Vital Signs

Student protests in Tamil Nadu evoke memories of a watershed moment

The student protests in Tamil Nadu earlier this year were an outpouring of sympathy for Sri Lankan Tamils, with little political organisation. PUNIT PARANJPE / AFP / GETTY IMAGES
01 May, 2013

TOO MANY THINGS WERE HAPPENING in Periyar’s life in March. His wife had just given birth to a boy, and he was expecting her to join him soon at their new house in T Nagar, Chennai. He had moved back to the city from Singapore a year earlier, but had recently quit his IT job and launched an HR consulting firm. Between setting up his business, hiring people and bringing his wife home, he knew the stress was playing games with his emotions.

Periyar came from a political family that subscribed to the Dravidian ideology of his namesake: the iconoclast, anti-Brahminist and founder of the Dravidian movement, Periyar EV Ramasamy. Periyar’s younger brother had been named after Annadurai, the founder of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham (DMK)—the political party of the Dravidian movement—and the party’s first chief minister of Tamil Nadu. Periyar’s life as an IT professional had linked him with a broad community transcending language and ethnic identity, and he had now moved on from Dravidian tenets such as rationalism, and hostility to Hindu religiosity; he had even started to practice meditation in an attempt to control his emotions.

But the violence inflicted on Tamils in Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict was a source of great distress for him, and so, on 19 March, he joined his fellow IT professionals in a human chain in Chennai’s Siruseri IT corridor, where some 2,000 people brought together by Facebook and Twitter demanded, among other things, the hanging of Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The Siruseri protest had very clear political demands, and drew much of its strength from an online community called the Save Tamils movement (headquartered online at Some of the demands had merely rhetorical value, but others had specific goals, such as asking India to intervene against the dilution of the USA-sponsored resolution on human rights violations in Sri Lanka at the United Nations Human Rights Commission meeting in Geneva. (India eventually voted in favour, but observers alleged that it had a hand in watering down the language of the resolution condemning the abuses.)

The IT corridor demonstration had followed a week of student protests all over the city—protests that were largely under-reported in subsequent days and weeks by the national media, but had briefly succeeded in reminding people of the state’s massive anti-Hindi protests in the 1960s. Those historic agitations had acted as a springboard for the Dravidian movement and brought the DMK to power. But Tamil Nadu students had dropped out of the national spotlight since then. Over the last few decades, many protests that have attained the status of countrywide agitations—from the JP movement of the 1970s, to the Anna Hazare campaigns last year—had been met with seeming indifference in the state.

Now, a generation of students and IT professionals, descendants of the first supporters of the Dravidian movement, appeared to be reclaiming the spirit of earlier times. The protests gave a nasty jolt to the Dravidian parties. They forced the DMK’s hand, leading them to pull out of the UPA government, and caused Tamil Nadu’s ruling party, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham (AIADMK)—once a strident critic of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)—to ramp up its pro-Tamil rhetoric.

The outpouring of sympathy for Sri Lankan Tamils was triggered by The Hindu’s publication, on 19 February, of photographs of the 12-year-old Balachandran, son of LTTE chief V Prabhakaran. The pictures were reportedly taken hours before the child was shot dead at point blank range by the Sri Lankan Army. Those photographs soon went viral. In early March, nearly a dozen students representing various Chennai colleges met at Loyola College to propose an awareness-agitation programme, which would eventually bring students to the streets.

On 8 March, eight students of Loyola started a three-day fast with backing from the All India Catholic Union Federation (AICUF), a student movement within the Catholic Church for which the inspiration had veered toward Marxism and liberation theology in the 1970s. On 9 March, when the fasting students of Loyola moved from their campus to a venue in the Koyambedu area, political leaders began to visit them. The English-language media reacted perfunctorily to these developments. By contrast, Tamil media, led by the new Tamil news channel Pudhiya Thalaimurai, had grasped the significance of the protests from the beginning.

For many of the protestors, the Balachandran pictures had been a flashback to April 2009, when the Lankan Army was pushing to annihilate the LTTE by air, land and sea. The LTTE had created a massive human shield around itself, convinced that mounting civilian deaths would force India and the international community to ask the Lankan army to back off. But the army relentlessly advanced, intent on finishing off this “bogus Eelam problem”—Rajapaksa’s words.

The DMK lost face over the issue: a six-hour fast by then-chief minister of Tamil Nadu, M Karunanidhi, was not particularly effective. Decades of the DMK speaking on behalf of the Tamil people had begun to take their toll; the Dravidian parties had been championing the cause of Lankan Tamils for over 30 years, but achieved little. In recent times, the Dravidian movement’s four-point ideology—campaigning against Brahmin domination and gaining power for backward classes, identifying with the Tamil ‘race’, the assertion of federal rights and a passion for the Tamil language that sometimes took the form of virulent opposition to Hindi—has all but withered away.

Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination in 1991 had muted mass displays of sympathy for Lankan Tamils from their Indian counterparts, who feared being painted as LTTE sympathisers. In the wake of the decimation of the LTTE, space opened up again for public support of the Lankan Tamils. A 2011 agitation for pardoning those convicted in the Rajiv Gandhi murder case, though orchestrated and conducted by Tamil nationalist groups, drew some support from the general public.

