by N Sathiya Moorthy
Three episodic developments in as many weeks, and suddenly there is an ‘air of permissiveness’ in southern Tamil Nadu, as never before at least over the past decades.
Independent of one another, street-protests over the post-war revival of the ‘Sri Lankan ethnic issue’, the re-launched ‘Koodamkulam anti-nuclear demonstrations’ and the Islamic/Islamist revival over the controversial movie, ‘Innocence of Muslims’ have all taken a violent turn, refusing to die down as fast as they had erupted.
There is general disquiet over the worsening power situation, petrol/diesel price rise and overall price and power-tariff-hikes and the like. From time to time, people in individual localities across the State have staged independent protests, based on their mood and the authorities’ responses at any given point. In the absence of a central authority, which the people can trust against the time-tested political leaderships, the September 20, all-India bandh was the only one in recent times that Tamil Nadu had faced.
The fact also remains that every week produces a new protest, and the next one side-lines the earlier one without a solution in sight – and not always for any fault of the Government(s). It is thus that the internationally-watched anti-Koodamkulam protests have had their ups and downs, by the day, after it was revived some weeks ago.
There is palpable tension, which interested groups have been able to convert into direct action, on specific issues as outlined earlier. With a second year of inadequate rains refocusing the State’s attention again on the ‘Cauvery water dispute’ with neighbouring Karnataka, Tamil Nadu seems to be in for a period of discomfort bordering on uncertainty on the law and order front. Be it the ‘Cauvery row’ with Karnataka or the ‘Mullaperiyar dam dispute with the Kerala neighbour, farming still being the lifeline, the farming community and the rest in the State cannot be blamed if they were to protest loud and clear, their years of frustrations making their voices shriller, and actions, at times, irrational.
Peripheral political parties and fringe groups are not the ones to sit by. What may have started off as a ‘competitive display’ of religious concerns by individual Islamic groups and political parties on the controversial film, overnight brought together 20-plus organisations for a show-of-strength on the streets of Chennai the other day, when none had expected them to join hands, really.
The anti-nuclear protests in southern Koodamkulam coastal village have taken a new turn over the past few months. There has been unprecedented violence, with elements of pan-Tamil politics and independent religious sentiments being sought to be consolidated in favour of the agitators, and against the State.
The presence of a host of leaders and their party cadres identifying with the ‘Sri Lankan Tamil cause’ over the years at Koodamkulam and elsewhere on the anti-nuclear issue has tended to tilt the focus away from the basic cause, which in turn is contestable at best.
Tamil chauvinist elements are out to give the Government decisions on the nuclear-plant an ‘anti-Tamil’ slant, asking if the Tamils’ lives were cheap for the policy-makers to be callous about in granting the nuclear plant. Along with them are various Islamic groups and political parties, which have flagged safety and livelihood issues.
Media reports in between had claimed the presence of Leftist militants in the midst of Koodamkulam protests, which the organisers had stoutly denied. At Chennai towards August-end, striking labour of a car manufacturer staged a protest outside the Japanese Consul-General’s Office, revving forgotten memories from the Seventies, when however foreign Governments were spared immediate demonstration of the Indian working class’ agony.
In between, a series of anti-Sri Lanka protests had taken the State by storm. Not only did peripheral Tamil parties and groups target visiting Sri Lankan pilgrims (Sinhala and Tamil-speaking, Buddhists and Christians alike), they did not leave out cultural troupes and school children, out on an India sojourn to play friendly soccer matches in India. The State Government did not help matters when Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, going by media reports, ordered the footballers sent back home.
Her frequent letters to the Prime Minister, promptly released to the local media, on all issues affecting the State’s interests and sentiments, needs to be viewed in context. Included in the missives were those, over the months, relating to the State Government’s demand for sending back Sri Lankan military officers undergoing training in Indian military academies in Tamil Nadu.
On all these issues, the handling of the emerging situation by the otherwise efficient police force in the State point to the air of permissiveness that has crept in since. By not delineating the distinction between the sympathy for the larger cause involved and the levels to which protests on each one of these issues could go, the State Government may have contributed to the unsure policing approach.
Of the issues agitated, the Sri Lankan cause may be unique to Tamil Nadu, and the Koodamkulam protests could also be said to have drawn from similar environmental/livelihood concerns expressed violently on the streets elsewhere in the country over the past years.
Against this, the anti-American protests taking a violent turn outside the US Consulate in Chennai is a new development. Such protests, if any, and mostly involving non-Muslim groups, used to be peaceful, to the point of tokenism of some kind.
So was the further downtrend in anti-Sri Lanka protests including surprise yet periodic targeting of Sinhala-Buddhist pilgrims for a couple of years now, and of school students, and non-Buddhist, Tamil-speaking pilgrims, this time round.
