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Protest & politics

Print edition : Oct 19, 2007 T+T-
ON THE ARTERIAL Anna Salai in Chennai on October 1. State-owned buses were off the road.-R. SHIVAJI RAO

ON THE ARTERIAL Anna Salai in Chennai on October 1. State-owned buses were off the road.-R. SHIVAJI RAO

The protest action by the DPA for the implementation of the Sethusamudram project invites strong remarks from the Supreme Court.


ON September 24, leaders of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the Congress, the Pattali Makkal Katchi, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Communist Party of India and the Dalit Panthers Party met in Chennai and resolved to observe a muzhu velainirutham (total strike) and kadaiyadaippu (bandh) on October 1 all over Tamil Nadu to impress upon the Centre the need for the speedy implementation of the Sethusamudram Ship Channel Project (SSCP). The meeting urged the Centre to ignore the stumbling blocks created by violent, religious forces in implementing the project.

Whether the objective was achieved or not, the protest action on October 1 served as a pressure valve to release the steam generated across the country over Chief Minister and DMK president M. Karunanidhis utterances against Rama, the hero of the Ramayana worshipped as a divine being by Hindus, in the context of Ram Sethu, the sand reef that is to be dredged to form the channel.

While the debate over his remarks about Rama lost momentum, the observance of a bandh on October 1 spelt trouble for the DMK as the action violated the Supreme Courts directives given the previous day. While the DMK and its allies claimed that they only observed a hartal (general strike) and not a bandh (cessation of all activities, which includes the closure of shops and the stoppage of traffic), the Opposition, led by the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), argued before the Supreme Court that it was indeed a bandh and, as such, violative of the courts order. Chairman of the AIADMK presidium E. Madhusudhanan filed a public interest petition in the Madras High Court seeking to restrain the DMK-led Democratic Progressive Alliance (DPA) from going ahead with the bandh. The petitioner feared that the bandh would not be peaceful.

Although the First Bench of the High Court, comprising Chief Justice A.P. Shah and Justice P. Jothimani, recorded its finding on September 28 that what was being planned for October 1 was a bandh, it declined to grant a stay. The Bench, however, observed that the State government should ensure the smooth functioning of road and rail traffic and free movement of citizens and directed Chief Secretary L.K. Tripathy to issue a press note on September 29 and 30 informing the people about the arrangements made by the police to deal with the bandh.

Not satisfied with the High Court order, the AIADMK challenged it in the Supreme Court. In a rare sitting on a Sunday (September 30), a Bench comprising Justice B.N. Agrawal and Justice P.P. Naolekar restrained the DMK and its allies from pressing ahead with the bandh on October 1 or any other date.

The Judges ruled that political parties had no right to call for a bandh.

They maintained that so long as the 1997 judgment of this court remains, you cannot call for a bandh, and that the public right is superior to individual party rights.

While AIADMK general secretary Jayalalithaa exulted that the Supreme Courts stay on the bandh was a victory for the people and insisted that no State government could call a bandh, Karunanidhi did some out-of-the-box thinking. He announced that he and leaders of other alliance parties would observe a day-long fast in Chennai and that similar protests would be held at all district headquarters. Saddened by this [the court stay], we will observe a fast to inflict pain upon ourselves. The fast is not against the Supreme Court, the Chief Minister said.

While the fast was under way, the AIADMK moved the Supreme Court. Its counsel argued that the DMK government, by not operating bus services and by causing the shops to remain closed, had disobeyed the Courts directive.

Justice B.N. Agrawal (sitting with Justice P. Sathasivam) observed orally: If what you say is true, then there is complete breakdown of constitutional machinery in the State. We will recommend to the President to dismiss the DMK government in Tamil Nadu. When the AIADMKS counsel said the Chief Minister was on a fast, Justice Agrawal said, Let him go on a fast. First, let them implement our orders. You file a contempt [petition]. We will see. If you make out a case for contempt, we will not hesitate to call the Chief Minister and the Chief Secretary to this court.

The Supreme Courts tough observations on October 1 apparently unnerved the DMK top brass, who were on a fast at Chepauk in Chennai along with leaders of alliance parties, including the Indian Union Muslim League and the Dravidar Kazhagam. The tension was palpable as the Chief Minister left the venue. He rushed to the Secretariat where he held meetings with Tripathy and other officials. His Ministers followed suit and started signing files in their chambers. A few government-run buses began operating in the afternoon and DMK cadre went about asking shopkeepers to open their shops. Karunanidhi maintained that normal life prevailed in the State and that the DMK government had adhered to the Supreme Courts directive. Tripathy claimed that government offices functioned normally.

The SSCP is an ongoing dredging project to deepen the shallow confluence of the Gulf of Mannar and the Palk Bay near Rameswaram island off Tamil Nadu coast to make a continuous navigable channel connecting the east and west coasts of India. The direct movement of vessels between the Gulf of Mannar and the Palk Bay is blocked by a submerged reef made of sandstone and rocks lying between Dhanushkodi at lands end in Tamil Nadu and Talaimannar in Mannar district of Sri Lanka.

According to legend, this sand reef, referred to as Adams Bridge or Ram Sethu, was built by Ramas army of vanaras (monkeys) in order to enable him to cross to Lanka to fight Ravana, the king who is believed to have ruled the island, and retrieve his wife Sita, held hostage by Ravana.

