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Koodankulam – Anti-Nuclear Struggle Continues

By Deepa Rajkumar

08 May, 2012

As Japan shut down its last reactor, the Koodankulam project is to go critical in ten days. Because Japan depends on local consensus for its nuclear decisions, unlike the World’s Largest Democracy, the views of Japanese people counts for something. Thousands of Japanese marched in celebrations to celebrate the switching off of the last of Japan’s 50 nuclear reactors on Saturday May 5th. Traditional ‘koinobori’ fish-shaped banners for Children’s Day have become a potent symbol of the Japanese anti-nuclear movement, symbolizing the commitment to leave a safe and clean earth to children. Meanwhile, back home in Koodankulam, unrelenting state repression continues of the massive, non-violent struggle against the proposed nuclear plant there.

6,800 people in Koodankulam face charges of sedition and/or waging war against the state, possibly the largest number so charged ever, in colonial or independent India, in just one police station.

Sathish Kumar and R. S. Muhilan began an indefinite hunger strike from 25th April in Tiruchirapalli prison, Tamil Nadu. They were demanding a fair trial, stoppage of new charges being filed against them and the withdrawal of existing false charges against them. They are among nearly 200 people arrested following the Tamil Nadu government’s unprecedented para-militarized crackdown on the local, strong, peaceful, 10 month-long hunger strike by People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE) in its struggle against the setting up of the central government-backed Indo-Russian Koodankulam Nuclear Power Project (KKNPP) in coastal Southern Tamil Nadu. Sathish Kumar and R.S. Muhilan are two among more than 55,000 people, co-accused ‘others’, against whom 107 FIRs (First Information Reports) were filed between September and December 2011 in Idinthakarai, Tamil Nadu.

Now, they are the only two people still in prison. And they are being dragged through farcical legal proceedings and unending time in prison, with judicial remand being extended, court hearings postponed, bail being denied, being shunted from court to court. When they were granted bail in High Court, immediately they had to face new charges, judicial remand and courts all over again. Putting their very lives in peril, they entered the 9th day of their hunger strike with their bail being rejected yet again on May 2, 2012. Finally on the 10th day, May 4th, with minimal media coverage of the movement, and in response to an appeal from PMANE, they called off their strike.

Sathish and Muhilan are targets of a well planned campaign to stigmatize them, and by association the movement, including the very active members of PMANE’s core struggle committee, such as Udaya Kumar, Pushparayan, Jesuraj, Sivasubramaniam and Rajalingam, as anti-state criminals, naxal/Maoists, extremists and terrorists. The campaign is sustained primarily by mainstream media, orchestrated by the Tamil Nadu government based on information supplied to it by the Tamil Nadu intelligence (Q Branch) and police, and quietly backed by a heavily invested central government. Similar to this is the earlier smear campaign by the central government that linked this movement, whose predominant composition is Christian fisher folk, to “foreign funding”, in order to portray the resistance to the nuclear plant as externally instigated.

All this is in tune with a smaller scale ‘practice run’ by the media last year against Sathish in the context of a protest against Sri Lanka, in order to delegitimize these two, their associates, the movement and the very real and well-informed life and livelihood concerns of the people residing around Koodankulam. They are portrayed as ‘unreasonable extremist protesters who threaten national interest and progress’. Simultaneously the media has legitimized and shored up the national and state government’s political, economic and defence interests, policies and practices vis-à-vis a growing nuclear industry. Never mind that the state and central government’s interests are often contradictory and antagonistic to one another.

In successive manipulative strokes of administrative brilliance, the Tamil Nadu government initially supported the popular PMANE protests since October 2011 and halted work at the plant; simultaneously maintained continued surveillance, harassment and pressure on the protesters while also initiating charges against them, and increased power outage in Tamil Nadu to up to 12 hours per day in the last months in order to garner support of people in other parts of Tamil Nadu for the nuclear plant. One day after a landslide victory for its party in a crucial by-election in nearby Sankarankoil, the TN government reversed its public stand on March 19, 2012, and permitted re-commencement of work at the plant, citing its own safety findings. It also immediately clamped down on the movement and protesters as anti-state using its police, paramilitary, intelligence, legal and media machinery. It subsequently ignored PMANE to force them to negotiate on the government’s terms and to give up a 9 day indefinite hunger strike undertaken by 15 of its members including its leader Udaya Kumar on March 19, following governmental ‘assurances’ to look into their safety concerns and to dismiss the increasingly serious charges foisted against the arrested protesters. Of course, it did not follow up on the assurances, and continued to put pressure on PMANE and harass it by means such as ensuring that Sathish and Muhilan are kept in prison.

