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Tamil Nadu’s Summer of Discontent

G Babu Jayakumar (babujkumar@gmail.com) has been working as a professional journalist in Chennai for over three decades, and is an observer of Tamil society and politics.

Not a day passes in Tamil Nadu without a protest by common people. In fact, some protests have been going on for months. Why is Tamil Nadu in ferment? Why are more and more people hitting the streets in anger? It is all because of a general distrust of the central government and the popular media. The people’s agitations crossed a certain line in the case of the demand to stop the Indian Premier League matches being played in Chennai, thus creating a divide in Tamil Nadu.

Something is rotten in Tamil Nadu. Such Hamletian angst can bog down anyone watching the state smouldering in anger, propelled by a popular perception that the central government, Hindutva forces, and the media have ganged up against the Tamil people. Regular spurts of public uprisings, coming in various forms at different locales with disparate crowds for diverse causes, speak eloquently about a widespread resentment that has gripped the subalterns, the dispossessed, the minorities, and the underprivileged who primarily swear by a Tamil identity. The youth, who are more indignant over their voices going unheard, raise the decibel level and hit the streets with increased vehemence, driving deeper the wedge that culturally separates them from those crying foul over the fulminations.

Sharing the Cauvery

The social divide—those conforming to the government on one side and those feeling a sense of unease and alienation on the other—is now almost complete with a protest over the centre’s recalcitrance on the setting up of the Cauvery Management Board (CMB), packing off cricket encounters of the dazzling Indian Premier League (IPL) variety from Chennai to another city. The Cauvery imbroglio has been dominating the political discourse for over three decades, or even more, inciting agitations by parties regularly. But now if the protests are more fervent and are being spearheaded by various groups, it is because the state was in social ferment when the central government was caught dilly-dallying on resolving the problem of sharing Cauvery water between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.

The centre’s impertinence about the Cauvery added fuel to fire: a fire that was raging in the collective conscience of the majority of Tamil people over the perceived (repeated) betrayal by the centre and the apathy of the media in highlighting the people’s aspirations. The total loss of faith in conventional media led champions of the Tamils’ causes harnessing social media to spread their messages and also to counter detractors. Thus, the exchange of ideas and information on social media brought together individuals with shared views on diverse issues. As activists seek to educate people on the concerns over controversial business or scientific projects, despite mainstream media espousing contrarian views by parroting official versions, Hindutva acolytes too pop in. They take on those social activists, openly and on the sly, sometimes using offensive and provocative language, backing the party in power at the centre blindly. After watching those trolls, tweets and messages, the people identified Hindutva, the central government, and the media as the enemies of the Tamil people.

An earlier incident that exposed the Hindutva agenda in throttling the basic right to expression happened when the film Mersal was released in October 2017. Peeved by an onscreen comment against the goods and services tax, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader H Raja called the actor “Joseph” Vijay, suggesting that he is not Hindu. Raja’s remark prompted a backlash on social media with many people adding “Joseph” to their names and sending across the message: “so what if Vijay is a Christian.” Besides, the “Joseph” Vijay jibe revived memories of a years-old innuendo by Narendra Modi when he was Gujarat chief minister, about
the then Chief Election Commissioner J M Lyngdoh, calling him “James Michael Lyngdoh,” to drive home the point that he was a Christian and hence favourable to Sonia Gandhi.

Governor Purohit

Months after Raja failed to smear the communal colour on the film actor, Hindutva stood exposed when the editor of Thuglak magazine, S Gurumurthy, tweeted that the standard of journalism has declined because a media corps posed uncomfortable questions to the governor Banwarilal Purohit. As a Hindutva ideologue, he was giving vent to his anger over a nominee of the central government being taken to task by the media.

Conventionally, governors never call for press conferences, but Purohit did because his reputation was at jeopardy at that time with a video clipping of a woman assistant professor scouting young women, apparently for his pleasure, was going viral. Nirmala Devi, the mathematics assistant professor of Devanga Arts College in Arupukottai, was heard luring students to “do” things that could further their careers and bring them money and also mentioning the word governor. As someone who owned and had been the managing editor of Hitavada, a Nagpur-based newspaper, Purohit might have assumed that he could control the media.

