April 6, 2012

Don’t lose the plot now

The continuing efforts to criminalise protests against the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Project and portray all opposition to nuclear energy as anti-national must be unequivocally condemned. For over seven months, a popular protest, with wide public participation, went on in the vicinity of Kudankulam without a single incident of violence. An indefinite fast against the Tamil Nadu government‘s decision to facilitate the commissioning of the plant has now been given up, but low-key protests continue. The government has managed to get the project going again after months of inactivity. Yet, the State has shown no compunction in invoking drastic legal provisions — such as those relating to waging war against the government, and sedition — against key participants in the agitation. The police in Tamil Nadu are preparing formally to lay serious charges against those perceived to have “instigated” the anti-nuclear agitation; the only concession they seem to make to the rights guaranteed by the Constitution of India is to promise that those who ‘innocently’ participated in the protests will not be prosecuted. Regardless of one’s opinion about the desirability of nuclear power, the imputation that organising protests against a nuclear plant amounts to waging war on the State or promoting disaffection against the government has no place in a democracy.

Non-governmental organisations linked to the protesters are facing a probe about whether foreign contributions meant for charity were diverted to fund the agitation. This may be explained as a legitimate exercise by the Union Home Ministry, which regulates the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act. However, the spate of arrests by the State police and the plan to prosecute protesters under extraordinary provisions of the law give the impression of a witch hunt. Also disturbing is the tendency to seek to demonstrate that ‘extremists’ or ‘Maoists‘ have infiltrated the protests. A government that went out of the way to ensure peace during the prolonged agitation and which gave a necessary pause to the project until its full implications were explained to the public should not lose the plot now and waste its energies on pursuing the prosecution of protesters, be they the ones derisively dubbed “professional agitators” or those supposedly duped into participating in agitations. The larger issue of keeping the people on board always and allaying fears about safety is a long-term obligation that the Central and State governments cannot evade. Nothing can be more perverse than pursuing punitive measures used by colonial rulers in the pre-Independence era to repress democratic protests against the decisions and policies of elected governments.