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Deepa Rajkumar
Deepa Rajkumar
Dr Deepa Rajkumar is an independent researcher based in Toronto.
In India, one protest results in two stories
Officials falsely link protesters and Naxalites, criminalising dissent and painting demonstrators as violent radicals.
Last Modified: 08 Aug 2011 12:58
Tamil protesters in India have called for Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa to be hanged following the final offensive in the island's war - but demonstrators have been labelled as 'terrorists' by authorities [EPA]

There was a protest, unannounced, not sanctioned by police, on July 9 in Chennai - the capital of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Outside the Sri Lankan Airlines office, around 30 "youth" blocked a busy road for about 30 minutes. The police arrived, broke up the protest, and arrested 11 protesters on the (usual) charge of public disturbance. The "public", however, heard the protesters' demands, which were repeated in the media.

They were demanding that the Indian government implement resolutions passed by Tamil Nadu's assembly the month previously to economically blockade Sri Lanka. For president Rajapaksa to be indicted as a war criminal, responsible for the genocide of Tamils in Sri Lanka in 2009. For Sri Lanka to stop killing and attacking fishermen from Tamil Nadu who "stray" into its waters.

Later, while at the police station to enquire after those arrested earlier, three other protesters were arrested. In the evening, all 14 were released.

The big deal

So what is the big deal? This happens all the time. Almost like clockwork and bad theatre, with an almost indifferent audience and actors. Atrocities are committed everywhere. People protest every day. Many times with, but also without, state sanction. And depending on the natures and profile of the people, and the location, source, target and form of their protests, they face state and extra-state violence - including beatings, torture, rape and death, during the protest, thereafter and in judicial and extra-judicial custody, for varied periods of time, individually and en masse.

In this case, but for obtaining prior police permission, and for traffic disruption, the protest was quite "routine".

The issue has been occupying the hearts and minds of many people in Tamil Nadu, since 1974, following the transfer of Katchatheevu island to Sri Lanka that affected the lives of fishing communities across the state. Since 1983, following the pogrom against Tamils in Sri Lanka, but also in Tamil Nadu. Since 2009, following the Sri Lankan army's trouncing of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the resulting bloodbath and physical and sexual abuse of Tamils in the North and East of Sri Lanka. Since April 2011, following the UN report on Sri Lanka's accountability and the Channel 4 documentary, Sri Lanka's Killing Fields, highlighting the Sri Lankan government's investment in the killings and repression of Tamils in Sri Lanka during the last days of its "war" with LTTE.

It's an issue also on the minds of politicians and political parties in Tamil Nadu and the central government, with local, national and international political, economic and defence stakes.

Only - and this is significant - the news about the July 9 Chennai protest, that day and the next, was different in focus. The first day's news was centred on the protesters' demands, the issue at hand. By night, however, "Q" Branch CID, the intelligence wing of Tamil Nadu's police - dealing with "extremist activities" - released new information to the media. They claimed that among the arrested protesters was a Naxalite (Maoist)/suspect - a detainee formerly held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) - now out on bail. While POTA was repealed in 2004, the repeal was not retrospective, and some POTA cases remain active.

The news of the next day, then, had an emphasis on the one protester. It was based on the Q branch story, and building upon it. Sensational facts and fiction merging into news. The news this time was not only about the issue, but mediated by the state, and its interests.

Establishing a connection

Establishing this narrative puts into question the very legitimacy, not only of the one protester but also that of his associates, their groups and their forms of protest. This happens by re-establishing, unquestioningly, a public link between naxalism and naxalites - therefore also "terrorism/extremism" and "terrorists/extremists" - and protests and protesters. This is especially the case with regards to Sri Lankans and Tamils - who, if from Sri Lanka, are already suspected to be LTTE, denounced as a terrorist group across the world. All this, notwithstanding the fact that the protest was part of a larger movement in Tamil Nadu concerning Tamils in Sri Lanka. This movement got up to 100,000 people out on the streets in 2009, ensuring the government and other political players in Tamil Nadu put on a sympathetic face - at least in public.

A disregard of basic journalistic curiosity, suspicion, insight, analysis and ethics meant no public follow up with the protesters for their side of the story. One big story, with significant judicial angles to it, was lost to the media. Overt presence of the state in the lives of the protesters, after the protest, at once an intrusion, threat, coercion and bribe, is not a usual occurrence in Tamil Nadu, even as (cursory) arrest and surveillance often is.

Moreover, the media, because of its apathy, habits, policies (including on Sri Lanka), interests, and/or political, economic and social stakes, became complicit in state tactics of control and management of protests, protesters, the Tamil issue, and other related concerns.

The media became culpable in facilitating a projection of existing suspicion and fear of naxalism not only to this protest but also to those in future. Projecting suspicion on to any protests, struggles or movements that make critical demands of states or corporations, their function or functioning, their authority, apparatus, officials or leaders, or of their very existence. For instance, those who protest against development projects, identity-based marginalisations, and for self-determination. That which was once sent underground, and/or made a "security" or "law and order concern", can be dealt with by both righteous indignation and force by the state. It is a denigration of popular expressions of grievance, injustice and dissent.

Free, for now

As for the protester, he was one of the three arrested following, not during, the protest. He is now "free". But he may well be the next "victim", persecuted as a naxal/terrorist/extremist threat, to be arrested again or even killed in an "encounter" - as an example, a proof, of the state's "vigilant" action to secure its citizens and itself, against "internal threats", against those who stand in the way of its "progress".

In the context, where linking protests with naxalism is becoming (even more) widespread as a state response to dissent, anyone can be named a naxal (as with Binayak Sen, Sudhir Dhawle, Kopa Kunjam), whose lives, struggles and concerns can then be disregarded.

These linkages must never be established, matter of factly, irrespective of whether or not the person being named really is a naxal or not. This is so the larger issues and struggles, within which the linkages are made, are furthered - for the sake of justice.

Dr Deepa Rajkumar is an independent researcher currently based in Toronto.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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