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The common thread running through TN protests

May 28, 2018 13:10 IST

In the circumstances, an independent probe alone would establish the truth, starting from Koodangulam. It is more so in the case of Marina violence over Jallikattu, which may even at this late hour hold a candle to the events and developments in Thoothukudi, says N Sathiya Moorthy.

Given a chance, the Justice Aruna Jagadeesan commission of inquiry, appointed to probe the ‘anti-Sterlite’ violence Thoothukudi death of 13 individuals in police firing in southern Tamil Nadu should begin with the report of the one that is still investigating the ‘Jallikattu protests and violence’ of January 2017. 

But the Justice S Rajeswaran commission probing the ‘Jallikattu violence’, with an initial six months with periodic extensions when due, is not expected to submit its report for another eight or nine months, according to reports.

There are reasons for both the need for the Jallikattu probe report early on, and the inevitable delays in its work. Considering that Justice Rajeswaran, a retired judge of the Madras high court like Justice Aruna Jagadeesan now, has to hold hearings in almost all towns and cities, and at times villages wherever the Jallikattu protests were held, the delay was inherent to the probe.

But considering the possibilities of overlapping modus, or methods involving the protestors and also the late entry of police, when alone violence ensued, the Tamil Nadu government should consider the wisdom of seeking an interim report from the Rajeswaran commission on the last day’s violence, especially on the Marina sands in Chennai, the ‘ground zero’ of Jallikattu protests.

Three episodes at the very least in over the past three or four years across the state, and even an untrained eye would be able to spot certain commonality.  The anti-nuclear Koodangulam protests, the Jallikattu rallies and now the Thoothukudi violence all had begun as mass movements, with the former alone having identifiable leaderships, fighting and propagating from the frontlines.

Independent of the long history of these issues and protests, the pattern had evolved with the impromptu Marina protests on the US-sponsored UNHRC resolution on ‘war crime probe’ in Sri Lanka in early 2012.

The emerging ranks of new generation protestors under a faceless leadership with no political tag attaching to any of them, held a massive protest, deliberately and at times forcefully keeping the political class out.

There was no noticeable violence at the time, as the protest leaders were possibly keener on sending out a message, an ‘arrival statement’, too. From the government side, the police intelligence was possibly grappling with establishing the identities and political ideology, if any, of the protest organisers, before it ended in relative peace.

In Koodangulam, where the protests were anyway raging for decades, one phase after another, one reason after another, reached a crescendo in recent years. Individuals like S P Udayakumar and some parish priests identifying with the local Christian fishermen who feared loss of livelihood and carcinogenic afflictions from the nuclear power plant emissions provided leadership, not only to the protestors but also were in the frontline of future negotiations and court cases, which however did not go too far, too long.

 

In Marina earlier and Thoothukudi now, there were faceless leaders to mass movements, which none really took note of in the early stage(s). They claimed to be apolitical, and kept traditional politicians out of it all, initially. Unlike in Koodangulam, where Udayakumar and Co permitted the political class to join them and express solidarity, the Marina and Thoothukudi protestors did not do so.

But the end scene in both saw sudden toughening of positions -- or, perceptions of the same --and the protests ending in avoidable violence, for which the entry has got blamed. There were also claims that the police was the main perpetrators of the violence, and without provocation.

There is also the opposite version that a section of the protestors, at least in the last stages, had ‘infiltrated’ what was essentially mass protests by peace-loving people, and provoked the police into acting through their own violent acts.

In the circumstances, an independent probe alone would establish the truth, starting from Koodangulam. It is more so in the case of Marina violence, which may even at this late hour hold a candle to the events and developments in Thoothukudi. 

With the reports of any of the earlier probes into earlier episodes of the kind available, the question arises if the state police bosses have conducted any internal studies to come to any helpful conclusions that could guide them in crowd handling, intelligence-gathering and sharing, and acting on ‘actionable intelligence’, if any, or fill the lacunae on that front.

In political terms, three successive AIADMK chief ministers, namely the late Jayalalithaa, O Panneerselvam and incumbent Edappadi K Palaniswamy, were in power when it all happened, respectively in Koodangulam, Marina and now Thoothukudi.

There is no denying the existence and entry of ‘fringe elements’ in the protests, though it remains to be proved whether they made a ‘late entry’ as claimed by the government authorities in all these events and more.

Their presence, unacknowledged by the Jaya government, and unnoticed by TV news viewers, was more than visible in every street protest and violence over liquor ban, which became a key independent issue in the long run-up to the 2016 state assembly polls.

There was no knowing how fringe groups of the kind had found a base in almost every corner of the state for long, and if they have found self-sustaining missions in those villages.

There was also no knowing (at least at the level of the common observer) if they have developed skills and network to reach out to them all from a central place through an impenetrable line of communication, whether human-int or tech-int, terms often associated with law-enforcing agencies.

What is true however is that where the traditional Opposition had intervened, as  with the ‘Cauvery dispute’ and the anti-NEET agitation, both this year as on earlier occasions, the protests were peaceful and at times counter-productive to the organisers, in terms of the envisaged success and performance.

There again, these so-called fringe groups were visible but ‘melted away’ when the political Opposition took he centre-stage. Where this was not allowed to happen, as with Jallikattu and Thoothukudi protests, it ended up in violence. Whether it was a coincidence or not, too, remains to be investigated.

With Lok Sabha polls due in about a year’s time, it may be time that the authorities in the state and the Centre took a closer look, especially at the recent events in southern Tamil Nadu -- not stopping with Koodangulam and Thoothukudi, or even the ‘anti-neutrino protests’, which have remained mostly localised thus far.

Earlier this year, the southern temple town of Srivilliputhur was in the news, and for reasons other than the fact that the temple tower forms the official symbol of the Tamil Nadu government.

It was the ‘Andal controversy’, centred on the Vaishnavite poet-saint dated to the seventh or eighth century, also ended up seeking to create a ‘pan-Tamil imagery’ of the present-day Hindutva elements in the state, as against the traditional ‘Sanskritised, North and Brahmin’ identification.

Far removed though was the reality that the former had a ready identification with 40-45 per cent of the state’s population, whether or not it was politically and electorally so. In contrast, the latter, ‘Sanskrit-Brahmin centric’ imagery has had only visible opposition, not supporters.

An even more visible aspect of most, if not all, these protests that have drawn national attention, is the reality of those that speak for the protestors often drawing parallels with the ‘Sinhala annihilation of the Tamil community’ in Sri Lanka and ‘India’ and ‘our own state government’ both ‘drawing inspiration from the Sri Lankans’.

It is no more ‘Centre’ or ‘Union government’ in context, but only ‘India’, as has been the case often with separatists in Jammu and Kashmir and other border regions.

More importantly, those that mouth these lines also include the so-called left-leaning sections of the fringe group organisers who otherwise claim to be ‘non-nationalists’ and ‘non-ethnic’ of the territorial and birthright kinds.

N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist and political analyst, is Director, Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Chapter.

N Sathiya Moorthy