The TN government is now demanding from (an indebted) central government that all of the future 2000 megawatts energy produced from the plant will go solely towards meeting Tamil Nadu’s energy requirements. This brutal control and management of a people’s movement is accompanied by measures to make this government and its Chief Minister Jayalalitha appear to be truly serving the interests of its people – for instance, a Rs. 500 crore ‘development’ grant has been announced for the area around Koodankulam on March 19th. Is evident intention is to pacify the local population and to attempt to disrupt the cohesion of the movement by inducing money and associated perks into the picture.

The state government used a time-tested ally, the mainstream media immersed in networks of political, economic and social hierarchies and status quo, to further its tactics for controlling and managing the movement, protesters and their issues. After March 19th when the government started successfully blocking out news from Idinthakarai, the only information from the area from the media (especially Sun News), was in the form of systematic scapegoating of Sathish, Muhilan and Vanni Arasu, based on as yet unsubstantiated past accusations and present charges. And since then the media focus has been to project the situation as ‘returning’ to normal and show that work is carrying on efficiently and ‘peacefully’ at the nuclear power plant that is to begin functioning by the beginning of June 2012, and supposedly ‘solve’ the energy needs of the state.

Missing in most media – because of its lack of interest in investigative reporting, its analytical weaknesses and absence of ethical concerns, accompanied by the fear of state reprisal in Tamil Nadu – is any real engagement with the larger world-wide debate on the issue of nuclearization of both weapons and energy; with the knowledge, lives, initiatives and strategies of local people involved in struggles against KKNPP; and any understanding of the reasons why such brutal measures are being used against struggles, such as in Idinthakarai.

It is crucial for us to understand the role of the media in recasting a visibly non-violent movement as violent with ‘extremist’ links; how it has successfully established as public knowledge, matter of factly and without questioning, apparent linkages between naxalism, extremism and terrorism on the one hand and between naxalism and movements on the other. In his way, in a time-tested tactic, naxalism and naxal/suspects/sympathisers are forever made available in India to project distrust onto all mass movements without significant opposition. All such democratic struggles are thus projected as security concerns, making them available to be dealt with through force by the state, and delegitimated to the larger population. We need to understand what kinds of violence – visible and invisible, individual and structural – have been sanctioned and employed by the state through its police and paramilitary apparatus.

And through an effective media black out of PMANE and its supporters, the only position visible is the ignorant and arrogant defense of nuclear power plants, and the continued invocation of ‘energy needs’ that hides the created necessity and dependence on electric power for individual and private consumption by a few. What a convenient ‘resolution’ of state and corporate interests, and individual and collective neo-liberal citizen aspirations!

While injustices continue, grievances are stifled, and dissent trampled upon.

In this context Sathish and Muhilan are made dispensable pawns in a larger political game. State actions that should be intolerable in a democracy, pass unquestioned. Protesting against KKNPP at Koodankulam are close to a hundred thousand highly informed people, raising well documented safety and livelihood concerns, citing international guidelines, expert opinions and people’s experiences in areas affected by nuclear disasters as in Fukushima most recently. On March 19th the TN government deployed a 6,000 strong armed police force including Rapid Action Force, Tamil Nadu Coast Guard and Border Security Force (Kerala) to ensure that Koodankulam remained open for KKNPP staff to work. Idinthakarai, the chosen centre for PMANE, was cordoned off through a political police venture, previously unheard of in Tamil Nadu, to intimidate the protesters. Prohibitory orders (Section 144 of Indian Penal Code) were imposed for nine days, and supply of water, food, milk, electricity, media and supporters coming into the area, including by sea, was cut off for three days. 11 people from PMANE’s struggle committee were arrested from Idinthakarai on various charges including sedition and war against the state. 178 people including parish priests and 45 women and 20 men under the ages of 21 were arrested for ‘threatening death or grievous hurt’ from nearby Kootapalli when 200 people protested against the state government’s decision to restart work on the plant.

