Originally Published 2012-12-24 00:00:00 Published on Dec 24, 2012
Tamil Nadu has a history of Dalit-centric violence, which has erupted independently in the southern districts, and also the western Dharmapuri belt, where Naxalites have thrived and revived from time to time.
Increasing internal security concerns in Tamil Nadu
"Until now, we protested in peaceful manner, upholding our principle of non-violence," The Hindu quoted S P Udayakumar, 'the face of the anti-nuclear protests in Koodamkulam', Tamil Nadu, not very long ago. "But if governments do not respect that, the message going to youngsters is that henceforth, only Maoism will work in India."

Prophetic, Udayakumar already may have been. There has been a sprinkling of whom the State police identified and detained a few as Maoists in the vicinity of Koodamkulam protests over the previous months, and as part thereof. Maoists were not the only ones who have identified with the anti-nuclear protests in the south Tamil Nadu coastal village. Pan-Tamil political parties and groups, Islamic parties and groups, and a host of other activists have been part of the campaign that is almost a year old - but dying, though not dead.

Better or worse still, the Koodamkulam protests have also thrown up a new crop of civil protestors in the State. After the local protests against the State Government's decision to acquire and hand over 12,000 acres of mineral sands to the Tatas not very far away from Koodamkulam a few years ago, environment had become a protestors' concern in Tamil Nadu. But unlike those in West Bengal around the time, the Tamil Nadu protests died their natural death after the then DMK Government quickly withdrew its commitment to the Tatas, and the latter too exited gracefully.

Koodamkulam is thus an environmental concern in its own way, both inside and outside the State. And unlike the earlier protest, there was no question of compensating land-owners, over which too there were protests. In Koodamkulam, the protests of the individual kind relates to livelihood concerns of the local fisher-folk. It is another matter that some section of the society will be affected some way whenever a development project has to be undertaken - owing to land-acquisition, water-diversion, mass evacuation and/or sudden and greater urbanisation. Koodamkulam happens to be all that and more.

The local fishing community, which feared loss of catch and consequently family incomes as and when the Russian-aided nuclear plant goes on-stream has attracted the attention of other interest and identity groups, not only in Tamil Nadu but also elsewhere in the country and outside. A German had to be deported, and other foreigners too had to be persuaded to leave the trouble-spot after they were seen as showing excessive interest in the protests and the protestors.

'Sea of Protests'

Lying close to the sea, not off the Sri Lankan coast - which continues to be a cause for concern though the ethnic war itself has ended in that country -- the novel methods adopted by the Koodamkulam-Idinthakarai fishers should have alerted the security agencies, both of the Centre and the State. Out-numbering the security personnel on the seas and possibly out-witting them too, owing to their in-born skills and inherent knowledge of the local seas, the protesting fishers have exposed the chinks in the armour of the security agencies, by launching a boats-bound protest one day, threatening to land on the heavily-guarded nuclear plant from the seas on another day, and so on.

If the Koodamkulam protests did not turn violent beyond the one day when a policeman's gun was reportedly stolen by a protestor, it owes to the high-level of security preparations that went with the agitations. More importantly, it also owed to a kind of discipline displayed by the protestors in general and their leaders in particular. The fact of pre-announced protests put the security agencies, both of the State and the Centre, on the alert. Yet, nothing untoward was either planned or precipitated.

The sea-bound protests thus have alerted the security agencies to the possibilities in the future from this or other sources. The lessons learnt from the 'exercise', if it could be uncharitably described as one, should be consolidated, for coordinated handling of 26/11 kind of sea-bound attacks of the kind, not just along the Tamil Nadu coast (where no specific threats seem to exist) but also elsewhere in the country. These protests were different from the fishers' protests in the immediate vicinity elsewhere in the State, who were have often kept off the seas, against alleged attacks by Sri Lanka Navy (SLN) personnel.

Until not very long ago, the security agencies in the country were alive to the possibilities of the LTTE's 'Sea Tigers' wing targeting strategic installations along the Tamil Nadu coast. For a time, there was also a theoretical possibility of the nascent air-wing of the LTTE too doing so. Such threats have receded since the conclusion of 'Eelam War IV' in the State. Yet, through the first phase of the 'Eelam Wars', the LTTE had a free run of Tamil Nadu, and not just the coasts. The reasons have been studied in-depth, and lessons, hopefully learnt. There was as much bureaucratic connivance as political compassion, bordering on perceptions of electoral compulsions this side of the Palk Strait.

As if this were not enough, lately there has been a noticeable increase of 'LTTE revival', post-Geneva in particular. The cause owes to the inability and/or unwillingness of the Sri Lankan stake-holders, starting with the State but not excluding the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the majority party of the 'Sri Lankan Tamil' community in the country. Translated to ground reality, it has led to the arrest of four Sri Lankan Tamils in a Chennai suburb who were reported to be in touch with their former LTTE colleagues in the island-nation, planning terror-blasts in that country, and training for them in interior Tamil Nadu.

The Tamil anti-terrorist Q-Branch of the Tamil Nadu police has expanded coordination with Central agencies like the IB to include their Sri Lankan counterpart, yet for every breakthrough, there may lie other 'sleeper cells' in the State. Better or worse still, any future use of Indian territory by pro-LTTE elements in Sri Lanka and the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora would not be confined to Tamil Nadu. It could also involve mercenary suppliers from the Indian-origin Tamils from countries as diversified as Malaysia and South Africa - who have a grouse of their own against the 'motherland' but their perceptions of frustration on this score still directed towards Sri Lanka, thanks to the effective LTTE propaganda machinery.

