IN Tamil Nadu today, any voice of dissent against the State government risks inviting stringent penal action. From activists, lawyers, academics, writers, journalists, students and mediapersons to the affected farmer or wronged citizen, anyone who dares to question the schemes and mega infrastructure projects being implemented by the present All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) dispensation led by Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami has been booked under various sections of law, from Section 147 (rioting) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) to provisions of the National Security Act (NSA) and the sedition law. Even individuals who have never been linked to any organisation and those who choose to express their disenchantment with the State in general are not spared.
“The State has become intolerant to any criticism, soft or harsh,” says D. Ravikumar, general secretary of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK). The spate of arrests and detentions of protesters began with the jallikattu agitations across the State in 2017, followed by mass public protests against the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) and, later, over the Cauvery waters issue. Women and children were arrested when they staged peaceful protests against the hydrocarbon projects of Oil and Natural Gas Corporation Limited (ONGC) at Kadiramangalam and Neduvasal in the Cauvery delta.
Tamizhaga Vazhvurimai Katchi (TVK) founder-leader T. Velmurugan was arrested and lodged at Puzhal prison in Chennai on June 26 in connection with an incident in which a toll plaza near Chennai was vandalised during the Cauvery protests on April 1. Earlier, Velmurugan had been arrested by the Villupuram police while on his way to Thoothukudi to meet the families of the victims of the Thoothukudi police firing, since Section 144 was in force in the area. Later, the police slapped another case against Velmurugan under the sedition law for his speech at an agitation against the Neyveli Lignite Corporation (NLC). He was released on bail on June 19.
It was the people’s protest against the Sterlite Industries’ copper smelter plant at Thoothukudi, which ended in police firing on May 22 that killed 13 unarmed protesters, that made the State government and its police more aggressive and arbitrary while dealing with protests and agitations. The aftermath of the Thoothukudi protests had led to a spate of indiscriminate and illegal detentions and arrests of citizens and activists who had participated in the mass protest against Sterlite Industries.
Instead of resorting to confidence-building exercises, the State government gave the police wider powers, resulting in an indiscriminate crackdown. Villagers were harassed. Youths were detained. Activists claimed that the government believed that these oppressive measures would discourage others to come out to the streets to protest.
But a team of lawyers of the Thoothukudi Bar Association intervened to prevent the police from overstepping their legally mandated brief. S. Vanchinathan, a rights lawyer practising in the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court and Tamil Nadu coordinator of the Human Rights Protection Council, who was a legal adviser to the Federation of Anti-Sterlite Movements that spearheaded the agitation, was arrested on the night of June 20 at the Chennai airport reportedly without a warrant. Subsequently he was lodged at the Palayamkottai Central prison. Today, he faces multiple charges in as many as nine cases.
On July 5, however, Vanchinathan was enlarged on bail by the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court with certain conditions. The primary charges against him and some of his lawyer colleagues and activists, the majority of them belonging to the Makkal Adhikaram, a socially active outfit with Marxist-Leninist leanings, are that they had instigated the people to indulge in violence in Thoothukudi. Besides, several youths and students who took part in the agitation were slapped with cases under the NSA. The police even filed a frivolous case against the management of Kavikko Convention Centre in Chennai, where academic and social meetings are held, for not possessing a public resort licence under the provisions of the Madras City Police Act. Incidentally, the action by the police took place the day after a few activist groups organised a memorial for the victims of the Thoothukudi firing at Kavikko Centre.
In June, protests erupted again when farmers in Salem, Tiruvannamalai, Dharmapuri and Kancheepuram districts alleged that the State was adopting arm-twisting tactics in the process of aligning vast tracts of lands for the Rs.10,000-crore Centre-sponsored eight-lane Salem-Chennai greenfield express highway project. By deploying heavy police forces in remote villages, which the expansive highway is to cut through by destroying vast tracts of fertile lands, trees, houses and waterbodies, the government was coercing farmers and landholders to part with their lands.
The Salem-based activist Piyush Manush, the student activist Valarmathi (the first woman to be detained under the Goondas’ Act for her support to farmers of Kadiramangalam), the actor Mansoor Ali Khan and the film director Gowthaman were arrested, besides farmers and others, for protesting against the project. Barring Gowthaman, the others were released on bail. The film director Bharathiraja had to seek anticipatory bail in connection with a few cases in which he reportedly arraigned the State for its perceived anti-people moves.
