The months that succeeded the death of former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa, witnessed a surge in protests, some even turning bloody – from the Jallikattu protests in January 2017 to the Tuticorin protests in May 2018 in which 14 protesters were killed in police firing. For the protesters who were already peeved with the Centre and state government’s policies and apathy towards the state, the final nail in the coffin was the assaults on them – cases, arrests, lathi charges and police firing with which the state government responded.
Post the agitations, many protesting groups had decided boycott elections. However, the turning up of several of these groups at polling booths on April 18, seems to have restored their faith in democracy. While many of them have vote against the BJP and the AIADMK government, others have opted for the NOTA button. Another league of protesters have shunned the regional political parties by fielding candidates from among them as independent candidates.
“I had already made up my mind to cast my vote against the AIADMK and the BJP, after seeing their treatment of the Jallikattu issue in 2017,” says Gunasekar, a youth who participated in the Jallikattu protests.
Ramanathan, a farmer based in Neduvasal says, most of the farmers involved in the protests against Methane extraction cast their votes to NOTA albeit after much persuasion, although they had initially planned to boycott the elections. “They had decided to stage a demonstration on the day of the election. But finally cast their vote after being cajoled by political parties and the ensuing orders in this regard from the police department,” he says.
While persuasion worked in some cases, in other places it was alleged bribery that drew protesters to polling booths, say sources.
On March 12 this year, members of the movement against hydrocarbon extraction in Thirukkaravasal, had sent a letter to the Chief Election Commissioner stating that they will not be voting in the elections.
“It was the protesters who had decided that all the participants taking part in the protests, must avoid elections. But they were unable to keep their promise. They were sold out to ‘briyani’ and cash” says Dr Barathi Selva, who participated in the protests against hydrocarbon extraction at Thirukkaravasal.
Raasu, a member of Tamil Thesiya Periyakkam, which organised demonstrations against the Neutrino project says, “In 2016, during the state assembly elections, the Neutrino project became a major issue and the candidates promised to stall it. Believing the words of these candidates, many people cast their votes in their favour. But during this election, the project was never raised,” he says. One of the residents of Pottipuram village says, the project was never taken up as an issue by the candidates there, even though an MDMK cadre immolated himself demanding its closure.
Protesters in many other places have fielded their own candidate, shunning the Dravidian parties. Participants of the Sterlite protest fielded Anto Hillery, a candidate chosen from among themselves, to contest independently in this election.
Tamil Maandhan, a member of the anti-Sterlite movement says that fielding a candidate from the movement is itself a way to express their opposition to the regional political parties. “But we never campaigned to ignore the elections. If anyone decided to ignore, it is their own decision” he says.
Likewise, farmers affected by cyclone Gaja came forward to contest to show their opposition to the state and central governments. Eraniyal, a member of Tamil Nadu River Protection Movement says, “We fielded 10 candidates in Mayiladuthurai parliamentary constituency – all farmers – to contest independently. It is the most possible thing we are able to do”.
A farmers’ leader from Thanjavur, however, is critical about the former’s decision. He says, “the decision of fielding 10 farmers in one constituency may bring them attention, but it is doubtful if it will have an impact on the elections”.
Whatever the problems may be, a majority of the protesters still have hope on the democracy and they exercise their vote. The poll percentage from the constituency (Thoothukudi) is the proof, adds Tamil Maandhan.