Campus fury

Print edition : April 19, 2013

In Chennai on March 20, a student protest ahead of the voting on the resolution against Sri Lanka in the U.N. Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva. Photo: S.R. Raghunathan

WHEN John Britto and eight other students of Loyola College, Chennai, began a “fast unto death” on March 8 demanding that Colombo face an international investigation into its war crimes against Sri Lankan Tamils, they would not have foreseen the impact their action would have on the student community in Tamil Nadu. Three days later, when they broke their fast, students from across the State had got into action, boycotting classes, taking out rallies, observing indefinite fasts, or staging sit-ins on their campuses.

In Chidambaram, 600 students of Annamalai University boycotted classes and began an indefinite hunger strike. On the campus of Bharathiar University, Coimbatore, students staged a sit-in and a fast. Everywhere they burnt effigies of Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa and held aloft banners with pictures of the bullet-riddled body of Balachandran, the 12-year-old son of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) leader V. Prabakaran. Even a few score students of the Indian Institute of Technology Madras, not known for political activism, observed a fast and formed human chains.

A new outfit called “Students’ Federation for the Liberation of Tamil Eelam” was formed with S. Dinesh of Dr Ambedkar Government Arts College, Chennai, and P. Karthick of A.M. Jain College, Chennai, as coordinators.

What stood out about the students’ protests was that they did not allow politicians to hijack their agitation. When a couple of thousand students, including girls, gathered on the Marina beach on March 20, ahead of the voting on the resolution against Sri Lanka in the U.N. Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva, they did not allow politicians to address them. “We will take forward the movement on our own,” they told the politicians.

Their demands were that Sri Lanka should face an international investigation into the “genocide” of Tamils in the closing stages of the Sri Lanka Army’s war with the LTTE, that a referendum be held in the Tamil areas of the island on the formation of Tamil Eelam, and that Colombo be subjected to an economic blockade.

Britto spoke about what impelled him and his friends to embark on their protest. “The objective behind our hunger strike was to motivate the students to agitate on the issue and infuse them with a fighting spirit. This spirit of agitation has exploded everywhere now. I convey my thanks and best wishes to all the students in Tamil Nadu who are on the field now,” he said.

The students targeted Central government establishments because they perceived the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government at the Centre as shielding the Sri Lankan government from facing an international tribunal. In Chennai, students marched towards Raj Bhavan (the Governor’s residence) and tried to picket the Income Tax office complex on Nungambakkam High Road; in Madurai, they barged into the State Bank of India office and later locked up a post office. Elsewhere, students blocked trains at 31 places and squatted on the roads at 68 places.

With the protests spreading to all parts of the State, the Jayalalithaa government ordered the indefinite closure of all colleges in the State. Residents of hostels were asked to vacate them.

The protests had become so pervasive that other sections of society—advocates, autorickshaw drivers, traders, medicos, prisoners in jails, software engineers, film industry employees, a “park walkers’ association”, and Sri Lankan Tamil refugees living in government-run camps—organised some form of agitation. In Chennai, several hundreds of software engineers linked their hands to form a human chain on Rajiv Gandhi Road.

Lawyers were in the vanguard of the agitation. Holding aloft pictures of Prabakaran, they took out rallies, formed human chains, went on a fast or tried to picket Central government offices. There were self-immolations too. Mani in Cuddalore and Vikram in Chennai set fire to themselves, demanding justice for Sri Lankan Tamils.

“The widespread students’ agitation brought the gravity of the situation in Sri Lanka to the notice of even the apolitical sections of society,” said R. Ramasubramanian, a political analyst. “This is a big victory for the agitation.”

There were a couple of shameful incidents too; Buddhist monks from Sri Lanka were assaulted inside the Brihadisvara temple at Thanjavur and at the Central railway station in Chennai.

On March 27, Jayalalithaa appealed to the students to give up their agitation and concentrate on their studies. On that day, the Assembly passed a resolution pressing for an international investigation into the “genocide” of Tamils and the war crimes on the island; an economic embargo on Sri Lanka; and a referendum, to be held among the Tamils on the island and the Tamil diaspora, on the formation of a “Tamil Eelam”. While Karthick thanked her for the resolution, he asserted that the students would continue their agitation until the demands raised in the resolution were met.

The agitations pushed into the background two incidents of Sri Lanka Navy personnel attacking Tamil Nadu fishermen on March 19 and 20 in the Palk Bay. In the first incident, eight fishermen from Pudukottai district were assaulted with iron pipes. In the second, six fishermen from Nambiar Nagar, Nagapattinam district, were attacked with swords. Four of them had deep gashes on their hands and legs. In two other incidents on March 13 and 14, the Sri Lanka Navy detained 53 fishermen from their nine mechanised boats.

In a letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on March 20, Jayalalithaa said it was disappointing, despite repeated protests from the Tamil Nadu government, that the Centre had taken no strong, deterrent diplomatic initiatives. This had resulted in “even more outrageous, unprovoked and lethal attacks by the Sri Lanka Navy on the Tamil fishermen”. She called the latest incident involving the use of swords and iron rods to attack Tamil Nadu fishermen “an act that is medieval in barbarism”. She told the Prime Minister: “India cannot maintain a pusillanimous equanimity in the face of such repeated, brazen and uncivilised assaults on innocent fishermen belonging to Tamil Nadu, who are also citizens of India”. She, therefore, wanted him to take proactive steps to stop these “unabated brutal attacks” and arrests of “our innocent Tamil Nadu fishermen”.

T.S. Subramanian

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