Koodankulam – Anti-nuclear Struggle Continues: Deepa Rajkumar

As Japan shut down its last reactor, the Koodankulam project is to go critical in ten days.  Because Japan depends on local consensus for its nuclear decisions, unlike the World’s Largest Democracy, the views of Japanese people counts for something. Thousands of Japanese marched in celebrations to celebrate  the switching off of the last of Japan’s 50 nuclear reactors on Saturday May 5th. 

Traditional ‘koinobori’ fish-shaped banners for Children’s Day have become a potent symbol of the Japanese anti-nuclear movement, symbolizing the commitment to leave a safe and clean earth to children.

Meanwhile, back home in Koodankulam, as  this guest post by DEEPA RAJKUMAR reminds us, unrelenting state repression continues of the massive, non-violent struggle against the proposed nuclear plant there.

6,800 people in Koodankulam face charges of sedition and/or waging war against the state, possibly the largest number so charged ever, in colonial or independent India, in just one police station.

Sathish Kumar and R. S. Muhilan began an indefinite hunger strike from 25th April in Tiruchirapalli prison, Tamil Nadu. They were demanding a fair trial, stoppage of new charges being filed against them and the withdrawal of existing false charges against them. They are among nearly 200 people arrested following the Tamil Nadu government’s unprecedented para-militarized crackdown on the local, strong, peaceful, 10 month-long hunger strike by People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE) in its struggle against the setting up of the central government-backed Indo-Russian Koodankulam Nuclear Power Project (KKNPP) in coastal Southern Tamil Nadu. Sathish Kumar and R.S. Muhilan are two among more than 55,000 people, co-accused ‘others’, against whom 107 FIRs (First Information Reports) were  filed between September and December 2011 in Idinthakarai, Tamil Nadu.

Now, they are the only two people still in prison. And they are being dragged through farcical legal proceedings and unending time in prison, with judicial remand being extended, court hearings postponed, bail being denied, being shunted from court to court. When they were granted bail in High Court, immediately they had to face new charges, judicial remand and courts all over again. Putting their very lives in peril, they entered the 9th day of their hunger strike with their bail being rejected yet again on May 2, 2012. Finally on the 10th day, May 4th, with minimal media coverage of the movement, and in response to an appeal from PMANE, they called off their strike.

Sathish and Muhilan are targets of a well planned campaign to stigmatize them, and by association the movement,  including the very active members of PMANE’s core struggle committee, such as Udaya Kumar, Pushparayan, Jesuraj, Sivasubramaniam and Rajalingam, as anti-state criminals, naxal/Maoists, extremists and terrorists.  The campaign is sustained primarily by mainstream media, orchestrated by the Tamil Nadu government based on information supplied to it by the Tamil Nadu intelligence (Q Branch) and police, and quietly backed by a heavily invested central government.  Similar to this is the earlier smear campaign by the central government that linked this movement, whose predominant composition is  Christian fisher folk, to “foreign funding”, in order to portray the resistance to the nuclear plant as externally instigated.

All this is in tune with a smaller scale ‘practice run’ by the media last year against Sathish in the context of a protest against Sri Lanka, in order to delegitimize these two, their associates, the movement and the very real and well-informed life and livelihood concerns of the people residing around Koodankulam. They are portrayed as ‘unreasonable extremist protesters who threaten national interest and progress’. Simultaneously the media has legitimized and shored up the national and state government’s political, economic and defence interests, policies and practices vis-à-vis a growing nuclear industry. Never mind that the state and central government’s  interests are often contradictory and antagonistic to one another.

In successive manipulative strokes of administrative brilliance, the Tamil Nadu government initially supported the popular PMANE protests since October 2011 and halted work at the plant; simultaneously maintained continued surveillance, harassment and pressure on the protesters while also initiating charges against them, and increased power outage in Tamil Nadu to up to 12 hours per day in the last months in order to garner support of people in other parts of Tamil Nadu for the nuclear plant. One day after a landslide victory for its party in a crucial by-election in nearby Sankarankoil, the TN government reversed its public stand on March 19, 2012, and permitted re-commencement of work at the plant, citing its own safety findings. It also  immediately clamped down on the movement and protesters as anti-state using its police, paramilitary, intelligence, legal and media machinery. It subsequently ignored PMANE to force them to negotiate on the government’s terms and to give up a 9 day indefinite hunger strike undertaken by 15 of its members including its leader Udaya Kumar on March 19, following governmental ‘assurances’ to look into their safety concerns and to dismiss the increasingly serious charges foisted against the arrested protesters. Of course, it did not follow up on the assurances, and continued to put pressure on PMANE and harass it by means such as ensuring that Sathish and Muhilan are kept in prison.

