Field Notes: The Protest That Was Doomed To Fail


When I first tried to talk to Janet, carrying a mostly empty bucket of fish as she sat next to me on a rickety bus, she was suspicious. 

That was not surprising. 

I was a stranger, and she was involved—as she soon confessed once I won her trust—in a protest that had gained national attention, concerning a company owned by India’s richest- and the world’s second-richest man, at a time when there was a possibility of security forces from New Delhi being involved.

The bus was bound for the sylvan fishing harbour of Vizhinjam, 20 km south of Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala’s capital. Vizhinjam is where the Adani International Deepwater Multipurpose Seaport, as it is officially described, is being built.

Janet, who only gave her first name, slowly, sometimes reluctantly, narrated how she and other protesters from her Christian community viewed their protest against the port, and why they were protesting against it. 

“The protest has public support because its demands are genuine,” Janet told me, echoing widespread fears that the port would devastate traditional fishing grounds and the lives of hundreds of fisherfolk, mostly Christian, which is why the local Latin Catholic Church was involved.

Janet said the Church was not forcing its followers to be involved in the protest. It was the other way around. “The church decided to intervene after it was flooded with complaints about the port from believers,” Janet told me.

Janet and I shared an auto after our bus reached Vizhinjam bus stand. As I walked to the protest site at Vizhinjam beach, it was around 10.30 in the morning, and she left midway, heading for home. 

Over the next few hours, I met her compatriots, and while I was stirred by their passion and their fears, I could not shake the feeling—with good reason, as it emerged—that the protest was doomed.

I wrote this note 28 days after I met Janet. By then, the protest had been called off somewhat mysteriously by the local archdiocese on 6 December. Strike leaders were not happy because they believed that after 20 weeks of protest, they did not appear to have gained very much for their efforts.

A few days earlier, the state government had informed the Kerala high court that it had no objection to deploying central security forces in Vizhinjam. Much like the Bharatiya Janata Party government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has done with protests elsewhere (here and here), the Communist Party of India (Marxist) government of chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan had also taken to discrediting the Vizhinjam protests, calling the fisherfolk “anti nationals” and “terrorists”.

At Vizhinjam beach, I was welcomed by tens of empty fishing boats. Then, I saw a board erected by Adani Ports and Special Economic Zones Ltd, warning against—and criminalising—fishing in the area. 

“Fishing and recreational activities in the project area is a punishable offence,” said the board.

Perhaps the boats had been pulled ashore because it was not when they were normally out at sea, but the scene appeared greatly symbolic: a way of life under threat, literally so, as the board warned.

I walked further and entered the port compound, and reached a small makeshift protest tent, erected near a breakwater being built for the controversial port. For weeks, they had blocked trucks carrying construction material and tetrapods.

As I walked past the tetrapods already deposited here and took some photographs, an annoyed protester came up to me. “You should not have taken photographs without informing us,” he said angrily. “There are CCTV cameras and the police. We don’t know who you are. Your actions can be used against us.”

I apologised and explained why I was there.  

“We will not allow the port works to continue until our demands are met,” he said, as other protesters nodded. They looked tired, but resolute.

A woman walks by concrete blocks assembled for construction of Adani port in Vizhinjam, Thiruvananthapuram, on 9 November 2022/ MUHAMMED SABITH

Over the next four hours I spent with them, I heard stories of loss caused by a coastline being eroded and falling fish catch and stories of a hard life out at sea and the hope it gave them for the future. 

They spoke emotionally and convincingly about their fears of losing both their livelihood and homes due to the port, and I struggled, at times, to stay dispassionate. 

There are two sides to this story: a community struggling for survival and a government-private partnership that ignores this struggle, as it strives to create a port that could be a continental hub for trans-shipping containers and compete with the largest in Asia.

“Why does an elected government—that too a Left government under a party that has a legacy of leading people’s struggles—be concerned about a conglomerate and the state’s ‘reputation’, instead of addressing the existential fears of a marginalised community?” That was one of the questions I heard.

At Mullur in Vizhinjam, site of the proposed Vizhinjam port’s main gate, I was greeted by two parallel protests and several policemen and women who guarded and separated two protesting groups.

One group—mostly Christian women and some activists from a small political party who just arrived to express their solidarity with them—was sitting right before the port gate. The other group, mostly men, with many in saffron clothes, sat on the other side of the main road.

Speakers were addressing the two groups, but the difference was clear. 

The speaker addressing the women from the fishing community was talking about the concerns of the local fishing community and the government’s attitude towards those concerns. 

The other speaker, from among the Hindu men clearly allied with the BJP, was only threatening or hectoring the first group and their strike, often invoking their religious identity as Christians.

One threat went like this: “Samaram avasanippikkaan purohithanmar thayyarayillenkil njangalkk njangalude samara reethi mattendi varum.” If the priests [meaning, Christians] are not ready to end their protest, we will be forced to change our way of protest.

Portinethiraaya samaram nammude naadinte vikasanathe thurankam vekkunna samaramaanu (This anti-port protest is against the development of our country),” was another pro-government declaration.

“These abuses and threats against us have become quite common,” said one anti-port protester. He listened to the abuse, somewhat tired and resigned. There was not much he could do.

You can read Muhammed Sabith’s full story here.

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