The frequency with which the Supreme Court of India has made pronouncements on the question of “dissent” in recent times, with the Court most recently observing that dissent is the “safety valve” of democracy, underscores the fact that the “right to dissent” in India is in a fair bit of trouble. But while concerns regarding this quintessential democratic right have made their way into public discourse more recently, dissent has been under assault much longer — ask the “seditious” “anti-nationals” of Koodankulam.
Koodankulam in Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu has witnessed perhaps the longest-standing and most peaceful grassroots movement against nuclear energy in India. Although the movement has a long history going back to the late 1980s when the commercial agreement for the Koodankulam Nuclear Power Plant (KKNPP) was signed between India and the erstwhile USSR, it picked pace and intensified following the catastrophic Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident in Japan in 2011. The accident, coupled with Tamil Nadu’s memory of the devastating Tsunami of 2004, and state apathy to the people’s concerns, all played a role in invigorating the agitation, which was met with unprecedented repression by the State.
Residents of Koodankulam, India protest in the sea against nuclear plant | Photo Credit: Outlook India
Last week, in fact, marked six years since the most brutal crackdown that the movement has faced. In September 2012, when the authorities in the nuclear plant announced that they would start loading radioactive fuel, fisherfolk and farmers in the surrounding villages were outraged. They saw this as an act of utter disregard towards the concerns that they had been raising for several months. They had made every effort to engage in a peaceful dialogue with the government while continuing their collective resistance which had attracted nation-wide attention. The People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE), a local umbrella network spearheaded by Dr S P Udayakumar gave a call for laying a peaceful siege to the plant.
Until then, thousands of people from villages around Koodankulam had gathered in Idinthakarai village close to the plant-site and were holding peaceful demonstrations and hunger strikes. The unobtrusive siege on the side-wall of the plant compound was announced to pressurise the authorities to stop work while the government’s own dialogue process was still on. However, the government responded with brazen repression to the massive peaceful protests and the violence in Koodankulam that followed, will remain among the most deplorable chapters in the history of Indian democracy.
Seline, a 78-year-old woman activist from the fishing village of Idinthakarai who has been part of the movement since it first began in the late 1980s, recalls how on September 9, 2012, close to 6,000 men, women and children from Idinthakarai and surrounding villages had marched towards the reactor compound in defiance of prohibitory orders under Section 144 that had been in force for several months. After being stopped by a 5,000-strong police force including the paramilitary forces, the people decided to camp on the sea shore and keep vigil through the night.
As the protestors resumed their march towards the plant the next morning, on September 10, thousands of police personnel, a large number of them in riot gear, began an indiscriminate lathi-charge and lobbed tear gas shells into the crowd, and chased several others into the sea. The report of a fact-finding team headed by Justice BG Kolse-Patil, former judge of the Bombay High Court, describes in horrific detail, the extent of the brutality unleashed by the police.
Hundreds of protestors suffered burns and other severe injuries, women were molested and abused by the police as they chased them into the sea. The revered Lourdes Matha Church in Idinthakarai, the most prominent site of the Koodankulam agitation, was desecrated, according to the villagers’ account, by a nearly 400-strong police force. As news of the assault spread, people gathered in large numbers in the neighbouring Tuticorin district to protest police action at Idinthakarai and a group of protestors set fire to a checkpost. In the ensuing police firing, a 48-year-old fisherman, Anthony John, was killed.
The police also ransacked homes in Idinthakarai, Koodankulam, Vairavikinaru, Tsunami Colony and other villages, damaged property and destroyed fishing boats, and arrested hundreds of men, women and even adolescents under sections 124A (sedition), 121A (waging war against the state), 307 (attempt to murder), 353 (assault or criminal force to deter public servant from discharge of duty), 147 (punishment for rioting) and 148 (rioting, armed with deadly weapon), among others. According to estimates, close to 9,000 people were charged with sedition within a short span of a few days, with the leader of the PMANE, Dr Udayakumar, named as the “first accused” in over 300 FIRs.
Crackdown on women protesters against Kudankulam | Photo Credit: GettyImages
Therefore, while the right to dissent is undeniably under accelerated assault under the present government, irony died a rather painful death when recently, the former Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh lamented the “undermining of democratic values” under the Modi regime. It was Dr Singh who had employed the “foreign hand” bogey in 2012 to label the protests against the KKNPP “anti-national” and “anti-development”, thus, paving the way for criminalising dissent and the brutal bulldozing of a peaceful people’s movement.
The number of protestors in Koodankulam, charged with such grave offences is unprecedented. As is evident from NCRB data, people in such large numbers have not faced charges of “sedition” and “war against the state” even in regions where the Indian State is engaged in declared anti-insurgency operations. The commissioning of the KKNPP has been marked by the attenuation of environmental and safety norms, and the violent high-handedness of the government towards local protestors and those who have attempted to question the rationale for the imprudent push for nuclear energy, even as the nuclear industry is confronted with a deepening existential crisis globally, after the Fukushima accident.
The greatest irony, however, is that despite such compulsive and brutalizing zeal on the part of the state to announce the start of the nuclear reactor in Koodankulam, it remains largely dysfunctional – it has had an unprecedented number of shut-downs in the past 5 years and routine closures for “maintenance exercise”. At the end of the last year, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) chastised the NPCIL for an astounding delay of 220 days in 2015-2016 leading to an over-expenditure of Rs 704 crores. Activists and independent experts claim that this vindicates their long-standing concerns about the use of sub-standard equipments in Koodankulam, and they are increasingly worried about its safety implications.
Dissent is only a natural casualty when the neo-liberal ‘development’ agenda being pursued by India’s ruling classes at the cost of communities and the environment, is elevated to the status of a creed. Any questioning of or opposition to it then becomes the same as opposing the country’s growth, prosperity, and technological advancement. Unfortunately, Koodankulam has learnt this truth, the hard way.