Imagined Immunities: The Cure of Idinthakarai

The power of imagined communities was never so evident to us as on the other day, when a group of us — Malayalee people of different political affiliations — made our way to Idintakarai in southern Tamil Nadu. In many ways,we were representative of contemporary Malayalee society — we were from districts spanning the length and breadth of Kerala, had very vocally-expressed mutual differences of opinions and interests, and belonged to of different socioeconomic classes, faiths, and castes, were composed of local residents, NRIs, and Malayalees settled elsewhere in the country. Of course, we were also representative of the gender imbalances that characterize even the oppositional civil society here — there were just two women in a group of nearly thirty. We went there to express solidarity with the people of Idinthakarai who have been struggling valiantly against the monstrosity that the government of India is determined to foist on them — the Koodankulam nuclear power plant — and who have been described as traitors to the Nation by the very people who have ripped apart our sense of what a nation should mean to ordinary people.

As we entered the village, I thought of how our imagined communities had rendered us blind: clearly,nuclear radiation does not know of linguistic boundaries, nor does it care. And anyone with eyes would notice that southern Tamil Nadu is environmentally closer to the Kerala coast than to TN — the capital city of Thiruvananthapuram is barely 70 kilimeters away as the crow flies, compared to Chennai, which is some 700 kilometers away. The thickly-populated coast (by the way, these are some of the most thickly populated regions of the world — and the population density of Kerala is very large too) is shared; the waves of the Arabian Sea too have never cared about linguistic boundaries. A leak at Koodankulam would affect Thiruvananthapuram and the whole of Kerala much worse perhaps than other parts of TN, and yet the Malayalee public seems to be largely sleeping. We seem to be resting in the illusion that things on the other side of the Amaravila check-post will not affect us for the most; we are then quite like the CPM in Kerala which believes that the ghost of the long-dead Soviet Union will protect the reactors from damage; only that we implicitly replace it with the equally imagined linguistic community.

Why did we buy this lie, I thought bitterly, even though our debt to Tamil and the Tamil people is evident in many, many ways, right from Malayalam’s tendency to be written like Sanskrit but spoken like Tamil? Even though we did have solitary figures like the early Malayalee economist P J Thomas, (almost completely forgotten in contemporary Kerala, and perhaps not surprisingly), who suggested a coastal, rather than linguistic, state, which would run down from Konkan to Kanyakumari? I myself have roots in south Travancore (the present-day Kanyakumari and Tirunelveli districts of TN), and grandmothers who prayed in Tamil and spoke in Malayalam, who could never really agree that the linguistic state was a useful idea. Yet my own imagined community has always been linguistic.I stuttered in my broken and utterly ridiculous Tamil, trying to respond to people who poured out their woes, painfully aware of the fact that I could have surely done better, had I valued the legacy of two tongues my grandmother and grand-aunts had always urged me to claim. For I did understand their spoken Tami lmore or less perfectly; if I felt tongue-tied that was surely because I had failed to practice my own spoken Tamil. But such were the times in which I grew up — one in which everything that appeared to our elitist eye as ‘loud’, ‘tasteless’ was called ‘pandi’ and the peculiar defect of the eye that cannot see the beauty of  gleaming-dark skin and a strong body was not recognized as a kind of mental illness. But while the elites did not bother to claim their own legacy, it appears that people on the coast of southern Kerala have preserved it much better, continuing to remain linked with coastal communities further south and beyond, speaking Malayalam and Tamil, through everyday life and that of the Catholic Church too. No wonder that they see the danger much more sharply than any so-called ‘enlightened’ Malayalee elite person —  not simply because their livelihoods are most directly affected.The people of Idinthakarai and their leader Udayakumar have preserved that legacy so well — they could understand and speak Malayalam better than most of us could understand and speak Tamil. There is a darga close to Idinthakarai where people of all sorts go to seek cures and favours. I think Idinthakarai offers a cure as well, for our ‘imagined immunities’; we ought to take our children there so that they at least are cured of the disease that inflicts our souls and leaves us linguistically- and culturally-blinded .

Udayakumar spoke Malayalam fluently; he studied in Thiruvananthapuram under one of Malayalam’s finest literary critics and scholars, Ayyappa Panicker. He told me that many of his classmates taught in colleges here. I felt so ashamed — have any of  these people, all college professors now and probably earning fat salaries, come out in protest when someone who shared some of their youthful days was being stripped of his citizenship? I deeply missed Prof. Panikker — I am sure that if he were alive, he would have come out in open support of his student. I am not sure if any of Udayakumar’s old classmates currently teaching here have protested. But very little protest has risen from the Malayalee intelligentsia. Surely, Kerala’s literary public is no longer what it was. Its upper echelons resemble a public only marginally –it is full  intellectual pretenders who specialize in grinding out time-tested platitudes in marginally-different idioms, who are deeply averse to pushing the limits of thinking,   and finally, are concerned with nothing else but their precious asses. It is this bunch who are now covered with awards and ’eminent memberships’ in institutions built out of public funds; don’t expect them to remember old camaderies.