Despite all of this, 10,000 and more people gathered in Idinthakarai, roads were barricaded, shops were closed, fishing was abandoned, schools were boycotted, and 15 people went on indefinite hunger strike, protesting under siege. And it was this defiance that was sought to be crushed by the illegal detention and arrests of Mukilan from Kodumudi on March 21, Sathish from Tirunelveli on March 23 and Vanni Arasu from Madurai later on the same day, as well as by the media campaign that ensued around these three as extremists and naxals instigating and leading the PMANE. This has drastic implications for the future of Sathish and Muhilan, of the movement and for future struggles in Tamil Nadu and India. For it is not only this state government that is planning and employing tactics of terror, media suppression and manufacturing public consent for furthering its interests but so do states globally, varying only in the degree to which they employ these tactics in a milieu of ever increasing resistance to expanding violent encroachment by state and corporations on people’s lands, lives, livelihoods and lifestyles. And states too learn from one another.

15 people of PMANE launched an indefinite hunger strike on March 19th. Eventually though, pushed against the wall, with a media black-out preventing their views from emerging into the public, having to defend themselves against charges of Naxal links, needing to get languishing PMANE members and supporters out of Tiruchirapalli jail, facing ongoing police intimidation in Idinthakarai, and with the state government paying no heed to the deteriorating health conditions of the 15 hunger strikers, the indefinite hunger strike was called off on the 9th day. Immediately the media declared the end of the movement and imminent completion of the project. A developmental success story. No questions asked.

Sathish and Muhilan’s hunger strike, the ongoing relay hunger strike by hundreds in Idinthakarai and the latest indefinite hunger strike by 50 PMANE members from May 1, May Day, is nowhere visible in the media. Neither is anything critical of KKNPP, and indeed of other nuclear power plants in the making such as Jaitapur in Maharashtra and other developmental projects. Work continues with KKNPP and other projects, without any adherence to the minimal safety audits and guidelines nationally and internationally prescribed. Dominant discourses continue to purvey the absolute lie that nuclear energy is “clean, safe and cheap”. Neither is nuclear energy clean, nor is it safe, nor cheap.

There is no such thing as safe radioactive production, use or disposal whatever the latest safeguards.

If local consent does not matter and any amount of local sacrifice is justifiable to provide for the demands of a fast growing economy and urban and even rural populations; if what constitutes modern development, national progress, energy dependence and national security is taken for granted; if the state can continuously manage protests by labeling protesters, protests and movements as extremist; if the state can continue to create an environment of fear through impunity of its actions, to deter expressions of critical speech, opinion and action, by issuing real intimidations, threats, mental and physical violence and repercussions for protesters, their family, friends, associates, groups and concerns; if the mainstream media, with few credible exceptions, not only complied with the literal blackout on news about PMANE and their supporters imposed by Tamil Nadu government, but also served its questionable interests; if if if…

Then surely something needs to be done to reverse this situation, at the least the creation of alternative public spaces where critical discussions can take place.

Sathish and Muhilan have to practically fend for themselves, categorized as they are as naxals, so that no one, not even most human rights upholding individuals and groups (can afford to) support them. Especially Sathish who is a Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) detainee out on bail, even though POTA was repealed in 2004, but not retrospectively and so a few cases like his are still active. In the current political climate of political witch hunting it becomes next to impossible to publicly support someone like him – not a high profile clebrity, from a moderate socio-economic background, highly politically active, not indulging in violent acts but with a POTA case against and hence with an unresolved naxal history. And this is precisely why the Tamil Nadu government used him as an example and instrument to highlight its ‘vigilant’ role in ‘securing’ its citizens against ‘internal threats’ to its ‘progress’, to keep him and Muhilan, an active PMANE struggle committee member with no active case against him, continually in prison even now

We should not allow this to happen, not only to people more famous and ‘clean’ like Binayak Sen, but for the relatively unknown and ‘dubious’ such as Sathish and Muhilan – whom the state fears the most, as people who are local, grassroots, vocal and unafraid of the state. And who are protesting even from inside the prison, against injustices meted out to them, playing with their lives, in the full knowledge that their story, their struggle, their hunger strike will not be covered by the media and may have no effect on a state bent upon keeping them and PMANE in their place, silent.

So, it is also for us to take up the cause of their justice, outside the prison, even if this is dangerous for our own well being.


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