading like dictatorships across the world. The ease with which environmental tribunals and scientific laboratories are subverted needs to be chronicled. Words such as sustainability or corporate social responsibility become acts of hypocrisy, the new oxymorons of ethics created by a corporate world indifferent to everyday suffering. As an ecologist friend of mine observes, there are more protests outside the Vedanta office in London than in India. It is almost as if patriotism and security are concepts designed to protect corporate greed.

About Section 144

As a fable, the events at Thoothukudi threaten the very fabric of democracy. It is a strange democracy where people are suspect and hunted down. As a DIG investigating Thoothukudi told me, “I have never seen a more cynical use of Section 144.” What the police confronted was a community of women and children carrying food, school bags. Instead of facing a community in a democratic sense, the government created the myth of outsiders as anti-socials. It is almost as if ordinary people are not citizens but subjects to be continuously disempowered. It is evident now that police went far beyond the area under Section 144 of the CrPC and killed people. Yet our bureaucrats hide truth behind the norms of procedure, as if table manners are more important than the truths of governance. The police reportedly beating disabled people makes one wonder if barbarity is a part of the new training, where every citizen is to be treated as a Naxal by definition. The psychology of fear that they have created is the new model of Section 144 where an old law and order project now becomes an effort to create an ecology of fear, where every citizen is suspect by definition.

In fact, it is around areas like Thoothukudi that one has to write the new history of violence around the body. The state of the body is symptomatic of the vulnerability of the body politic. Ironically, it is the people who look for democracy, while the state and Sterlite seek to subvert it. Words like ‘public and citizens’, once anchors of the democratic imagination, now have become suspect words in the new games of corporate life. Doctors who meet patients from Thoothukudi villages complaining of cancer, skin diseases call these symptoms ‘Sterlite symptoms’. In a similar way, we can talk of the symptoms of a ‘Sterlite democracy’, a disease as debilitating as majoritarian authoritarianism. Yet the answer to the death of democracy is a more intense democracy, stemming from the inventiveness of the community. We have to understand it is communities rather than movements which are resisting the regime, a fact that the regime finds difficult to respect.

Thoothukudi demonstrated this through the resilience of the bar and traders’ associations which worked day and night to get arrested people released. It reminded one of what the sociologist Èmile Durkheim said in his classic Professional Ethics and Civic Morals , that only the ethics of professions like law and medicine can counter the rapacity of corporations and the emptiness of the state. Thoothukudi proved this in ample measure. It also demonstrated that civil society has to be an embedded part of the new knowledge society. The reports of civil society have to become testaments and testimonies for the emerging issues of democracy. For example, the government inquiry commission, State Human Rights Commission or National Human Rights Commission reports are unlikely to go beyond legal and procedural issues. Civil society reports carry a wider burden and responsibility, playing sociologist, ethicist, environmentalist and storyteller. A civil society report on an act of violence has to relate law and order to law and justice, and also to law and democracy, reflecting on knowledge and truth in new ways. For example, experts should not be allowed to get away behind esoteric language. A people’s sensorium of touch, taste, smell has to be translated into science to create new warning signals. Thoothukudi showed the importance of a people’s idea of knowledge to counter expert knowledge. In fact, it suggests the importance of a people’s ombudsman to accompany so-called expert committees.

Proactive citizenship

Yet such civil society reports cover not just past and present. They are warning bells for the future. If one juxtaposes the reports on Thoothukudi with the nuclear site at Koodankulam, one senses the deep suspicion about proactive citizenship. Government attempts to create the bogey of the outsider as antisocial, alien, intruder, missionary, Christian are dangerous steps and need to be challenged. The citizen as a person of knowledge must be seen as central to democracy. Only a proactive citizenship and an experimentally open civil society can challenge, question and domesticate the emerging “Sterlite democracies” as the new diseases of our age. This then is the emerging fable of Thoothukudi.

Shiv Visvanathan is an academic associated with the Compost Heap, a group in pursuit of alternative ideas and imagination

Our code of editorial values

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Aug 18, 2022 8:20:18 am | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/the-thoothukudi-fables/article24106809.ece