An ally as victim

Print edition : April 25, 2003

DMK president M. Karunanidhi (right) and CPI State secretary R. Nallakannu at a fast in Chennai on March 29 demanding Vaiko's release. - S.R. RAGHUNATHAN

ON March 29, it was a cruel irony that confronted Vaiko, general secretary of the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK), who has been in detention under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) from July 11, 2002. Even as a fast organised by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in Chennai to demand the release of Vaiko and P. Nedumaran, another POTA detainee, drew big crowds, the Centre filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court defending Vaiko's arrest. The affidavit said that Vaiko "has been drawing support for the LTTE [Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam], a banned terrorist organisation" and his "words... constitute an act of terrorism" under POTA. The affidavit came in response to Vaiko's writ petition before the Supreme Court challenging the constitutional validity of POTA, after he was arrested by the Jayalalithaa government in Tamil Nadu for speaking in support of the LTTE at a meeting in Madurai on June 29, 2002. Nedumaran, president of the Tamil National Movement, was arrested for voicing pro-LTTE sentiments at a different venue.

The affidavit took the MDMK by surprise because it is a constituent of the National Democratic Alliance government and has two Ministers at the Centre, M. Kannappan and Gingee N. Ramachandran. The MDMK expected the Centre to declare in its affidavit that Vaiko's arrest was unjustified. The bad news for the party came even as the DMK-organised fast was coming to an end in many towns in Tamil Nadu. The MDMK, the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), the Communist Party of India (CPI), the Puthiya Tamizhagam and others took part in the fast.

The Centre filed the affidavit even after top BJP leaders, including Union Law Minister Arun Jaitley and BJP president M. Venkaiah Naidu, spoke out against the arrest. Also, Tamil Nadu BJP leaders had participated in a signature campaign led by the MDMK to express "deep distress" at and condemnation of "the detention of Vaiko and eight other MDMK frontline functionaries under POTA by the Tamil Nadu government - an undemocratic act of gross injustice". The MDMK collected 1.10 crore signatures and submitted them to Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee on January 22.

MDMK general secretary Vaiko.-

When the the NDA government introduced the legislation in Parliament, the DMK, the MDMK and the PMK voted for it, arguing that it was intended to control terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir. They cited Union Home Minister L.K. Advani's reported assurance that the Centre would not allow any State government to misuse POTA. Only the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the CPI opposed it steadfastly and demanded that it be repealed.

When Vaiko was arrested, the DMK, the MDMK, the PMK and the BJP called it an instance of "misuse" of the Act. The Congress(I) welcomed the arrests. Its then State president E.V.K.S. Ilangovan said that the AIADMK government should ensure that the law ran its course. PMK leader Dr. Ramadoss pointed out that Vaiko's arrest was a violation of the Centre's assurance. N. Varadarajan, CPI(M) State secretary, said: "The CPI(M) does not support Vaiko's support to the Tigers. Yet the CPI(M) does not accept the arrest of Vaiko under POTA." It was amusing that the DMK, the MDMK and the PMK, which supported POTA, should oppose it when it was being invoked, he said. R. Nallakannu, State secretary of the CPI, said Vaiko's arrest was a violation of the freedom of speech.

The DMK-led fast exposed the contradictory stance of various parties. The BJP did not participate in the fast because its State unit was not invited by the DMK. The CPI(M) declined to take part in the fast. Varadarajan reportedly told Karunanidhi: "Our standpoint is that POTA should be repealed in toto. From the manner in which this legislation has been used in many States, your party (DMK) too should take a stand, demanding its repeal. Your party supported the legislation in Parliament. Even as your party is supporting it now, you are opposing it in Tamil Nadu, which is contradictory."

At the fast, in a surprise move, Karunanidhi demanded that the Centre repeal POTA. But Dr. Ramadoss said: "We are not for repealing the Act. The Centre should ensure that it is not misused". Two days later, rejecting Karunanidhi's demand, Venkaiah Naidu said: "There is no question of repealing POTA. It has been brought in the larger interests of the country. I feel a more stringent law is required But there has to be some study about the possibilities of its misapplication."

Although Arun Jaitley and Attorney-General Soli Sorabjee said that an error had crept into the affidavit and that it would be corrected, and Venkaiah Naidu said that Vaiko's arrest was "a clear misapplication of POTA", MDMK leaders are deeply suspicious about the whole episode. How could such an affidavit be filed when Arun Jaitley, Venkaiah Naidu and Defence Minister George Fernandes had spoken out against Vaiko's arrest under POTA, they asked. "It may be an intentional mistake. It is not an unnoticed mistake because it concerns a sensitive issue and our high-profile leader. So our cadres are deeply agitated," an MDMK leader said. A section of the cadre demanded that the MDMK Ministers resign, which is a step short of the party quitting the NDA. "This would demonstrate at the same time our self-respect and self-restraint," they said. Also, there is more room for suspicion because the BJP wants to amend the Representation of the People Act to the effect that a person who has paid a fine or has served imprisonment under POTA should be barred from contesting elections for six years.

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