The TN government is now demanding from (an indebted) central government that all of the future 2000 megawatts energy produced from the plant will go solely towards meeting Tamil Nadu’s energy requirements. This brutal control and management of a people’s movement is accompanied by measures to make this government and its Chief Minister Jayalalitha appear to be truly serving the interests of its people – for instance, a Rs. 500 crore ‘development’ grant has been announced for the area around Koodankulam on March 19th. Is evident intention is to pacify the local population and to attempt to disrupt the cohesion of the movement by inducing money and associated perks into the picture.

The state government used a time-tested ally, the mainstream media immersed in networks of political, economic and social hierarchies and status quo, to further its tactics for controlling and managing the movement, protesters and their issues. After March 19th when the government started successfully blocking out news from Idinthakarai,  the only information from the area from the media (especially Sun News), was in the form of systematic scapegoating of  Sathish, Muhilan and Vanni Arasu, based on as yet unsubstantiated past accusations and present charges. And since then the media focus has been to project the situation as ‘returning’ to normal and show that work is carrying on efficiently and ‘peacefully’ at the nuclear power plant that is to begin functioning by the beginning of June 2012, and supposedly ‘solve’ the energy needs of the state.

Missing in most media – because of its lack of interest in investigative reporting, its analytical weaknesses and absence of ethical concerns, accompanied by the fear of state reprisal in Tamil Nadu – is any real engagement with the larger world-wide debate on the issue of nuclearization of both weapons and energy; with the knowledge, lives, initiatives and strategies of local people involved in struggles against KKNPP;  and any understanding of the reasons why such brutal measures are being used  against struggles, such as in Idinthakarai.

It is crucial for us to understand the role of the media in recasting a visibly non-violent movement as violent with ‘extremist’ links; how it has successfully established as public knowledge, matter of factly and without questioning, apparent linkages between naxalism, extremism and terrorism on the one hand and between naxalism and movements on the other. In his way, in a time-tested tactic, naxalism and naxal/suspects/sympathisers are forever made available in India to project distrust onto all mass movements without significant opposition. All such democratic struggles are thus projected as security concerns, making them available to be dealt with through force by the state, and delegitimated to the larger population. We need to understand what kinds of violence – visible and invisible, individual and structural – have been sanctioned and employed by the state through its police and paramilitary apparatus.

And through an effective media black out of PMANE and its supporters, the only position visible is the ignorant and arrogant defense of nuclear power plants, and the continued invocation of ‘energy needs’ that hides the  created necessity and dependence on electric power for individual and private consumption by a few. What a convenient ‘resolution’ of state and corporate interests, and individual and collective neo-liberal citizen aspirations!

While injustices continue, grievances are stifled, and dissent trampled upon.

In this context Sathish and Muhilan are made dispensable pawns in a larger political game. State actions that should be intolerable in a democracy, pass unquestioned. Protesting against KKNPP at Koodankulam are close to a hundred thousand highly informed people, raising well documented safety and livelihood concerns, citing international guidelines, expert opinions and people’s experiences in areas affected by nuclear disasters as in Fukushima most recently. On March 19th the TN government deployed a 6,000 strong armed police force including Rapid Action Force, Tamil Nadu Coast Guard and Border Security Force (Kerala) to ensure that Koodankulam remained open for KKNPP staff to work. Idinthakarai, the chosen centre for PMANE, was cordoned off through a political police venture, previously unheard of in Tamil Nadu, to intimidate the protesters. Prohibitory orders (Section 144 of Indian Penal Code) were imposed for nine days, and supply of water, food, milk, electricity, media and supporters coming into the area, including by sea, was cut off for three days. 11 people from PMANE’s struggle committee were arrested from Idinthakarai on various charges including sedition and war against the state. 178 people including parish priests and 45 women and 20 men under the ages of 21 were arrested for ‘threatening death or grievous hurt’ from nearby Kootapalli when 200 people protested against the state government’s decision to restart work on the plant.

