T he space for dissent in Tamil Nadu, a supposedly progressive State, has shrunk to a significant extent. Protests registered by writers, intellectuals, students, activists, farmers and the media against the government’s schemes, projects or decisions seem to invite stringent penal action even when the means are peaceful. The inept handling of serious social issues, such as rising joblessness, and faulty policy decisions on mega projects, such as the eight-lane expressway between Chennai and Salem for which hundreds of acres of land had to be acquired, triggered massive protests.
Protests and demonstrations grew in number after the Jallikattu protests in Chennai in 2016 followed by protests against the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) and on the Cauvery water-sharing issue. Instead of addressing the concerns reflected in these protests, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) government chose to suppress them, which has led to law and order disturbances, as in Thoothukudi where 13 people were shot dead on May 22, 2018, during the agitation against Sterlite’s copper smelter. Cases are slapped indiscriminately against protesters and mass arrests are made every other day. The use of excessive force to stifle voices of dissent seems to have been taken to the point where the State, which is known for its healthy human development indices, has earned the dubious distinction of recording the largest number of protests in a year in the country.
The Bureau of Police Research and Development (BPRD) recorded 21,232 protests in Tamil Nadu in 2012, over one-fourth of the national total of 78,444 agitations. The then Chief Minister, Jayalalithaa, proudly told the Assembly in August 2014 that the high number of protests reflected the democratic values that the State had nurtured.
“But today, an intolerant and weak State government with a manipulative big boss at the Centre has aggravated the problems for the people. The BJP, knowing well that it could not gain a foothold here, has been trying desperately to make its presence felt. The Thoothukudi massacre is one example of a repressive regime that rules the State by proxy today,” a political analyst said. Those who took part in the anti-Sterlite agitation, including lawyers and activists, face multiple cases today. Anyone raising a slogan, however innocuous, seems to be viewed as “anti-national”. The farmers who opposed the Chennai-Salem expressway face multiple cases. A farmer-activist in Salem said: “Every day we undergo harassment at the hands of the police. Early morning intrusions and late night arrests from our homes and fields are making Tamil Nadu an authoritarian State.”
Draconian laws like the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), the Goondas’ Act (“Alarming act”, Frontline , October 3, 2014) and Section 153 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), which allow peremptory detention, come in handy for the rulers. So does the law on sedition. The activist Henry Tiphagne of People’s Watch told Frontline that the sedition law had become a tool used by the state against its own people. “The law is purely used now to intimidate people who protest against authority. It serves only to criminalise dissent. It is the process itself, of going to court for several years before your acquittal, and in the process being denied your right to travel, your right to a passport, etc., that is mind-boggling. This is the harassment and punishment that human rights defenders are subjected to face when charged with sedition,” he said.
Fishermen have staged a series of protests against the nuclear power plant at Kudankulam since 2011, and hundreds of cases have been registered against them. In fact, the Kudankulam Police Station has the distinction of having filed the largest number of cases, including under the sedition law, in a single year during 2012-13. The police filed first information reports against 55,795 people, of whom 8,966 were charged with sedition (124A). Charges were also made under other sections of the IPC such as Section 121 (waging, or attempting to wage, war or abetting waging of war, against the Government of India) and 153 (A) (promoting enmity between different groups… and doing acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony).
Sedition cases were filed against six activists of Makkal Adhikaram (People’s Power), including its State-level organiser C. Raju, on March 26, 2016, for allegedly making inflammatory speeches at a protest meeting against state-run liquor outlets in Tiruchi on February 14 that year. Cases were registered under Sections 124 (A) (sedition), 504 (intentional insult with intent to provoke breach of peace) and 505 (i) (b) (statements conducing to public mischief with intent to cause, or which is likely to cause, fear or alarm to the public, or to any section of the public whereby any person may be induced to commit an offence against the state) of the IPC. The folk singer Kovan was arrested around 2.30 a.m. under the sedition law on November 1, 2015, for criticising Chief Minister Jayalalithaa through his folk songs on the state-run liquor outlets. He was released on bail after 15 days.
The May 17 movement coordinator, Thirumurugan Gandhi, was arrested in Chennai on August 14, 2018, for having organised a procession to garland the Periyar statue on September 20, 2017. The Royapettah police registered cases under Sections 124 A (sedition) and 153 (wantonly giving provocation with intent to cause riot) of the IPC. Gandhi faces a plethora of cases today, including one under the UAPA. A Madurai-based advocate, A. Murugan, was detained under UAPA some two years back for appearing for suspected Maoists at the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court. He is now out on bail.
The Salem-based environmental activist Piyush Manush and the student activist Valarmathi also faced the State government’s ire (“Police raj”, Frontline , August 3, 2018). The latter became the first girl student to be detained under the Goondas’ Act for her support to farmers of Kadiramangalam in their fight against ONGC’s pipeline project. The chief coordinator of the Anti-Methane Project Movement, T. Jayaraman, was booked under Section 153 of the IPC on October 22, 2017. The environmental activist Mughilan, who relentlessly fought against the sand loot in the Cauvery basin, had to spend nearly a year in prison. The Chennai-based cartoonist G. Bala was arrested for his political cartoon, thought to be embarrassing for the Chief Minister, under Section 501 of the IPC and Section 67 of the Information Technology Act on November 5, 2017. (“Stifling dissent”, Frontline , December 8, 2017.)
A young research scholar from a Canadian University, Lois Sofia, who was flying down to her home town, Thoothukudi, was arrested at Thoothukudi airport on September 3, 2018. She had raised an anti-BJP slogan to show her anguish at the police firing. On the basis of a complaint from the Tamil Nadu State BJP leader, Tamilisai Soundararajan, who was travelling on the flight that day, the police registered cases under Sections 505 and 290 of the IPC and 75 (I) (c) of the Madras City Police Act, 1888. Sofia was arrested immediately and later released on bail.
The State does not spare politicians. On October 2, 2017, the Salem police filed a case of sedition against AMMK party leader T.T.V. Dinakaran and 15 of his supporters for allegedly distributing pamphlets against Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami. Naam Tamilar Katchi leader S. Seeman was slapped with a sedition case on July 29, 2017, in connection with a speech he made at a public meeting in Manakkadu on July 4. A sedition case was registered against Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader Vaiko by the Chennai police for his speech in support of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in Chennai in 2009. A Sessions Court granted him bail in May 2017.
Henry Tiphagne said: “Democracy has no meaning without freedoms, and sedition as interpreted and applied by the police and governments today only negates the rights contained in the Unied Nations Declaration on the rights of human rights defenders.”