Politics & Economy

Tamil Nadu student upsurge: A Tamil Spring?

The spark which has ignited the students’ rage in Tamil Nadu against the United States-sponsored United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolution on Sri Lanka and India’s eventual support to it began in one of the most unlikely places, the Loyola College at Chennai. The academic excellence of the college, most believe, is a result of its depoliticised student body. Shattering the myth convincingly, on 8 March, eight young students from the college – Dileepan (18), Britto (20), Anthony George (20), Ramesh alias Paarvai Dasan (20), Paul Kenneth (20), Manikandan (19), Shanmugapriyan (19), and Leo Stalin (20) – went on an indefinite hunger strike demanding the implementation of a seven-point charter.

The charter demanded, among other things, a proactive role by the union government for an independent probe into the war crimes committed by the Sri Lankan army at the end of Eelam war in 2009, a referendum on the demand for an independent Tamil state of Eelam and the imposition of economic sanctions on Sri Lanka. As if to “humour” P Chidambaram, the union finance minister who happens to be an alumnus of the college, the students promised a non-cooperation movement mobilising the people of Tamil Nadu not to pay taxes to the union government. Smelling a political opportunity, politicians – including those from the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the Congress whose direct and indirect complicity in the Sri Lankan war crimes needs no mention – made a beeline to the venue of the fast. But for K V Thangabalu, the former TNCC president, who was heckled with anti-Congress slogans, most of them were politely welcomed; yet their overtures were unrequited. The students’ resolve was to keep their protest unsullied by time-serving politicians.

In a midnight operation, reminiscent of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) government’s past style, the Tamil Nadu state police broke the fast on its fourth day. For them, four days were more than enough. Not only did the fasting students receive support from students from other colleges, but it also triggered and galvanised a state-wide students’ protest against the UNHRC resolution. Thousands of them from arts and sciences as well as engineering and medical colleges took to the streets in different parts of the state, small towns were no exception. The protest in which young men and women participated in equal strength took varied forms – posters and pamphlets, hunger strikes, processions, human-chains, effigy-burning, rail and road rokos, and siege of central government offices.

Significantly, schoolchildren, accompanied by their teachers and carrying pictures of the 12-year-old Balachandran, who was shot dead in captivity during the Eelam war, too conducted their own protest marches. Parents and teachers, sharing the students’ concerns, tacitly endorsed their action. After all, three senior staff of the Loyola College kept vigil at the venue where the students fasted.

The fringe could not hold out for long. They soon joined the mainstream. Sixty-nine students from IIT-Madras, a campus where the only authorised political activity hitherto has been protesting against caste-based reservation a la the Youth for Equality and P V Indiresan, expressed their solidarity with the sentiments on the streets by observing a day-long hunger strike. About 40 of the students who sat in fast were from north India; and Som Prakash Singh, an MLA from Bihar, addressed the students. Posters giving details of the Sri Lankan conflict and its consequences for the Island Tamils adorned the campus. They were in seven languages, including Tulu. The IIT-M administration did not disapprove of the protest. Also, the IT professionals working in some of the IT majors conducted a human chain protest along Chennai’s IT-corridor. No less than 150 IT professionals took on themselves the task of distributing pamphlets on Sri Lankan war crimes to the suburban train passengers. They sought the passengers’ support for the student movement.

New Political Literacy

A slice of Tamil Nadu’s past may not be out of place here. In 1939, C Rajagopalachari, the premier of the Madras Presidency, ridiculed on the floor of the Madras Legislative Council the first anti-Hindi martyr L Nadarajan, who died in prison: “It was due to his illiteracy that he picketed and it was due to his picketing that he happened to be in jail, but his illness was certainly due to other causes”. The Congressmen did not miss Rajagopalachari’s gruesome humour about a dead man; and they laughed. Similarly, referring to the 1965 anti-Hindi agitation in Tamil Nadu, T N Seshan once observed, “Mobs of illiterate and semi-literate Tamil people, mostly poor, lapsed into fits of fury in the cause of so remote a language, English.” It is no longer a story of illiterate and semi-literate mobs. Things have indeed changed – perhaps because of decades of reservation for the underprivileged in educational institutions. The national media which played blind about the protest woke to the reality, though fleetingly, when the students of IIT and IT professional joined the agitation.