Despite all of this, 10,000 and more people gathered in Idinthakarai, roads were barricaded, shops were closed, fishing was abandoned, schools were boycotted, and 15 people went on indefinite hunger strike, protesting under siege. And it was this defiance that was sought to be crushed by the illegal detention and arrests of Mukilan from Kodumudi on March 21, Sathish from Tirunelveli on March 23 and Vanni Arasu from Madurai later on the same day, as well as by the media campaign that ensued around these three as extremists and naxals instigating and leading the PMANE. This has drastic implications for the future of Sathish and Muhilan, of the movement and for future struggles in Tamil Nadu and India. For it is not only this state government that is planning and employing tactics of terror, media suppression and manufacturing public consent for furthering its interests but so do states globally, varying only in the degree to which they employ these tactics in a milieu of ever increasing resistance to expanding violent encroachment by state and corporations on people’s lands, lives, livelihoods and lifestyles. And states too learn from one another.

15 people of PMANE launched an indefinite hunger strike on March 19th. Eventually though, pushed against the wall, with a media black-out preventing their views from emerging into the public, having to defend themselves against charges of Naxal links, needing to get languishing PMANE members and supporters out of Tiruchirapalli jail, facing ongoing police intimidation in Idinthakarai, and with the state government paying no heed to the deteriorating health conditions of the 15 hunger strikers, the indefinite hunger strike was called off on the 9th day. Immediately the media declared the end of the movement and imminent completion of the project. A developmental success story. No questions asked.

Sathish and Muhilan’s hunger strike, the ongoing relay hunger strike by hundreds in Idinthakarai and the latest indefinite hunger strike by 50 PMANE members from May 1, May Day, is nowhere visible in the media. Neither is anything critical of KKNPP, and indeed of other nuclear power plants in the making such as Jaitapur in Maharashtra and other developmental projects. Work continues with KKNPP and other projects, without any adherence to the minimal safety audits and guidelines nationally and internationally prescribed. Dominant discourses continue to purvey the absolute lie that nuclear energy is “clean, safe and cheap”.  Neither is nuclear energy clean, nor is it safe, nor cheap.

There is no such thing as safe radioactive production, use or disposal whatever the latest safeguards.

If local consent does not matter and any amount of local sacrifice is justifiable to provide for the demands of a fast growing economy and urban and even rural populations; if what constitutes modern development, national progress, energy dependence and national security is taken for granted; if the state can continuously manage protests by labeling protesters, protests and movements as extremist; if the state can continue to create an environment of fear through impunity of its actions, to deter expressions of critical speech, opinion and action, by issuing real intimidations, threats, mental and physical violence and repercussions for protesters, their family, friends, associates, groups and concerns; if the mainstream media, with few credible exceptions, not only complied with the literal blackout on news about PMANE and their supporters imposed by Tamil Nadu government, but also served its questionable interests; if if if…

Then surely something needs to be done to reverse this situation, at the least the creation of alternative public spaces where critical discussions can take place.

Sathish and Muhilan have to practically fend for themselves, categorized as they are as naxals, so that no one, not even most human rights upholding individuals and groups (can afford to) support them. Especially Sathish who is a Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) detainee out on bail, even though POTA was repealed in 2004, but not retrospectively and so a few cases like his are still active. In the current political climate of political witch hunting it becomes next to impossible to publicly support someone like him – not a high profile clebrity, from a moderate socio-economic background, highly politically active, not indulging in violent acts but with a POTA case against and hence with an unresolved naxal history. And this is precisely why the Tamil Nadu government used him as an example and instrument to highlight its ‘vigilant’ role in ‘securing’  its citizens against ‘internal threats’ to its ‘progress’, to keep him and Muhilan, an active PMANE struggle committee member with no active case against him, continually in prison even now

We should not allow this to happen, not only to people more famous and ‘clean’ like Binayak Sen, but for the relatively unknown and ‘dubious’ such as Sathish and Muhilan – whom the state fears the most, as people who are local, grassroots, vocal and unafraid of the state. And who are protesting even from inside the prison, against injustices meted out to them, playing with their lives, in the full knowledge that their story, their struggle, their hunger strike will not be covered by the media and may have no effect on a state bent upon keeping them and PMANE in their place, silent.

