Started Activism at 21, Still At It At 52


Gopu Mohan in Chennai – The Indian Express

Subramaniam Paramarthalingam Udayakumar was 21 when he, along with a few friends, started the Group of Peaceful Indian Ocean to campaign against ships and submarines said to be ferrying nuclear weapons across the Indian Ocean. They believed these American, Soviet, British and French vessels could be catastrophic to countries that had nothing to do with the arms race between the world powers.

Udayakumar, now 52, says the period when he took his Masters education in Kerala in English literature helped mould his present streak of activism against nuclear weapons and plants.

Having decided to follow the path of social service, Udayakumar after his Masters left for Ethiopia to teach in schools. After about six years there, he left for the United States where he got a second Masters, this time in peace studies from Notre Dame University, before doing a PhD in political science at University of Hawaii. During this period he taught subjects such as peace and conflict resolution, human rights and sustainable development.

He bought a piece of land in his native Nagercoil where a school was set up for poor children under the supervision of a trust he co-founded with his wife, Meera, and which they named SACCER, or South Asian Community Centre for Education and Research. His interest in environment and sustainable development led to his launching the Green Party of India, though with limited success.

The second phase of his activism began with his return to India in 2001. He joined forces with Y David, who was in the forefront of the anti-Koodankulam protests right from the 1980s when the proposal to set up the nuclear plant was suggested. David had formed the Samathuva Samuthaya Iyakkam, or social equality movement. Along with a few others, the group floated the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy in 2001 in which Udayakumar played a crucial role. In time, the leadership was handed over to the younger Udayakumar.

It was not easy to campaign against the power plant, he soon realised. Though there was widespread opposition to the project right from the beginning, it was dispersed, disjointed and at times one competing against the other. “The lack of coherence and focus among the various movements on Koodankulam is painfully obvious,” Udayakumar wrote in an article in June 1999, much before the agitations came under national and international attention. The unorganised protests, he added, “is by no means a powerful fight”.

Locals recall the time when Udayakumar and others organised public meetings and campaigns. There were hardly anyone to listen to their speeches, and they were even chased away by villagers who were enthusiastic about jobs and development promised by the plant’s promoters.

The promises remained largely unfulfilled, the mood of the local public changed, and some of them invited Udayakumar to Koodankulam and the neighbourhood. Since then, he has been the undisputed leader of the protesters. But, as he notes, “The decision to fight against the commissioning of the plant was taken by the public. Now even if I say OK to it, the people will not agree as they are now aware of the reality.”

Udayakumar is widely considered a non-corrupt leader of the protests, and has often challenged the authorities to probe allegations of corruption against him. He has made public the list of assets owned by him and his wife. These include accounts in SBI’s Nagercoil branch(Rs 4,953 in his account and Rs 1,380 in hers), SBI’s Kottar branch (Rs 5,716), Indian Bank’s Meenakshipuram branch (Rs 12,632), Canara Bank (she has Rs 2,331), and Tamil Nadu Mercantile Bank Edalakudy (Rs 1,703 and Rs 309). They also own 3.76 acres of coconut and a 9.43-acre rubber plantation, besides three plots measuring 10, 15 and 8 cents, which they bought a few years ago from their earnings as teachers.

There are still some who believe the agitations have begun on too extreme and too non-negotiable a note. This has left very little chance of a consultation. For this anti-nuclear activist, in fact, a compromise is out of the question.

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