By Nityanand Jayaraman
A few days ago, India celebrated its 60th year of parliamentary democracy. Meanwhile, in many corners of the country, democracy was being celebrated through the fundamental acts of standing up and speaking out. In Jagatsinhpur, Orissa, a community had closed itself within the village of Dhinkia refusing to yield to police pressure, enticements and threats, and refusing to allow the Korean steel major POSCO to take over their fertile lands to set up a steel plant. A courageous tribal teacher – Soni Sori – is being treated in a hospital in Delhi. She celebrated democracy by speaking out against maoists and the armed police in Chattisgarh. For this, the police shoved stones down her vagina, after our judiciary in Delhi handed her over to police custody despite her fears that she’d be tortured in custody. The survivors in Bhopal — who have seen nearly a dozen prime ministers and their false promises, more than a 1000 demonstrations, several dozen hunger strikes, more than 2000 kms in padayatras — staged a rail blockade last December, a few days before the 26th anniversary of the disaster. They wished to pressure the State Government and the Indian Government to present true figures of the numbers of people injured or killed. The state response was brutal: lathi charge, tear gas lobbed. Cases of attempt to murder and wielding deadly weapons were lodged against more than 2000 people, including 80-year old women barely capable of wielding their walking sticks.
In Koodankulam, Tamilnadu, fisherfolk, farmers and traders who are voicing their concerns over the risks posed by a nuclear power plant in their neighbourhood are being hounded by the State. A total of 287 FIRs have been filed in just one police station – Koodankulam P.S. – between September 2011 and April 2012 implicating more than 55000 people. The criminal charges foisted on them range from unlawful assembly to sedition and waging war against the state. At least 3500 people are known to have been charged with sedition and waging war against the state. Details of 178 FIRs are not yet available. FIRs are not being disclosed. One has to go to court to get a copy of the FIRs. Holding demonstrations, conducting hall meetings, printing posters, distributing handbills and voicing opinions critical of nuclear energy [are all] banned in the district of Tirunelveli. The restrictions are relaxed as you move away from the epicentre. But they can still be felt even in Chennai where the police denies permission for protests against nuclear energy.
Such a crackdown on free speech needs to be condemned by all who set store by democratic values. But we live in curious times. Even the media condones this intrusion into the most fundamental of constitutional rights. The media rightly resisted the dangerous proposals by the Supreme Court or the Press Council chairman to regulate and control media freedom in this country. Yet the same media condones and even participates in the denial of [the rights of] Idinthakarai residents to speak out against a project that they feel will change their lives forever, for the worse. Regardless of one’s point of view on nuclear energy, the assault on free speech requires greater scrutiny and critique.
On 14 May, 2012, Chennai Solidarity Group for Koodankulam Struggle organised a public hearing. Justice (Retd) A.P. Shah, former Chief Justice of Madras and Delhi High Courts, presided over the hearings. Advocate Geeta Ramaseshan and Prof. Prabha Kalvimani assisted him. In the course of the hearings, members of People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy deposed live from Idinthakarai over skype. Supreme Court advocate Prashant Bhushan deposed live from Delhi over skype. Twelve people from villages around Idinthakarai spoke about how their lives have been made living hell by the police and intelligence officers. Lawyers assisting and observing the abuse of the Indian Penal Code submitted analyses of the cases against the protestors. Human Rights Protection Committee, the organisation that is assisting the protestors with their bail applications, presented an analyses and their experiences, while People’s Union of Civil Liberties made a submission on the absurdity of the cases filed. Meera Udayakumar, wife of PMANE convenor S.P. Udayakumar, and Porkodi, wife of Muhilan, an activist that has been in jail and denied bail since 19 March, spoke about the harassments and psychological trauma they have faced in the last few months. Revathi, a friend of Satish Kumar – the other young activist jailed for having the gumption to speak out – spoke about how Satish was blindfolded and beaten, hand-cuffed and led to court as if he was a terrorist. All this, for the crime of speaking out.
The public hearing was livestreamed, and a recorded version of the proceedings can be viewed at livestream.com.
Below is the transcript of the interim statement given by Justice (Retd) AP Shah to the media at a press briefing after the public hearing. The final report is to be released within a week.