At the peak of the agitation, over two lakh students were on the streets.

The symbolisms which accompanied the agitation are important. The flag of the LTTE and pictures of the slain LTTE leader, Velupillai Pirabhakaran, had a constant presence in the students’ agitation. Yet, this was not a call to arms but an act of clinging on to a memory of the Island Tamils’ decades-long struggle against the Sri Lankan majoritarian state. The students’ demand was to conduct a referendum among the Island Tamils and the Tamil diaspora on the question of Eelam. It may be remembered here that it was the moderate Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), under the leadership of Appapillai Amirthalingam, which sought a mandate for a separate Tamil state by means of a vote during the 1977 Sri Lankan general election. In addition, the flag of the LTTE, an organisation banned by the central government, asserted the students’ defiance against the Indian state and the Congress Party.

It is not the pictures of Pirabhakaran but the poignant images of Balachandran before and after his killing were the ones which mobilised the students, children, and indeed the wider public. Also, the black shirt, a polyvalent symbol of Tamils’ degradation introduced by Periyar E V Ramsamy among his cadres during the days of the Self-Respect Movement, was ubiquitous in student protests. The newness of the protest did not, thus, abandon all past inheritances.

New Leadership

Significantly, the students’ agitation has thrown up a new young leadership, men and women, in Tamil Nadu. Listening to Shanmugapriyan alias Chembian of the Loyola College or Divya of the Dr Ambedkar Law College (the erstwhile Madras Law College) in television talk clearly shows that here is a new generation of Tamils which is imagining new political futures. Self-assured, articulate and well-informed, they could rattle ill-informed TV anchors without batting an eyelid and confidently talk of Geneva convention and Article 370 of the Indian Constitution. Their understanding of politics too is complex. For instance, they are deeply aware of the politics that the media has played and continues to play. A large flex banner which was used in one of the demonstrations read, “Genocide of Tamils in Sri Lanka. The Official Media Partner: The Hindu”. Indeed, a brilliant summary of the newspaper’s shameless role in defending the Mahinda Rajapaksa’s genocidal regime. The students’ agitation is slowly acquiring organisational structures. One among them, Tamileelam Viduthalai Manavargal Iyakkam (Students Federation for Free Eelam), works on the basis of collective leadership, student teams, and a think tank.

If the DMK chief M Karunanidhi, whose contribution to stop the civilian deaths during the last phase of the war in Sri Lanka in 2009 was a four-hour farce on the sands of Marina Beach which he and his party calls a protest fast, had to leave the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), he had no other option. As the DMK MP and the party’s official spokesperson T K S Elangovan confessed, “The atmosphere in Tamil Nadu is too charged. It is a burning issue. We can’t afford to be isolated.” It is not the DMK which reduced the UPA to a minority, but the credit for that should go to the protesting students of Tamil Nadu. If the Tamil Nadu chief minister and the leader of the AIADMK, J Jayalalithaa, who earlier described the civilian deaths in the Eelam war as unavoidable collateral damage, had to endorse all the demands of the student agitators in the form of a state assembly resolution, she too did not have any other option. Political parties no longer lead but are being led – at least for the moment.

If the Congress nurtured hopes of a political future in Tamil Nadu, it is no doubt bleak. The fear and frustration of the party functionaries in Tamil Nadu is all too evident. The spectres of 1967 when student campaigners ensured the defeat of the Congress stalwart K Kamaraj and reduced the party to irrelevance in the state might be haunting them. The senior Congress leader E V K S Ilangovan, facing the cameras in the studio of Puthiya Thalaimurai (New Generation), a new Tamil television channel which takes up issues ignored by the mainstream media, accused the channel of being a front for the LTTE and threatened CBI raids on the channel. Elsewhere, he has declared that the Congress would bring out short films and posters explaining its contribution to the Island Tamils’ cause during the past five years. Going by the social media postings, the new generation of Tamils hope – of course, in jest – that these will include the Congress contribution to the war crimes in Sri Lanka too.

M S S Pandian teaches at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Kalaiyarasan A is a PhD scholar at the Centre for Studies in Regional Development in the same university.

© Economic & Political Weekly