A deep sense of sadness engulfed me again when I saw how our utterly skewed understanding of ‘capabilities’ have rendered us blind to the immense moral and practical-material resourcefulness of the seashore people.  They are the most skilled traditional fisherfolk on the western coast; but their knowledge of the sea, painstakingly gained from years of experience, their tremendous ability to adapt and innovate techniques and reduce costs, are simply not recognizable through a lens of capabilities that privileges modern education. The resilience of their community life; the deep knowledge of the consequences of the atrocity of the nuclear power plant, evident among even the smallest children there — how come they are not counted as ‘capabilities’? How come their desire to live and work in that place is not recognizing as ‘functioning’, desired ‘beings and doings’? How come the language of human development, so preferred by development academics in Kerala, stays utterly blind to these? How can one not be drowned in a sea of sadness when one sees these people of Idintakarai reduced to ‘bare life’ by the intolerable siege imposed by the Indian state in collusion with the state government, which has shorn them of rights as Indian citizens, denied them access to much of health care, and threatened to sweep off an entire way of life cherished by many generations there? I tremble still when I remember the words of a young fourteen-year-old girl, that she and her friends were determined to immolate themselves on the seashore if their struggle did not bear fruit. It is not just that people there are reduced to ‘bare life’; it is also that they are intensely aware of it, even small children there. And hence a tragic end looks welcome to them. Only the littlest ones want to come away — a five-year-old boy who had just lost his father tragically, wanted to come away with the young men of the Solidarity Youth Movement, when we visited their home. His older sisters — little girls all — however did not, or could not, entertain such a possibility at all.

So, honestly, no one gave a whit when the Tamil Nadu police apprehended us when we were on our way back, by about seven o’clock in the evening. The suffering of the people there seemed so tremendous that the risks we faced appeared outright minor. They thought we had violated Section 144; but we were not walking together or gathered on roads, we were inside moving vehicles that the police stopped. We had also not come across any notification of the prohibitive order there either; nor did we see people traveling in groups on the same road to Idinthakarai being stopped by the police.If so many people were virutally imprisoned, I thought, why should I whine even a bit? If fourteen-year-old girls live in the constant thought of death there, why should I worry too much about my own fourteen- year-old daughter, who is so full of the laughter than can only bloom on the faces of happy and secure fourteen- year- old girls? The police kept us there to watch us and think of strategies. How could we be charactized? As a bunch of religious fanatics — so easy to think surely, since the majority of us were young Muslim men?  But that couldn’t because some of us were not Muslim and held  quite different political views — there was also among us a feminist academic (myself), an activist of the fish workers’ movement, an activist of the anti-nuclear movement in Kerala, two people from a non-resident Malayalee cultural association with broadly leftist views. We were too diverse for an effective conspiracy theory, too spread over the length of Kerala and over different social classes. And we were obviously aware of our rights and not shy to demand them. And maybe remanding us might have looked like symbolically locking up all of Kerala’s oppositional civil society, or even all of,contemporary Kerala.

We were told to leave by 11 at night.The FIRs were prepared — and the charge was apparently violation of Section 144 — but it was still not clear whether the cases will be actually charged or not. Some of the television channels in Kerala aired the news — many apparently decided not to — and there were demonstrations in many towns in Kerala. But for the life of me I cannot fathom what the political parties of Kerala are waiting for. It is clear by now that Jayalalithaa has no plans whatsoever to share the electricity from Koodankulam with Kerala and in any case, the demand for power has probably been  pushed up so much in TN and Karnataka that they will gobble up most of the power in the South Indian grid, including hydro-electric power that is generated in Kerala. And it is amply clear that the environmental ill-effects that this plant are going to be suffered more directly by the coastal communities on the Kerala-TN coast and Sri Lanka (Colombo is very close to Thiruvananthapuram, closer than Kerala’s northern cities) but largely by Kerala — the whole of south Kerala will have to be evacuated if there is a leak and we have no clue how. Those CPM-loyalists who keep calling many of us ‘arm-chair’intellectuals ought to be more concerned about their broiler-produced leadership which can barely see anything beyond their noses; the Congress ‘green-MLAs’ might want to extend their voices to be critical of things that happen beyond Kerala’s official and linguistic borders if the rest of us are not to fall back into total cynicism about the by-now common self-seeking use of issues raised by the oppositional civil society by clever politicians — oh, we really have seen a lot, a lot, of that by now. The rest of the Congress leadership are of course too busy devising plans for, well, efficient extraction from public resources for self-survival through methods much-tried and otherwise. It will be a miracle if they indeed look up and take notice even if the entire coastal population of south Kerala turns up at their doorstep. Whether they wake up or not, the people of Kerala have to wake up, and wake up NOW. The media has to be forced to take notice too. Every opportunity to shake up the discourse has to be availed of. And money and other materials have to be urgently found. From the questions the policed asked us, it was quite evident that they hope to kill the people’s movement at Idinthakarai by starving it of resources — of moral resources, surely, but even more decisively, of material resources.

