A collective bid by political parties and civil society organisations compels the Madurai police to pre-empt the VHP’s hate agenda in the city. But through subsequent ‘retaliatory’ acts against human rights defenders, the same police provide proof of Amma’s growing affinity for the sangh parivar
a) By words either spoken or written or by signs or by visible representation or otherwise, promotes, or attempts to promote, on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, caste or community or any other grounds whatsoever, disharmony or feelings of enmity, hatred or ill-will between different religions, racial, language or regional groups, caste or communities or,
b) Commits any act which is prejudicial to the maintenance of harmony between different religious, racial, language or regional groups or caste or communities and which disturbs or is likely to disturb the public tranquillity,
c) …shall be punished with imprisonment which may extend to 3 years or with fine or with both." (Sec. 153 IPC).
In the first week of August 2003, People’s Watch – Tamil Nadu, a human rights monitoring initiative engaged in human rights education, got wind of the probable visit of Praveen Togadia, international general secretary of the VHP to the temple city of Madurai on August 30. Having witnessed from far the orgy of violence that has taken place in several states in west and north India, and the deep enmity and ill-will that has been promoted among communities which were otherwise living in peace, People’s Watch decided to undertake the onerous responsibility of initiating action for public awareness.
I wish to share this experience with you, not as a great achievement, not because it is something unique, but because we would like to be a part of the larger community of victims who have lost their lives, lost all their possessions and who will now almost never be able to go back to their ancestral homes because of "communal violence".
The first opportunity that came our way was a public meeting held on August 14, 2003, as part of the campaign against POTO in Tamil Nadu. While speaking from that stage, I urged the city’s police administration to play their role in maintaining law and order and ensuring that the proposed visit of Togadia to Madurai city on August 30 would not even border on any incitement as defined in the IPC. The message did reach the government through their intelligence units which covered that meeting. But the visit did not take place.
The next occasion to once again raise the issue was in September, when the Indian Lawyers’ Association of Madurai held its district conference. During my felicitation at this conference, I mentioned Togadia’s proposed visit and not only got the conference to pass a resolution calling upon the district administration to initiate action, but also got functionaries of several civil society organisations in Madurai to come together to form a Joint Action Platform.
In all such initiatives, there is always a problem about who gives the initial call. Being an organisation working to uphold the rule of law and to put in practice and actualise the constitutional mandate, especially those contained in the Preamble of the Constitution, People’s Watch initiated the first discussion meeting in Madurai city, urging that civil society organisations in Madurai come together to tackle a visit to the city by a notorious person.
The meeting, in which several district secretaries of political parties, trade unions, Dalit organisations, women’s organisations, concerned citizens, NGOs and human rights organisations participated, was held in September. The meeting unanimously resolved to constitute a Joint Action Council Against Communalism (JACAC) in Madurai city and agreed on a common action plan in the backdrop of Togadia’s visit to Madurai, rumoured to take place on September 21.
The meeting unanimously elected as its president, Dr. B Parthasarathy, a former college principal and college teachers’ unionist, who had also served as the vice-president of the AIFUCTO. The actions planned were:
a) To present a petition to the commissioner of police anticipating Togadia’s visit and requesting that the distribution of trishuls be prohibited at any of his public functions;
b) Planning of black flag demonstration in the city on September 21;
c) In case Togadia did not visit Madurai as expected on September 21, to conduct a series of eight street corner meetings, starting with the first one opposite the district court buildings on September 22 and thereafter two meetings every day from September 22 to 25, culminating with a grand human chain in which all political parties, students, trade unions and NGOs in the city participated on September 26.
This was the quiet resistance that civil society organisations were valiantly putting together. The JACAC in Madurai city had hardly been able to consolidate its initial efforts when, towards the second week of October, the city was ripe with announcements followed by press releases that Togadia was to participate in the ‘Thevar Guru Pooja’ on October 30. This is the birth anniversary of Pasumpon Thiru Muthuramalinga Thevar, the leader of the Thevar community, a very powerful backward community in the state, which now enjoys the unbridled support of the ruling Jayalalitha government. This is the community which has in the past and again recently exhibited, particularly in south Tamil Nadu, a deep animosity to our Dalit brothers, leading to very serious caste clashes in the years 1995–97.
The culmination of this hatred has been successful efforts by these community leaders to ensure that since 1996 the seats of presidents and ward members in Keeripatti, Pappatti and Nattarmangalam in Madurai district were either not contested, or if they were contested and won, they were not occupied by Dalit presidents at all, thus shaming the 73rd and 74th Amendment to the Constitution which our country boasts about.
Realising the frenzy and the deep sensitivities that would prevail on Guru Pooja with lakhs of members of the Thevar community observing the day, the JACAC decided to oppose any attempt by Togadia to communalise Madurai using the Guru Pooja as an occasion and further communalise the Thevar community as well. At the same time, we did not wish to hurt the deep cultural sensitivities of the Thevar community by opposing the visit of a person coming to the city to pay homage to their leader and to participate in the Guru Pooja at Pasumpon, 100 km away from Madurai and thereafter address a public meeting in Madurai city.
The JACAC met the leaders of all political parties to convince them of the need to speak out. Simultaneously, JACAC urged political parties led by Thevars to publicly issue statements distancing themselves from Togadia and also urged representatives of the Thevar community observing the Guru Pooja not to be carried away by the VHP’s designs.
