BJP MP's claim of 'Maoist' presence in Tamil Nadu points to disturbing pattern of branding dissenters as Naxals

That Tamil Nadu is infested with extremists has been Pon Radhakrishnan's pet theory for over one-and-a-half years. The Union minister's regret is that neither the AIADMK government nor the police or its intelligence wing has taken him seriously. His latest peeve seems to arise from the opposition by farmers to the Salem-Chennai 277 kilometre-long eight-lane expressway. Many farmers are miffed that their lands are being taken away to build a greenfield expressway when the existing 4-lane highways could be widened.

"Naxalites, Maoists, Muslim extremists and extremist groups who promote secessionism in the name of Tamil have infiltrated many organisations. There is a chance that they could have infiltrated the media too,'' said Radhakrishnan on Wednesday, hinting at an elaborate conspiracy to derail projects by design.

The Kanyakumari MP believes that the Jallikattu protest at the Marina beach in Chennai in January 2017 was an experiment for the extremists to gauge the public mood.

"Should not the government give a free hand to the police to act tough against the extremists? The government should protect the people of the state and not the extremists. Such a government is not required," said Radhakrishnan.

 BJP MPs claim of Maoist presence in Tamil Nadu points to disturbing pattern of branding dissenters as Naxals

Police personnel in Tuticorin baton charge at a protestor. PTI

Why Radhakrishnan needs to be taken seriously is because he is a member of the Narendra Modi government. The question to be asked, therefore, is that when the minister says that such a government 'is not required', is he reflecting New Delhi's opinion that the state government should be shown the door? Is the home ministry convinced that the law and order situation in Tamil Nadu has gone for a toss? Has the MHA shared information with the Tamil Nadu government through official channels on the extremist elements operating in the state? Tamil Nadu minister D Jayakumar has, in fact, asked Radhakrishnan to share information with the state, if he has any.

Is this also a hint to the Edappadi Palaniswami regime that it needs to crack down on so-called extremist elements or risk interference from Raisina Hill? Is this why the police in the past week has arrested several anti-Sterlite activists and those opposing the Salem expressway?

Two, how responsible is it for a Union minister to float his conspiracy theories about the probability of a Naxal presence in the media? He is talking about an institution that is already battling a crisis of credibility. This is, to my mind, step one of a process of intimidation. The theory has been floated, given currency. The second step will be to label specific people and sully reputations.

A closer look at the kind of people who have been arrested in the last one week would give a fair idea about why the 'urban Naxals' theory has been floated. These include advocate Vachinathan, who has been providing legal assistance to the protesters against Sterlite in Tuticorin, lakes activist Piyush Munush, student activist Valarmathi and actor Mansoor Khan, who are all opposed to the Salem project. In addition, some 260 people have been arrested in Tuticorin and charged with having taken part in the violence on 22 May. Any farmer who has objected to their land being marked for acquisition for the highway has been detained at the local police station.

Naxals are usually known to dispense justice in their kangaroo courts. The irony is that here, those in the establishment are employing the same modus operandi using social media, especially Twitter, to label people as urban Naxals, church operatives and anti-national. Piyush is described as an extortionist, Valarmathi as a Naxalite and Vanchinathan as a riot conspirator, to say they are not above board.

This is not to say that the state is not within its rights to arrest anyone who is seen under the law as a threat to public peace. It is the pattern that is disturbing. The arrests seem to send out the message that anyone who dissents may be taken into custody.

A senior IPS officer who has spent over two decades battling Naxalism in the red corridor in states like Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Odisha, denies that there is any military footprint of the Maoists in Tamil Nadu.

"There could be at best, some occasional movement in the Tamil Nadu-Kerala zone. But at the moment, the Naxal card seems to be used as a bogey," he says.

It would seem that whoever speaks for the people and for the protection of human rights is branded as an urban Naxal. Fathima Babu, who has been spearheading the agitation against the polluting Sterlite plant, says the crackdown makes people scared about taking on a powerful corporate and the state.

"Piyush's image is being tarnished, just like mine was sought to be. I was born and brought up in Tuticorin and yet, I was shocked to hear the kind of slander I was subjected to,'' says Fathima.

Henri Tiphagne of the human rights group People's Watch says anyone who opposes the establishment is being picked up. He says people like Vanchinathan and Piyush are defenders of human rights and do not believe in violence.

"Vanchinathan believes in the Constitution and legal methods. He is being targeted under frivolous provisions after one month of police firing. Tamil Nadu has become a police state, not a democratic state," says Tiphagne.

While Radhakrishnan bats for an MGR-like approach in dealing with Naxalites, actor-turned-politician Rajinikanth, after visiting Tuticorin, had argued for cracking down on anti-social elements with an iron fist, like Jayalalithaa did. It is an interesting convergence of opinion between the BJP and the actor on the law and order situation in Tamil Nadu.

Updated Date: Jun 22, 2018 19:36:33 IST