Those who care to pause and observe would have perceived many interesting political developments in Tamil Nadu in the last few years. Of these, one of the most recent has been the student protests in support of investigating war crimes in Sri Lanka. Going by the reactions that one normally sees in the mass media, different events are perceived in isolation in the Indian media, resulting in some degree of empathy, some sympathy, but mostly dismissal, if not disparaging reactions, about the position of the state and how it has forced the foreign policy initiatives and so on. However, like many others, the recent phenomenon too calls for contextualization, through a sharper look at the events leading up to it.

There have been many explanations of what is happening in Tamil Nadu (TN) today. Anti-Hindi agitations, decades of Dravidian politics as well as various other subtle prejudices have given rise to perception of TN hinterlands in the Indian mind space as of hindrance to the integrity of the nation state. However, such views are not only prejudicial, but also start a self-fulfilling, reinforcing cycle. Various studies from leading researchers and scholars (for example,Tannenbaum,Goffman,Lemert,Becker andMemmi) have drawn attention to the negative and self-fulfilling effects of stigmatic labeling and social prejudice. That has not stopped the act of prejudice itself.

Students' protest in Tamil Nadu. Source: Youtube

But without going into that, merely by explaining this expression of student dissent in the larger socio-political context in TN, one can argue that the peaceful and politically meaningful expression of dissent is a healthy development in TN, as well as in greater Indian, political stage. This is in sharp contrast to popular negative connotations associated with these protests.

Brief History of Student Activism

Student activism around the world in the latter part of the sixties is legendary and it would be interesting to compare how it evolved in different parts of the world. There is nothing new really about student protests, as they have been around ever since modern universities were established. Students are documented to have been involved in the 1848 German revolutions and also the Argentinean university revolt of 1918. The latter, dubbed “Cordoba Manifesto of 1918” (in Argentina) was the first well-documented student declaration and paved the way to improvement of campus rights for students.

In the famous book by Fraser 1968: A Student Generation in Revolt, the author states that “from Prague to Paris, London to Tokyo, San Francisco to Peking, student revolts erupted with unforeseeable suddenness in the 1960s to challenge the existing order of society-a challenge which in many places took them to the brink of radically changing history itself.”

The US student protests were driven by Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement, often creating the perception that these protests were revolutionary left-aligned. Others were variously against the apartheid regime in South Africa, the military dictatorship in Greece and so on. With the slowdown of economies in the 70s, protests took a slightly different turn. The subsequent protests were self-centred and emphasised the importance of better welfare for students through protests, although some did tackle larger issues. In general, there were frequent violence and vandalism that accompanied these protests.

Yet, there is definitely reason to believe that most protests did eventuate in some benefits to the students’ cause, regardless of whatever the cause. At the very least, they elevated awareness on the issues that espoused.

Closer home, it must be noted that protests aimed at increasing the welfare of students have been occurring in the state throughout. Students often agitated when the mess food did not smell well or taste good. Then, there were also political protests sponsored by political parties occurring in selected college campuses, which while appearing to represent larger causes were essentially advancing the parties' agenda.

As in the 60s, the world is seeing structural changes today. We have seen more protests and demonstrations in the last two years than in the last 20 or so years. In India, Delhi rape case and anti-corruption issues have drawn large protests. Just like the student protests of the 60s, each protest and each location might espouse a different cause, but it is a sign of a slowly engaging public.

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However, what was missing was largely an independent element - the incidence of students coming together in protests that were centred around issues larger than themselves, and in independent fashion.

The last time that student protests independent of political affiliation and in favour of an issue larger than their immediate concern occurred, was in the 1960s, during the anti-Hindi agitations. At that stage, a major party announced that it would take over the mantle of the “fight” from the students, if only they would stop the protest and elect them. The rest is history. The price of that exchange was a brand of party-run politics (non-independent) that isolated the middle class.

The decline could also be partially attributed to prevailing socio-economic issues of the time. While protests were rising in the more developed western world, independent protests and civic participation in politics dwindled in India, including in Tamil Nadu. Unlike western worlds, which had seen a dramatic rise in prosperity in the 60s, due to slow changing, harder economic conditions, students in India were dependent on their parents, who espoused more compliant lifestyles.