The JACAC also addressed a public meeting on October 27 in which leaders of all political parties and civil society organisations in the city participated. They condemned Togadia’s proposed visit while making clear that the protest must not be seen as having anything to do with his proposed participation in the Guru Pooja celebrations on October 30. The police, too, was informed accordingly.
On the morning of October 27, all local newspapers carried news of Togadia’s proposed plan to distribute trishuls to young children during the public meeting that he was to address in Madurai city at a ground belonging to the civic corporation of Madurai. Sensing extreme danger, the JACAC immediately decided to approach the officials for legal redress. They addressed a joint petition to the commissioner of police, the district collector, the municipal commissioner and also the governor of Tamil Nadu.
The petition referred to provisions of Sections 153(a), 153(b), 295(a), 298 and 505(1) & (2) IPC and prayed the following:
a) that any public meeting at Tamukkam ground which Togadia addresses should not at any point of time violate the provisions of the IPC and the organisers of the said meeting should give an undertaking to the effect that no distribution of trishuls shall take place at the meeting;
b) that on his arrival in the city Togadia should give a personal undertaking that he will not address any meeting inciting violence in any form and specifically that he will not engage in the distribution of trishuls anywhere in the city;
c) the petition also sought police protection for the public meeting organised by the JACAC on the night of October 27.
Representatives of political parties and trade unions and I personally met the police commissioner, the district collector and the municipal commissioner and presented our petition to them. It is pertinent to mention the reaction of the police commissioner when members of the JACAC met him as it reveals the mindset of our police. It shows how in our fight against communalism and our effort to uphold the promises of the Preamble of the Constitution, law enforcement officials are very often the greatest block to our efforts.
The commissioner of police (COP) was struck by a sentence in the first para of the petition which stated, "the JACAC strives to preserve communal harmony and peace within the city and to this end wishes to strengthen the hands of the district administration as well as the commissioner of police". His immediate response was that the police did not need anybody’s support to maintain communal harmony and peace. He emphasised that the police was capable of doing this on their own.
Thereafter, looking directly at me, he asked whether the offer to strengthen the hands of the police was a permanent gesture or a temporary one. To this I responded saying that the all of us present before him were people who would stand by the police whenever they upheld the rule of law!
On reading the petition further and the provisions of section 153, he once again remarked, "Nobody can promote anything u/s 153." Saying this, he looked at me again and I responded by saying, "That is what the IPC states." Adopting a who-are-you-to-tell-me-what-to-do attitude, the commissioner finally assured us that he would take a balanced view since there were several parties involved in the Guru Pooja on October 30. To this, we said, "Sir, there may be several parties and perhaps you consider us only one among them, but what we are focussing on is the question of the rule of law."
The public meeting on the night of October 27 was addressed by various leaders of the JACAC, asking the COP, who is statutorily responsible for law and order in the city of Madurai, either to perform the duties expected from him and which in the present context had specifically been brought to his attention by the JACAC, or else provide the JACAC an opportunity to move the Madras High Court for suitable remedies.
On the morning of October 27, on behalf of the JACAC, I requested Communalism Combat to share with us their collection of news clippings concerning efforts in different parts of the country to deal with the issue of hate speech and the distribution of trishuls. By the next morning, over 200 pages of news clippings were down-loaded and these were also presented, along with our petitions, to the concerned authorities. Thus, a clear message was given to the law enforcement officials that the JACAC meant serious business.
On the morning of October 28, the COP passed orders under Section 41(a) of the Madras City Police Act banning the distribution of trishuls in the city on October 30 and the same was served on Muruganji, the organiser of the public meeting that Togadia was to address. The collective effort by civil society organisations who believe in upholding the rule of law thus bore fruit and the distribution of trishuls was averted. The meeting which Togadia finally addressed, numbering around 2,000 people in the city, was devoid of his usual venom and spite.
Activists of the JACAC attended the meeting and recorded the communal venom spewed by Muruganji, who addressed the meeting prior to Togadia. The JACAC has put the COP on notice to register a criminal case against him, failing which we shall be forced to move the Madras High Court to obtain an order directing the COP to register a case.
It is such legal efforts in different parts of the country which could ultimately challenge the powers that be to put a check on hate speech and the militarisation of society. But we have to be prepared to pay the necessary costs.
The COP, Madurai, participated on October 28 in a Public Hearing on ‘Violence Against Women’ in which People’s Watch – Tamil Nadu was instrumental in presenting several cases of gross instances of violence against women in custody (domestic as well as police), cases involving oral sex by police, custodial rape, murder, various forms of torture. As the DIG of Police, Madurai, a position that he additionally holds, the COP engineered a police raid on our premises at 7.30 a.m. on November 5 that lasted for about 1½ hours. The raid was ostensibly to search for two accused in a case of dacoity!
Of course, the police went back empty-handed. Now it is the turn of human rights organisations from all over the country to petition the National Human Rights Commission and the National Commission for Women, urging them to intervene against injustice to human rights defenders. Fighting against communalism in Jayalalitha’s land is not without its attendant costs.
Archived from Communalism Combat, November 2003 Year 10 No. 93, Grassroots