WHEN JOHN Britto, 19, saw No War Zone: The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka, a documentary produced by the UK-based Channel 4 exposing alleged war crimes by the Sri Lankan Army during the 2009 crackdown on the LTTE, he felt the need to protest against the atrocities. “I was shocked by images depicting the coldblooded killing of 12-year-old Balachandran, the son of the slain LTTE chief Velupillai Prabhakaran,” says Britto, a student of Loyola College, Chennai.
So when Britto and his friends saw the draft of the US-backed UN resolution on Sri Lanka, they were outraged by the mild language censuring the island nation, despite the UN itself claiming that more than 40,000 Tamil civilians were killed in the last stages of the crackdown. On 8 March, along with seven other students from his college, Britto sat on a hunger strike demanding that the UN should use the term ‘genocide’ for the violence perpetrated against the Tamils in Sri Lanka and conduct an independent probe into it.
The protests that shook Tamil Nadu politics, forcing the DMK to withdraw support from the UPA government at the Centre, had thus begun in a low key. The hunger strike led by Britto and his friends became a catalyst for more widespread mobilisation of students.
“The All India Catholic University Federation, a students’ organisation, is very active in our college and I was a member until recently. On the evening of 7 March, the college management consented to our plan of a hunger strike inside the Nungambakkam campus close to the Sri Lankan Embassy the next day,” says Britto.
This was the first time a soft-spoken Britto was leading a protest. Born to a family of farmers at a village in Tamil Nadu’s Ramanathapuram district, he came to Chennai three years ago to join Loyola College. In the college hostel where he stayed, he made several friends who believed that students should take up social issues and participate in efforts to change the world.
“On the morning of 8 March, around 2,000 students of the morning batch joined us,” says Britto. Within an hour, the news reached every campus in the city that eight Loyola students were on a hunger strike for the cause of Sri Lankan Tamils. Someone posted pictures of the students on Facebook with an appeal to join the fast, which went viral as hundreds of students declared solidarity for the hunger strike.
“Students from other colleges visited us and we asked them to start hunger strikes in their campuses,” says Britto, who almost became a hero for the students. But by the evening, though the students were adamant to continue the protest, the college authorities decided to put a stop to it. “They said we could not stay in the campus after college hours as our college is close to the Sri Lankan Embassy,” adds Britto.
The students shifted the protest venue from the campus to Koyambedu in the city’s outskirts, where they were arrested and taken to a hospital. Even in the hospital, the group of eight students continued the hunger strike and ended it only on 11 March. By then, students in campuses across the state had started hunger strikes. Britto says he is happy that their protest helped “unite the students for a cause”.
Students from around 20 colleges in Chennai had started hunger strikes within 24 hours of the Loyola students beginning their protest. They marched the streets demanding justice for Sri Lankan Tamils and thousands of them formed a human chain at Chennai’s Marina Beach. Soon prominent political leaders rushed to offer their sympathies, but the students were unwilling to listen to them. Leaders like KV Thangkabalu of the Congress had to face crowds of angry students asking them: “Where were you all this while?”
Like Britto, Anjugam Doraiswamy, a 20-year-old medical student at the SRM University, Chennai, too became a voice of the protesting Tamil students quite by chance. Born in a middle-class family in the city’s T Nagar neighbourhood, both her brothers are doctors and she had never been part of any agitation before. Things changed for her after she came across a photo of Prabhakaran’s slain son on Facebook. Today she is one of the most vocal among the protesting Tamil students.
“I have been following the news about the genocide of Tamils in Sri Lanka since February last year. So, when I heard about the students’ protest in Loyola, I posted a comment on Facebook and soon 10,000 people shared their views on it,” says Doraiswamy. Emboldened by the response, she told her friends to join the protests and started organising them. “I could convince only 100 students of our college. We started a hunger strike and soon friends from other colleges also joined us.”
Doraiswamy is proud to have participated in the protests and calls it “a great experience”. Determined to continue protesting peacefully, she says, “We want to keep the fire alive for as long as we can.” The days and nights of protest have convinced her that students too have a role to play in changing the public opinion.
However, not every student who joined the protests came from a non-political background. For instance, Jyoti Kalidasan, 23, an active member of the All India Students Federation (AISF), the student wing of the CPI, mobilised students of Ambedkar Law College, Chennai, where she studies. “We avoided giving a particular political colour to our protests as we wanted to reach out to the wider student community, everyone who feels the pain of the Lankan Tamils,” she says.
Kalidasan’s comrade in the AISF, S Dinesh was born in lower-middle-class family in Tirupur, and came to Chennai to study law. He was the brain behind the candlelight vigil at Marina Beach on 2 March in memory of Balachandran. “Our protests were unique and got tremendous response. We used social networks for campaigning, send thousands of SMSes asking students to join the movement, and designed posters with the help of students from the fine arts department,” says Dinesh. “We have used all platforms to popularise our movement.”
Accusing the Congress-led UPA government of “cheating the Tamils”, Dinesh says the students will continue their “civil disobedience movement” in a Gandhian way and not vote for the Congress and its allies in the 2014 General Election.
THE PROTESTS have surprised many observers of Tamil Nadu politics. Analysts say this was the first time since the 1965 anti-Hindi agitation that students came out to protest on this huge scale. Remarkably, most of the mobilisation took place outside the pale of the political parties. Initially, both the AIADMK and the DMK did not imagine the students could influence the course of their politics. But later the protests forced the DMK leadership to snap ties with the Congress. “Our leader MK Stalin pushed for a quick decision after we realised we may lose heavily in the state if we align with the Congress,” says a senior DMK leader.
According to Rajya Sabha MP TM Selvaganapathi of the DMK, the Sri Lanka issue binds all Tamils emotionally. “The protests were an eye-opener for all political parties. We have been putting pressure on the UPA government to condemn the genocide. There is no point continuing with an alliance that has little regard for Tamil sentiments,” he says.
“The anti-Hindi protests, with students boycotting classes, had helped the DMK win the 1967 Assembly election in the state. Forty-eight years later, Tamil Nadu is facing a similar situation,” says A Arvind, an 18- year-old student from Ambattur, Chennai.
However, snapping ties with the Congress does not guarantee bright electoral prospects for the DMK. Supremo M Karunanidhi’s son MK Alagiri boycotted the party’s National Executive meeting on 25 March and told cadres of his disagreement with the decision to snap ties with the Congress. There are also indications that the protests may have given a new lease of political life to Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s Vaiko and Pattali Makkal Katchi’s Anbumani Ramadoss. “The Congress is definitely in peril but the jury is still out on who might gain from it,” says C Mahendran, a CPI leader.