So, it is also for us to take up the cause of their justice, outside the prison, even if this is dangerous for our own well being.

18 thoughts on “Koodankulam – Anti-nuclear Struggle Continues: Deepa Rajkumar”

  1. It’s worth nailing that oft-repeated lie yet again, that nuclear energy is clean, safe and cheap:
    Even just the normal production of nuclear energy, discounting accidents, is far from clean. During the mining of uranium, every gram of 20% uranium ore brings to the surface some 3000 becquerels of Radium-222. Radium also gives off radon which gives off alpha radiation–a hazard for mine/mill workers. It also disintegrates to form “radon daughters” in different forms of polonium which also give off radioactivity for a half-life of 1600 years.

    Current operations store huge amounts of toxic wastes in pits from which they can leak into the soil and water. Moreover, nuclear reactors themselves give off tritium radioactive gas into the air.

    The radium being brought up to the surface with every gram of ore adds a radioactive danger to the enterprise. Miners and mill workers are in danger of lung cancer. Alpha particles can cause breaks in the chromosomes of cells, which years later can develop into cancers. Various epidemiological studies have shown that uranium workers have experienced two to three times the incidence of lung cancer as ordinary citizens. Though mining companies work to keep the dose rate of radioactivity low, the low doses are just as lethal as the high doses. Previous scientific studies of the Ontario Miners and of the Atomic Energy Company Limited workers have demonstrated this anomaly.

    Chlorofluorcarbon is used in the enrichment of uranium fuel for nuclear power. These compounds are 10,000 times more efficient than carbon dioxide at trapping heat, and therefore are a potent destroyer of the ozone layer in the stratosphere. Moreover,large amounts of normally generated electricity, plus the fuel for gas and diesel trucks are used in the front end construction of the reactors. In addition, the enrichment process for nuclear fuel also requires much electricity generated in turn by coal-fired plants.

    So nuclear energy requires huge, continuous consumption of all the other conventional sources of energy, thus producing even further depletion of non-renewable energy courses.

    The high-level nuclear wastes from burned fuel must be guarded, protected, and isolated from the environment for tens of thousands of years. Scientists are still struggling with this conundrum. Biologically dangerous items such as strontium-90, cesium-137, and plutonium are in danger of seeping into our water tables and becoming concentrated in food chains for the rest of time.

    Nuclear power is by no means emissions free, if emissions in relation to uranium mining, transportation, plant construction and decommissioning and waste storage are included in the calculation.

    Nuclear power remains the most dangerous form of energy. Disasters like the Chernobyl accident, now 20 years ago, and the one in Fukushima can happen anytime anyplace. The history of the Nuclear Age is a history of accidents. 20 years after Chernobyl, people are still suffering from health problems caused by the accident. An accident can occur at any nuclear reactor, causing the release of large quantities of radioactivity into the environment. Since Chernobyl, there were 22 serious nuclear accidents around the world.
    Since 1970s on an average, accidents that affected the core of the nuclear reactors, have occurred once every eight years.

    Even during normal operation, radioactive materials are regularly discharged into the air and water. Transport of large quantities of low and intermediate level wastes are also increasing the risks to populations.

    Worst of all, nuclear establishments world-wide are infamously opaque, unaccountable to democratic limits, powerful and secretive. Even to get data on the everyday sort of “minor” nuclear accidents is next to impossible.

    After some 40 years, the reactor machinery is intensely radioactive. Both it and the building must be decommissioned, taken apart by remote control, and transported to safe storage. The millions of dollars for decommissioning are not factored into the cost of so-called “cheap” electricity.

    It needs to maintain large and inefficient power grid systems.

    Nuclear energy is more expensive compared to other energy supply options in most if not all cases. This is one of the main reasons why no new nuclear reactors – except one in Finland – were planned or under construction in the OECD until about 2010. Most of the power utilities with nuclear stations either receive direct or indirect subsidies from the state (such as British Energy in the UK, EdF in France).


