A march with a difference

Published : Oct 08, 2004 00:00 IST

Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader Vaiko makes his political presence felt in Tamil Nadu by successfully completing a long march across the State.

in Chennai

IF there is one important outcome of the 42-day "renaissance march" of Vaiko and his cadre across Tamil Nadu, it is that his Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) has reached the people of the State. It was a march that began with a difference and ended with a difference. On September 15, the last day of the 1,025-km-long march, Vaiko outwitted the police and marched into Chennai on a route that was banned to him. The whole incident - the hamhanded arrest of Vaiko and six of his cadre and their release after six hours - showed the Jayalalithaa government in a poor light. Vaiko went on to address a huge public meeting at the Island Grounds in Chennai that evening to cap a successful march.

Two days earlier, Chennai Police Commissioner K. Natarajan had denied permission to Vaiko and his cadre to march into Chennai along the route they wanted. The permission was denied in the interest of the public, free flow of traffic and to maintain law and order, the Police Commissioner said. Chief Minister Jayalalithaa alleged that Vaiko insisted on marching through important roads in Chennai in order to create "confusion" and law and order problem. Processions were allowed in Chennai only on a particular road, and this was in accordance with the Supreme Court guidelines, she said. Vaiko said the march had all along been peaceful, and so denial of permission to him to march into Chennai was illegal and undemocratic. (The All India Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam government had jailed Vaiko and eight other MDMK leaders for 19 months under the Prevention of Terrorism Act.)

The renaissance march began on August 5 from Tirunelveli town, about 620 km from Chennai. An important demand that the march highlighted was the inter-linking of rivers, especially the rivers in the south. Another demand was to affirm the rights of Tamil Nadu in sharing the Cauvery river waters with neighbouring Karnataka. The march also aimed at preparing the people to establish a society that was free of communal canker, propagating the tenets of the Dravidian movement and mobilising people's opinion against the ruling AIADMK's atrocities. "The march is not for deriving any political advantage. It has social, economic and cultural aims. We dedicate ourselves to establishing a casteless society. We want to reach the people," Vaiko said.

It was an eventful march with Vaiko and about 3,000 young MDMK cadre walking through cities, towns and hundreds of villages covering 15 districts. Vaiko led the march, dressed in spotless white dhoti and white shirt, with a black towel around his shoulders. The cadre were dressed in black trousers and black shirts. They walked in a file of three, holding MDMK flags.

Hundreds of people waited along the route to give them a rapturous welcome. As Vaiko said at a public meeting, "they showered unalloyed affection on us, expecting nothing in return". He was touched by the "selfless affection" that his cadre showered on him. When an old woman asked him why he was walking without an umbrella in the sun, he told her: "When you have walked a mile in the sun and you don't have chappals, where is the need for an umbrella for me?" In a village called Olimathi, near Tiruvarur, Thanjavur, an 85-year-old woman asked one of her two grandsons to press something into Vaiko's hands. It was a 50-paise coin. "I don't have more than this," she told him. Vaiko put the coin in an envelope along with a note on how he got it, and decided to treasure it forever.

Vaiko addressed public meetings in big and small towns. As L. Ganesan, MDMK presidium chairman, and M. Kannappan, treasurer, said Vaiko and his men learnt of people's problems directly from them. He listened to the grievances of peasants, workers, women, Dalits and hut-dwellers. According to Vaiko, the universal complaint was the lack of drinking water in villages.

The march was to end at Island Grounds in Chennai on September 15, the birthday of C.N. Annadurai, the founder of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. On September 13, as the MDMK leader and his cadre reached Singaperumalkovil, 40 km from Chennai, the Police Commissioner denied permission to Vaiko and his cadre to march into the city. Vaiko vowed to march ahead. "Our march had so far been entirely peaceful. We have not created any law and order problem," he said.

On the night of September 14, after Vaiko had addressed a public meeting at St. Thomas Mount, on the outskirts of the city, he and his men were about to retire for the day at a marriage hall when the Superintendent of Police (Chengalpattu East) arrived there and told Vaiko that he and his men would not be allowed to go in a procession into Chennai. The police officer tried to hand over to Vaiko a copy of the notice on the regulatory order in force in Chennai. The MDMK general secretary, however, told him: "Our march [into the city] will be peaceful. Nobody will be put to any trouble," and declined to receive the notice. Vaiko rejected a suggestion that the marchers could travel into the city in vehicles. After the police officer left, Vaiko consulted Ganesan and a strategy was worked out.

Around 1 a.m. on September 15, Vaiko asked his cadre to resume the march. (As per their original plan, they were to march into Chennai only in the late afternoon of September 15.) And he started walking briskly, covering 16 km in less than three hours. The cadre moved after him, walking along the edge of the road. Mysteriously, street lamps went off on their route. As word spread, the police force was alerted. About a kilometre away, a police contingent tried to stop the marchers but to no avail. Reporters and television channel crew arrived on the scene. The police then tried to stop the march by parking jeeps further ahead, and at another point, parking water tankers across the road. "But we were able to get through," said G. Nanmaran, MDMK spokesman.

On Kamarajar Salai, Vaiko "took an on-the-spot decision", and took the service road that cut through the beach sands. They walked in pitch darkness. Near Anna Square the marchers again got into the main road and surged enthusiastically towards Island Grounds about 500 metres away. But police vehicles blocked the Napier Bridge, which leads to Island Grounds. Hundreds of policemen were massed around.

When the police asked Vaiko and his men to disperse and threatened to use force, Vaiko asked the party volunteers to squat on the road. After a heated argument with police officials, Vaiko told them that he would agree to be arrested if the police allowed his 3,000 men to march into Island Grounds in groups of three. The police agreed, and Vaiko and six of his men were arrested around 5-30 a.m. under Section 188 of the Indian Penal Code (disobedience to order duly promulgated by a public servant). As Vaiko climbed into a police van, several cadre broke down. Vaiko and six others were detained at the police station in Chintadripet and released at 12-20 p.m. The release was celebrated with gusto by party volunteers, who hailed Vaiko as a "fearless fighter".

A huge crowd gathered at Island Grounds that evening. Manmohan Singh Kohli, who had climbed Mount Everest in 1960,1962 and 1965, was the chief guest. Addressing the public meeting, Vaiko said: "We need a new deal, a new deal for India. We need a new deal for Tamil Nadu, where farmers' problems should be solved." A terrible water scarcity prevailed everywhere in Tamil Nadu, he said. Paddy fields were lying fallow. Prosperous towns such as Pollachi, Arni and Kancheepuram were on the decline, he said.

The only solution for the water scarcity was the inter-linking of rivers in the country, he said. "Parliament should pass a legislation to bring all inter-State rivers under the Centre's control. As a priority item, all the rivers in the south should be inter-linked."

This was Vaiko's second long march. From July 27 to September 15, 1994, he had undertaken an "awakening march" from Kanyakumari to Chennai to highlight what he called the "anti-people policies" of the then AIADMK government.

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