If the media was overtly aggressive—the usual bunch that fawns at press meets was browbeaten and not allowed to raise obsequious questions—it was because social media was abuzz with suggestions to journalists to hold the governor to account ever since it became public that he had called for the press conference. The mood was such that if journalists had mollycoddled the governor, as he expected them to do, they would have been subject to the public’s wrath. The governor, on his part, apart from floundering under the onslaught of the direct questions, gave grist for the mill by patting the cheek of a woman journalist, who took to social media to express her disgust over the unwarranted gesture.

More Controversy

Though the governor himself apologised the next day and the journalist concerned accepted it, putting an end to the controversy, S Ve Shekhar, a film comedian-turned-politician, sprang up from nowhere to share a post on Facebook that explicitly said that women media persons rise in their professional careers by extending sexual favours to powerful people. The post, in Tamil, was shared in an apparent attempt to denigrate the media persons who did not kowtow before the governor, a central government nominee.

Though several police complaints were filed against Sekhar for the derogatory post, which he deleted subsequently, no action was taken against him at least for the next two weeks. Though people were annoyed with the government, which had sent the police to arrest Tamil folk singer, Kovan, for a song against an unpopular Ram Rajya Rath Yatra that passed through Tamil Nadu and the Prime Minister, for its blatant inaction against Shekhar, they were not surprised because it is well known that Shekhar’s sister-in-law is Girija Vaidyanathan, the chief secretary of Tamil Nadu. Vaidyanthan, on her part, has evoked much anger among the public, not just because of her onstage presence in every official event, sharing space with Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami, but because she is suspected to be advising the present state government, whose policies and actions are not relished by the people.

The cause célèbre kicked in by Shekhar also saw journalists staging an agitation in front of his house when some young men threw stones at the closed gates. But the comedian-politician took to his heels and went into hiding after tendering an apology, saying that he shared the post of Thirumalai Sa, whom he described to a newspaper as a strong BJP supporter living in the US, without reading it. First he issued the apology as a statement typed on a letterhead bearing the Tamil Nadu government emblem with “Member, Legislative Assembly, Mylapore,” printed below his name. An “Ex” was scribbled in pen before the member, making many wonder how he kept sheaves of the letterhead eight years after relinquishing office as member of legislative assembly.

Then he released a video apologising for sharing the post without reading through it. But trolls retrieved an old video of him giving an interview in which he says that “Periyar land” is situated in a few acres near the Chennai Police Commissioner’s Office, referring to the headquarters of the Dravidar Kazhagam, and that the rest of Tamil Nadu was “spiritual land.” The video, as it went viral, raised the ire of many common people who still revere Periyar E V Ramasamy as a social revolutionary instrumental in the ushering in of social justice in the state. But the Hindutva acolyte who stirred a hornet’s nest by slighting Periyar was H Raja.

When a statue of Vladimir Lenin was pulled down at Belonia in Tripura after the BJP captured power there, Raja tweeted that statues of Periyar will face the same fate. Protests erupted spontaneously all over the state and Raja had to delete the tweet, apologise for it and come up with a lame duck excuse that his “admin” had posted it, something akin to what Shekhar had to say later.

Earlier, Raja had got away after being extremely abusive of award-winning Tamil film lyricist and poet Vairamuthu on a controversy created over an essay published in a Tamil newspaper on Andal, a Vaishnavite saint. Breathing fire and brimstone, Raja used unprintable words against Vairamuthu, who had been hosting and organising felicitations for the BJP leader Tarun Vijay, besides speaking very kindly of many BJP leaders, particularly hailing the appointment of Nirmala Sitharaman as defence minister. Yet, because Vairamuthu quoted a scholar on an iffy description of Andal, a protest was held under the leadership of Satakopa Ramanuja Jeeyar of the Manavala Mamunigal mutt in Srivilliputhur and Vairamuthu’s apology at the abode of Andal was demanded. Vairamuthu, who had expressed regret before the issue snowballed, did not tender that apology by going to Srivilliputhur but three months later turned up for an agitation at Anna Salai when a section of the Tamil film industry gathered to stop the Indian Premier League (IPL) match played in Chennai.

