International pressure needed to free him!
At about 3.45 am on August 9, Thirumurugan Gandhi was arrested by the police at Bengaluru International Airport in India. The Indian newspaper ‘The Hindu’ declared that the ‘May 17 Movement’ co-ordinator had been arrested on charges of sedition for speaking at the ‘United Nations Human Rights Commission’ (UNHRC) about the police shootings at the Thoothukudi demonstrators. After being kept in isolation he was handed over to the Tamil Nadu Police. When produced in court, the Tamil Nadu magistrate S Prakash, rejected the request for 15 days remand and directed the police to release him within 24 hours. However, as soon as he stepped out he was surrounded by 20 to 30 police men and was taken into custody again! The police proceeded to unearth old cases, and with these ‘new’ charges, tried again. One of the cases registered was with regard to his speech condemning the callous inaction of the government to save the fisherman during the 2017 Okhi storm. This time, a different magistrate, ruled that he be remanded for 15 days. He was then taken to Puzhal prison. The following day, when his lawyers went to meet him in Puzhal prison they did not find him there. He had been transferred to Vellore prison, without anyone being informed. Since his arrest, the authorities have been busy preparing dozens of cases to extend his incarceration.
The accusations against Thirumurugan Gandhi ranges from ‘illegally’ leading a candle-lit vigil in remembrance of the Eelam Tamils massacred by the Sri Lankan regime (with Indian support), participating in various campaigns against the destruction of the environment in Tamil Nadu like harmful mining, fracking, nuclear power stations, and campaigns against the Sterlite plant in Thoothukudi, garlanding a statue of Periyar (the social activist who started the Dravidian self-respect movement) and Ambedkar (the legendary intellectual and activist for the rights of the Dalits), making speeches in support of Palestinian rights etc, etc. The various charges that are made against him are, in fact, quite a comprehensive list of the injustices committed by the Indian state against the people of Tamil Nadu.
When arrested on the 10th August he was charged under section 124 A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). This piece of legislation was introduced when India was under the British rule. It states that ‘whoever, by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise, brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the Government established by law shall be punished with imprisonment for life, to which fine may be added, or with imprisonment which may extend to three years, to which fine may be added, or with fine’. The Indian State is using this piece of draconian colonial legislation in the same spirit as the British did – as a tool for the repression of legitimate political protest.
The British involvement here is not just one of ancient history. The Thoothukudi massacre that Thirumurugan Gandhi was arrested for speaking about, has a British connection. The Sterlite copper smelting plant was run by London headquartered Vedanta Resources. The protests had been going on for over two decades. The fact that the plant had been set up in an ecologically sensitive zone and had been operating with disastrous environmental consequences was well known. Campaigns like ‘Foil Vedanta’ had brought to the attention of the world that this plant has been the cause of land, water and air pollution and that the health and the wellbeing of the people in the surrounding villages have been severely affected by its operation. But Vedanta, by virtue of being listed in the London stock exchange, and being integrated into London’s financial centre, as well as having its head office in one of the most well protected places on the earth – had the fortifications necessary to carry on. This international legitimacy combined with the support of the Indian judiciary meant that even after the Tamil Nadu government had shut it down several times, the plant continued to be operational. This is why, when in 2018, following the proposal to expand the copper smelting units the protest movement intensified, the police had the confidence to launch a murderous attack on the demonstrators.
Recent events in Europe point to the real possibility that the international balance of forces will even worsen. It is instructive to look at the so called ‘scallop wars’. The French have started to physically obstruct the British from fishing for scallops in international waters very near to France. The French, who do not fish for Scallop at this time – to preserve the fish stocks – are justifiably angry with the English fishermen for making use of this situation to overfish. The Minister for the Environment Michael Gove is completely on the side of the British fishermen’s ‘freedoms’. All indications are that Britain, as it leaves the European Union, will use the ‘freedom’ of not having to abide by the environmental, social and humanitarian norms of the EU to try to build a new relationship with Africa and Asia.
Theresa May, during her recent trip to Africa, exclaimed ‘I want to build a new partnership between the UK and our friends in Africa’ she said emphasising opening up the private sector in African countries. She went on to say that ‘by 2022, I want the UK to be the G7’s number one investor in Africa’. To do this Theresa May offered ‘the city of London makes the UK the unrivalled global hub for international investments with more than 8 trillion pounds under management’… ‘our legal system is second to none’…. ‘UK law enforcement works hand in hand with their counterparts in Africa’. Further, she offered military collaboration. In Africa like with India, the UK is looking for possibilities to rapidly increase arms sales – like their partner in crime the USA. Arms exports from the U.S. to India rose between 2008-2012 and 2013-2017 by no less than 557 percent. Donald Trump and Theresa May will be hard at work to massively improve on these numbers. As Britain leaves the EU the economic losses due to the inevitable friction for trade between the UK and the EU will energise the pro-Brexit forces to promote a wild-west entrepreneurism in Asia and Africa to compensate. In fact, when Thirumurugan Gandhi met with a high official of the German government – this person described the Britain’s strategy as an attempt to resurrect the East India Company! The proliferation of the City of London and the private sector means there will be more Anil Agarwals (Chairman of Vedanta Resources) more Thoothukudi type massacres, more arrests under the (British built, second to none) 124-A. In the international campaign to fight for the release of Thirumurugan Gandhi – we have to be aware of the forces that we have to confront.