Recent protests in Tamil Nadu

While the protests were started on a small scale on the largely apolitical Loyola campus, it spread throughout the state and beyond to encompass several locations outside the state, including Bangalore. Students from IIT-M and IIT-B had also staged protests. The protests spilled over into the general civic sphere where software engineers, lawyers, auto and lorry drivers’ unions, the Tamil Nadu Film Directors Association, the Tamil Nadu Film Producers Council, Koyambedu wholesale market traders (to name a few), joined hands to express solidarity.

During the protests, there were some incidents of violence that were largely disconnected with the stir of the student protagonists. One political party opposed to protests unleashed violence on the students, resulting in some injury. Some non-student fringe groups irresponsibly attacked Sri Lankan organizations, including the embassy in Chennai as well as pilgrims passing through the city.

Not with standing these, students themselves have, by and large, conducted themselves responsibly. While some of their demands, including that for having a referendum for Tamil self-determination are unlikely to be honoured, they have displayed political maturity in espousing their cause.

Regardless of the content, this event is significant for its structure and behaviour. It is a landmark independent event that spread spontaneously across the state, yet it was also well organized and conducted with moderation without degenerating into mindless violence.  However, perception of the student movement outside the state has not been entirely kind and many in the rest of India and Sri Lanka have variously said that these protests were organized by fringe elements, “riffraffs” and so on.

Explaining Protests within a framework

State wide protests, which we may also define as events of interest (EOIs) from the political point of view, can be explained as a product of several interacting factors/ forces. These could be classified as behavioural, structural, frictional (or inertial), emergent and trigger factors.

Within this framework, therefore, protests are viewed are not as mere accidents, but events that result from the interplay of the various above-mentioned factors.

One thing that has been pointed out as a causative event by both protagonists and antagonists to protests is the tragic murder of the young son of the LTTE leader, V. Prabhakaran. The young boy of 12 was allegedly captured by Sri Lankan military, given a snack and executed in cold blood. As some see it, this might be a trigger event, but more likely, this just tipped the scales on many things that had happened. One needs to look deeper into factors that underlie the resentment and other factors that contributed to it.

The primary context of this protest has been emotions about the Central government’s relationship with Sri Lanka. The latter has not only been embroiled in a long-standing conflict with Tamil residents of the Island, but also the Indian Tamil fisher-folks who venture into the shallow and narrow Palk Strait. One must also look at the larger contextual framework, where various social, technological, environmental, economic and political forces play.

Let us look at some of the disparate thread of events and forces that have been contributing to the sentiments of the people.

Technological and Information Factors: One begs to ask the question “Why Now” to which technological factors may provide an answer. Information dissemination, both in content and timing, has played a major role in this protest as well as several such protests that have been taking place in recent times. Information has always played a crucial role in the conflict in Lanka. Over the last 20 years leading up to the final war, the conflict in Sri Lanka was seldom discussed by major media players worth their salt in India. When it did get discussed, media was very soft on the Sri Lankan state, and that was not without reason. This censorship had many downsides, but nonetheless had one benefit, at least for the states. It preserved peace in the State of TN. It is a different matter that the other side of the coin was that information censorship, and in effect distortion, helped carry on the war without external pressures, except for an occasional article or so by some adventurous journalist.

Like any nation going through internal conflict, the Sri Lankan state had always wanted to censor its media. To a large extent, Lanka was successful at keeping the media controlled or out, but various international associations of journalists allege that it was achieved through nefarious tactics such as direct attacks on journalists and so on. According toReporters without Borders, even after the war in 2011-2012, Sri Lanka ranks at the bottom of press freedom at 163 among 179 countries. In 2013, it improved its rank by one spot by climbing to 162. Regardless, during the last phase of war, it managed to expel and control its media access as much as possible. So much so, that the war was described as a “war without witness”.

However, in today’s world, total insulation is impossible. Many international NGOs and newspapers increasingly got interested in the conflict, and by the time the final conflict arrived, many have been documenting as much as they could. On top of that, crowdsourcing of various kinds started contributing. Mobile films of human rights abuses, including those sourced from soldiers who recorded them as trophies, satellite images from the National Academy of Sciences, eye witness accounts mostly compiled by Channel 4 (a UK Television channel) started painting thehorrendous picture that this war was. Of late, some Indian channels started re-telecasting these, including with translations.

Compared to four years ago, today there is no dearth of information. There are books of interviews and eye witness accounts that tell the stories behind the war such as the one by Frances Harrison. There are also reports by UN panel of experts, international NGOs such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Asian Human Rights Commission to name a few. It must be noted that these pieces of evidence implicate both parties in the conflict for different war crimes of differing magnitude.