It was that protest on 10 April that brought several groups of Tamil activists, politicians and film personalities together in a rare show of strength that came under severe attack in all forums—media, social media and so on—from the elite and the cricket-loving crowd of Chennai that identifies the IPL franchise team Chennai Super Kings (CSK) as their home team and cheers for it. The protestors who wanted to stop the matches—initially they were keen on showing their angst by waving black flags inside the M A Chidambaram stadium to draw the attention of the entire nation to their plight—were seen as a bunch of spoilsports unfairly mixing sports with politics.

But the common people—not many in Tamil Nadu can afford an IPL ticket whose minimum rates were around ₹1,400 for a single match—refused to see sense in that argument because IPL, according to them is no sport and CSK has nothing to do with Chennai. Both were technically true for cricket in the IPL format is only an entertainment and a majority of CSK players have nothing to do with Chennai. IPL is primarily a business idea that was abhorrent to the protestors, who see a conspiracy to turn the Cauvery delta region into a barren land and thus deprive the state of its rice bowl. So they felt the need to fight for Cauvery water more urgently than assuaging the feelings of cricket fans, dazed by the IPL idea.

Prolonged Discontent

Even the other issues, over which prolonged public protests are going on for quite some time, are viewed as attempts to turn the state into a desert or loot its resources. Whatever the centre thrusts on Tamil Nadu in the name of development—be it the exploration of hydrocarbons at Neduvasal in Pudukottai district, oil exploration in the Cauvery belt in Thanjavur district that has allegedly led to an oil leak in Kathiramangalam village or an oil spill contaminating the Pandavaiyaru riverbed in Erukattur in Tiruvarur district or Vedanta’s Sterlite plant in Thoothukudi polluting the land and water that spurred an agitation for close to three months or the proposed Neutrino Project in Chinna Pottipuram that could shake up the environment—has evoked strong protests as the people see them as hazardous. Not only is there a sense of mistrust about the centre’s intentions but also no one believes the scientists who are employed with its departments and the present state government.

Apart from all these, when the centre is shown as conspiring to demolish systems that Tamil Nadu has developed with élan over the years, like public health and medical education, with its “one size fits all” schemes like National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) for medical college admissions, they again get the people’s goat. Even as the opposition to NEET, accentuated by the suicide of Anita, a young girl from Ariyalur whose efforts to enter a medical college going a waste all of a sudden, continues to rage, the state government continues to wring its hands and the English media looks the other way.

The media, in fact, is blind to most of the people’s protests in Tamil Nadu. When six Dalit outfits, including the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK), organised a massive rally in Chennai on 24 April against the dilution of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 it was no news to take note of for the English media despite about 30,000 people turning up for it. But on the same day when actor Kamal Haasan organised a mock gram sabha at the office of his newly formed party in Chennai, the media was present in full strength to feature the farce prominently in all English-language newspapers with mention in front pages, besides colourful pictures. Even when a slew of Christian denominations joined hands, in a rare show of unity, to organise an agitation in Chennai for the setting up of the CMB, among other things, the media was unperturbed. That it was for the first time that so many Christian bishops, members of the clergy and laity were out on the street with a slew of secular demands, did not bother them.

The Christian community joining the protestors’ bandwagon actually speaks volumes about their sense of insecurity. As a religious group, Christians have been shy of plunging into secular struggles. Perhaps, the spate of attacks on evangelists and churches and incidents of Bible burning at various parts of Tamil Nadu, most of them captured in videos that went viral, might have impelled the otherwise politically dormant community to join the social activists and political parties to fight for their common rights. For the massive protest that drew over 5,000 faithful to the road was concerned not just about Cauvery water but also the dilution of SC/ST Act, the proposed harbour at Kovalam in Kanyakumari district and the entire gamut of issues agitating the state like the Neutrino Project, methane extraction schemes, Kathua rape, and NEET.

But the real vignette that came as a metaphor for the manner in which the protests are seen was from Ramanathapuram. During a visit of Sitharaman on 2 May, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam cadre, as a mark of protest, waved black flags as the minister’s cavalcade passed by but, in return, saffron flags were shown to them with glee from every vehicle in the convoy.

Updated On : 18th May, 2018

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