Democracy, Asoka and Koodankulam

Going by Koodankulam, India seems to have forgotten the lessons taught by Asoka.

“When he had been consecrated eight years the Beloved of the Gods, the king Piyadassi, conquered Kalinga. A hundred and fifty thousand people were deported, a hundred thousand were killed and many times that number perished. Afterwards, now that Kalinga was annexed, the Beloved of the Gods very earnestly practised Dhamma, desired Dhamma, and taught Dhamma. On conquering Kalinga the Beloved of the Gods felt remorse, for, when an independent country is conquered the slaughter, death, and deportation of the people is extremely grievous to the Beloved of the Gods, and weighs heavily on his mind. What is even more deplorable to the Beloved of the Gods, is that those who dwell there… all suffer violence, murder, and separation from their loved ones. Even those who are fortunate to have escaped… suffer from the misfortune of their friends, acquaintances, colleagues and relatives. This participation of all men in suffering, weighs heavily on the mind of the Beloved of the Gods.” (Asoka, 13th Major Rock Edict, Asoka and the Decline of the Mauryas, Romila Thapar)


Asoka informed his people about his renunciation of war through this edict, inscribed at multiple locations across the subcontinent—except in Kalinga. In Kalinga, the edicts that replace them (called the Separate Rock Edicts or the Kalinga Edicts) instruct the empires officers on how to carry out their duties.

Asoka is significant in history for two things. The first is his renunciation of war. The second is his will to communicate his thoughts, his worldview and his instructions on good governance. These survive through the edicts that were inscribed with occasional alterations across the breadth of the Asokan empire.

“This inscription of Dhamma was engraved at the command of the Beloved of the Gods, the king Piyadassi. It exists in abridged, medium-length, and extended versions, for each clause has not been engraved everywhere. Since the empire is large, much has been engraved and much has yet to be engraved. There is considerable repetition because of the beauty of certain topics, and in order that the people may conform to them.” (Asoka, 14th Major Rock Edict, Asoka and the Decline of the Mauryas, Romila Thapar)

“…This edict is to be proclaimed on the eighth day of the star Tisya, and at intervals between the Tisya days it is to be read aloud, even to a single person. By doing this you may be able to conform to my instructions.” (Asoka, 1st Separate Rock Edict, Asoka and the Decline of the Mauryas, Romila Thapar)

The Separate Rock Edict carved at Dhauli and Jaugada in Kalinga are like citizen’s charters, couched in terms of a code of conduct for officers of the empire and both contain his famous statement, “All men are my children.” The two edicts in Kalinga contain instructions for administrators that bear repetition in any age:

“You should gain the affection of men.” (1st Separate Rock Edict)

“You should strive to practice impartiality.” (1st Separate Rock Edict)

The official should avoid faults such as: jealousy, shortness of temper, harshness, rashness, obstinacy, idleness, slackness. (1st Separate Rock Edict)

In the state where I live, there is another story—of a nuclear power plant, the fragile eco-system of the sea and the coast and many unanswered questions. It is not the only contemporary story where people want to understand why their lives are being changed irrevocably and, what the cost-benefit calculus around these decisions (to which they were not party) has been and where they want a say in what finally transpires. It is also not the only story in which their questions have been met with silence, their persistence read as sedition and their campaign met with force.

Protests against the Koodankulam Nuclear Power Plant are not new. The questions are actually quite simple and relate to safety, the ecological consequences of the location and working of the plant and the impact on people’s lives, livelihood and health. Simple questions but very hard to answer, it seems, given that the government has been so reluctant to share reports and documentation.

But when you read environmental activist, Anitha S’ collection of conversations with the women and children of Idinthakarai, NO: Echoes from Koodankulam, their clarity is startling. They ask questions about chemical radiation. They ask questions about the temperature of the water that will be discharged as waste from the reactor. They ask about the impact on fisheries. They point to Fukushima and ask how they can be sure it will not happen. They also want to understand what they are doing that the state reads and treats as seditious. After all, India is supposed to be a democratic state.

It’s not just them. I too want to know. To my mind, these are very fair questions.

So far, the People’s Movement against nuclear energy has been non-violent. That is, they have sat in protest, written petitions, written letters, met people and given talks, but they have not taken to violent action. As the movement gathers supporters for a multiple reasons, and their protests are met with intransigence, silent dismissal and the use of force — it will be hard to keep it that way.

As I juxtapose Asoka and Koodankulam, the inversely proportionate relationship between democratisation and securitisation looks obvious and clichéd. Asoka’s renunciation of war and adoption of Dhamma as his ideology moved him to communicate almost compulsively. The securitisation of energy policy in our time makes it impossible for those most affected to ask even the most basic of questions; indeed, questioning and dissent seem to imperil them as much as the presence of the nuclear power plant does. Those of us who seek to leverage the power of the security discourse for many of our causes must proceed with great caution.

Photo: Abishek Baxi