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Deported from India as the supposed foreign face in anti-nuclear protests - Interview with Rainer Sonntag

2 March 2012

print version of this article print version 29 February 2012


Hermann seems more a scapegoat than an instigator

The German seems to have been deported to give a face to the foreign hand supposedly funding anti-nuclear protests, writes Jeemon Jacob

After a stormy night and a long flight, Sonntag Rainer Hermann, the German tourist deported from Chennai, reached Essen (near Dusseldorf) at 7 pm on 28 February. In response to TEHELKA’s emails, he wrote, “I travelled safe to my hometown. This is the first connection to the Internet. The last two nights I had no bed and I’m very tired now. So, please allow me some time to rest. I need some time to think.”

The Tamil Nadu Police deported the 49-year-old computer programmer on 27 February, accusing him of funding the anti-nuke protests in Koodankulam, where two Russian reactors are expected to add 900 MW of electricity to the Tamil Nadu grid, catering to at least four million people.

Worries about exposure to radiation were heightened after the 2011 Fukushima accident. Protests escalated, with about 3,000 people going on a relay fast.

However, a question often asked was why the locals did not protest sooner. And this is where the conspiracy theories — proof is still elusive — of foreign involvement begin. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said that Indian NGOs were getting funds from American and west European sources to obstruct the Russian-built plants.

And Hermann was deported for being one of the funders.

Strangely, he did not live a clandestine life. He was well known in Nagercoil as a regular tourist and a dedicated conservationist. People’s Movement against Nuclear Energy (PMANE) convener SP Udayakumar says he met Hermann eight years ago. “Rainer had amoebic dysentry and spent very little,” says Udayakumar. “He did participate in a protest organised by PMANE in New Delhi in 2007, but he has never funded or donated to support our struggle. I have not met him or spoken to him for the last one year.” He has no family, being unmarried, and having lost his mother recently.

The police picked up Hermann from Nagercoil based on a tip-off from the Intelligence Bureau. He was brought to Chennai, his tourist visa cancelled and he was deported. According to a senior police officer, the police also raided Ganga Tamil Nadu Hotel in Nagercoil, where the German was staying, and seized his laptop.

According to hotel manager Jayapal, Hermann checked in on 12 February. “Ours is a budget hotel that charges Rs 200 per day for a non-AC room,” says Jayapal. Hermann paid an advance of Rs 3,400.

RS Lal Mohan, a retired principal scientist from Indian Council of Agriculture Research and a conservationist, describes Hermann as “a poor tourist from Germany” who has been frequenting Nagercoil for many years.

When asked if Hermann could have funded the protest, Mohan is livid. “He was spending his retired life visiting cheap destinations like Nepal, Thailand and Laos. Even our fishermen can afford more luxuries. How can such a person fund the Koodankulam anti-nuke protest?”

Oddly enough, the police is also now denying Hermann’s role. “We don’t have information about his involvement in the Koodankulam protests,” admits Tirunelveli Police Commissioner V Varadaraju. “We were acting on information provided by the Central government.”

Meanwhile, the home ministry has blacklisted four NGOs, two of which are church-based non-profits, for violating FCRA rules. They are Tuticorin Multipurpose Social Service Society (TMSSS), Tuticorin Diocese Association (TDA), People’s Education for Action and Community Empowerment run by PMANE convener Udayakumar and Good Vision Charitable Trust run by PMANE political wing convener Mano Thangaraj.

TMSSS and TDA run by Tuticorin Bishop Yuvan Ambross received Rs 42 crore and Rs 23 crore respectively during the past five years. TDA’s audited statement of expenditure for 2009-10 reveals that the NGO received Rs 37.40 lakh from Germany and Rs 4.5 lakh from the US as aid.

“But we have not funded the Koodankulam protests with this foreign aid. The government has frozen our bank accounts and is trying to terrorise us with motivated campaign against the church,” says Father William Santhanam, spokesperson of the Tuticorin diocese.

