Gandhian Nuclear Protests Transform Village Life
Gandhian Nuclear Protests Transform Village Life
Villagers near the Kudankulam nuclear power plant site in Tamil Nadu State, India, observe a candlelight vigil to pay homage to Hiroshima victims on Hiroshima Day on Aug. 6, 2012. For more than a year, protests have surrounded the Kudankulam site. (Amrithraj Stephen)

Villagers near the Kudankulam nuclear power plant site in Tamil Nadu State, India, observe a candlelight vigil to pay homage to Hiroshima victims on Hiroshima Day on Aug. 6, 2012. For more than a year, protests have surrounded the Kudankulam site. (Amrithraj Stephen)

Fishermen lay siege to the port of Tuticorin and block the passage of ships to protest the attack on villagers in Koodankulam, India, by police forces on Sept. 22, 2012. For more than a year, villages around Kudankulam nuclear power plant, including Koodankulam, have been protesting against the plant. (Amrithraj Stephen)

Fishermen lay siege to the port of Tuticorin and block the passage of ships to protest the attack on villagers in Koodankulam, India, by police forces on Sept. 22, 2012. For more than a year, villages around Kudankulam nuclear power plant, including Koodankulam, have been protesting against the plant. (Amrithraj Stephen)

Villagers from the Koothankuli, India, gather in front of a church and shout anti-government slogans. They were prevented by a state-imposed curfew from going to a protest site in Idinthakarai against a nearby nuclear plant under construction on May 10, 2012. For more than a year villages around Kudankulam nuclear power plant have been protesting against the plant. (Amrithraj Stephen)

Villagers from the Koothankuli, India, gather in front of a church and shout anti-government slogans. They were prevented by a state-imposed curfew from going to a protest site in Idinthakarai against a nearby nuclear plant under construction on May 10, 2012. For more than a year villages around Kudankulam nuclear power plant have been protesting against the plant. (Amrithraj Stephen)

Children from Idinthakarai, India, hold postcards they had written to the Russian ambassador requesting Russia stop providing technical support to the Kudankulam nuclear power project near their village on Aug. 6, 2012. (Amrithraj Stephen)

Children from Idinthakarai, India, hold postcards they had written to the Russian ambassador requesting Russia stop providing technical support to the Kudankulam nuclear power project near their village on Aug. 6, 2012. (Amrithraj Stephen)

Thousands of villagers protesting the commissioning of the Kudankulam nuclear power plant in Tamil Nadu State, India, sleep on the seashore with their children near the plant site on Sept. 9, 2012. (Amrithraj Stephen)

Thousands of villagers protesting the commissioning of the Kudankulam nuclear power plant in Tamil Nadu State, India, sleep on the seashore with their children near the plant site on Sept. 9, 2012. (Amrithraj Stephen)

Police forces assemble in front of the Kudankulam nuclear power plant in Tamil Nadu State, India, before going on rounds in Kudankulam village after a curfew was imposed on May 10, 2012. (Amrithraj Stephen)

Police forces assemble in front of the Kudankulam nuclear power plant in Tamil Nadu State, India, before going on rounds in Kudankulam village after a curfew was imposed on May 10, 2012. (Amrithraj Stephen)

Xavieramma, a resident of Idinthakarai, India, and a protester against the planned nuclear plant near her village, cries out for help after being chased into the sea on Sept. 10, 2012. She was later arrested by security forces. She has been charged on 16 counts including sedition and waging war against the nation. (Amrithraj Stephen)

Xavieramma, a resident of Idinthakarai, India, and a protester against the planned nuclear plant near her village, cries out for help after being chased into the sea on Sept. 10, 2012. She was later arrested by security forces. She has been charged on 16 counts including sedition and waging war against the nation. (Amrithraj Stephen)

Women weep and pray at a village church near the site of the Kudankulam nuclear power plant in Tamil Nadu State, India, on Sept. 11, 2012, after the police attacked villagers during a protest against the plant. (Amrithraj Stephen)

Women weep and pray at a village church near the site of the Kudankulam nuclear power plant in Tamil Nadu State, India, on Sept. 11, 2012, after the police attacked villagers during a protest against the plant. (Amrithraj Stephen)

Napolean, a resident of Idinthakarai, India, runs after being attacked by the police during a protest against a nearby nuclear power plant under construction on Sept. 10, 2012. (Amrithraj Stephen)

Napolean, a resident of Idinthakarai, India, runs after being attacked by the police during a protest against a nearby nuclear power plant under construction on Sept. 10, 2012. (Amrithraj Stephen)

