Cartoonist’s Arrest Is Only the Latest in Tamil Nadu’s Long History of Stifling Dissent

While action was earlier taken at the behest of top leaders, activists allege that the bureaucracy and police are now acting on their own whims.

Tamil Nadu chief minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami. Credit: PTI

Tamil Nadu chief minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami. Credit: PTI

  • Retired professor T. Jayaraman, also the chief convenor of the Anti Methane Project Federation, was slapped with a case under Section 153(B) on October 30 for apparently speaking and writing against the sovereignty of the state. The case was registered by the Mayiladuthurai police after Jayaraman spoke at a meeting on October 22, and launched a book on the ‘perils of interlinking of rivers’.
  • Nakkeeran Pugazhendhi, an activist with the Arappor Iyakkam, was picked up by the police in the early hours of November 2 on a complaint from an office bearer in the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK). Nakkeeran was charged with unlawful assembly, rioting, uttering obscene songs, criminal intimidation and intent to provoke breach of peace. A few months ago, Nakkeeran along with his colleagues had thwarted an attempt to build a temple encroaching a road in Ramapuram at Chennai. Members of the Arappor movement say that people from the PMK and the DMK were allegedly involved in the encroachment. On October 28, Arappor Iyakkam held a public event to talk about the encroachment.
  • On November 4, at around 12:30 am, around ten police personnel stormed into the house of lawyer Rajarathinam – also known as Semmani – at Marankulam in Tirunelveli and whisked him away. Semmani says he was beaten the whole night at a local police station, stripped and abused. The next day he was taken to another police station and ‘asked to leave’. Later he was admitted to a government hospital at Palayamkottai. Semmani, a lawyer who represented the anti-nuclear protesters of Koodankulam in local courts, is still in hospital.
  • In his Facebook post on November 4, Jayaram Venkatesan, convenor of the Arappor movement, explains how a police inspector had allegedly threatened him with remand when he had gone to meet Nakeeran, who had been granted bail. Venkatesan says pressure from the media helped him not get arrested.
  • On November 5, cartoonist G. Bala was picked up in Chennai by the Tirunelveli police on a complaint by Tirunelveli district collector against his cartoon showing nude images of the chief minister, Tirunelveli collector and Tirunelveli superintendent of police. The cartoon came after a family of four immolated themselves in front of district collectorate, allegedly after the administration failed to act against their complaints on loan sharks. Bala was granted bail the next day.
  • On November 5, student activist Nandhini and her father Anandhan were picked up by the police in Madurai just when they were about to leave to Chennai for a protest seeking answers from Prime Minister Narendra Modi on various unfulfilled promises. They were both released after Modi, who was visiting Chennai, left the city on November 6.

Silencing dissent is not new to Tamil Nadu. From singer Kovan to activist Traffic Ramasamy, the state has been practicing it like an art, yet struggling hard to perfect it. The cases against and arrests of several activists working on various issues just this week is perhaps a stark reminder that almost a year after J. Jayalalithaa’s death, nothing much has really changed. “In fact, it has gone from bad to worse,” rues M. Vetriselvan, lawyer and activist. “It was still mad when Jayalalithaa was around but there was a method to the madness. Kovan was arrested at four in the morning and Traffic Ramasamy was treated badly, but perhaps it was done with the knowledge of those in the highest centre’s of power. Tamil Nadu is now witnessing a government run by bureaucracy. All it takes is a whimsical bureaucrat to arrest an activist or charge him with sedition.”

G. Bala, Nakkeeran Pugazhendhi and Nandhini Anandhan, all of whom were arrested recently. Credit: Twitter/Facebook

G. Bala, Nakkeeran Pugazhendhi and Nandhini Anandhan, all of whom were arrested recently. Credit: Twitter/Facebook

Jayaram Venkatesan argues the state is doing this to cover up for its “inefficiency”. “The government is facing all-round criticisms – for policy issues like NEET and implementation issues like in rain management. This government perhaps thinks it can put down dissent by way of arresting people. This stifling of democratic voices will never help a state.”

Narrating his ordeal, lawyer Semmani says he was picked up and dragged away from his home in the middle of the night. “They kept saying I have got to meet the Valliyur DSP. But throughout the night, I was beaten. They tried to push a slipper down my throat and kept poking my navel with a lathi. I am now told that the local police stations have been asked to see if there is any case on me that could be made into a basis for this ‘arrest’.”

While all the attacks on freedom of expression were roundly condemned, Bala’s arrest evoked mixed reactions on social media. A section of DMK supporters – a party consistently attacked by Bala in his posts and cartoons – felt that freedom of expression also entailed creative responsibility. “Bala was both anti-women and anti-Dalit. His cartoons were generally in bad taste. But despite my differences with him, I think his arrest is arbitrary and an attempt to stifle freedom of expression,” says Vanni Arasu, deputy general secretary of Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK).

“If his cartoon was obscene, wasn’t the naked deaths of Esakkimuthu and his family equally, if not more, obscene?” asks Thol Thirumavalavan, VCK’s president. “It is ironical that those who should feel ashamed of their failure to protect Esakkimuthu and his family are outraged by a cartoon criticising them.”

Observers point out that not a single case of defamation has been filed against any media organisation by the present government since Jayalalithaa’s death last December. Jayalalithaa famously filed over 100 defamation cases. “Today it is clear that the government wants to stifle any voice that will question, challenge or expose the inadequacies of the BJP in Centre. All the persons recently arrested were working against the BJP in their own space. In almost all the cases, the policemen have arrogated themselves the right to drag the persons concerned out of their homes. Our attempts to secure police permission to hold public meetings have been cancelled seven times since I came out of jail. There is an undeclared emergency and Tamil Nadu is clearly becoming a police state,” says Thirumurugan Gandhi, convenor of the May 17 Movement. Gandhi was recently arrested under the Goonda Act for trying to hold a memorial meeting for Sri Lankan Tamils killed in 2009 Sri Lankan civil war.

Even while echoing similar sentiments, the activists refused to be cowed down. “Three cases have been slapped against us after getting bail in the Goonda Act – and that includes cases for our rallies to garland the statues of leaders like Ambedkar and Periyar. What is the government really afraid of?” asks Gandhi.

Kavitha Muralidharan is an independent journalist.

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