Wednesday, Aug 17, 2022

Chennai Corner

With West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee giving UPA a migraine, the last thing the PM needed was another ally’s tantrums. It seemed he thought it was better to change India’s foreign policy...

The Last Laugh

CM Jayalalitha had the last laugh in Sankarankoil assembly constituency where her party candidate, S Muthuselvi, got two-thirds of the approximately two lakh votes and won by a massive mandate of 68,744 votes. While winning the bypoll is not a big deal for a party in power— in any case it was an AIADMK bastion because the party had won this seat from 1991— the victory was sweet because Jayalalitha avenged two slights. First, the DMK (with 26,220 votes), DMDK (with 12,144 votes) and MDMK which got 20,675 votes— and the other nine candidates— lost their deposits. So she is even now because she was smarting after the AIADMK candidate lost his deposit in Pennagaram, the last by-election that was held in March 2010 when M Karunanidhi was CM.

Second, this result has finally answered the question whether it was the AIADMK that helped the DMDK win or vice versa in the assembly election last summer. An argument over this had escalated to the point that there was a slanging match between Jayalalitha and Vijayakant during the last session of the assembly leading to the DMDK chief being suspended from the house.

Jayalalitha gloated, after Muthuselvi’s victory: “The people have taught a lesson to those who had challenged me in the assembly.”

The grapes were definitely sour for Vijayakant, who said: “The AIADMK may boast of having won the election today but they had not won a single bye-election during the DMK regime. So we are not taking this result seriously as it does not reflect people's mind.”

The DMK which was hoping to recover lost ground and sent not only DMK patriarch Karunanidhi but also both his sons, Stalin and Azhagiri, to jointly campaign, will have to fight another day. But Karunaidhi was tart in defeat, “The AIADMK too lost its deposit in Pennagaram. There is not much to rejoice because although Sankarankoil was considered an AIADMK bastion the entire cabinet had to toil for more than a month to secure a win. Many ministers were scared of losing their posts if the AIADMK did not win.”

Although there are reports that the DMK and DMDK cadres are dejected, both chiefs said they “contested only to fulfil a democratic duty.”

Fathers of the Bride

Normally, the father of the bride would be satisfied if the reception he hosted was well attended. But in Sankarankoil, two fathers were over the moon because their daughters who share the same name, Sankaragomathi, got what was better than a reception. The pictures of both brides with their newly- wed grooms were splashed in the newspapers the next day.

This is what happens when newly-weds consider voting just as sacred as the knot they tied. Both couples, Madasmi and Sankaragomathi and Muthumani Kesavaraman and Sankaragomathi, still in their wedding finery, headed to their respective polling stations in Sankarankoil assembly constituency last Sunday to cast their votes. The byelection saw a huge turnout of voters, 78 per cent, as compared to 75 per cent during the assembly polls last year.

Joy at KKNPP

A new chapter began at the Koodankulam Nuclear Power Plant(KKNPP) this Monday after CM Jayalalitha green-signalled the plant, predictably a day after the bypoll at Sankarankoil assembly constituency which her party won. While on the one hand, the entire 850-strong-workforce including 70 Russian scientists (the contractors have been told to bring back the migrant workforce which had dispersed after October 13, 2011 when villagers, protesting against the plant had blocked workers from going inside KKNPP) went in and rolled up their sleeves to get the first unit (1000 mw of which TN’s share will be 463 mw) to generate power from August, protestors led by S P Udaykumar, who has spearheaded the agitation since September 12, have gone on an indefinite fast.

Idinthakarai, the coastal village where the agitation began and has continued for the last seven months, was tense while two kilometers away at KKNPP there was celebration as the impasse had finally ended and the plant which cost almost Rs 14,000 crores (in addition to a loss of Rs 5 crore per day for the last few months) was buzzing. “We are delighted. This is a joyful occasion,” KKNPP site director M Kashinath Balaji exulted. “We have requested scientists and technicians from other nuclear plants in the country to come here and help us commission Unit 1 of the plant early,” he added.

Among the many in TN who see the opening of KKNPP as a boon is M Selvamani of Cuddalore who had put up a board outside his shop saying he will not supply soft drinks till the plant became operational. He had said, “I lost 60 per cent of my sale because I could not cool the bottles in the refrigerator because of the frequent power cuts.” Now the board has come off— a nice marketing gimmick!