Thus availability of information has been one of the main causes of the shift in awareness. This information was effectively spread through multiple digital channels and eventually in social media, and also by some key human rights organizations such as May17, Manitham, TV channels such as Puthiya Thalaimurai, Sathyam TV, and political organizations such as MDMK (Vaiko V Gopalasamy), Naam Tamilar (Seeman), TNM (Pazha. Nedumaaran), Gandhiya Iyakkam (Tamizharuvi Manian), VCK (Thirumavalavan), Trichy Velusamy (formerly Janata & Congress parties), and Tamizhaga Vazhvurimai Katchi (T Velmurugan). TESO and several others played a key role too in disseminating the information in Tamil Nadu. The result was a population that was primed with information, unlike any other time in the past.

Sri Lanka and TN Fishermen Factor: In the south west, a series of issues pertaining to not only the Tamils across the Palk Strait, but also of the fishermen of India who are frequently attacked, and in some cases killed by Sri Lankan navy. Records by Save the Fishermen group (but not independently confirmed) put the death toll of fishermen to about 500. The number of attacks and arrests are much more. Even in 2011, well after the conflict, over 500 fishermen had been arrested and there has beenone incident in 2012 of an attack on fishermen. This is also an issue that is very close to home in southern Tamil Nadu. In addition to the scale, one more factor that provoked anger was comparison with Kerala and other states in similar matters. When Italian naval personnel shot two fishermen in Kerala water, the state was successful in bring them to court, while TN has been largely unsuccessful in garnering any support or punitive action in case of the TN fishermen. Such comparisons did not go down well in the state. After all, unequal distribution of misery hurts more.

Sri Lanka and War Crime Factor: Sri Lanka has had a long and abysmal track record in handling dissent. While the Tamil have been perceived as primary opponents of the state, the problem extends beyond the Tamil case to even Sinhalese insurgents and lately Muslims. While loss of civilian lives have dramatically decreased since the civil war ended, abuses allegedly continue even now and the government appears not to have learnt any lesson from 30 years of civil war and continues to sow division among communities. It is more a case of institutional failure and emergence of a pseudo-democracy. Neil Devotta describes this as a case of ethnic outbidding as leading to conflict. The factors appear to be endemic and structural in the country.

Yet, India has been supporting the Island nation steadfastly without urging to change the structural dynamics in a country with failed institutions. Even against mounting evidence, India initially displayed a lot of reluctance to support the US sponsored resolution. Later, under domestic pressure, including student protests and pressure from political parties, it acquiesced to supporting the resolution, but only after diluting the proposal considerably in favour of Sri Lanka. However, in the midst of a series of flip flops, India also sent a positive signal that it is a democracy and has to listen to domestic pressures. On the negative side, indecisiveness was conveyed by statements that swayed to and fro (first in support of Lanka, then in support of the US sponsored resolution, then verbal affirmations of support to Lanka, and finally a vote in favour of the resolution).

Water Resource Pressures: Although seemingly unrelated to the recent TN protests, contention for water resources has been a serious factor in the state - in the North, over Cauvery while in the west, it has been the Mullaperiyar dam issue.

The Cauvery River, above Hogenakkal Falls in Tamil Nadu Pic: Wikimedia

The Cauvery issue has been explored in detail in previous editions of India Together. Water is a scarce commodity and the states are going to contest, especially given that there is not enough for everybody anyway. However, how the ruling of the Supreme Court has been largely ignored by the State of Karnataka remains a thorn in southern Tamil Nadu, which has borne the brunt of water shortage.

In the Mullaperiyar issue, a sudden and largely unilateral proposal to relocate the water body has been viewed with suspicion and given rise to concern over the fact that it could end up depriving any water that TN now receives. Rumours of private land deals that would benefit from such relocation were another cause of anger. While the issue could be resolved amicably and reasonably, it was poorly managed, leaving people to wonder about the transparency of next steps and the consequences.

Nuclear Pressures: In the south, the Kudankulam nuclear issue plagues the state. The proximity to the nuclear site and party affiliations have been most important determinants of one’s attitude to nuclear plant. A majority among those in the metropolitan centres appear to favour any way of generating electricity. Some acknowledge the concerns, but see it as a necessary evil in a state that is unable to meet its energy needs, let alone supply to other states. However, those who are near the plant and those close to them feel that they are bearing the burden for the Centre’s whims and fancies, while benefits, if any, would be distributed to the rest of the country and overseas. They argue that the plant is not safe and contend that the power proposed to be generated from KKNP is not significant.

