I was targeted with Pegasus for fighting BJP’s caste polarisation: Kovai Ramakrishnan

27 July 2021
Vignesh A

On 27 July, as part of an international investigation, The Wire reported that the phone number of Kovai Ramakrishnan was among a leaked database of over 50,000 numbers listed as potential targets for surveillance by a client of the Israel-based NSO group. The Wire and 16 other international partners have found that several of the numbers on the list were infected with Pegasus, a malware that allows the hacker to access and monitor a phone. The leaked database was accessed by Forbidden Stories, a French non-profit media organisation, and Amnesty International’s Security Lab conducted the forensic analysis of some of the phones listed in the database confirming that they had been infected by Pegasus or previously attacked by the malware.

Kovai Ramakrishnan, is the president of the Thanthai Periyar Dravida Kazhagam, a Periyarist, rationalist and anti-caste organisation based in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu. Ramakrishnan argued that he was likely infected with the malware because his work in advocating rationalism, communal harmony and inter-caste marriages had seriously hampered the Bharatiya Janata Party’s ability to grow in the city. Sujatha Sivagnanam, a Tamil Nadu-based freelance journalist, interviewed Ramakrishnan about the possible reasons why he was included in the list of potential targets and why the BJP fear the work of the TPDK.

Sujatha Sivagnanam: When did you first find out that your phone might have been infected with Pegasus?
K Ramakrishnan: We are not new to police surveillance. Since the early 90s we know the police have been spying on us. Back in the 80s, when India was training the LTTE [Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam] we used to aid them too. After India broke ties with the LTTE there used to be a constant police scanner on us and often false cases would be lodged against us. There used to be shadow watches of us because of our pro-Eelam Tamil stance.

But we were prepared for that. I used to always keep the bus and train tickets safe when I travelled because I’ll never know when I’ll need it as evidence in some false case. It was always useful in avoiding police questioning. But what is happening now is far more dangerous. It looks like they could be spying on everything we do, personally and professionally.

I found out about this only when the reporter from The Wire called me, a few days ago. I was very shocked to hear about it, because none of the reasons they had to surveil us in the 90s exist now. If they are targeting us now, it is clearly for some other reason.

Sivagnanam: We only know that Pegasus was bought from NSO. We can’t say for certain whether it was used by the union government or state government, right?
Ramakrishnan: No, it was almost definitely used by the union government. If you look at the work I and the TPDK have been doing, it is largely issues that hurt the propaganda and policies of the BJP government, not the state government. We have consistently fought for linguistic rights, state’s rights in a federal set up, and most importantly for communal harmony and the annihilation of caste. These are issues that align with the Tamil Nadu government but are against the agenda of the Sangh Parivar who now control the union government.

Sivagnanam: What are the goals of the TPDK? Why do you think they are against the agenda of the BJP?
Ramakrishnan: The TPDK is at its core a Periyarist movement that fights for social justice, rationalism and against Brahminism. That hits at the core of the Sangh Parivar’s ideology nationally. More specifically, we have also been able to raise awareness against their agenda locally and work against BJP members trying to spread islamophobia and caste supremacy for political gain. The Coimbatore region is one of the only places they have any amount of support in Tamil Nadu and we have constantly worked to erode that support. It is because of grassroot organisations like us that the BJP have struggled to get a foothold in Tamil Nadu.

Sivagnanam: How did the BJP build its foothold in Coimbatore?
Ramakrishnan: It began in the late 90s following the 1997 riots and the 1998 Coimbatore bomb blasts. In 1997, Sangh Parivar related outfits like the Hindu Munnani and Hindu Makkal Katchi went on a rampage attacking Muslims. The next year an Islamic organisation conducted the bomb blasts as a retaliation. This was something that had never happened in Tamil Nadu before. Muslims were never seen as a separate identity; we were all Tamil, and Muslims popularly took part in the anti-caste politics of the rest of the state. But the Sangh Parivar managed to destroy this unity in the late 1980s. It was on the back of this violence that BJP’s leader CP Radhakrishnan could win elections in 1998 and in 1999. Since then, we have been working with the Muslim community to fight islamophobia and maintain communal peace in the city.

Muslim organisations including SDPI [the Social Democratic Party of India] and TMMK [Tamil Nadu Muslim Munnetra Kazhagam] have been voicing out for common issues in Tamil Nadu including NEET [National Eligibility cum Entrance Test], the Cauvery issue [a river water dispute between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka] and farmers protests. They are not identified by their Muslim identity alone, but also as part of a broader brotherhood fighting for the same progressive causes.

It is the aim of the BJP, with their divisive agenda, to make the public see Muslims through a religious lens alone, and not through their caste or politics. They do the same with Hindus. The BJP have tried this in other parts of Tamil Nadu too. In Kanyakumari, for example, they have an anti-Christian agenda to gain political momentum. Once any community sees past their religious identity it becomes a problem for the BJP. For example, in 2016, when Sasikumar, the Hindu Munnani spokesperson was murdered, the whole city was teetering on the edge of communal violence. Our cadre were able to move in and ensure that no violence broke out. 