    1. As Nivedita points out, nuclear energy is dangerously polluting even if there is no accident, and neither clean, safe nor cheap. We have to expose the vested interests that are promoting it, regardless of how much damage it will do in the present and far into the future.


    2. I asked my profs at Bose Institute, Calcutta and a couple of people at the University and they seem to be of the opinion that this is the sole option. Is that so?
      Also, doesn’t India have one of the worst records in the world when it comes to nuclear safety?


      1. Dhrubo Jyoti, your professors are wrong. Nuclear energy is the “sole option” for what? If it is neither clean, nor safe nor cheap, as has been effectively established, it is evident that renewable sources of energy and a radical restructuring of ideas of “development” are the only option, in fact. You can find innumerable sources of information on this in the internet age!
        As for India’s safety record, if not one the worst, it is certainly a very bad one. Not that we come to know from the Department of Nuclear Energy or the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited. In response to an RTI query asking for details of both major and minor accidents that have occurred at India’s nuclear plants, the nuclear corporation basically lied. It replied that there haven’t been any such accidents at India’s nuclear power stations.

        But these are the ones that there is evidence of:

        List of nuclear power accidents in India

        Accidents at nuclear power plants in India

        After Fukushima, Dr A Gopalakrishnan, former chairman of Atomic Energy Regulatory Board,urged the central government to review the nuclear policy and take necessary steps to protect nuclear plants.He said that the Tarapur Nuclear Plant-1 and two Boiling Water Reactors (BWRs) in Tarapur, Maharashtra are even older than the Fukushima reactors and have suffered several safety-related incidents in the past which make it questionable whether the country should continue to operate these two units. He said that “the parliament and the people of India have been deliberately kept in the dark under the cover of the Official Secrets Act.”


    1. The state functionaries of even left parties are singing praises for nuclear energy, in tamilnadu. Even they have got carried away by developmental mania.


  2. Curfew has been imposed in Kudankulam since May 10, 2012, which will remain in force until June 7. The following update was received by email.
    It is difficult to get reliable news. The folks in Idinthakarai are in a virtual prison, and we cannot get in there to verify. Our friends from Tirunelveli suggest that 10 companies of police, that is, 2000 police personnel, are posted in and around Idinthakarai. That is roughly four police for every woman fasting since May 4…But when Prashant Bhushan spoke to DIG Varadarajulu, he was told that the 2000 police were posted as a precautionary measure, and that they have no intent to move into the village. That is a bit difficult to believe. At the very least, this is war talk. Why do they need 2000 armed men to contain 500 women fasting non-violently?

    If the police contingent moves in to the village, the villagers will not keep quiet. We hope that things don’t get ugly. Please call the Police and advise them against precipitate action. The villagers are interested in dialogue, and the police should work towards that:

    Bidari, Superintendent of Police: 9940193494
    Varadarajulu. Deputy Inspector General of Police:9840970530


    There is considerable deployment of police in and around Idinthakarai, while the protests and protestors remain resolutely peaceful. Today, a religious ceremony was held in Idinthakarai, which concluded with a religious rally around the church by the village’s youth. The Intelligence agencies are working non-stop to spread rumours and vitiate the situation. Since morning today, rumours are being spread that large contingents of commando forces have been deployed. The rumours make it seem as if an “entry” into the village is imminent. Early this evening, the police held flag marches in two places — Vijayapathi and Vairavikinaru about 2 km and 5 km away respectively. The police are also constructing sand bag bunkers. Quite an odd reaction to a hunger strike by young women. The people in Idinthakarai do not at all seem nervous. They are hopeful that the Government will have the wisdom to not attempt a forced entry. They are certain that any forced entry would have ugly consequences, and a long-term impact on the politics of the region and the hostility towards outsiders and members of the nuclear establishment.


  4. Arati Choksi responds to MR Srinivasan, the ex-chief of atomic energy commission, who has recently attempted to re-persuade the public that there really is no alternative to a nuclear power plant at Koodankulam. “To this end, he resorts to sweeping generalities, inappropriate distractions and deliberate falsehoods to prop up his arguments – and cleverly side steps the real issues and concerns of people who oppose this nuclear plant….”


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