In September 2011, the small town of Kudankulam in Tamil Nadu should have made big news. There was a protest in Kudankulam, against the setting up a nuclear power plant. The police filed first information reports (FIRs) for 7,000 villagers and the those who lead the protest, charging them all with sedition. So why is it that most of us are hearing of Kudankulam only now, usually thanks to social media?
With sedition being the hot topic in Indian current affairs, the Kudankulam incident has popped up repeatedly in conversation. It’s been held up as proof of mainstream media’s disinclination to criticise the Congress-led government that was in power in 2011. However, the Kudankulam incident is more complicated than a simple case of bias.
When Newslaundry spoke to SP Udaykumar, a social activist and one of the leaders of the Kudankulam protest, he insisted that 8,000 people were booked for sedition. However, the details that he did provide present the first of the knots in this case. “There were around 380 FIRs and these FIRs have no mention of all the names,” said Udaykumar. “These were like ‘Udaykumar and 300 others’. As they haven’t mentioned any specific name, you can’t identify the person as he or she can be anyone.”
He said that the sedition charges were attempts to intimidate the villagers. “The protesters were villagers so if you book a case and tell them that they have a case on their name, then they will be scared. It is a very old technique to intimidate people in rural India and it is not a very unique case.”
The first obstacle to finding whether 7,000 people were indeed charged with sedition is that there is no proper record of sedition charges in India from that year. When the incident took place, Vijayendra Bidari was the superintendent of police in Kudankulam. He told Newslaundry, “The number you are quoting, those are newspaper records. We lodged some FIRs against the protestors but we did not charge sheet any of the villagers.” He emphasised it is only after the filing of a charge sheet that people can be produced in the court. “As I remember, we charge-sheeted around 20 people and they were all outsiders who had come to lead the protest,” said Bidari.“But they were not booked under sedition. They had some other charges, like attempt to murder.”
Talking about the curious fact that the FIRs filed in 2011 identify only one person but refer to a host of other offenders — for example, in the case of Udaykumar, the FIR is filed against “SP Udaykumar and 300 others” — Bidari told us the police came to the “other” figure after an “assessment” of the crowd gathered. “Duty officers on ground have an estimation of the crowd in big protests,” he said.
When asked how one could get an official record of the charges, Bidari said, “You can only get the FIR records from the police station. It is impossible to report every single FIR for small crimes to the State Crime Record Bureau.”
However, this claim was contradicted by a senior statistical officer of the National Crime Record Bureau who has requested his identity remain undisclosed. “Our rule is, every FIR should have a record and every police station is bound to submit these reports to the state, which then come to National Crime Records Bureau,” he said. The role of the state is critically important to the collection of accurate data. “India is a big country and NCRB is very much dependent on state reports,” he said. “We can’t go back and cross check every report. So if any interior police station has not given proper data, then we can’t do anything.”
The other reason the Kudankulam FIRs are complicated is that until 2014, sedition charges were not recorded separately and came under the “other” category. The NCRB in a meeting along with officials of the Union Ministry of Home Affairs decided to record crimes against the state under a separate category in 2014. Crimes against the nation include waging, or attempting to wage war, or abetting waging of war, against the government of India.
Newslaundry was unable to assess the FIRs and charge sheet pertaining to the Kudankulam case. But given that the SP from the time asserts that the charge sheet was not based on sedition laws, it appears to be a case of state intimidation to break the protest. As Kudankulam suggests, there may be more instances that don’t show up in public record in which people were threatened by the police, using sedition as a tool.