April 5 dawned just like any other day in Tamil Nadu, hot and unrelentingly humid. But it was an unusual day: Never before in the recent history of the State had so many people taken to the streets and protested; never before in more than three decades had almost 90 per cent of the shops and business establishments downed shutters in support of a demand. It is not clear if all those protesting knew about the finer details of the Cauvery Management Board (CMB), the delay in the setting up of which—within the deadline set by the Supreme Court of India—was the rallying call for the protest. Inquiries with a few people who were on Wallajah Road, one of the main points of protests in Chennai, revealed that they were there not because they belonged to any political party, but because they believed that an injustice was being perpetrated on Tamil Nadu.
Unlike the protests for lifting the ban on jallikkattu, the agitation to set up the CMB was spearheaded by the opposition political parties, with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) at the forefront. But the response it evoked across the State was similar to the one seen during the jallikkattu protests. People protested wherever they could, and in whichever manner—even the smallest of tea shops did not open. “Yes, it is difficult for me to manage if I shut shop for a day,” said a hole-in-the-wall tea shop owner in Triplicane, Chennai. “But this is how I want to say that I am also part of this agitation.” This correspondent heard expressions of similar sentiments from across Chennai.
Barring a few stray incidents of stone-throwing aimed at buses of the State Transport Corporation and a few private companies, there was no noticeable incident of violence. All commercial vehicular movement from and to Karnataka was suspended as a measure of abundant caution.
People blocked trains in some places in the State, barged into Central government offices at a few other places, and blocked the entrance to India’s largest bus terminus, the Koyambedu Mofussil Bus Terminus in Chennai.Protests build up
Ripples of protest have been building up since March 29, the deadline set by the Supreme Court for the Central government to formulate a scheme to ensure that Tamil Nadu gets its share of Cauvery waters, as spelt out in its February 16 order. “We have been protesting for the past eight days and I am glad all people of Tamil Nadu joined today,” said P. Ayyakannu, president of the South Indian Rivers Interlinking Farmers Association, now well-known for his unusual methods of protest in New Delhi.
On April 3, a few volunteers of the Tamil nationalist May 17 Iyakkam hit Hindi letters on a name board with slippers. Their protest was, at once, against the Central government, the imposition of Hindi, and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Traders’ associations, assorted Tamil nationalist groups and even political parties had begun agitating—on a limited scale—soon after the March 29 deadline passed.
Not to be left behind, the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) also announced a fast for April 3. The AIADMK claimed that it was fighting for the Cauvery’s water much before the passing of the deadline, citing how it successfully prevented the functioning of both the Houses of Parliament for as many as 17 days with its MPs demanding the setting up of the CMB.
A livid Mallikarjun Kharge, Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, responded by describing the AIADMK as the ‘B’ team of the BJP. He alleged that the AIADMK prevented the House from functioning to ensure that the no-confidence motion moved by the YSR Congress and the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) against the Narendra Modi government would not be taken up for hearing. In what appears to be a corroboration of his charge, the AIADMK MPs, who form the third largest party bloc in Parliament, wound up their protest, curiously, soon after the March 29 deadline.
Both the AIADMK and the BJP tried to steer the discussions in Tamil Nadu towards the era prior to the February 16 verdict, despite knowing fully well that the verdict, operational for 15 years, fundamentally changes everything and renders all that happened before it infructuous. Given the fact that the Cauvery dispute has a long history—from the 1892 agreement, through the 1924 agreement, the subsequent deal to the construction of the Krishnaraja Sagar Reservoir and other smaller dams in Karnataka, the expansion of irrigated area in both Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, the M. Karunanidhi government’s move to approach the Supreme Court in 1971 to set up the Cauvery Tribunal, the setting up of the Tribunal in 1990, the verdict of the Tribunal in 2007, and the delay in getting a gazette notification issued (finally done in 2013)—it was easy for the AIADMK and the BJP to pick and choose which part of history to forget and which to flag.
Many versions of these discussions are available in the archives of the Tamil Nadu Assembly. The DMK and the AIADMK have ruled the State since 1967. Since the late 1980s, every time the DMK was in power, it blamed the AIADMK for Tamil Nadu losing out. The AIADMK returned the favour when it was in power. On many occasions, irrespective of who was in power, the opposition’s comments were expunged from the Assembly records. This correspondent, reporting on the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly close to a decade from the year 2000, has heard these accusations and counter-accusations and has also been a witness to successive Speakers expunging remarks of the opposition on one pretext or another.