The current controversy erupted after it became known that the alignment of the SSCP would entail demolishing a 300-metre-wide portion of the 30-kilometre-long Ram Sethu. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the AIADMK and the Janata Party led by Subramanian Swamy opposed the idea of demolishing Ram Sethu.

Protests erupted across the country when Karunanidhi asked, Who is that Raman? In which engineering college did he graduate to become an engineer? When did he build that bridge? Is there any evidence [to prove that be built Ram Sethu]? The Chief Minister alleged that some foxes are conspiring to bury the project, which was tantamount to defeating the Dravidian movement. Soon, it became apparent that the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government at the Centre (of which the DMK is a part) and the DMK government in Tamil Nadu did not see eye to eye on the Ram Sethu issue. The DMK felt let down when the Centre decided to withdraw an affidavit filed by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) in the Supreme Court in a case relating to the project. The affidavit had said there was no evidence to prove that Ram Sethu was a man-made structure and that there was no historical record to prove the existence of characters or the occurrence of events depicted in the Ramayana.

The DMK leadership was also disappointed with the placatory remarks made by Union Law Minister H.R. Bharadwaj of the Congress when BJP leaders contacted him about the ASI affidavit.

Meanwhile, Ram Vilas Vedanti, a former BJP Member of Parliament, announced that if anybody were to behead Karunanidhi, he would be rewarded with gold equal to his weight. This enraged DMK cadre, who stoned the BJP office in Chennai and smashed the furniture and windows there. The Hindu Munnani office was also targeted. BJP leaders demanded the dismissal of the DMK government.

It was in this backdrop that the DMK hit upon the idea of calling for a bandh to press the Centre for the speedy implementation of the SSCP. The DMK was also unhappy that the Centre was prepared to consider an alternative alignment to the SSCP in order not to endanger Ram Sethu.

When a reporter sought Karunanidhis reaction to the Centres stand, the Chief Minister replied: We are not disappointed. We are not fully satisfied either. Hence this bandh and the general strike.

Political temperature rose sharply in Tamil Nadu when the DMK gave the call for the bandh. The AIADMK and other Opposition parties lost no time in attacking it as a needless move. The air became thick with polemic, challenges and counter-challenges. Jayalalithaa demanded that the Centre dismiss the DMK government for organising a bandh. Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) general secretary Vaiko alleged that the bandh was being thrust on the people and that the Chief Minister was attempting to create an impression that the entire Tamil Nadu was with him in his remarks against Rama. Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK) leader Vijaykant charged that it was Karunanidhi who transformed a problem about a shipping channel into a controversy about Rama and that he was making scapegoats of his allies.

All India Samathuva Makkal Katchi founder and film actor Sarathkumar wondered what was the compelling necessity for a bandh when nobody opposed the SSCP and what was sought was only an alternative alignment. Subramanian Swamy said the SSCP could be executed by cutting the 15-km-long mainland stretch between Pamban and Dhanushkodi, which would keep Ram Sethu intact.

Karunanidhi maintained that it was not a government-sponsored bandh, but a strike called by the DMK and its allies to draw the attention of all to a felt need of the people of Tamil Nadu.

Quoting from the AIADMKs election manifesto for the 2001 Assembly polls, which said, The primary aim of the Sethusamudram project is to remove the sandstones and rocks and dredge the area around the Adams Bridge and form a channel [for the ships] to pass, Karunanidhi challenged Jayalalithaa to disown that claim. If she does so, I will quit politics, the Chief Minister said. He alleged that efforts were on to ruin the project because the Opposition parties did not want the credit to go to the DMK.

When the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government was in power at the Centre, three BJP Ministers signed the relevant files on the SSCP. This included Arun Jaitley (on March 3, 2001), S. Thirunavukkarasar (October 25, 2002), and later V.P. Goyal. Karunanidhi said he would retire from politics if the BJP maintained that these three men did not sign the relevant file.

On October 1, normal life in Tamil Nadu virtually came to a halt. Shops remained closed. State-run buses did not ply. Schools and colleges did not function. Cinemas cancelled shows. Autorickshaws remained off the road. Attendance in government offices was thin. In industries in which the dominant trade unions owed allegiance to the DMK, the CPI(M), the CPI or the Congress, workers boycotted work. Flights within Tamil Nadu were curtailed. The suburban Electric Multiple Unit trains operated a skeletal service.

In Chennai, the fast by leaders of the ruling party and its allies began around 8 a.m. The 84-year-old Chief Minister formally inaugurated it around 9 a.m. We are only for the implementation of the Sethusamudram project. We dont entertain any thought of doing anything against Rama. There is no need to ridicule Rama in a project executed by the government, he said. He ruled out the implementation of the SSCP using another alignment. The Sri Lankan government will then trouble us. It will delay giving permission to the project. Even if it gives permission, experts are of the opinion that such an alignment will be of no use, he said. While Vaiko and Vijaykant demanded that Karunanidhi should resign, Jayalalithaa wanted the DMK government to be dismissed.

However, Union Information and Broadcasting Minister P.R. Dasmunsi made it clear that the Centre would do nothing to hurt the DMK government. They (the DMK) are part of our UPA government. We will not disturb the State government remotely, directly or explicitly, he said. Meanwhile, the AIADMK has continued to step up pressure on the DMK. Madhusudhanan filed a contempt petition in the Supreme Court on October 4 against Karunanidhi, Tripathy, Transport Minister K.N. Nehru and others for allegedly violating the Supreme Courts directive not to enforce a bandh.