Women denied bail, face sedition trial for nuclear power opposition in India

Xavieramma is arrested after being chased into the sea, September 10. Photo via countercurrents.org

The popular movement to prevent the start-up of India’s Koodankulam nuclear power station has so far succeeded, but at the cost of demonstrators’ lives and mass arrests. Three women from the neighboring fishing village of Idinthakarai remain in jail, denied bail and charged with multiple offenses including sedition. The region for miles around the reactor remains under state siege. Police at checkpoints and in sand-bagged bunkers are keeping thousands of indicted villagers and leaders of the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE) from leaving the area at India’s southern tip, and foreign media and supporters from entering. Tensions remain high. The latest postponement has pushed back the projected date for the reactor to begin critical chain reaction only to mid-December.

Nuclear fuel loading began on September 19 while protest continued in nearby cities. After meeting with village councils, PMANE called on boats to block the port at Tuticorin, 60 miles distant, on September 22, or organize boat rallies and Jal [water] Satyagraha in their respective villages. On the day, some 3,000 fisherfolk in more than 500 boats peacefully blocked the approach channel for three hours.

Another siege of the plant was called for October 8. One thousand boats raised slogans and flags against the plant as they again gathered in the water for the daylong protest.

Reports from the conflict prompted an 11-member fact-finding team from Jawaharlal Nehru University to head for Koodankulam on October 12. They were stopped and forced from a public bus at a checkpoint 40km from the plant. The group was then interrogated for 11 hours and held for eight days in various jails before release on bail, charged with an assortment of offenses including singing obscene songs.

A bail hearing on October 18 resulted in the release of 47 villagers jailed since clashes in early September, but denied bail to Xavieramma, Sundari, and Selvi, three women identified as leaders among those arrested in the September 10 melee.

A few days earlier Anitha S., a supporter living in nearby Kerala state, visited the women at the jail. She quotes Selvi: “We have been here for over a month. We get charged with new cases every time we are taken to the court. It is only after being part of the struggle that we realized that trying to establish one’s right to live as one wishes, pursuing traditional livelihoods and also questioning activities that are being implemented without consulting the people is equivalent to crime and sedition.”

Xavieramma told her, “When I was in Delhi for the Public Hearing on Nuclear Energy in August 2012, I saw that there are so many people in various parts of the country who are raising their protest. It is not just about losing their land and sea, but it is about the creation of spaces where life itself is in danger. Who would want to live in such places?”

PMANE called on supporters across Tamil Nadu to march on the opening of the state legislature on October 29 in Chennai. Police again responded with preventive detention on a mass scale, making over 2,000 arrests but failing to prevent over 10,000 from marching. Those arrested were released later in the evening.

Police have also detained and deported foreign nationals who seek to support and report on the movement. Australian filmmaker David Bradbury and his family, and German journalist Weiland Wagner, have reported being stopped in the area, held for hours, and questioned about their activities and told to leave the area. Three Japanese activists never made it out of the airport before being sent back home. Their emails with Indian activists were being read by police, who were awaiting their arrival.

World Fisheries Day, November 21, provided the next opportunity for widespread protest along the affected coastline. Sundari’s daughter Shyamili led the celebratory procession from Idinthakarai to nearby Thomayarpuram. After listening to the women in Idinthakarai, Anitha S. put their spoken words on paper:

Till now, many of us were not aware that there is such a day as World Fisheries Day which is being observed all over the world by people living by the sea. It is this unique struggle of ours that has made us knowledgeable about the concerns and thoughts of the world. Through the pain and desperation of fighting to live our simple, safe lives, we have gained the strength of knowledge and consciousness about how our lives are connected to the world…

We stood there with our friends from Koodankulam, Kootapulli, Thomayarpuram and many other smaller hamlets and felt the strength of anti-nuclear movements in other parts of the world pouring in. We then walked to the seashore with the banners and stood waist deep in the waters. The sea seemed calmer, the sun milder and the wind gentle and cool. In a moving gesture of reverence, the people of Thomayarpuram brought in pots of milk and flowers and poured it into the ocean. We realised that the sea is our mother, upon which our lives are so dependent. Were we asking pardon or were we seeking her blessings as the waters turned white with the milk?

In late November, police filed four more charges against Sundari, including two more counts of sedition. Updates on the anti-nuclear movement in Tamil Nadu and elsewhere in India can be found regularly at www.countercurrents.org and www.dianuke.org.

Support action

Because of continuing slander that the protests are funded and directed by foreigners, combined with charges of sedition and waging war against the state lodged against Xavieramma, Sundari, Selvi and others, letters addressed directly to the three women at Trichy Prison are NOT desired, for fear they could compound their trouble. Instead, supporters are asked to send letters or emails to the following officials, urging action to grant the women bail so they can return to their community and families while awaiting trial. Selvi Jayalalitha, Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, Fort St. George, Chennai 600 009, INDIA or email at cmcell@tn.gov.in; and Ms. Mamta Sharma, Chair of the National Commission on Women, No. 4 Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Marg, New Delhi 110 002, INDIA or email at chairperson-ncw@nic.in.