All known forms of militancy
Despite the near-guaranteed change of government at the turn of polls every five years for a couple of decades now, Tamil Nadu has been known for political stability, if not for policy continuity beyond a point. Over the latter, some commonalities could still be identified and worked on. Coupled with these have been factors like high levels of higher education and the consequent availability of skilled labour, making an attractive destination for investors, and job-creator for the party in power.
This mutually supporting education and employment climate in the State has also inculcated a sense of enlightenment, turning the younger generation away from the streets, to engineering colleges and IT sector jobs.
Yet, through the past decades Tamil Nadu had also been witness to all known forms of militancy in the country – namely, ethnic (pan-Tamil), ideological (Naxalism/Maoism), apart from communal, caste and labour-centric violence, both sporadic and calibrated. The death caused in labour violence some time ago went almost unnoticed, while caste clashes have been played down and remain unaddressed, all for the wrong reasons.
Still, the shock and surprise administered by the ‘Rajiv Gandhi assassination’ (1991), followed by the ‘Coimbatore serial blasts’ (1998), may have cut into the creeping air of permissiveness in the socio-political milieu, which had suffered even otherwise through the first half of the Nineties. They now seem to be returning to the centre-stage with a vengeance. Though less vehement than in the past, it still seems adequate to make the State machinery feel inadequate and also display its inadequacies.
It is not as if the other States in the country are not without inherent and inherited problems of the kind. Yet, in contemporary terms, there seems to be a policy paralysis in Tamil Nadu, unlike in the past – not in terms of economic or industry policies, but on the law and order front.
Much was being taken for granted in the era of ‘economic reforms’ on this score across the country, after the era of street-protests of the Sixties and Seventies were replaced by Emergency-induced ‘disciplining’ prolonging up to a point in the Eighties. Where vagaries of local socio-economic conditions dictated issues and methods, Tamil Nadu was among the select victims, but on each of these scores.
Through these years, Tamil Nadu also witnessed caste-based protests and community-centred clashes, in individual regions but impacting on the State as a whole. Apart from all these in recent years, labour militancy is also beginning to reappear in fits and starts, with no indication about where any of these will erupt, why and in what form.
The electoral constituencies that many of these sections represented, coupled with the ever-decreasing share of established political parties with the possibilities of winning or retaining power meant that the officialdom at all levels got confusing signals at best, in handling situations created by any or all of them, in political terms or in the form of protests and demonstrations.
Apart from all these, the inevitable structural deficiencies within the force, and over-politicisation that have been the bane for too long, have also started showing. It is not only in Tamil Nadu, but across many States in the country, the constabulary has been over-burdened in terms of workload, additional areas of critical responsibility like VIP security, and the increasing levels of urbanisation, in which Tamil Nadu tops the chart in the country. Suffice is to point out that most cities in the State, like many other counterparts elsewhere, suffer for perceptions about the absence of timely recruitment of adequate number of traffic constables. That is only the tip of the iceberg.
Seldom, there seems to be much appreciation of the criticalities involved in all these for the Government as an institution to apply correctives, as and when problems erupt. The political leadership at the helm, independent of party affiliations, have mostly been contend with post facto fire-fighting, with the result, there is institutional reluctance to take the initiative.
This in turn may have got institutionalised, too. So much so, Tamil Nadu was to witness the humiliation of a forest brigand It is not as if the situation may be different elsewhere – as investigations into the complicity of sections of the police in the ‘Gujarat riots’ (2001), the ‘Mumbai riots’ (1993), the ‘Delhi riots’ (1984) and all have demonstrated across the country. In Tamil Nadu, the ‘Coimbatore riots’ (November 27, 2007), contributing to the ‘Coimbatore blasts’ (February 14, 2008), and the alleged complicity of certain officials in the LTTE killing of rival Sri Lankan Tamil militant leader Padmanabha (Chennai, 1990) giving greater confidence at the time of ‘Rajiv Gandhi assassination’ (May 1991) are a case in point.
The complexities of the existing situation can challenge even the best of administrations with clear-cut directives from the political leadership. In the past, livelihood and environmental concerns, as with the ‘fishermen issue’ with Sri Lanka remained localised.
Today, the Koodamkulam concerns have been internationalised in more ways than one. With the result, what was once believed to be a greater environmental issue and addressed satisfactorily by the authorities has been reduced to the levels of a community-based concern, with fishermen across the State’s coast being roped in, on a livelihood agenda more than a live-centred agenda.
