The targeted shooting of peaceful demonstrators in Thoothukudi (also known as Tuticorin), which resulted in the Tamil Nadu Police killing 13 people in cold blood, and injuring scores of others, and the subsequent brutal crackdown on civilians, points to a sinister collusion between the owners of Sterlite Industries and the government, a fact-finding report recently released in Delhi has asserted.
Titled “The Day Tuticorin Burned”, this “people’s inquest” report, running into 2445 pages, has been prepared by a team of 69 civil society members including retired high court and Supreme Court judges, lawyers, academics, journalists, researchers and activists who visited Tuticorin between May 28 and June 1 this year.
The government and police’s hostility towards the report has been such that at various places in Tamil Nadu, where the team had booked auditoriums and seminar halls for meetings to release the report, the police cancelled the permission at the last moment. In one incident, this was done even as a retired Supreme Court judge, Justice Gopala Gowda, was to chair a meeting, said Mathew Jacob of People’s Watch, who was a member of the probe team.
Sterlite’s pre-planned onslaught, judiciary’s failure
Contrary to what the police and the Vedanta Group-owned Sterlite Inustries is claiming, the people’s demonstration on May 22 was not a flash-in-the pan reaction. The agitation against Sterlite’s copper-smelting plant and the pollution and health havoc it was causing had been going on for 99 days prior to 22 May, when the demonstrators were slated to take out a massive rally to the District Collectorate. That Sterlite and the government were aware of this is revealed by the former’s actions prior to May 22, the report says.
On May 16, Sterlite had moved the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court vide a writ petition (No. W.P. (MD) 11190 of 2018 ) seeking that curfew orders, under Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC), be declared in an area of radius up to one kilometre from the periphery of its factory premises and residential quarters and warehouse. It also made a representation to the DC and SP of Thoothukudi district, asking for the area to be declared as a “No Protest Zone”.
This was a curious case of a private party, that too, a corporation, moving the High Court against the people’s fundamental right to peaceful assembly and protest, and the court should not have entertained Sterlite’s plea, contended legal scholar Usha Ramanathan who was a member of the probe team and spoke at the release event in Delhi. The fact that the court did not dismiss the petition at the threshold, and directed the government to impose Section 144, even if the latter was initially reluctant to do so. Ramanathan said that this was a case of grave abuse of the High Court’s jurisdiction under Article 226 of the Constitution which is fundamentally meant to protect citizens’ fundamental rights, and reminded her of how the judiciary had “sold out” the people’s interests in the Bhopal gas leak case.
The police officials have retorted that they were only trying to control arson. But there were hundreds of women and children, who were carrying food, water and blankets among the protesters, and no evidence has been provided to show that some of the people were armed
Police assault, targeted killings
The report goes into great detail to show how the district administration and the police were directly culpable in the killings of 13 people.
Section 144 was imposed on 21 May in and around Thoothukudi, but the public was not informed about it, contrary to the law. In fact, the probe team was denied access to the orders, and had to secure them through several RTI applications. This action of not informing the protesters about the imposition of Section 144 “smacks of entrapment”, the report states.
The entire district administration top brass was missing in action, and delegated all powers and responsibilities to the police. Why was the police given charge of lording over a people’s protests, asked Maja Daruwala, veteran human rights and police reforms activist. Is it a police state that carte blanche powers were given to the police to crack down on a large and peaceful people’s protest, instead of just managing it so that things went without any trouble, she asked.
According to witnesses to scores of witnesses interviewed by the probe team, as well as videos and photographs which appeared in the media, the police had already decided to use brutal, illegal force against the protesters. On May 22, around 50,000 people – including women and children, started marching to a playground near the District Collectorate which the administration had designated as the protest site. All of a sudden, scores of heavily armed policemen descended on the protest march and began their action as clashes broke out, and stones were thrown at the men in khaki.
In blatant violation of the rules in the Police Manual and the provisions of Section 129 of the CrPC- which deal with crowd control, the police immediately switched from using teargas and water cannons to batons and live ammunition. Sharpshooters stood atop police vehicles and shot at people, aiming at their heads and chests. Those on the ground fired to kill, instead of shooting at arms and legs.
Not only that, miscreants sponsored by and enjoying Sterlite’s patronage mingled with the crowd, and dressed in white shirts and khaki trousers, attacked the police. Some locals even claimed that they recognised some policemen dressed in similar attire attacking protesters.
Medical records, fatalities and injuries show that the police attacks were far in excess of the standards of minimal and proportionate force laid down in legal principles relating to mob dispersals. Even the disabled and women were not spared. They were beaten mercilessly with rifle butts and batons.
The police officials have retorted that they were only trying to control arson. But there were hundreds of women and children, who were carrying food, water and blankets among the protesters, and no evidence has been provided to show that some of the people were armed.
The report strongly refutes these allegations as canards, and points out that it is just a fact that a majority of the town’s population are Catholics, and the movement against the plant had no political backing or leadership. It was purely a people’s movement
Widespread reprisals, canards spread
On May 23, there was a sudden and massive deployment of police in Thoothukudi district, which lost no time in using force against the people who had gathered to protest against the police atrocities of the previous day. Policemen rounded up and thrashed the protesters even as they sought refuge in the district government hospital.
Thereafter, the crackdown started. Senior journalist Amit Sengupta recounts in the report how the police entered houses, damaged property and abducted young men and sent them to undisclosed locations instead of presenting them before the magistrates. Witnesses’ testimonies reproduced in the report speak about long hours of illegal detention and ruthless custodial torture, and registrations of blanket FIRs (a total of 243 FIRs had been lodged). The illegal detention and torture has been documented by the Judicial Magistrate in his remand orders and the District and Sessions Judge in her bail orders as well as the police’s petition for cancellation of bail of 65 persons filed before the high court. Of these, 30 were later found to be minors.
A section of the media, acting as handmaidens of the police and government, have tried to portray a section of the protesters as swearing allegiance to various Maoist groups and other insurgent outfits. A particular television channel even claimed that Christian missionaries who were funded by foreign powers and hostile to India’s industrial development and growth had hijacked the protests and indulged in rioting and arson.
The report strongly refutes these allegations as canards, and points out that it is just a fact that a majority of the town’s population are Catholics, and the movement against the plant had no political backing or leadership. It was purely a people’s movement.
Lois Sofia, an activist who has been working with the anti-Sterlite movement for years, and has spoken at length about the events of May 22 and its aftermath to the New York- based Polis Project (which maps political violence and state repression ) that this time, the canards being spread were similar to those being spread against those protesting the setting up of the nuclear plant in Kudankulam a few years ago. As for the attack on missionaries, she pointed out that the fishing communities which protested are predominantly Roman Catholic and the Basilica of the Lady of Snows from where many started the rally to the collectorate is a city landmark. Most Catholic priests and evangelical pastors absolutely supported the movement but then so did everyone else in the district. Inside Tamil Nadu, this is generally understood to be a claim grounded only in bigotry and the least credible of them all.