Kudankulam: Between the Devil and Deep Sea, Literally

Trigger- happy police went berserk on September 9 on the Kudankulam seashore against men, women and children

Vijayan MJ and Bhargavi DilipKumar Kudankulum/ Delhi 

The 24-year struggle of Kudankulam has always faced varied forms of repression, ranging from police firing to denial of basic rights like right to food and free movement. Hence, the events that unfolded on September 9, 2012, after the declaration of fuel loading at the plant, should be seen in the light of this history.

This movement was one of the early ones to be fired upon by the police in 1988, when fishworkers took out a rally to save water, sea and life from potential nuclear dangers. The ‘fisher folk’ still remember their martyrs and those who were severely injured during that struggle. 

It was on the evening of September 9, that people gathered in large numbers near the plant site and started a sit-in demonstration. The immediate provocation was the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board’s (AERB) clearance to commence nuclear fuel loading in the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant (KKNP). The Madras High Court (HC) judgment on August 30, 2012, cleared the deck for the commissioning of Units I & II of KKNPP, not mindingthe fact that 11 out of 17 safety measures suggested by AERB were not implemented. 

Following the high court orders, the Nuclear Power Corporation India Limited (NPCIL) planned to load fuel. The fear among the people was transparent; decommissioning of the plant would become a lot more difficult once the reactors got loaded.

A long march of people from Idinthakarai to the nuclear plant site started on September 9 — from the local church premises where the movement has been based. Almost 8,000 people, including children and women from neighbouring villages, were part of the rally. They walked down the coastal path, avoiding the road route, and were stopped by the police 800 metres from the plant. The protesters sat down on the seashore and continued their protest. 

SP Udayakumar, convener of the struggle committee, announced that they wanted the Tamil Nadu government to intervene and respond to their demands. The demonstration continued overnight, with a large number of the protesters staying put on the seashore.

On September 10, a large police contingent, with paramilitary forces, arrived. They allegedly threatened the crowd with serious consequences, arrests and criminal charges for illegal assembly (under prohibitory Section 144). The police force, armed with tear gas weapons, automatic guns and mounted trucks, had a large number of women constables, indicating that the women protesters would be dealt with sternly. 

The People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE) has been fighting false cases filed against them for many months. With more than 6,000 people charged with various criminal cases — including sedition charges, the threat of another case for illegal assembly would not hold them back anymore. 

The protesters were largely from the fishing hamlets of Idinthakarai, Kudankulam, Kuthankuzhi, Kuttapuzhi, Valliyoor, and other villages. They demanded that the NPCIL and government clear their fears relating to safety and fulfil the safety requirements before any fuel loading at the plant. At around 10.30 am, the police reportedly made announcements seeking dispersal of the crowd — failing which they would use force. Interestingly, even the countdown was telecast live on news channels. Even while the countdown was going on, the protesters say, police started firing tear gas shells. The crackdown grew worse and people started running towards the sea. Many were injured in that day’s attack, which lasted for several hours. 

(The recent fact-finding team headed by Justice Kotse Patil has confirmed that the tear-gas shells had expired chemicals and were taken from old stocks. This explains the serious damage to the skin, eye irritation and nausea suffered by a number of protesters. The impact was worst on children and infants.) 

“A small commotion over policemen pushing two youths started and a few women shouted at the policemen. A crowd gathered around them immediately. Police then ran towards us and started indiscriminate lathicharge. Even before we could realise, tear-gas shells were lobbed directly at all of us and the worst hit were women and our small children,” said a protester. 

Caught between a tide of armed police and the ocean, the only resistance to this one-way violence came from women and children who tried to throw sand at the cops to escape lathi blows. Men jumped into the sea to save themselves. The Rapid Action Force personnel were caught on TV pelting stones, sticks and slippers. They were heard threatening those wading in the sea with death and bodily harm upon their return to the beach. 

Three women protesters, Xavier Amma, Selvi and Sundari, were arrested. They were picked up when they were running towards the sea. Sahaya Initha, a prominent leader and a ward councillor, was badly injured. 

Anthony Sami, 44, a fisherman from Manapadu village of Tuticorin, was killed in the police firing while he was out fetching diabetes medicine for his wife, Buella

Udayakumar, whohad by then been moved out by villagers, told a TV channel that he was shot at. The incident was confirmed by by-standers who said that cops fired at the fibre boat in which Udayakumar was attempting to leave. 

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: OCTOBER 2012