The Anti-Tamil Spin

In total contrast to villagers’ insecurities over livelihood issues that had caused an impasse at the KKNPP (which saw the government steadfastly not bowing to their wishes to scrap the plant while different expert committees were set up) is the Sri Lankan Tamil issue where the centre appeared to give in to political blackmail (the DMK threatened to pull out of UPA 2) on what is an emotive issue. The elephant in the room is that which activists against the nuclear plant will not dare mention openly. And that is while KKNPP ignored Tamils in TN, the centre, egged on by politicians across the divide, seemed willing to do more for Tamils in Sri Lanka.

It’s no wonder that People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE) Udaykumar is now talking about how Tamils have been done in. “The centre is making sustained attempts to target Tamils by establishing these nuclear reactors at Kudankulam,” he said. Jayalalitha’s cabinet decision had only shown that Tamils fighting for their right to live has been abandoned, he said. He is not impressed by the Rs 500 crore rehabilitation package that the CM announced calling it “an attempt to bribe the anti-KKNPP protesters.”

Although Udaykumar has got the support of pro-Tamil groups in recent weeks, it’s the Sri Lankan Tamil issue that makes them spit fire and brimstone. Besides, with DMK chief Karunanidhi taking the line that KKNPP should start functioning, Udaykumar, trying to drum up support by playing the Tamil card, might not get anywhere.

A Warzone

It seems to be an undeclared war between the state and protestors. Shops in the villages surrounding the plant have closed because traders have joined the protests. The only access to the protestors is by boats because fishermen too have joined the agitation. But it’s clear that the activists against the plant are not taking things lying down. With villagers backing Udaykumar to the hilt, the movement has attracted disapproval with villagers digging up roads, placing granite boulders, pillars, thorny shrubs and even broken flag masts to prevent the police reaching him. But, Udaykumar has justified the precautionary measures to prevent the police entering.

“Udaykumar and his associates, such as Pushparayan, Jesuraj, Milton, Jeyakumar, Sahaya Enitha and Jerold and others are staying at Idinthakarai and are instigating the innocent public to indulge in agitation,” said a senior police officer. According to him, the villagers had deployed 250 youth “armed” with whistles and torches along the village border to alert leaders if police enter the village. While all the roads leading out of the village are manned by police, agitators have used fishing boats to get supplies. The villagers are so much in the loop that when the police phoned Udaykumar and asked him to surrender, the whole interaction was public because he kept his phone next to the mike!

At the same time, there have been complaints that food and water was not being allowed in for the protestors, a charge that the police has denied. Tirunelveli collector R Selvaraj says, “If at all there was any disturbance in maintaining the supply it was only because of the cutting of roads and creation of road blockade by protesters.”

However, Udaykumar says, “There is unprecedented deployment of police around Koodankulam and it is highly condemnable that the police are harassing peaceful protesters to this extent. Some 15 of us (8 men and 7 women) are on indefinite hunger strike here demanding among things withdrawal of the cabinet resolution that led to the restarting of KKNPP.” He has also demanded a thorough probe by geologists, hydrologists and oceanographers into safety issues of the plant and release of the Inter-Governmental Agreement (IGA) signed “secretly” by the governments of India and Russia on liability in February 2008.

Siding with the Activists

Although Udaykumar has gone on a fast unto death, how long the villagers will hold out with the police crawling over every nook and cranny of the 18 villages around the plant, and the arrest of those who had “blocked” employees of KKNPP remains to be seen. I’ve seen fasts unto deaths dissolve overnight when the person on fast who is the rallying force is spirited away to hospital by the state government. Iron Sharmila has been on a fast for almost 12 years demanding the Indian government repeal the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 (AFSPA), but nothing has happened.