17 September – the UAPA case rejected by the court!!
The hearing on the 14th September (extended to the 17th) was particularly disturbing as the case was under the under the notorious Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) of the IPC. This act allows detention for up to 180 days – without filing a charge-sheet!
On the 17th September, the court rejected the UAPA case marking a major victory for Thirumurugan Gandhi. However, he is still in prison. The State needs the court to legitimise his imprisonment. The section of the Indian Penal Code that it is using at this stage is 505 (1)(b) (publish or circulate any statement, rumour or report with intent to cause, or which is likely to cause fear or alarm to the public).
Many of the charges that have been used accuse Thirumurugan Gandhi of promoting enmity between different groups of people. This, in practice, is an attempt to criminalise his ideology of Tamil nationalism. As it is not possible to justify criminalising Tamil Nationalism as an idea in Tamil Nadu – the police struggle to build up a case on the actions of Thirumurugan Gandhi. But these actions, like making a speech the UNHRC, lighting a candle, garlanding the statue of a respected progressive leader, are difficult to characterise as promoting enmity between different ethnic groups. But the wave of arrests during the past months (see sidebar), including that of Thirumurugan Gandhi represents politics calculated to strengthen the Hindutva political base. Modi’s chosen path of rapid industrialisation through partnership with western powers – albeit with a preference for USA and UK in terms of economic ideology – is to be driven politically by extremely conservative Hindu nationalism. So, Modi’s rallying cry for the building of an Indian superpower (even as the geo-political junior partner to the US/UK axis) revels in demonstrably crushing those who stand in its way, because the enmity sharpens his politics and galvanises his political base. He cares less for further antagonising the people of Tamil Nadu, who in any case do not support the Modi’s BJP. When the Dalit activists fight for their rights their land and against environmental destruction resulting from the government policies, extreme Hindutva politicians who support the caste system are given free rein to mobilise people against the Dalits – as with other oppressed groups. And then, leftist activists, Dalits, Tamils, Muslims, Kashmiris etc, etc are arrested accused of ‘sowing hatred between different groups’!! The UAPA case that was against Thirumurugan Gandhi was built up on the basis that by expressing support for the Palestinian struggle he was sowing discord between different groups of people in India! There is an uncanny parallel with how the British are accusing the Labour Party leader of being anti-Semitic for supporting Palestinian rights.
Your action will make a difference!
Thirumurugan Gandhi was arrested on August 9th, on the basis that he had spoken against India at an international forum – the UNHRC in Geneva. It is not unusual that people go to the UNHRC to speak about an injustice. What is unusual is that speaking at the UNHRC itself has been deemed worthy of arrest and detention in your home country. It is clear that the international aspect is central to this case. And, as we explained above, within India, these arrests actually help to mobilise Modi’s brand of Indian nationalism. So, it follows that political mobilisation within India alone might not be successful in getting Thirumurugan or any of those arrested released. The Tamil Nadu court system has been under pressure to legitimise the incarceration of Thirumurugan Gandhi. One of the magistrates has ruled in support of the state, while two have ruled against it. If the courts, the magistrates, and the political elite in Tamil Nadu is shown that there is interest in this case all over the world and that they are on the international spotlight in an ethical sense, there is a very good chance that the pressure will build up on them reject this unending list of ridiculous charges. If we succeed it will be not only be a victory for him but a boost for all those who are fighting to free those who have been arrested recently in India (see sidebar).
We request people to make a stand by getting your organisation or well-known people that you know to immediately send a fax demanding that Thirumurugan Gandhi is released immediately.
Send a protest fax to:
President of India: fax numbers: 0091-11-23017290, 91-11-23017824
Tamil Nadu Chief Minster: fax number: 0091 – 044-25671441
Complaint Procedure Unit, Human Rights Council Branch
Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
United Nations Office at Geneva
CH-1211 Geneva 10, Switzerland
Fax: (41 22) 917 90 11
Please send copies of the faxes to firstname.lastname@example.org or fax: 0049 421 68 437 884