‘Our struggle was funded by the people’


Interview with S.P. Udayakumar, coordinator, People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy. By T.S. SUBRAMANIAN

S.P. UDAYAKUMAR, coordinator of the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE), was consistently in the news from September 2011 to July 2013 for his opposition to the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Project (KKNPP) in Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu. His name is mentioned in the Intelligence Bureau (I.B.) report titled “Concerted Efforts by Select Foreign Funded NGOs to ‘take down’ Indian development projects”.

Paragraph three of the communication, dated June 3, 2014, signed by S.A. Rizvi, Joint Director of the I.B., says: “In 2011, anti-nuclear activism stalled the nearly commissioned Russian-assisted, Kudankulam Nuclear Power Project in Tamil Nadu. The protests were spearheaded by Ohio State University-funded, S.P. Udayakumar, and a host of Western-funded NGOs. The larger conspiracy was unravelled when a German national provided Udayakumar with a scanned map of all nuclear plants and uranium mining locations in India. The map included contact details of 50 Indian anti-nuclear activists, revealing an intricate network aimed to ‘take down’ India’s nuclear programme through NGO activism.”

The role of NGOs in mobilising opposition to the KKNPP came under scrutiny in 2012 after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told Science magazine that “there are NGOs, often funded from the United States and the Scandinavian countries, which are not fully appreciative of the development challenges that our country faces”.

It was in this context that Frontline interviewed Udayakumar. While his reply to the first question is taken from his Facebook page, he answered the other questions over telephone. Excerpts:

The I.B. report talks about your “deep and growing connection with the U.S. and German authorities….” It insinuates that the money you received from an unsolicited contract as a consultant with the Ohio State University could have been used to fuel the anti-Kudankulam nuclear power project agitation.

It is a ridiculous and libellous claim that I was contracted through NGOs and I was submitting “fortnightly reports” to them. In fact, I worked as an off-campus Research Fellow in the International Programme of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at the Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio, USA, for several years. The Director of the Kirwan Institute was one Professor john a. powell [he does not use capital letters in his name], a reputed scholar in civil rights, who had been my employer at the Institute on Race and Poverty, University of Minnesota-Minneapolis, USA, between Fall 1997 and Spring 2001. I had worked with him there as a Research Associate and Co-Director of Programmes and that was why he chose me for the Kirwan assignment. I travelled to the Ohio State University campus, Ohio, a few times also. For the Kirwan Institute, I did several research and writing assignments on globalisation, racism, minority welfare, BRICS [Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa], etc. I never did any research and writing project on India’s development or India’s nuclear programme. I left that Research Fellow job in Spring 2011 when the Kirwan Institute reorganised itself under a new administration.

Similarly, Sonntag Rainer Hermann is not my “contact in Germany”. He was an acquaintance from Nagercoil, my home town in Tamil Nadu. He was a hippie-type, staying in a cheap hotel in Nagercoil, and participated in our anti-nuclear events. I did not receive any information or maps or monetary help from him, nor did I give him any. If he had done something illegal or dangerous, why did the Indian authorities deport him hurriedly without taking any legal action? I asked this question even when he was deported in February 2012.

In my humble opinion, the Indian authorities must begin to believe that “ordinary citizens” of India such as farmers and fisherfolk have a mind of their own and can take an intelligent stand on issues such as setting up a nuclear power park or other such dangerous projects in their backyard. Those who stand up, speak up and try to protect our illiterate people’s land, water, air, sea, food security and nutrition security should not be considered and insulted as foreign stooges, money launderers or smugglers.

The Indian authorities should acknowledge the simple fact that we do what we do because we love this country and its peoples. If this is how we—honest, responsible and law-abiding citizens—are treated, abused and harassed, this will only send wrong lessons to our youth and promote extremism and terrorism in the country. The I.B. report tends to blame all the hawala transactions, religious conversions, caste clashes… on the NGOs and their activities. This augurs ill for our country that has pluralistic ethos and democratic politics. I am afraid this fascist presupposition of the I.B. report is a precursor for stringent action against individuals, groups, people’s movements and minorities. As I have been singled out in this report and mentioned by name, I fear for my life and for my family’s safety and security….