But what seems to have made people angry is that most AIADMK Ministers and MPs and BJP leaders kept repeating, until March 29, that the Central government would do exactly as ordered by the Supreme Court. When this did not happen, many commentators and politicians drew parallels with what happened with the National Eligibility Cum Entrance Test (NEET). The same drama was enacted by both the AIADMK Ministers and even a few Central Ministers. Until the last possible moment, they kept assuring the people that Tamil Nadu would get exemption from NEET for another year. But after the Supreme Court wanted NEET implemented, the Central Ministers changed tack and claimed that they could not do anything more because the court had given a clear verdict on the issue.
The question that many people, and opposition politicians in Tamil Nadu, were asking was this: How is it that the Central government chooses to implement one Supreme Court order (with respect to NEET) but does not implement another, the one relating to the formation of the CMB? With no clear or coherent answers coming from either the BJP or the AIADMK, most opposition parties did not lose the opportunity to drive home the point that both the BJP and the AIADMK were on the same side and that both were anti-people. The ruling AIADMK is labelling the protests as one more attempt to dislodge a democratically elected government.
Just as the agitations were picking up steam, Governor Banwarilal Purohit was summoned to New Delhi, at a time when the Central government had more than a handful of issues to handle. Even as Dalit protests over the Supreme Court orders on the S.C./S.T. Act rocked many northern Indian States, leaving more than 10 people dead, Prime Minister Narendra Modi chose to meet two Governors, neither of them from the States where violence was spreading. The Governors were of States where the BJP is not in power, Punjab and Tamil Nadu.
Purohit met Modi on April 3 as peaceful protests over the Cauvery river water issue began to gain momentum in most parts of the State. Most Tamil Nadu politicians, barring those from the AIADMK, described as an act of betrayal the Modi government’s decision to go back to the Supreme Court with a clarification petition. The clarification sought by the Centre was whether the proposed scheme should be the same as what the Cauvery Tribunal set out in its final award in 2007. Purohit, who has been visiting district headquarters and holding review meetings—unheard of for a Governor—summoned the Chief Secretary, the Home Secretary and the Director General of Police for a briefing before he headed to New Delhi.
As soon as he came back from New Delhi, Purohit wanted Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami to meet him. Evidently, he had a message from New Delhi. They met on April 4, the day before the April 5 shutdown. Though Palaniswami himself had met Modi about a dozen times in the past, it appears that he no longer enjoys the same access that he used to. His effort to lead an all-party delegation to meet the Prime Minister did not materialise. “The Governor was satisfied [with our responses],” Palaniswami told presspersons after meeting Purohit on April 4.No sign of winding down
Even as the protests show no signs of winding down, two events are to take place in Chennai: the Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket matches and the Defence Expo. The organisers of neither event seem perturbed over the groundswell of support that the CMB agitation is garnering in the State. In fact, the Expo is an event of the Central government and hence a possible target of fringe groups. This is giving more than a few headaches to the Tamil Nadu Police. A high-profile event of international standing is difficult to reschedule. While there has been no demand to shift the venue of the exhibition, some fringe groups have demanded that IPL games not be held in Chennai. The argument is that this is not the time to enjoy or celebrate and that such carnivals are out of place in a State where farmers are committing suicide because of crop losses. On April 6, the DMK and T.T.V. Dhinakaran of the Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam came out in support of the demand.
It is clear that the protests will continue. On April 5, DMK MLAs and district secretaries said that they had already been protesting for five days and that they would continue to do so until the CMB was set up. Much will depend on how the DMK directs it from now on. So far, DMK working president M.K. Stalin has taken along leaders of the allied parties, as seen in the April 5 protest and the April 6 all-party meeting.
The DMK believes that this issue has the traction to once again make the people trust the party. The attempt now is to consolidate the protest and keep it going until the Central government accepts responsibility of ensuring that Tamil Nadu gets the share of water awarded to it.
Given the kind of response this has evoked, Stalin plans to undertake a march from Tiruchi to Chennai to press for a fair, just and immediate implementation of the Supreme court order. Padayatras might be passe in other States, but not in Tamil Nadu. Not many leaders have attempted it. In recent memory, Vaiko and Kumari Anandan undertook padayatras for different causes. But the leader of the biggest Dravidian party undertaking a similar protest march for more than 300 kilometres is expected to be a game changer.