‘Funding NGOs? I was living on $10 a day’

AFTER A stormy night and a long flight, Rainer Sonntag Hermann reached Essen at 7 pm on 28 February. Hermann is the German tourist who was deported from Chennai the previous day on charges of being involved in the anti-nuke protests at Koodankulam. When TEHELKA tried to contact him via email, he replied, “The last two nights I had no bed and I’m very tired now. So, please allow me some time to rest. I need some time to think.” Hours later, he opened up to Jeemon Jacob about his stay in Nagercoil and his deportation.


On what charges were you deported from Chennai?

I don’t know. The policemen who took me to Chennai didn’t disclose any charges. They gave me a photocopy of some papers, but it didn’t explain any reasons. At the Chennai airport, the top official I spoke to was Foreigners’ Regional Registration Officer N Kannan. He told me that I was being deported because of “violating visa regulations”. He said that the government believes that I’m supporting an NGO. I asked him if he meant the anti-Koodankulam NGO? He said yes. I asked him about the charges and he told me that I should know it. When I told him that I don’t understand, he replied: Candle-light procession. But it didn’t ring any bell. Newspapers claim that I’m the mastermind of the NGO. I don’t speak a word in Tamil. I was a visitor at some public meeting with a lot of other people talking Tamil and I often didn’t understand one word. I took some photos to send it to friends in Germany like other tourists do.

Why are you so much attached to Nagercoil?

In the past two decades, I may have visited India 10-15 times. Three years ago, I stopped working as a computer programmer and started to live on my savings. If I wanted to stay in Germany, I would have to work because my savings are too small. But in countries like India and Nepal, I manage to live from my savings.

I was in Nagercoil because I like to be in a small not-too-busy tourist town. I spend my time reading, exchanging emails with my German friends, and trying to learn about India. I learnt most of my English in India.

I like the climate in Nagercoil very much because it is close to the sea. I’m getting older. I like to visit familiar places so that I know where the restaurants and hotels are. I like south India because most people know English and I don’t have to learn the local language. Years ago, I used to stay in Puducherry. But at weekends, the cheap hotels were often filled with drunk tourists. So I shifted.

When did you come to Nagercoil?

I got a visa from the Indian Embassy in Bangkok for 17 January-16 July. I flew from Bangkok to Kolkata on 22 January. I spent a few days there and then caught a train to Chennai and then arrived in Nagercoil on 27 January.

Have you ever visited Koodankulam?

Last year, I attended a public demonstration. As far as I know, it wasn’t an illegal act.

What is your understanding of the anti-nuke agitation?

I don’t know much about it. Just like the majority of the Germans, I oppose nuclear plants. I’m not a specialist on the subject. I don’t know what kind of agitation is going on in Nagercoil. When I landed there, I tried to figure it out by reading newspapers.

How do you know PNAME convener SP Udayakumar?

I don’t remember when I met or spoke with Udayakumar the last time. For sure, since I left India last year I haven’t had any contact with Udayakumar. Yesterday, I sent an email to inform him about my safe arrival.

There are allegations that you were funding the protests.

That’s utter nonsense. I lived in India on a $10-per day basis. Idli, idiyappam and meals were my main food. Every day, I spent Rs 10-30 at the Internet cafe. There is no space in my budget for financial aid to any other people or organisation. I’m not involved in drug abuse (besides tobacco, tea and coffee). I dislike Indian alcohol. I never transferred money to any anti-nuke NGO. I’m unemployed and don’t receive orders from any group in Germany or anywhere else.

Tell us about the arrest.

Ten policeman arrived at the hotel at around 8.30 pm. I had to pack my bags in a hurry. At around 10 pm, I was placed inside a police van. They drove the whole night. At 12 noon the next day, I was handed over to the Chennai airport officials. I had to pay for the direct flight (Chennai-Frankfurt, Rs 69,000).

Did anybody explain why you were being deported?

Every time I asked what crime I’ve committed, they smiled. I was deported with a smile. Without goodbyes.

Jeemon Jacob is Bureau Chief, South with Tehelka.


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