Protestors citeseveral reasons that protestors give for the anti-nuclear protests. To add fuel to fire, there areunconfirmed reports that power might be supplied to Sri Lanka as well. However, underpinning KKNP protests have been concerns that the nuclear plant is not safe.  Their view is supported by the fact that the future of nuclear plants all over the world is being hotly debated.

In all fairness, there are other nuclear plants operating in India, but that is not without controversy. Recently, several scientists wrote to the chief ministers of TN and Kerala alerting component defects and highlighting corruption related arrests of the Russian procurement director.

Other Protests: We have seen a climate of protests all over the world in recent years. The Occupy movement of the West, protests in Tunisia, Egypt’s Arab Springs, Anti-Corruption and Anti-Rape Protests in Delhi, Anti-Nuclear Protests all over India, protests against university fee hikes (all over the world at some time or another, but more recently in UK), the recent protests in Bangladesh and such have placed protest as a form of political expression right at the center.  Even repressive regimes have faced potential challenge, only to be thwarted. The success of these protests has shown that protests do not have to be spearheaded by a specific organization and certainly do not have to be politically-aligned.

Construction site of the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant Pic: International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)

Protests today

Thus, it is in the larger context of all these factors and realities that the student protests in the state have to be analysed. However, it has to be admitted that other issues such as Kudankulam or water had not drawn, on their own, as much student involvement as the recent Lankan issue. Perhaps, the reason is that these issues evoke somewhat divided response among students themselves, creating more localized concerns against the issue, while those at distance are yet to form an opinion or have a different opinion.

Recently, students had called for a protest against the Kudankulam project, but by then the Supreme Court had delivered its verdict, diffusing the spark, just as the anti-Lankan protests were called off when India reconsidered the issue. Policy makers and law makers must see this as a sign that the students are willing to engage in a dialogue regarding decisions by the government or judiciary.

It also has to be noted that public opinion does not always or necessarily lean towards one side. In the KKNP issue, an educational trust called Velammal Foundation has come out in support of the nuclear plant. A two day workshop was organized as Nuclear Energy Educational Meet (NEEM-2012). The success of the pro-KKNP movement and its impact on students is yet to be determined.

As in the 60s, the world is seeing structural changes today. We have seen more protests and demonstrations in the last two years than in the last 20 or so years. In India, Delhi rape case and anti-corruption issues have drawn large protests. Just like the student protests of the 60s, each protest and each location might espouse a different cause, but it is a sign of a slowly engaging public. Despite the loss of productivity that some might lament, if not anything else, peaceful protests do elevate the level of awareness on the issue, which is essential to a healthy democratic process. More importantly, it is also a signal to rest of the country or the world that the protesting group has grievances and people are concerned, as was suggested by Hirschman and as many examples have proven, but which is seldom understood by rulers.

In any organization including the state, any group with grievance has two choices. One, to voice its grievance and the other to simply exit, either mentally (removing itself from civic life) or physically from the membership in the organization or state. Voice is an opportunity to listen, negotiate and correct course. Unfortunately, any society that suppresses this basic need endangers itself by forcing its members to choose an exit.

In conclusion, therefore, one could conceive of different messages for various stakeholders in any form of protest:

  1. Students or other protesting groups: Protests are good, but make sure you do not let it degenerate into violence or choose the path of violence (in the recent protests, students seemed to have achieved this part well). Violence will only serve the very cause of your opponents whose actions you are trying to protest. Besides, not all protests have to be disruptive. Acts of civil disobedience still bears, albeit limited, fruit. One of the main achievements of today’s protests is that they signal to the “opponent” the coalescence of democratic action and information dissemination. Both could be equally, if not better, achieved by positive protests.
  2. Government, bureaucrats and power holders: It is inadvisable to disrupt protests using force, as it is so often being done today. This only results in further alienation. It is important to listen to the constituency - they have a legitimate grievance. And significantly, there could be more grievances than what is articulated in single-interest protest sessions.
  3. Media: Voice is good. Encourage it, rather than being dismissive or disparaging. Protests become meaningful if the issue is well-debated by everyone concerned, rather than selective participants who support chosen hypotheses or agendas. The debate on issues has to spread farther and wider.