Sivagnanam: Religious polarisation is easier to understand, but how does your anti-caste work affect the BJP?
Ramakrishnan: At the core of the Sangh Parivar is Brahminism, religion is only a veil they use to keep power in the hands of brahmins. But more directly, at least in Tamil Nadu, they have used caste consolidation as a tactic to grow their support. The religious agenda didn’t help them for long in Tamil Nadu, so now they have taken up caste as a weapon. In our state, caste is directly connected to politics and caste affiliations are there in every party’s political stand. It is the basis on which they all make political decisions. But the major Dravidian parties don’t talk about caste so openly. They can’t afford to pick favourites because they rely on every caste for support. That’s not the case with the BJP. They are not well developed in Tamil Nadu and supporting just a few castes against others can give them the initial mileage they need. So, in each region they back one caste in its conflicts against others.

For example, in the southern part of Tamil Nadu, there is a community called Devendrakula Vellalar [currently classified under the Scheduled Castes category in the state] which consists of seven sub castes. For a long time, people from all the seven sub castes wanted to be brought under one group called Devendrakula Vellalalar. All that was needed was a government order, which was a simple task. Since the BJP passed a law for this, shortly before the election, the people from those communities believe that only the BJP cares about their interest. That’s how BJP is able to win those communities into its fold.

They tried to do the same in the western districts by backing the Gounder community [a dominant land-holding caste classified as Backward Classes in the state] and bringing in this agenda of a separate state called Kongu Nadu. Kongu Nadu is only a caste identity not a cultural or national identity, and it is backed by a small population within one caste. The BJP has been trying to encourage this idea. We opposed this vehemently. All these activities by TPDK which goes against Hindutva and BJP’s agenda has angered them and leads to them targeting us.

Sivagnanam: So, you are saying you stand against the BJP empowering just certain castes?
Ramakrishnan: No, you have to understand they actually don’t empower anyone except Brahmins. BJP came to Coimbatore with big poll promises during elections. In 2018, Nirmala Sitharaman [senior BJP leader and union finance minister] promised that a military equipment manufacturing industry will come up in Coimbatore. The jobs of this would have gone to everyone, including Gounders. But there has been no word about it since the elections. The BJP government does not deliver what it promised, nor do they care about the communities here including Gounders and Naidus who they claim to support.

There was a union government press here near the Perianaickenpalayam locality. It has existed for decades and decades. An entire colony of press workers was built around it, called the press colony. It was used to publish all their central government notifications and propaganda. Of course, because of the population here, most people who worked there were Gounder and Naidu, along with some Dalit communities. The union government wanted to shut down that press. They initially tried to transfer everyone working there to other jobs to shut the press. We had protested against it. Then they tried to wholesale close down the entire press. It is the same in Salem which is also a Gounder-majority area. They are trying to shut down the Salem steel plant there [In July, Bhagwat Kishanrao Karad, the union minister of state for finance, announced that the Salem Steel Plant would be privatised]. The BJP constantly speak about supporting Gounders, but all they do is steal their jobs and livelihoods.

In contrast look at brahmins who get control of such a large percentage of ministries. Even if you look at the supreme court, there is not a single BC judge. They constantly use BCs only to win elections, not to actually empower them. And this is something the TPDK and other Periyarists have been constantly talking about, which of course makes the BJP see us as a threat.

Sivagnanam: So, a majority of your work is in leading protests and speaking out against the BJP’s agenda?
Ramakrishnan: Not exactly. That is a part of it, but our goals are the same as Periyar’s, the complete annihilation of caste. We need to bring about a structural social change for that. Inter-caste and inter-faith marriages are the only long-term way to establish social justice. Our main job is to conduct these marriages, and conduct them in the egalitarian manner of self-respect marriages. Since 1999, we have conducted more than 5,000 such inter-caste or inter-faith marriages. The recent years have actually been quite good, we have been able to conduct about 500 marriages every year.

We also work to get the legal paperwork of these couples completed without problems and to protect them after. We have mostly been working that way to prevent honour killings from happening and to ensure that many new generations of anti-caste families can grow. We were involved in fighting against the honour killings that happened in the state too. When Sankar was murdered and Kowsalya was grievously wounded we stood by them. [In March 2014, Kowsalya and Sankar, a newly married inter-caste couple, were brutally attacked by men that Kowsalya’s father reportedly hired, in the town of Udumalpettai. Sankar died of his injuries.] We also gave Kowsalya support throughout the case to bring her murderous family to justice. [Kowsalya is legally fighting to ensure her father is given capital punishment] Now Kowsalya herself has become a confident Periyarist activist. Even in the Ilavarasan-Divya case we stood with the victims throughout that time. [Ilavarasan, a Dalit man, died under suspicious circumstances following an inter-caste marriage in 2013 near Dharmapuri. Evidence points to it being a murder] This work of ours goes not just against the BJP’s narrow electoral politics but against the ideology of the RSS and the roots of the Brahminical state they want to build.