Children of Sahayam Francis cry during his funeral Mass on Sept. 17, 2012. Sahayam died when he fell off a boulder he was standing on in the water fearing a coast guard plane that it flew very low during a protest against the Kudankulam nuclear power plant in Tamil Nadu State, India. (Amrithraj Stephen)

Children of Sahayam Francis cry during his funeral Mass on Sept. 17, 2012. Sahayam died when he fell off a boulder he was standing on in the water fearing a coast guard plane that it flew very low during a protest against the Kudankulam nuclear power plant in Tamil Nadu State, India. (Amrithraj Stephen)

Villagers cry and pray during a cleansing ceremony on Sept. 15, 2012, performed after police forces allegedly desecrated the village church while moving against protests surrounding the Kudankulam nuclear power plant in Tamil Nadu State, India. (Amrithraj Stephen)

Villagers cry and pray during a cleansing ceremony on Sept. 15, 2012, performed after police forces allegedly desecrated the village church while moving against protests surrounding the Kudankulam nuclear power plant in Tamil Nadu State, India. (Amrithraj Stephen)

Amrithraj Stephen, an Indian photojournalist expected another Biriyani protest near the site of a planned nuclear plant in the coastal village of Idinthakari in Tamil Nadu State, India.

What he found instead was a nonviolent mass uprising rarely seen since Mahatma Gandhi passed away more than six decades ago.

“Until now, I had just seen Biriyani protests, but here for the first time I saw a real Gandhian protest,” Stephen said. 

He explained that Biriyani protests involve mostly unemployed youth or other economically disadvantaged people who gather in protests organized by political parties “after being promised some Biriyani and money.” Biriyani is a popular Indian dish. It is common for political parties in Tamil Nadu to organize their supporters to protest by offering biriyani and money at the rallies.

Stephen was in New Delhi when the protests began. It was during a trip to his village of origin near Idinthakari that curiosity brought him to the site. “The moment I went there and saw the energy of the mass protests, I felt it’s not just a protest, but a revolution,” he said. 

Stephen talked to the protesters, felt their concerns were genuine, and started taking photographs. 

“The regional media of Tamil Nadu is owned by various political parties, and it was giving very biased reporting from the ground,” Stephen said. “I then decided to document it fully.”

For more than a year the protests in Idinthakari against the nuclear power plant under construction in nearby Kudankulam have continued. Spearheaded by the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE) in Tamil Nadu, the protests demand the plant not open. 

According to Stephen, until March 2012, the state government of Tamil Nadu supported the protesters. 

“In March 2012, when the Tamil Nadu by-poll results were announced, the state government did a U-turn and said the plant is safe. Then I saw mass anger and the village was immediately surrounded by police. All basic supplies, water, and electricity were stopped to the village for few days,” Stephen said.

In an interview with Mail Today, PMANE leader Uday Kumar also said the government supported the movement before the October 2011 civic elections to reap a rich electoral harvest, afterward turning against the movement. Soon after the state assembly by-polls, the government launched a crackdown on the protesters, Kumar said. 

By-polls fill vacant political offices between regular scheduled elections. The anti-nuclear protests and the assembly by-poll elections happened in the same district, Tirunelveli.

Not Just a Protest, But a Way of Life

The protests have transformed the community, Stephen said. “The peaceful protests in Idinthakari have become a lifestyle for people.”

Kumar calmed an agitated crowd on one occasion, saying people should remain peaceful even if it takes a long time for the protest to have an effect, recalled Stephen. The crowd immediately calmed down, recalled Stephen. He also lauded the decision within the community of protesters to give up drinking alcohol on a large scale. 

“During the protests an initiative was taken that no one in the community would drink alcohol. Everyone has not [stopped drinking] yet, but the rate of alcohol consumption has drastically come down,” he said. 

Stephen said he sees at the core of one of the longest modern mass protests in India—the one against the Kudankulam plant—are the values of nonviolence, voluntarism, and community togetherness. 

“This protest is not about one nuclear plant, but [about] the whole nuclear industry in the country. It is also about how democracy functions in India,” said Stephen.

In the latest protests, nearly 500 boats from 10 coastal villages in the Tirunelveli District participated in the siege of the Kudankulam nuclear plant from the sea front. 

“I started to learn about Gandhian ways only because of this protest,” Stephen said. “Even a commoner in the protesting community talks about Gandhian ways. Lots of people here are with thoughts of non-violence. Such a change has happened.”

  • க. தில்லைக்குமரன்

    Thanks Stephen for your coverage. This historic people movement needs international coverage. People from Idinthakarai and neighboring villages are protesting in ‘Gandian way’ while the government is using all kinds of violence and scare tactics to bring down the protest. But protest goes on over 500 days and will continue until they close the plant.

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