Questions that should have been asked are not being asked. Like, why the Church that is now agitated over allegations of police allegedly desecrating a Christian place of worship allowed the place to be converted into the protest venue for a year now, in this third edition of anti-nuclear protests in two decades. Or, why priests have involved directly in the politics of protests, when they have had a line of communication with the political leadership that they could have explored.
Questions also needed to be asked on the sudden spurt in the activities of ‘political Islam’ that however have been brewing behind the surface for quite some time. Much of the questioning, mainline political leaderships in the State should be asking themselves too. Or, why through the Nineties, religious festivities of the majority community unrelated to specific localities were allowed to be made a political statement in a State where it was not the case for decades and centuries earlier.
While societal conscience and ideological revivalism do have a place in democracy, and should be encouraged too, they should not be allowed to be at the cost of common good and communal peace, nation-wide.
Today, efforts seem to be on to unite the coastal line communities across the State under a common – and possibly new – political umbrella. The fisher communities have their share of problems, much of it being their own making but for which solutions seem lying only with the authorities.
The ‘Sri Lankan fishing issue’ has remained alive, though confined mostly to specific localities. The post-tsunami reconstruction witnessed the emergence of NGOs many of whom did good work under international NGO funding while many others went missing with huge amounts of funds meant for the victims.
The emergence of a credible community leadership may thus be in order, but should and would it take the form of a political party, with multifarious concerns to address, given the diversity of the community’s demands in different parts of the State’s coast is the question.
‘Freedom of movement’ — for what?
It is one thing to swear by the Fundamental Rights, as enshrined in the Constitution, but even there ‘reasonable restrictions’ have existed almost from the commencement. It is another issue altogether, when State administrations, be it in Tamil Nadu or elsewhere – or, the Centre, too – allow issues to reach a boiling-point and then try to reverse the situation.
The ‘pan-Tamil politics’ in the State, for instance, has now reached a new phase, taking it beyond the borders of Tamil Nadu, on to the Maharashtra-Madhya Pradesh border, when Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa came visiting, at the invitation of the State Government in Bhopal.
This is much different from the earlier stint of pan-Tamil politics that impacted on neighbouring Karnataka and Kerala, when issues such as the ‘Cauvery water dispute’ and the ‘Mullaperiyar row’ affecting the State’s farmers and the larger population, were misinterpreted in ‘ethnic’ terms. So has the fishermen’s issue with Sri Lanka been.
If Koodamkulam reactor were against the Tamils, so should be Kalpakkam nuclear reactor and various chemical and even fireworks plants elsewhere in the State. It is thus ironical that in a State where the pan-Tamil slogan used to be ‘Vadakkuvaazhkiradhu, Therkkuthaiey-kiradhu’ (‘North is glowing out, South is blowing out’), development projects are being used to argue against the very development that the Tamils in the country had long since demanded for their State.
The question remains if the situation would have been different if the people in the State spoke a different language. So skewed has the political approach been, and so skewed the response of the State administration of the times that forest brigand Veerappan, came to be seen by some as a defender of the Tamils in Karanataka and the rights of Tamil Nadu otherwise, when he flagged like issues at the height of the ‘Rajkumar abduction episode’. That he had accounted for the lives of over 100 policemen in two States was forgotten, too.
All these go beyond issues of Centre-State division of constitutional responsibilities, as defined in the Constitution. Going beyond reflecting the sentiments of a section of the State’s population on the Sri Lankan ethnic issue, and also the fishers’ issue involving that country, successive State Governments at Fort St George may have teased the ‘Lakshmanrekha’ of the constitutional kind when they officially asked the Centre not to train Sri Lankan Defence personnel in the State, or elsewhere in the country.
This, like the forced exit of Sri Lankan student footballers from Tamil Nadu recently, infringes upon the inherent powers of the Centre under the Constitution. More importantly, all these have the potential of creating an air of permissiveness, whose consequences the State has witnessed, be it in the repeated targeting of the same group of Sri Lankan pilgrims down South, or the unrelenting violent phase of the Koodamkulam protestors, or the successive days of violation of the ban order and repetitive anti-American violence on Chennai streets and elsewhere in the State, too.
If today Vaiko has taken his MDMK cadres to faraway Madhya Pradesh to stage a political protest in which the locals do not have any direct say or involvement, it would only lend retrospective justification of the Shiv Sena action in packing off fellow-Indians from Bihar in their midst in native Maharashtra, or the attacks on the Bihar labour in north-eastern Assam some months ago.
Yet, the issue will remain that the Shiv Sainiks did not have the right to pack off even illegal Bangladeshi migrant sin Mumbai city, for which the Centre alone has the right – with the State Government having to provide logistics and law and order support, if called upon to do so – nothing more, nothing less.
(The writer is Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation for which this paper was written)