But much more urgently, we need to redo the boundaries of our imagined communities — and learn a lesson or two from people whose capabilities we denigrated, who we characterized as ‘outliers’ to the fabled ‘Kerala Model’. I came away from the turbulence of yesterday sadder but wiser, having learned that humility and hope alone can stay the catastrophe.

17 thoughts on “Imagined Immunities: The Cure of Idinthakarai”

  1. Words seem to flow…like water. Well written travelogue or so it seems..Kudos to Devika for the article and more so for the activism !


  2. @jdevika
    i have always admired your work. Especially the strong and bold regional narrative that you bring to the fore even in defiance of the national narrative that is being propagated.
    One this occasion however, i think that the priorities on your list, while justifiable, have not taken any cognizance of the priorities on the list of the ‘other camp’ so to speak.
    your grievance on kerala no being given any of the the power seems to have manifested into a bias that starts from that grievance as opposed to what the people of TN want and i think that that has led you to forget that it is really not in the interest of the state or the country to abandon nuclear.
    the reasons should be obvious by now.
    Nuclear power is clean. the cleanest there is. The thing is, because the threat that emanates from nuclear is so sudden and devastating( allegedly), the fear that is inveterate in some people when it comes to nuclear sometimes causes them to forget the problems associated with other forms of power generation like thermal and hydro.
    Thermal is causing untold misery to the people even as we speak. the mines are often located in pristine forests which have to be destroyed in order to harness that power. The mines are also located in tribal lands who are then routinely displaced and there suffering is no less than the people that you have covered. What is also being forgotten is the suffering caused by coal in when it comes to respiratory illnesses that are caused by the co2 that is being pumped into the atmosphere. hundreds of thousands of indians( malayalis included) die of respiratory illnesses because of these plants.
    most of India’s remaining coal lies under thickly forested regions which are India’s last lungs. all stand the chance of being endangered if thermal persists.
    So instead of of nuclear disaster that may happen and then cause problems thermal is plagued with, and causes problems of elephantine proportions from day one.
    Hydro also comes at a terrible price. Apart from the significantly higher number of villages destroyed, forests submerged, threat of a leak, hydro also has a life that does not exceed a century or .so because of the rapid deposition of silt that fills up the reservoir at which point the entire exercise comes home to roost as a prodigious and profligate wastage of resources.
    besides there are only a number of places where hydro can be implemented.
    which brings us back to nuclear. Now the problem with nuclear seems to be that of an impending doom in case of a natural disaster because while it runs, it is the most environmentally friendly power harnessing source known to man. the thing with the natural disaster is that people are not generally aware of the fact that in the last few decades, nuclear technology had progressed tremendously. So while in Chernobyl thousands dies as a result of the leak, in Fukushima, the number of people that died as a result of nuclear radiations was…….zero. people are living there again and the water and soil is now free of radiation.
    now India’s reactors are said to be a step ahead of even Fukushima when it comes to nuclear safety. so these fears of emptying half of south Kerala are not sound at all. Nuclear technology had progressed far too much for anything even close to that happening. Even surrounding villages will be safe and have sufficient time to consider options because of the safety measures taken while building a reactor.
    All this becomes all the more significant when you look at the fact that India has just found one of the largest reserves of Uranium in the world at Andhra Pradesh.
    Your own Kerala has the largest reserves of thorium in the world. it would be ridiculous not the use those resources for kerala. india is a pioneer when it comes to building thorium reactors.
    Devika, all i am saying is that all this needs to be taken into consideration before any decision is made. the suffering of the people you mention is sad, So we must push for a good resettlement plan for them rather than oppose the project itself.
    I think if anyone dispassionately analyzes the pro’s and con’s associated with the two sides( Nuclear vs Thermal and hydro), the clear conclusion is that nuclear is the obvious winner.
    all this is of course if you want power at all. I here the argument being made that no power is better than power that comes from harassing people.
    To them i can only say that they are being selfish because they already “have it good”. For the rest of the country that requires alleviation, power and more power is essential. The question is where do you want it to come from?
    weighing all the pros and cons, it is clear to me that it should be nuclear.
    Fighting for a fair resettlement for the people affected is of course an entirely different argument and that the government needs to do. But directing that protest against Kudankulam is incorrect and counterproductive in the long term.