The end-game of the hunt for the Rajiv Gandhi assassins was played out in a Bengaluru suburb in neighbouring Tamil Nadu. Some of the accused in the case had been based out of the national capital. The first major police breakthrough in the revival of weapons-parts smuggling for the LTTE in the course of the concluding 'Eelam War-IV (2006-09) traced the supply-point to Mumbai. More recently, the Sri Lankan Tamil 'boat people' readied to be smuggled to Australia have been apprehended in Kerala.

In recent years, there have been reports of Pakistani ISI being active in Sri Lanka, and targeting peninsular India. The commonality of Tamil as a link language across the Palk Strait is a tempting proposition and opportunity for the likes of ISI. But other avenues exist. The hunt for the LTTE killers of Rajiv Gandhi in Tamil Nadu ended in Bangalore suburbs in neighbouring Karnataka. Through 'Eelam War IV' and later too, the LTTE first and the Sri Lankan Tamil refugees seeking better pastures outside of the South Asian region have used Kerala too as their base.

Not very long ago, security agencies nabbed an 'ISI operative' near Tiruchi in Tamil Nadu, who being handled by an employee of the Pakistani Embassy in Colombo. Given the high tourist flows into Sri Lanka from across South India and the highest number of air-connectivity and sea-transport between any two South Asian nations, the whole of peninsular India has become vulnerable. The nation's strategic assets like Koodamkulam become a tempting and natural target, and the sea-route, a preferred route.

If the ISI, for instance, were to lay off Koodamkulam, it may owe to the Russian connections, which nation Pakistani agents may not want to upset. The same cannot be said about other strategic assets along the South Indian coast and beyond. Post facto, Anyone closely monitoring the sea-protests in Koodamkulam would have also learnt their lessons just as the security agencies would have done, though neither might have been the intention of the protest leaders.

The unanticipated yet coordinated protests by 20-odd Islamic groups outside the US Consulate-General in Chennai, not far away from the residence of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, recently had a lesson in it for the security agencies. For days in a row, the protests turned violent without any immediate provocation - in turn provoking the police to forcibly push back the protestors. The quick and effective cooperation among the protestors and their equally unexpected coordination at all levels had a message of its own. Universality of issues, commonality of approaches and the competitive concern for attracting the youth in particular have been amplified by external interests and funding, as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh indicated in the case of the Koodamkulam protests.

It is thus not only 'environmental issues' of the Koodamkulam variety that are at the heart of emerging trends of public protests that tend to turn violent. Nonetheless they provide the opportunity for such groups to identify with a wider variety of causes than their original ideology, agenda and/or mandate may have provided for. Improvising on emerging situations, these groups are not known to miss out on opportunities when they present themselves.

Older and existing causes, at times with no relevance whatsoever to the ground situation in Tamil Nadu - as the 'Islamic cause' - too have had their reverberations in the State. In the first half of 2012, the State police nabbed a dozen or so jihadis from various parts of the country being trained in a camp, off the southern coastal temple-town of Rameswaram. This is after Tamil Nadu was witness to a host of 'Islamic bombings' through the Eighties and Nineties, culminating mainly in the anti-Muslim 'Coimbatore riots (November 1997) and the anti-Hindutva 'Coimbatore serial blasts' (February 1998).

Caste clashes too cause for concern

The State has a history of Dalit-centric violence, too, which has erupted independently in the southern districts, and also the western Dharmapuri belt, where Naxalites have thrived and revived from time to time. As elsewhere, there is a caste-cum-class angle to leftist militancy in the State. Not all caste clashes end up in the revival of Maoist militancy. Yet, the constant revival of caste clashes, involving local Dalit sub-sects on the one hand and the equally localised militant intermediary castes on the other, have impacted on policing and poll-politics alike.

As part of the erstwhile Madras Presidency under the colonial British rulers, and the subsequent conversion of the same into 'Part A' State by the same name after Independence, Tamil Nadu has had a chequered history of political Left. The indigenisation of the political Left into more identifiable political parties (like the DMK in Tamil Nadu) too may have contributed to peripheral extremist groups taking to militancy, as Udayakumar has now indicated. The same is true of pan-Tamil groups from the pre-Independence, Justice Party era.

In the aftermath of the 'Naxalbari movement', Tamil Nadu was among the States where what is now Maoist violence took roots along with neighbouring Kerala - and Andhra Pradesh, where it graduated or diversified from political Left, and stayed put. More than the other two States, it is in Tamil Nadu, where the Maoist militants seem to be relatively more active in Tamil Nadu. From time to time, the State police, at times with the assistance or tip-off from Central agencies, has nabbed Maoist militants from other parts of the country.

With parliamentary polls due not very long from here, the State could be witness to high-calibre electoral campaign, what with 14-hour power-cuts across the State, barring the capital city of Chennai (two-hours daily with full-day 'maintenance shut-down every week or so), occasioning local groups of otherwise trouble-free citizens taking to the streets and protesting instantaneously on this and other issues and concerns, almost on a daily basis but in different towns and villages. The continuing ethnic tension - as different from ethnic violence - in Sri Lanka, and water-sharing disputes with all three neighbours, namely, Karnataka (Cauvery dispute) Kerala (Mullaperiyar dam row) and Andhra Pradesh (Krishna waters issue) have tended to lend a pan-Tamil angle of denial and dejection, where none may have existed otherwise.

These are only straws in the wind, but the wind, if and when it blows hot and heavy, may have consequences, the like of which may have contributed to the tilting of electoral results too, as in the Tamil Nadu of 1991 (Rajiv Gandhi assassination) and 1998 (Coimbatore serial blasts).

(The writer is Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation)

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N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy is a policy analyst and commentator based in Chennai.

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