The tide rises against Amma

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After Jayalalithaa’s green signal for the Koodankulam nuclear plant, the protesters and police are on a collision course, says Jeemon Jacob

Night vigil Protesters sleep on the premises of the St Lourdes Church
Night vigil: Protesters sleep on the premises of the St Lourdes Church

TENSION IS rising in the coastal village of Idinthakarai, the hub of the anti-nuclear protests in Tamil Nadu. Around 5,000 men, women and children are camping at the St Lourdes Church grounds to express their solidarity with the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE), spearheaded by P Udayakumar. They have been sitting on an indefinite hunger strike since Monday.

The protesters are in an angry mood after Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa made a U-turn in favour of the Koodankulam nuclear power plant and deployed more than 4,000 police personnel to counter the agitation.

What may have prompted Jayalalithaa to change her stance is the crippling power crisis in the state. There has been growing anger in Chennai after the duration of power cuts was doubled to two hours. Madurai residents are facing eight-hour power cuts, while those living in rural areas are going without electricity for 10 hours.

Meanwhile, in Idinthakarai, people from neighbouring villages have boycotted work to support the protest. “Fishermen from Tuticorin and Tirunelveli are on indefinite strike,” says Coastal Federation Secretary Jones Thomas Spartagus. “The police threatened them to go to sea. But they won’t budge.”

Amidst all these developments, on 21 March, goons vandalised the school run by Udayakumar’s wife Meera. “Two days ago, I got a note saying that I should go back to Germany and run my school,” she says. “The note threatened me with dire consequences if I don’t shut down my school. I immediately asked for police protection. However, last evening, the security was removed citing requirement of extra forces for the Sankarankovil bypoll and this morning everything was damaged.”

“The electricity was initially cut-off in Idinthakarai. It was restored today after the media vans fought with the police as the media could not do their work,” says Chennai-based activist Nityanand Jayaraman, who has been protesting against the setting up of the plant.

The government-imposed sanctions against Idanthikarai include cutting the supply lines of milk, kerosene and essential goods. Bus services were snapped once the police started moving towards Koodankulam.

“Our job is to ensure that the work inside the nuclear plant continues. Right now the site is secure and there is no threat of any protests that might stall the work at the plant,” says Tirunelveli SP Vijendra Bidari. However, he refuses to elaborate on the heavy security that has been thrown around the group of protesters, many of whom are on a fast unto death.

Backlash Vandals damage the school run by Meera Udayakumar
Backlash: Vandals damage the school run by Meera Udayakumar

“We will not yield to the pressure tactics. We will continue our protest here till we die,” says Anton Yesu Arangavan, who had gone on a hunger strike for 18 days last year as well. Like many others, he has suspended fishing for the past three days. His wife and two kids are also present at the protest.

The protests have turned semi-literate housewife Melred Raj, 40, into an activist. “We are fighting for our lives but the media has branded us anti-national. We can live without electricity. The plant is a curse not only for us but also our children,” says Melred. “We don’t fear the police. We will go to jail. But we will not allow the plant to function in our soil.”

She is angry at Jayalalithaa for her volte-face. “I have always voted for Amma. But now I regret it. She has ditched us. I will never vote for her again,” she says.

Sitting next to her, Prema Murugan says she is protesting to save her children. “I never wanted to join the protest as I have plenty of things to do at home. My husband is a farmer and I have four kids. But I joined the group when I realised that our lives are under threat. I won’t leave till our demands are met,” says Prema. The protest ground has become second home for her husband Murugan and four children.

“We are not broiler chicken. We can survive in this hot summer without electricity, water and milk. We challenge the police to enter the area and arrest our leaders. Then they will realise our strength,” she adds.

‘We can survive in this hot summer without electricity, water and milk,’ says Prema, one of the anti-nuke protesters

Even AIADMK loyalists are feeling cheated. “Amma’s decision has pained us,” says Francis Thangappa, 36, an AIADMK activist. “We loved Amma and always stood by her. But now she has chopped us and we are left to bleed.”

JUST 2 KM away, hundreds of policemen, including Rapid Action Force personnel, are stationed at Koodankulam. They have set up cameras to track visitors who enter the village. A top cop says they have been asked to do only surveillance and not take any precipitate action. “We are building psychological pressure on the protesters to surrender. We have been told to keep watch,” he says on the condition of anonymity.

But such tactics are unlikely to resolve the situation. The protesters have already dug trenches on the roads and are keeping a tab on the police movements. “If push comes to shove, we will all go to jail. They can commission the plant only over our dead bodies,” says Pushparayan.

On the third day of the police siege, as the sun sets, more people arrive at the protest ground. They will stay here for the night vigil. As the PMANE leaders finalise their strategy in the darkness, some of the protesters’ children are busy playing nearby. They are in a jovial mood. No school and no homework. All are stranded in Idinthakarai for a common cause.

With inputs from Sai Manish and Janani Ganesan

Jeemon Jacob is Bureau Chief, South with Tehelka. 
[email protected]

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Bureau Chief, South

Jeemon Jacob has been a journalist for 26 years both in print and television, as of 2011. He was a Reuters Fellow and spent nine months in Oxford University as visiting scholar in 1994-95. He has headed the political bureau in New Delhi of the Rashtra Deepika group of publications and later joined News Express in Brunei Darussalam as Features Editor. He won the Statesman award for rural reporting in 1987 for his seven articles that exposed a brown sugar racket in Kumily, Kerala.

In 1990, he won the state award for best reporting and in 1992, his article on social alienation of people with HIV/AIDS won the prestigious PUCL Award for human rights reporting in 1992. Jeemon is a graduate in English Literature and Journalism and has exposed the corruption behind the DMK government’s allotting prime land to high court judges, senior civil servants, and the kith and kin of politicians under the government’s discretionary quota. He is based in Thiruvananthapuram.

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