Whether it was the national movement that helped India gain independence, or the struggles currently being waged in various pockets of the country to protect the rights and resources of local communities, women have been active and committed participants. The struggle against the Koodankulam Nuclear Power Project in the Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu is no exception.
Seen as one of the longest non-violent protests in recent years, anywhere in the world, the relay fast against the nuclear plant has now been going on for over 570 days. In Idinthakarai village, which is at the epicentre of this struggle, women occupy the grounds in front of St Lourdes Matha Church, continuing their relay fast, while their men go to the sea to fish. When a call was given to abstain from fishing as part of the protest, they readily took upon themselves the financial burden of supporting their families by rolling beedis to earn a living, even as they continued their relay fast. On September 10, 2012, when a call was issued to lay siege to the nuclear plant for the fourth time, once again, they joined in large numbers. More than 50 cases with charges of sedition and other serious offences have been slapped on these women who are an integral part of this unique protest.
The two-decade-long struggle against setting up of a nuclear power plant in Koodankulam, which the fishermen community fear would destroy their environment and their means to a livelihood, has not yet moved the government authorities. The government and the scientific fraternity in general have remained silent on the important questions raised by the people. Instead the state has reacted to the protest by using teargas on unarmed people and arresting many, including women.
Anthony Xavier Amma, 47, and Selvi, 38 – both from Idinthakarai – were among the three women who were imprisoned in Tirchy Women’s prison. They later had to stay in a church in Madurai for a month, after being given conditional bail, before being permitted to go to back to their village. Both women were sitting in protest when they were arrested. Of the 50 arrested, the court released 47 people, excluding three women, who were incarcerated for more than 80 days on serious charges of carrying sickles and crowbars, sedition and waging war against the Government of India.
After the ordeal of having to stay away from their elderly parents and small children during their spell in prison the women went right back to their protest. Today, they have to visit the police station every Monday to sign up. Says Xavier Amma, “We don’t know for how long we will have to do this, but it will not stop us from fighting for our right to live.”
Apart from Xavier Amma and Selvi, five other women – including a 65-year-old who was suffering from abdominal cancer – were taken into custody. The latter died a few days after she was released on bail.
Selvi recounts the circumstances of her arrest, every detail etched in her mind. She and her comrades were arrested at 11.30 am and taken to Thomas Church where they were left until 4 pm while the police went to the village of Ovari to quell the protests that had erupted there as well. No case was filed at that point, neither were the women remanded. It took the police two days to produce them before the court before incarcerating them.
Continues Selvi, “We were kept at the Radhapuram police station until 11.30 pm and then taken to the Valliyur police station. The next morning, they brought us back to Radhapuram police station and we stayed there that night. They later took us to Valliyur court at 11.30 pm after which we were produced before the Tirchy court and imprisoned at 12 noon. They took down our names and inquired about the whereabouts of Udaya Kumar, one of the leaders of the agitation, who was whisked away by the fishermen before the police could arrest him.”
Initially, two cases were filed against all the seven women taken into custody on September 10. Later, a Prisoners’ Transit (PT) warrant was issued against Xavier Amma, Selvi and Sundari, with four additional cases slapped against them. Another six cases were filed against Sundari, and all three women were denied bail for almost a month.
Mocking the charges filed against them, Selvi says that she was holding only a Bible, a cellphone and a prayer book at the time of her arrest. “It was the first time that I had been separated from my family. But Sundari’s children were so young - one was studying in the fifth standard, the other in the third. A total of 12 cases were booked against her,” Selvi recounts.
Adds Xavir Amma, “We did not run away when the police attacked us. We did not fight back even when they shelled tear-gas and lathi-charged us. We stood there because we did not want our peaceful struggle to turn violent.”
But the interregnum in prison only strengthened their determination to continue the struggle. This is evident in the way the women from Idinthakarai demystified the claims made about nuclear energy and disseminated information on its ill-effects on the environment to jail inmates.
Xavier Amma reveals, “During our time in prison, we got to know more about people. We met women who drug peddlers and murderers. We spoke to them all. We spoke about the need to raise voices against the nuclear power plant, which is the death knell to the world.” According to Selvi, no prison inmate was aware of the anti-nuclear struggle, “We discussed these issues with them and they realised the significance of this struggle. Many expressed their solidarity with the cause.”
So what has life been like for the women after their prison experience? Xavier Amma continues with the routine she always followed. Every morning, after her household tasks are done, she reaches the protest venue at St Lourdes Matha Church. “This protest against the nuclear power plant has a history of two decades. In 1989, when I was 24 years old, people of Idinthakarai and neighbouring villages held protest demonstrations at Nagercoil. The police fired on us and one person died in the firing. I was injured at that point. There was no media to cover that protest. Over the years, we have carried on.”
The women have sent more than five letters to the government to seek its intervention to resolve the problem and break the impasse. On February 5, 2013, The People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE) wrote to Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi to urge the government to order a moratorium on nuclear power projects. They are also awaiting the Supreme Court judgment on a petition filed by G. Sundarrajan, alleging that 17 safety recommendations by the Centre’s task force have not been implemented in the project.
This unique struggle is certainly not easy, but the women behind it believe it is an absolutely crucial. States Xavier Amma in closing, “This struggle to shut down the nuclear plant is about providing a safe environment for our future generations. We are ready to sacrifice our lives if that is what it takes.”