Rashmi Kohli

There was a fairly ordinary family: a man who was a teacher, the woman who headed a school for children up to the fifth standard. They had two children, boys, loving, playful, and eager to learn. They lived in an average home with a hall, a kitchen and three bedrooms with the father’s parents.

Both mother and father were educated to doctorate levels and could easily have got a job abroad, but they chose to remain in their country of birth, dedicating their energies to better the lot of people who lived around them.

With the school, they sought to increase the intellectual and creative capacities of underprivileged pupils. They promoted peace in its programme of education. Many parents appreciated the effects it had on their children, and word was that this school could provide one of the best kinds of education in the region. Where families of poor children could not afford their fees, they even permitted to pay them later as and when money became available.

Their life seemed ordinary enough, set in the beautiful surroundings of Kanyakumari district, a jewel in the Indian crown, with misty mountains and palm trees as far as the eye could see, surrounded by seas, majestic as they were terrifying as the tsunami of December 2004 served to remind.

But this paradise-like location was beset with an even bigger disturbance: the construction of a nuclear power reactor less than 30 kilometres from their home from 2002. The parents worried about the proximity to ionising radiation for their children, their offspring and those in the school. How would young people in particular be affected by the increase in radiation in their surroundings? How could such a potentially dangerous megalith be built so close to a densely populated town like their’s? Why were local residents not even consulted? Where are all the safety and environmental reports that are mandatory for such a mega-developments?

Their questions were met with either blanks or downright lies from the nuclear authorities.

They were questions that beset every family in the region, even more so for those who lived only a few kilometres if not meters away from the construction. In 2011, they watched with horror the fate of the Japanese people after an earthquake, tsunami and a nuclear meltdown. They too were familiar with the tsunami, minor earthquakes, and dreaded the prospect of a nuclear accident should it occur with the upcoming plant. As the location was beset with karsts, small volcanic eruptions, seismic faults and was in a tsunami zone, the prospect of a nuclear disaster was not an unfounded fear.

But at least this one ordinary family chose to rise from the swell of oppression. They could see into the future, and this future did not look good. A doomsday monster was coming in the name of development. They fully understood the nature of the veiled destruction, slow or dramatic, that could accompany its operation. They knew what was at stake and had to pay with their careers to help others see into the future too. Money to them was just a piece of paper with no value when compared to the smile of a child and a life of peace, health and happiness.

The mother held the fort, whilst continuing to run the school. The father took on the task of educating people about the harms of reactor and radiation, as the nuclear authorities only wanted to stress that just like televisions, these rays cannot do any harm. The scientist-bureaucrats knew full well that even in their own nuclear townships, cancer is high particularly amongst women whose breasts, cervix and wombs are more vulnerable to cell mutations. These PR men lied so much that they even began to lie to themselves.

The family lived with more questions than answers and sought to find some themselves. Every door they turned to was closed, so they turned to non-violent protest. They had zero tolerance for state abuses. They were like the Sufis of the past who would give up all worldly things for truth and the love of humanity. As the song from the film Refugee goes:

Dunya me dunyadaron ko, izzat bhi milli, sauharat bhi milli, daulat bhi milli, takat bhi milli. Jo cheej inhone payi hai, pani par likhi likhai hai. (In this world, people gained honour, fame, power and money. But what these Sufis have got is not material, but it can be seen written on something as ephemeral as water.)

The nuclear authorities began to worry about the knowledge that people were receiving. They did not like it and sought to muzzle the fount of truth as people came to hear him speak.
Sahir Ludhianvi had once said:

Mai akele hi chala tha janib-e-manzil, magar log sath aate gaye aur karwan banta gaya. (I was walking alone to my destination, but people joined me, and a caravan was formed).

As they walked and listened, people wondered why they had to sacrifice their lives for power for the cities and corporates. They wondered why the power companies under the behest of the government did not improve their appalling distribution losses, and develop the abandoned power projects like solar farms that had not even been connected to the grid. They wondered why the government was always keen to do new things where kickbacks for all those in power were promised, but nobody was interested in maintaining and improving the efficiency of old things as there was no money to be made there.

The nukers feared the man’s growing popularity and the fact that he was protected by the caravan of people. Over time, the protest got bigger than the government had ever imagined so they sent in the police and paramilitary to lay siege to the villages where they ended up.

Any Tam, Brahm or Hari who had been paid to promote the nuclear plant laid false charges on this father of two – accusing him of sedition, war against the state amongst other trumped up charges. The number of court cases has nearly struck a century, but there were no plaudits to be given here.

They wanted to squeeze the life out of him but could not get their hands on him as thousands of village residents would form a human barricade. ‘Arrest us first’, they said, as the arms of the state retreated wondering where to put them all.

Still the authorities threatened to confiscate his passport. They tried to get to him however which way they could. They wanted to crush him, to scare him, and if this was not to work, they set out to harass his family, following them around in their marked and unmarked cars, phoning up with creepy calls in the middle of the night, listening in to each and every conversation, hacking their emails, checking their post, raiding their house and schools and taking away anything they could, no doubt to fabricate more cases against the family.

The family lived in fear but they all believed that what the government had done to them by installing dangerous technologies next to their homes was far, far worse.

What would you do if you were this ordinary family? Would you have capitulated? Would you have let the nuclear authorities carry on with their expensive, deluded and power-driven craze next to your home? Or would you have cried for justice, reviews and transparency? Would you have run away when it got too hot, or would you have stayed put in your home and community and made a stand?

Where would India be if it did not have brave people like Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Gurudev to lay down their lives for the freedom of their people? These men took to violence against a draconian and unlistening state. The current government even valorises them and celebrates their names.

But the people I talk about do not even threaten with violence. They threaten with the peaceful force of numbers and their demands for independent reviews as are the legal stipulations. Yet the current government wants to smash all their requests and even the people behind them to smithereens. They would even sell their mothers to buy the ammunition to do so.

We who live in towns and cities have no actual information as to what extent our state’s are in a power crisis. When the government wants to it can manufacture a crisis, and just as easily provide a cure for it. As soon as the green light was given for the first reactor, newspapers were even saying that the power crisis is over. Loadshedding began to get more irregular, and it seemed like Tamil Nadu’s power problems were over. But the reactors were not even operational.

We are suspended in cobwebs of lies. The minute we seek to unpack them and ascertain the truth, the net comes down on us, trying to push the oxygen out of our lungs. The weak amongst us live in fear, the strong fight bravely on.

It is the ordinariness of this family that is being pulled apart so that they could be accused of being foreign spies, agents, terrorists and even Naxalites, anything that would make them be seen as alien to national interest. Today you may well be a teacher, tomorrow you could be called a terrorist.

How utterly despicable can a government get, a government that promises power which can end all problems, hiding so much about how ordinary families would have to bear the brunt of its actual expense and dangers. When it comes to oppression, the Indian government is perfectly secular.

Power should be to the people and not to these ruthless gambler’s of the nation’s welfare.
Justice is when these nuclear moguls are thrown out of the Mother India that they persistently gangrape, just as their colonial cousins were all those decades ago.

We cannot forget Mahatma Gandhi’s fight for freedom: ‘First they ignore you. Then they make fun of you. Then they fight you. And then you win’.