Shiv Vishwanathan | Ahmedabad Mirror

Big fight over atomic energy

As the protest at Kudankulan becomes critical, the activists realise that the state has failed to provide safety assessments to public

As the protest at Kudankulan becomes critical, the activists realise that the state has failed to provide safety assessments to public. (Picture courtesy: Ahmedabad Mirror)

Politics is not just an act of production, it is a process of consumption and one consumes political protest as a spectator. Spectatorship cannot be an act of indifference. Even a TV spectator has to become a witness. He has to remember and as a living mnemonic, he has to act. When bored with one form of suffering, one story of pain, TV viewing can become a form of channel surfing between varieties of pain. However, it can also create a new sense of citizenship, of awareness, of conscience which does not allow a state to be silent or jingoistic. Nothing makes this clearer than the emerging silence over Kudankulam.

There is often a life cycle to a TV story. The sense of visuality, the public nature of the event, the drama of controversy heats up an event as a spectacle. Then as a regime strikes back marginalising protest, throttling dissent, the event fades becoming a distant backdrop. The battle of Kudankulam, the struggle over the nuclear reactor in Chennai is precisely at this stage.

Kudankulam is a great drama not just because of the location of a reactor but because of manner of protest and its suppression.

Think of the following. It is a battle over what citizenship actually means in India. Here are nine fishing communities telling the world that citizenship is meaningless without decisions about livelihood. If citizenship is a right to life and livelihood, then these villagers are arguing that they must be allowed to debate nuclear energy. They are arguing that nuclear energy is not the entitlement of a state and its umbilical experts. It is in this context that 23,000 villagers surrendered their voting identity cards. They were suggesting that the vote has to be life giving.

There is a lesson in civics that the protesters bring out beautifully. They argue that theirs is a kind of Swadesi Movement, a Swadesism that argues that there is a connection between livelihoods, citizenship, natural resources and concern with the future. They are arguing that the poor are more concerned about the future than the scientist as official expert. As the protest becomes critical, the activists realise that the state had not followed the rituals of science and democracy. It has failed to provide safety assessments to a public.

The entire nature of protest has been moving. TV has captured it diligently but occasional idealism of TV gets blunted by the cynicism of the state and the politician. The nuclear state becomes an East India Company of Energy seeking to divide and rule. The first “Nawab” it subverted to its side was the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalitha. After promising enquiry during elections, Jayalalitha did an about face with alacrity. Her police are now cordoning off the protesters, delegitimising them as foreign instigated NGOs. Both the Indian state and Jayalalitha are convinced that Indians cannot think for themselves. There is a cynicism here that is worrying.

All the people have is their body, their courage and their story. Storytelling thus becomes important. Media has to keep telling their stories because Kudankulam is a fragment of real time India, a social fable that we must keep alive. There is an ethics of memory which accompanies an ethics of protest. As TV spectators, as newspaper readers we must demand this story be told. It is not just a story about technical issues to be swept aside under the security carpet. It is a debate about whether atomic energy is open to democracy, to public debate, to open accounting, to scientific dissent.

A nation state that decides against its own people is a frightening possibility. One wishes that Aamir Khan would pick it as an issue. But we don’t have to wait for Aamir; as citizens, as parents, as Indians, as people concerned about India, the protest at Kudankulam must be sustained. I would put it into every NCERT book so our children as future legislators can debate it. Kudankulam is the Dandi march against nuclear energy. We cannot hypothecate our future to the illiteracy and indifference of the ATOM STAAT.