Anu Prabhakar talks to the group of Loyola College students who sparked off last week's protests against Sri Lanka.
It all started with an email. A few weeks ago, William Charles, a second year BA student at Loyola College in Chennai, received an email from a friend with a draft of the US-backed UN resolution on Sri Lanka’s war crimes against Tamilians in 2009.
Given that the UN itself has estimated more than 40,000 Tamil civilians were killed during the final stages of the war on Tamil Eelam during 2008-2009, Charles was disturbed by the mild language censuring Sri Lanka in the draft.
So he and three college friends started planning a protest. On March 8, they decided to organise a hunger strike the next day on their campus, which is close to the Sri Lankan embassy. Duties were split: BSC Mathematics final year student Joe Britto was in charge of the hunger strike, while classmate Sahaya Stephen J, along with Charles, was to organise the protest. “Eight people were to go on a hunger strike on Sunday, but no one else knew about it. We were worried that on Monday everyone would go back to their schools, colleges and offices and forget this issue,” says Charles.
But at around 2am, the group of eight who were observing the fast were arrested and were taken to a government hospital. “Our doctor said we were fine,” says Britto. “Yet the police took us to the Royapettah hospital, where we continued our hunger strike. We withdrew our strike only after political parties tried to get involved.”
The arrests snowballed into what analysts and newspaper reports describe as one of the largest student protests in TN, second only to the anti-Hindi campaign of 1965, which was also led by students. Scores of students across the state joined the protests, forcing many colleges to shut down indefinitely.
Charles says that the group took a week to prepare for the protest. They poured over history books and read about the Sri Lankan-Tamilians issue in greater detail.
On a normal day, economics student Sarah Jacob* enters Loyola College through a ‘side gate’. But when she found the gate closed a few days after the arrests, she knew something was wrong. “On campus, students were protesting with placards. I also saw policemen and a police van outside the campus,” she says. “But Loyola College is not politcally active. So I was very surprised.”
Charles and Britto insist that their protests are not politically motivated, and are against human rights violations – a claim backed by Chennai-based political commentator Gnani Sankaran. He believes that the students’ fast was important as it “started the wave”. “No DMK, AIADMK, PMK ... hands are secretly guiding the protest,” says Sankaran.
A journalist working for a business newspaper explains that the protests spread like a “forest fire” with students from places like Trichy, Salem and Coimbatore joining the protest after the arrests. “Huge banners of Prabhakaran’s son were put up in the road leading to the Secretariat. I never thought I would see all this during Jayalalitha’s regime.”
On March 21, a ‘watered down’ version of the US-sponsored resolution on the crimes in Sri Lanka was eventually passed in the UN, with India voting for it. This news left students angry, but not disappointed. “We expected it,” says Joe Britto. “We are going to continue our protest till the UN declares that Sri Lanka committed genocide of Tamilians,” he says.
*Name changed to protect identity