The insinuation is that NGOs used the money sent to them from abroad for instigating the agitation at Idinthakarai against the Kudankulam project.

I have told you several times that no NGO money has been used for the struggle. Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and V. Narayanasamy, then Minister of State in the Prime Minister’s Office [PMO], made similar allegations against us. If the allegations were true, why did they not take action against me? Why did they not arrest me? They are belittling us. They are humiliating us. They are playing a game. I have sent a legal notice to the Union Home Ministry. If there is no reply within a week, I will file a writ petition.

Soon after Manmohan Singh made the allegations in 2012, the Union Home Ministry revoked the licences given to three NGOs in Tamil Nadu for diverting funds from abroad for the anti-nuclear campaign at Kudankulam. Do your remember the NGOs’ names?

I do not know the names of these organisations. I read that they were taking action against some NGOs but I have never seen any government report or document, evidence and conclusions arrived at about the allegations against these NGOs.

The Centre froze the bank accounts of three NGOs—the Tuticorin Diocese Association; the Rural Uplift Centre, Nagercoil; and Good Vision.

I never had any contact with them. I had nothing to do with these NGOs. I never followed what they were doing. They never supported me in any of my activities.

You are running an NGO.

I am not running an NGO. I have a trust called SACCER [South Asian Community Centre for Education and Research] Trust. It is running a school. It is a legal requirement in Tamil Nadu to set up a trust to run a school.

Manmohan Singh said India’s nuclear power programme got into difficulties because NGOs, mostly based in the U.S., were working against it. Narayanasamy alleged that the NGOs, which were receiving money to do social service, were using it for anti-nuclear protests. You sent them legal notices because you said you were the convener of the movement and you assumed that these allegations were made against you. What happened to your legal notices? Did they reply to you?

Narayanasamy sent a reply to me, saying that he never made any such statement. The Prime Minister kept quiet. He never talked about this afterwards. There was absolutely no truth in that thing.

What thing?

That we received support from American and Scandinavian NGOs. I never had any help from Scandinavian NGOs…. My point is I never received even a single rupee from any Indian NGO or international NGO to conduct the struggle at Idinthakarai. For the past three years, they could not prove the allegations. If they prove the allegations, I am prepared to go to jail.

How have you been able to sustain the struggle?

First of all, it was funded by the local people. I have told you umpteen times that it was funded by fishermen, farmers, those who roll bidis, schoolchildren and people from many walks of life. Fishermen contributed 10 per cent of their income every two weeks. More importantly, ours was a Gandhian struggle, organised in a simple manner, in a frugal way. We did not raise any cut-outs, placards, banners or posters. You have seen the pandal and the frugal facilities we have at Idinthakarai. It was a down-to-earth, simple, people’s struggle. We did not have many requirements.

How do you plan to take the struggle forward?

I am doing anti-nuclear work as my duty. I see this anti-nuclear activity as the duty of an informed citizen in this democratic country. I do not have ulterior goals and hence I do not need any money from foreign countries or foreign agencies. India, being a highly and densely populated country, cannot afford to have a Fukushima-type of accident. So we are trying to prevent such calamities before they happen in India.

The third and fourth reactors are also going to come up at Kudankulam. Is this a setback to the PMANE?

We never started this struggle with the intention of physically stopping the plant. This is a democratic, peaceful movement, trying to raise people’s awareness about the dangers of nuclear power and nuclear weapons. We are hopeful this will happen sooner or later. We will change India’s nuclear policy. We do not expect results overnight. When educated and public-spirited people come forward and work for a public cause, they should not be insulted and hounded by the authorities. It is not good for our civil and political society.