Activists from the Kanchi Makkal Mandram were sent to the Vellore prison for “distributing pamphlets condemning the land acquisition” for the road project, while former CPI (M) MLAs K. Balabharathi and Dilli Babu were arrested—they were released later—when they visited villages in Salem and Dharmapuri districts respectively in support of the affected farmers. Dilli Babu was said to have been manhandled. Youths, students, a female television artiste and a senior Aam Aadmi Party functionary, S.A.N. Vaseegaran, who posted comments on social media condemning the Thoothukudi firing and the road project, were put in jail.
The Tamil Nadu Vivasayigal Sangam secretary, P. Shanmugam, and 40 others were arrested on June 20 at Salem and were sent to the Salem Central Prison for attempting to burn copies of the government notification on the greenfield corridor project.
Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) working president M.K. Stalin said that the police were searching houses and threatening people in Salem and Thoothukudi. “The protesters include farmers, women and youth,” said Stalin. “We have been opposing such searches. If searches do not stop, the DMK will start a State-wide protest against the police,” he added.
The activist and documentary film-maker K. Divya Bharathi, who has made documentaries in Tamil—on manual scavenging titled Kakkoos (Toilet) and on the cyclone Ockhi titled Orutharum Varalae (No One Came)—alleged that a posse of policemen from Gudalur in Nilgiris district barged into her home in Madurai in the wee hours of July 3 and threatened her aged father. She was not at home at the time. Later, the police came to the Madurai Court complex, where Divya Bharathi is a practising lawyer, and picked an argument with her. Fellow lawyers intervened to save the situation. It was claimed that the police had registered a case against her in connection with an incident in which she was alleged to have shown disrespect to the national tricolour. Divya Bharathi obtained anticipatory bail from the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court.
Divya Bharathi told Frontline that it was a vicious move to implicate her in a case to which she had no connection whatsoever. “It was a surprise for me. I have never been to Gudalur. Even the details of the case in which I am being implicated have not been provided. They have a sinister scheme. They want to drag me into a legal tangle in order to suppress my activities. Now I have to seek bail from the Madras High Court. It is sheer harassment,” she said. Many endorse her claim that by registering a number of cases against social activists at various police stations, the police wish to keep them engaged in legal battles and prevent them effectively from getting involved in activities that would embarrass the State government.
The environmental activist Mugilan, who relentlessly fought against the sand loot from the Cauvery riverbed, has been languishing in prison for more than 300 days now. Mugilan took on the powerful granite and river sand mafia, causing embarrassment to the State government and vested interests. He was arrested on various charges and lodged at the Palayamkottai Central Prison. His bail petitions were repeatedly dismissed. He was transferred to the Madurai prison, where, according to the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) general secretary Vaiko, who visited him in prison recently, he “is treated inhumanly”. Vaiko alleged that the ecologist was kept in solitary confinement in a cell “stinking of faeces”. The State government, he claimed, was attempting to break him physically and mentally.
Even the media have not escaped the State’s authoritarianism. The Tamil TV channel Puthiya Thalaimurai was relegated to a remote slot in the Arasu TV Cable distribution network [though restored later] and cases were foisted against the TV channel and its Coimbatore correspondent for recording a debate at Coimbatore on June 8 which ended in a commotion. Worried over the developments, a group of media personnel, under the guidance of N. Ram, Chairman of The Hindu Group of companies, floated a forum to safeguard the rights of the media. They also met the Chief Minister in this connection.
On the flipside, the Madras High Court, while dismissing a couple of writ petitions seeking permission to stage protests against the Salem-Chennai road project, averred that it would not grant permission for any kind of propaganda or protests against it. Union Minister of State from Tamil Nadu Pon Radhakrishnan said that those who opposed government projects were “terrorists”. He even offered the Centre’s assistance to the State government, if it wanted, to control such elements. The Cyber Cell of the Tamil Nadu Police has been monitoring social media round the clock for any objectionable posts against the State and its rulers.
Cases are being slapped with contemptuous regularity against people who dare to post anti-State government views.