But Udaykumar has the support of civil society groups including retired IAS officer M. G. Devasahayam, former Admiral L. Ramdas and his wife, V. Geetha of Tara Publications and Nityanand Jayaraman, an environmentalist, who are working to build a consensus at different levels to stop the plant. At a Jan Sansad (People’s Parliament) in New Delhi on March 20, Devasahaym moved a resolution that was unanimously endorsed saying: “We demand both union and state governments withdraw all police actions, that TN government should revoke the clearance, and close down the nuclear plant as demanded by the local people.” The consensus at the meeting was, “Kudamkulam nuke plant will definitely affect the lives and livelihoods of the people living in that area. The radioactive particles leaked out will be harmful to the health of people and the environment of the marine system.”

To add fuel to the fire, a school run by Meera Kumar, wife of Udaya Kumar who has been coordinating and leading the struggle was damaged on March 20, allegedly by Hindu Munnani vandals. The Hindu Munnani had attacked Udaykumar several weeks ago, aborting a meeting between him and the central panel of experts. “There are also reports of threats to the safety of Udaya Kumar's family, but these are yet to be confirmed,” says V. Geeta.

A Rebirth?

DMK MP Kanimozhi like her father, M Karunanidhi is looking for the spotlight after spending most of last year under a cloud in the 2G scam which culminated in her arrest by the CBI and she ended up spending six months in Tihar jail. For her, again like Karunanidhi (who is looking to grab hold of the Tamil throne that had slipped away), the Sri Lanka Tamil issue has come like a blessing and an opportunity to position herself once more as her father’s eyes and ears in Delhi.

Even if an emasculated DMK can do nothing apart from issuing threats, she was quite fiery. “I hope the DMK will not be pushed to make any such (withdraw support to UPA) decision and we are hopeful that the government understands what we mean.” They did. With West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee giving them a migraine, the last thing the PM needed was another ally’s tantrums. It seemed he thought it was better to change India’s foreign policy.

Post-facto even Karunanidhi claimed that the DMK was on the verge of withdrawing support to UPA. As proof, he read from the resolution that the high level executive council was going to pass on March 20. The meeting itself was not held after the PM gave in. So did Karunanidhi redeem himself? The jury is still out. Ditto for Kanimozhi’s attempt to position herself, considering the ongoing internecine battle in the DMK.

But on merits, the political noises aside, India needs to stand up and tell Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapakse like it is: That human rights were violated, that there was a genocide of 40,000 Tamils and that he needs to acknowledge that. Even if one discounts the “drama” by politicians such as Karunanidhi (he even threatened a fast— yes) he needs to seek reparation for what happened in Sri Lanka during the LTTE’s end game in May 2009. Father Gaspar Raj, founder of NAAM, a civil society organization was emotional about the pictures of the bullet-riddled body of LTTE Prabhakaran’s 12-year-old son. He told me, “I had visited Vanni (Sri Lanka) in 2003 and met the boy. I am traumatized when I see his body.”

Tit for Tat

The PM wrote to the CM that central agencies would keep her government in the loop about the visits here by the Sinhalese. The CM was referring to several recent incidents when Tamils have reacted badly apparently in solidarity with their brethren in Sri Lanka. In particular she mentioned the visit of Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s niece’s husband, Thirukumuran Nadesan, in January when he and a priest were attacked with sticks and footwear by MDMK activists in Rameshwaram when he was coming out of a pujari's house after a pooja. Incidentally, Nadesan comes frequently on temple visits to Tamil Nadu.

Last week, at the Bishop Heber College in Tiruchy that had invited a Sinhalese professor, Prof Hemamalie Gunatilake, there were protests among Dalit outfits and Tamil nationalist groups. Some weeks ago, the visit of another Sinhalese professor (Jeeva Niriella, faculty of law, University of Colombo) for a function at the Manonmanian Sundarnar University evoked vociferous protests.

Despite this, Colombo is very exercised over CM Jayalalitha’s “move to curb the visits of SL VIPs on the plea that such visits create law and order problems for the state government.” Muthu Sivalingam, a top leader of the Ceylon Workers’ Congress says, “The curb will have far reaching consequences for the leaders of Tamils of Indian origin in SL who have strong social, familial, religious and economic ties with TN.” But like a politician, he’s misinterpreting because Tamils are not in any danger in TN. It’s the Sinhalese who are. Some years ago, a group of defence personnel undergoing training here were hounded out by Tamil groups. But pro-Tamil groups should factor in that their statements and actions to keep their lobbies happy might end up harming Tamils in SL.