  3. all this is to say that concerns for the environment always take a back seat when thinking of the people and it is high time we start giving the environment it’s due on the priority list. We cant always sacrifice the environment at the altar of appeasing the people. Not when comprehensive resettlement is possible.


    1. it is so strange to see pro environment arguments now being made against people and a way of life whose carbon footprint is next to nil so that people and a way of life that continues to consume and measure one’s worth by that consumption can thrive-and that this is taken as some god given/fatality generated inevitable due course.
      to posit nuclear power as clean and then to see popular movements by the poor as impeding india’s development (as the poor clearly dont know whats good for them/or are motivated by politicians/the only class that is political in the bad sense of it) is precisely the domain being contested. also, i think one should talk about the feasibility/non feasibility of resettlement when all the people of India who have been displaced by ‘development’ are even counted, let alone being resettled.


  4. Dear Ayush:
    A few corrections of facts:
    Nuclear power is not clean. Every year, the two units in Koodankulam alone will generate more than 50 tonnes of intractable, long-lived radioactive waste whose ill-effects can last several hundred thousand years. There is not a single nation in the world that has figured out what is to be done with this wastes. The best they have come up with so far is to say that it has to be buried, deep, very deep. To believe that this problem will be solved by technologies to be developed in the future is a matter of faith, and I’m at best an agnostic leaning towards atheism, and faith — especially on human abilities — does not come easily to me.

    Second, you say that Fukushima caused no deaths. It is not merely radiation that causes death in the event of a disaster. The very trauma of evacuation to prevent exposure to radiation can be fatal to many. In Japan, by January 2012, the state had certified 573 deaths as resulting from the indirect effects of the Fukushima Dai-ichi meltdown.

    Third, you say that the soil and water are clean and people can return to their homes. This is simply untrue. Even the less-contaminated areas, like Hirono, are not seeing a return of evacuees, and the pain of the residents of the once-bustling town is evident in this story. The mayor of the town is wistfully longing for the voices of children to return to the town. I can’t think of anything that could rob a family or a street or a town of the sounds of children. That, to me, is sinister and diabolical. Do read:

    I beg to differ from your view that nuclear energy is clean, or even manageable.

    And Devika: Thank you for your piece. I liked it a lot. Will try to have it translated for circulation via Tamil blogs.


    1. Nityanand, I dont think the statement “There is not a single nation in the world that has figured out what is to be done with this wastes.” is justified in light of the current consensus among experts.

      Here is an excerpt from a review of the book ‘Nuclear Waste Stalemate’ by University of Utah professors Dr. Robert Vandenbosch and Dr. Susan E. Vandenbosch,

      “In Nuclear Waste Stalemate, Robert and Susanne Vandenbosch examine the problems that bedevil radioactive waste disposal. The political controversies, they argue, are far more daunting than the scientific ones. At present, there is widespread expert consensus that high-level radioactive waste should be stored deep underground, in geological formations that can withstand the tides of geological change for at least one million years. Yet, to date, no country on Earth has opened such a repository, and only two, Sweden and Finland, have selected sites and appear to have cleared the key political and legal obstacles to the construction of them.”

      The complete review is in this pdf,
      I would encourage you to take a look at it, it actually has a lot of interesting info.

      Finland has recently started construction of the Onkalo spent nuclear waste facility, this report is interesting as it covers both sides,

      However, this by itself does not make nuclear power a good option. And we certainly need to keep debating these matters, especially since there are additional social and political contexts to building such plants in India that are perhaps not present in countries like Sweden and Finland.


      1. Dear Friend:
        First, thank you for the references. I will certainly read through them. I agree with your statement below that a broad technical consensus exists that deep geological repositories in suitable host rocks are possible sites for storing historical wastes. However, for any project, technology, proposal, intervention or solution to fly, it has to be financially viable, technically feasible and politically acceptable. As the abandonment of the Yucca Mountain repository project revealed, mere technical feasibility is insufficient. I guess this is a point that you also are making. However, I’d like to quickly add that the political opposition to Yucca Mountain was not mounted only by people who were ignorant of science. Rather, a good section of the people were rightly apprehensive that the option of out-of-sight disposal would provide greater legitimacy to a sinister technology — bomb making and electricity generation included — with potentially disastrous mood-swings. ciao, nity


  5. I like the alternative narratives of the issue which you have tried to bring about. The title is also very apt.We do tend to live in imagined shells.