The eight Loyola students fasting to draw attention to Tamils in Sri Lanka had also succeeded. As publicity for their protest grew, other colleges joined in. A new wave of protests that began on 11 March, when the Loyola students were taken into police custody, went on until 2 April. Students in some 40 arts and science colleges all over Tamil Nadu held protests of their own, mostly on their own campuses. Some 3,000 students of Alagappa University in Karaikudi, the home town of Union finance minister P Chidambaram, participated in a week-long protest.

St Xavier’s of Tirunelveli, St Joseph’s of Tiruchirapalli, AM Jain College in Chennai, Annamalai University in Chidambaram—some of Tamil Nadu’s biggest educational institutions—saw sustained protests, but smaller towns were chipping in as well. The hub of the protests in nearly every institution was typically a group of students fasting. Over the month, more than 400 students went on these hunger strikes throughout the state, providing in each college a place where other protesters could gather.  In Chennai, over a hundred students took out a march towards the Raj Bhavan. Some attempted a lock-out of the All India Radio building on the Beach Road, and others went on a collective hunger strike at the Gandhi Mandapam adjacent to the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) campus.

The student protests appeared to be a show of support for the Lankan Tamil cause, rather than an organised agitation for a well-articulated set of demands. There was no organisational backing to channel students’ emotions into sustained political action. Keeping the protest non-party was a priority, said Ajay, one of the leaders of the protests. (His brother Anthony was one of the eight Loyola fasters.) The students felt let down by the Dravidian parties, he told me. Indeed, they seemed to want to keep the protests free of any affiliation. Students who had gathered at Koyambedu heckled Congress leader KV Thangkabalu when he came to visit. Protesters also tip-toed around the DMK-backed strike call on 12 March, and scheduled no significant action for that day; they did not want the DMK to ride the protest wave and salvage the party’s damaged credibility.

But the protesters nevertheless had an impact on party politics. The AIADMK state government aided the students by not coming down on agitators, or having the police break up protest groups. Meanwhile, the DMK began to threaten to pull out of the UPA government if the Centre did not censure Sri Lanka strongly in Geneva.

Chidambaram, the DMK’s long-time Congress ally, arrived in Chennai to mollify Karunanidhi. But Karunanidhi told Chidambaram that going with the Congress on Sri Lanka had cost the DMK dearly, a senior party leader who attended their meeting on 18 March told me. The very next day, Karunanidhi announced that the DMK would be pulling out of the UPA.

In what seemed like a quick reprisal, DMK leader MK Stalin’s house was raided on 21 March by the Central Bureau of Investigation. Ostensibly, the case was one in which the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence was investigating duty evasion in the import of foreign cars by several people, including Stalin’s son Udhayanidhi. The raid had been planned long in advance, but the timing and the manner in which it was carried out—CBI officials barged into Stalin’s house in the early hours of the morning—only appeared to widen the DMK’s split with the Congress.

Dravidian politics has always flirted with linguistic chauvinism, and the championing of Tamil identity can sometimes slide down the slippery slope towards bigotry. While the protests were going on, Sri Lankan Buddhist monks were attacked by fringe political groups in Madurai, and a Lankan airline’s offices were ransacked. The AIADMK, meanwhile, became more vociferous in its attacks on the Sri Lankan government, and forced the Indian Premier League to stop Lankan cricketers from playing in Chennai.

The AIADMK’s trajectory on Lankan Tamils has taken several tortuous twists over the years. Its founder, MG Ramachandran, was an early patron of the LTTE. After the Rajiv Gandhi assassination, however, Jayalalithaa was more strident than the Congress in opposing the LTTE. Under her, the state assembly passed a resolution asking that Prabhakaran be brought back and tried in the Rajiv Gandhi case soon after a ceasefire in 2002 allowed him to surface publicly. But after the 2009 war, Jayalalithaa too began to criticise India’s policy toward Sri Lanka, and Sri Lanka’s treatment of its Tamil population.

Last month, having seen both the student protests and the discomfiture of the DMK, Jayalalithaa moved towards a more pro-Eelam position once again. The state assembly passed a resolution on 22 March demanding the establishment of a Tamil state in Sri Lanka, as well as a referendum on the demands of the Tamil community in India, Sri Lanka and abroad.

Perhaps there no sign more telling of how wide-ranging the sentiment was than the sight of engineering college students, historically near-immune to any form of protests, agitating alongside their peers.  Evera (named for Periyar’s initials, E. V. Ra.), a mechanical engineering student in the final year of his BTech program at IIT-Madras, was surprised that a majority of his friends at the college—90 percent of whom were non-Tamils—supported his idea of protesting on campus. They had seen the Balachandran pictures on the internet, heard about the killings in Lanka, and read about the protests at other cities’ colleges. On 18 March, IIT-M students organised a one-day protest fast and a rally.

The protest was IIT-ian in many ways. Evera and his fellow organisers had prepared educational posters explaining what a plebiscite is, who the Lankan Tamils were, and who the Indian Tamils living in Sri Lanka were, and so on—nuances that needed to be explained to non-Tamil protesters. Then, nearly a month later, on 14 April (the Tamilian new year’s day), student leaders at IIT invited other protesters to discuss the issue in an attempt to regroup, and none came. Exam season had begun, and the students had gone back to their classrooms.

Nevertheless, what may have begun as an emotional upsurge points to a larger trend in the state. The Tamil elite are no longer dominated by Brahmins. Decades of progress in education, and the broadening of economic opportunities, have opened the doors for other castes. As an ideology, the Dravidian movement may have lost its steam, but 23 days in 2013 reminded those who were watching that some of the original concerns of those heady days of the 1960s are alive and well in Tamil Nadu.