Sivagnanam: Is this why critics claim that you are anti-Hindu?
Ramakrishnan: Fighting against caste will of course be seen as anti-Hindu, because caste is the basis of Hinduism. But I think they also have a problem with how vocally rationalist we are. We break lot of myths promoted in the name of religion and culture. The TPDK have constantly worked towards showing the absurdity of Brahminical religion and culture.

There are several examples of this kind of work. Hindutva groups usually oppose Valentine’s day and in 2018 they married two dogs to each other on the day to ridicule those falling in love. Shortly after that, we submitted a petition to the police in the name of the female dog saying that the husband dog had deserted it and requesting the police to find the male dog. This was a symbol of opposing the culture and tradition which the right-wing claim to protect—if the person who ties the mangal sutra is the legal custodian, and the man deserts the female, what happens then?

Myth-busting has been a major part of our work, like what other rationalists are doing in other parts of the country. All of this shows the absurdity of their faith. Frankly only this kind of ridicule will help in removing the devoutness that people have around a system of hierarchy that pretends to be a philosophy or religion. This also angers them more than just normal opposition to it.

Sivagnanam: Is the opposition to you not because of your work with the LTTE?
Ramakrishnan: See you have to understand the context for our support for an independent Tamil Eelam. Our support for the movement started in 1983, during the Black July pogrom. Sinhalese had gone a rampage murdering nearly 3,000 Tamils and displacing tens of thousands. All of that came to us in the news, pictures of the brutality. In the newspaper we would see images of Sinhalese smiling over the bodies of our people. At that time was also the Welikada prison massacre. Fifty three Tamil prisoners were killed. Two of the prisoners had announced they wanted to donate their eyes because they said that their eyes could see an independent Eelam. In the massacre the Sinhalese gouged out their eyes with iron bars and crushed them under their boots. Thousands of refugees fled to Tamil Nadu and we felt the Indian government was just sitting there letting this happen.

We of course felt we had to act. We organised a major strike in solidarity with our brethren. Nearly 15,000 students from schools and colleges in Coimbatore joined us. We blocked the railways tracks here in Coimbatore asking the Indian government to do something to protect Tamils.

At that time Prabhakaran [the founder of the LTTE] and a few of his cadre came here to Coimbatore. We gave them a place to stay. Soon Indira Gandhi contacted them and started training them in Uttarakhand. Then the government which at that same time was supporting them cannot claim we are criminals for it.

Sivagnanam: When did the government begin targeting you in relation to this?
Ramakrishnan: The government began cracking down on us primarily after the Rajiv Gandhi assassination. There were three LTTE members staying in Coimbatore at the time. Before the police could catch them, they died. The police fabricated evidence against us and a few others saying we were carrying bomb making fluid. This is of course completely fake, as we later proved in court. A comrade called Aruchamy and I were arrested under TADA [Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act of 1985] in 1991 for this.

I think after that the next time they targeted us was in 2009. That was at the climax of the brutal genocide the Sri Lankan government was conducting against Tamils. We had gotten word that the Indian government was sending arms, including things like rocket launchers, that would be used by the Sinhalese to murder Tamils. The trucks carrying them were going from Andhra, through here, to Cochin, from where it would be shipped to Sri Lanka. We went and blocked that road near Neelambur. The police came and arrested us there, charging us under the NSA [National Security Act of 1980]. It became quite a famous thing because very few protests had stood up to the army, apart from the protest in Manipur by women who had been raped by the army. But of course, that was long ago, the current hacking and others who are targeted now shows that this is not about what happened back then.

Sivagnanam: You had also been arrested under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act?
Ramakrishnan: Yes. That was back during the Emergency. I had joined Periyar in 1968. In the early 70s we were gathering a large cadre in Coimbatore and talking both about rationalism and about the authoritarianism of Indira Gandhi.

In the Gandhipuram locality, in a piece of land that was earlier the town road, a bunch of upper caste traders had built a Pillaiyar temple. Back then we used to build culverts which had self-respect messages on them. We raised a culvert opposite that temple with Periyar’s words, “There is no god, no god, there really is no god. He who created god is a fool. He who preaches god is a scoundrel. He who prays to god is uncivilised.” This was in 1974. More and more youth kept joining us that time, and all united to protest against the Emergency. They arrested us under MISA then and they later destroyed that culvert when we were in jail. We got released when Emergency ended and we built it there again. I guess in terms of blind faith and superstition there is no difference who controls the union government.

Sivagnanam: How has your personal life been affected by these cases?Ramakrishnan: It was initially very tough. Back during the Emergency, I had gotten arrested just shortly after my marriage. I had barely any income. Coimbatore was new for my wife, Vasanthi, and I promptly got arrested. My first child was also born when I was in jail, so it was a real struggle for her. People don’t understand, its much harder for the family outside jail than the person inside. They get troubled by the police more. The next time I got arrested, in 1991, my mother died. I came to know only a few days later when my wife visited me with our new born child. My later sentences have been relatively better.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Sujatha Sivagnanam is a freelance journalist based in Tamil Nadu who has previously reported for the New Indian Express. She is currently working as a special correspondent for Simplicity.