  6. Thanks, Nityanand. Ayush, I am not sure anymore really, whether I want power at the cost of the livelihoods of human beings who struggle to provide us with something far more basic than power: food. When I think about it, it appears to me that we can do quite a bit to keep our demands minimal and reasonable. Maybe this will slowly grow into a broader awareness — I can already see people trying to use more of solar power in Kerala after the hike in power charges. But I don’t know if the overwhelming desire to have power-guzzling industries will ever let us move an inch forward towards reducing power use, in real terms. I am willing to live much simpler; I don’t think life on earth will collapse if we have no malls or fancy lighting on occasions, or even if TV sets are limited to communities. And it may be quite possible to think of safer alternatives to fridges and other energy-guzzling household gadgets. I am no expert on all this but feel strongly that we have to use our resources rationally. All I am asking for is a more rational use of power without the assumption that we will continue to need more and more of it endlessly and it is a good thing to do so. I have been struggling towards such a lifestyle, hence — and living quite OK without a car, a TV, with a fridge switched on for a limited number of hours etc. etc.


    1. We are lucky to have visible people living simple lifestyles in India. My goal is to constantly simplify our living in the West (which can be a daily challenge raising kids here without screen gadgets).
      Those who are enamoured with the industrial and materialistic model are the ones who are blinded by what comes first: food or power to run our imported gadets.
      We are ruining our sense of priorities and are teaching the next generation to be lazy and follow the industrial consumeristic herd. If we lose sight of human-nature balance, we will destroy our own culture, which was well represented by the diversity of communities that are concerned and with you on the Idinthakarai Solidarity march.


    2. i know i am late but i lost track. You have no idea how happy i was to read your reply. As an environmentalist, i have come to the conclusion that Gandhi, that eccentric, weird, stubborn half naked fakir had it right all along. the only way we can create sustainable livelihoods is by tempering our demands from the earth. to curb hedonism in general. But while i am prasing you, my own track record is something that i am ashamed off and have to work to remedy.


  7. Absolutely moving account of your trip to Idinthakarai , Devika. Brilliant writing …Yes, the way ahead is to simplify, not try and meet every demand of mankind , reasonable or otherwise . We believe progress and development is about meeting every human demand (however unreasonable) at any cost – to the planet, to the environment and the less powerful amongst us!


  8. Devika, as always brilliant thinking and even more evocative and thoughtful writing … It might be deep ignorance but i found your description of the coast and its distances, to argue that this was not a tnadu issue but a coastal one and also the history was revelatory
    I have from my youth been with the nuclear disarmament movement , marching in london in the fifties and so on so that question does not arise in my mind – but what does is your response that you are holding down your consumption habits , To my mind it is this step , ie our own ways of making less demand on natural resources using solar and so much else , that might help to build a resistance to the argument so well put by ayush .And to support Devi ‘s support of your description of your life style as a way .

    let me reiterate my sheer pleasure in reading your passionate and very brilliant proposal on how we imagine as well as do communities … that was a real contribution to the quest in which all of us are engaged , to build hope for this country’s people .


  9. thanks devika for this touching narrative. This indefatigable people who are fighting for their very survival I am sure will inspire many a democratic resistance across the country beyond the reach of the conventional political parties- the reason why the State is overly worried abt koodamkulam. I don’t know how far it is frm Koonthamkulam bird sanctuary which I hve visited a few times in the past, but looks quite close; the sanctuary is an indication of the legacy of the non-violent tradition of the people…it was unfair to inflict the violence of nuclear power plant on them.
    Nuclear power is inherently violent, and its historical promoters are also looking for safe alternatives, france for eg. Incidently japan was at one point an importer of the French nuclear waste (I had the opportunity to boycott a Unesco international conf on science writing held in japan in the mid 90s against this act of the Japanese govt). Sweden had closed down its once prestigious Baschebaek nuclear plant on its west coast some 2 decades ago…the handling of the nuclear waste is without a feasible solution..the nuclear leaks that happens at the nuclear plants and their impact on the respective local populace is too sad a story.. even the fukushima impact was grossly understated as revealed by a recent UN mission report…only spokespersons of western corporate interests will speak of ‘nuclear spring’


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