STATEMENT OF JUSTICE AJIT PRAKASH SHAH
It is very easy for all of us – I stay in Delhi; I need a/c; I need electricity as do all of you from Madras. We are away from Koodankulam. Those 70,000 farmers and those fishermen; who cares for them? Life is very cheap in our country. So we think in our terms. “Oh, there is electricity shortage. What should we do?” We don’t even think about it. It is only 2.36 percent that comes from nuclear energy. There are ways and means [of generating electricity from other sources], but I’ll not go into that. Lastly, about the risk factor. Japan, just imagine, it is one of the most advanced countries, and till the accident happened, they claimed that their nuclear reactors are absolutely safe. And then, the Japanese Government has decided to abandon nuclear energy altogether. And there are four other countries which have put a moratorium on nuclear energy – Germany, Italy and Switzerland. Three countries. They have declared that they will not be using nuclear energy from now on. I don’t want to enter into any kind of argument with [our scientists]. I have great respect for them. They say there is zero percent chance of any mishap. That is too tall a claim. When they say that there is zero percent chance, they also say that “we’ll have a review of all the projects, all the nuclear power plants.” So naturally, there is a fear. Now, on this fact alone, there is a worldwide concern over nuclear energy. You want to contain these 70,000 people, because they protest against nuclear energy? And what is it that they want to say? See their demands. Very reasonable. Every project, even a project involving 50 crore rupees on public land is required to conduct a public hearing and a EIA — environmental impact assessment. You won’t believe this, but EIA for Koodankulam project was conducted in 1988 – 22 years back, when there were no rules. And the EIA was required only for the allocation of money from the Planning Commission. There was no people’s hearing. There was nothing. So, even that EIA was not released to the people. They should conduct a fresh EIA. That is their demand.
The second demand is – they have conducted a safety analysis. So why not release it to them? Let the people understand that they have conducted the analysis, and that these are the issues. Please talk to them, and satisfy them that it is not. . .that it is risk-free or relatively risk-free. The next is site evaluation. There has been concern on this, because this comes in a seismic area. That is the claim. That report is also not available to people. I want to tell you that Areva’s CEO came to India. Areva is the company which is setting up plants in Jaitapur. According to him, whenever you put up a power plant, you should do it in consultation with people, because people should be completely convinced that there is no risk to their lives. Now, you don’t even supply to them the basic documents. Secondly, what about the risks? Suppose that something happens. What is the great hurry in rushing with the project?
In a democratic country, we have the right of a peaceful protest; right to assemble is a fundamental right; right to gather in a public place and protest is a fundamental right if it is not disturbing the public tranquility. The right to free speech and expression is the most fundamental right of all. Supreme Court says that – there is no hierarchy of rights but it is the arc of all fundamental rights. It is definitely the most fundamental of rights. I have certain views. People may say that nuclear energy is good for the country, and some people may say that it is bad for the country. When I say that I have serious doubts about nuclear energy, will you brand me as anti-patriotic, as anti-national, as a person who should be charged with sedition or waging war against the state? What have these people done? They have protested against this particular plant. And there is not a single incident of violence. And what have the state authorities done? There are analyses produced before us of the cases instituted against them. Can any one of you explain to me how a peaceful protest against a nuclear plant, where people say that “we do not want a nuclear plant in our place,” amounts to sedition? Which ingredient of sedition is established here? Then you also invoke the provision related to waging war against the country. Where is the question of waging war against the country? They are residing there. They are concerned. In Chernobyl, the entire area – Chernobyl happened in 1986. Today, the entire area in 30 km radius is not permissible for human habitation. The reason is that the radiation effects are lingering. People are afraid. They are asking questions to you. And then, apart from anything else, you go on filing cases against them, not only cases are filed, but the other thing is cases against whom? There are thousands of people. Every possible provision in IPC is invoked. And then, you don’t investigate the cases. Those that are [not clear] you ensure that they don’t get bail. You are slapping new charges against them. Not only that. Bus service is curtailed. Other facilities are denied. Most shockingly, a professor came here, an associate professor of [Manonmaniam] Sundaranar University. He said they wanted to organise a debate on nuclear energy. So the IB chief warned them “what business? You should not hold this debate.” So you cannot have a discussion on this? Are we living in a democratic country or not?
We celebrated with great flourish the 60th year of parliamentary democracy. Is it parliamentary democracy that when a person is peacefully protesting, you file FIRs against him under most sections under IPC? It is not fair. It is not the way state authorities should deal with citizens. These citizens have some serious concerns. Here, they say Christian community. In Jaitapur, there are no christian communities. In Jaitapur, what I heard is something extraordinary. They say that people from outside Jaitapur are coming there. This is one country. So why cannot we go?
According to me, if you want the proof that democracy is alive in this country, I would say that this 70,000 people’s protest or their protest is an indication that there is a democracy in this country. We can debate and protest. They can continue with their protest for ten years. You must talk to them. I’m saying. . .my suggestion, my appeal to the state authorities, and my appeal also to those who are sitting on fast, is please withdraw these. Let them withdraw their agitation. Let the documents, whatever is possible – I’m not saying the Information Commission has said all these documents have to be given, that is ultimately for the courts to decide – but where there is no national security, no issues, information should be given to people. Please talk to them. Please understand their grievances. Perhaps, they will accept. They will be convinced. When you say that democracy is by the people, for the people, of the people, you cannot ignore people’s protest in this fashion. We, living in cities, we have no right to condemn this agitation because our interest is in a different sense — that electricity supply will be augmented etc.
I feel that it is high time that both the state authorities and the agitators should change their positions and have a dialogue. It doesn’t augur well for the country where a section, a sizable section of people are persecuted because they are opposed to a certain project.