On May 22, when the protest in Thoothukudi against the polluting Sterlite industry entered into its 100th day, the protestors had decided to mark it by taking out a rally towards the District Collectorate, demanding that the industry be closed. The tens of thousands of protestors were defying a ban issued the previous day by Collector N Venkatesh.
Thoothukudi continued to be in a grip of fear on May 23 too as 22-year-old Kaaliyappan was killed in a fresh round of firing by the police. The visuals of cops dragging his body and one of them kicking him with boots became viral on social media.
Even as the Thoothukudi police continue to arrest protesters, the now infamous shooting incidents of May 22- 23 and subsequent unfolding of events poses some tough questions that beg for answers.
1. Who ordered the shooting? : It is still unclear as to who actually ordered the shooting. Chief Minister Edappadi Palanisamy claimed that the protest was infiltrated by anti-social elements and that the shooting was done in an act of ‘self-defence’. Parrying a question on who had ordered the firing, Palanisamy said it was natural to ‘open fire in self-defence.’ “A firing order can be issued by an officer at the rank of district collector or SP or by any policeman in case of self-defence. But from the videos emerging from the ground, it is clear that there was no violence that warranted a firing. There is a pattern in all these firings – Thamarabarani in 1999, Paramakudi in 2011 and Kudankulam in 2012. But what puts Thoothukudi incident apart is the sheer brazenness of it. It looks very much planned, there was a squad ready to do the firing. Except for Vachathi, the cops have never been made accountable whenever there is an excess” says Lawyer and activist M Vetriselvan of Poovulagin Nanbargal.
2. Why were the norms flouted? : Retired IAS officer MG Devasahayam says all norms were flouted in the firings in Thoothukudi. The Vedanta which runs the Sterlite in Thoothukudi had earlier approached the district administration seeking imposition of 144 in the area. When the district administration did not respond, the company approached the Madurai bench of Madras High Court. On May 19, the High Court directed the district administration to consider imposing 144 as pleaded by the Vedanta.
“Vedanta had no business to do that, but beginning there everything has been a fiasco” Devasahayam says. “Apparently, there have been no major preventive arrests, there was no barricading except around Collectorate. Also, before opening fire, the police should first have used lathi, tear gas and water cannons. Generally, in all these steps, the crowd can be controlled. But most of it has not been followed. Also, the rifles used looks like semi-automatic, self-loading weapons which is strictly prohibited when handling unarmed, civilian crowd. I have used it in the army. The police are not allowed to use it. The police are prohibited from showing up in civilian clothes on such times just because they could be identifiable. But the person who is shooting is in civilian clothes. The police are clearly taking aims at chest and face of protesters. The cardinal principle when handling unarmed, civilian crowds is to show the force, not use it. The police have clearly violated it in Thoothukudi case. No procedures on crowd control and maintenance of law and order have been followed in this case” he says.
Even as the questions remain unanswered, the police continued to make indiscriminate arrests. T Velmurugan of Thamizhaga Vazhvurimai Katchi was detained in Thoothukudi airport when he attempted to meet the families of victims. He was later arrested in a case related to attack on tollgate in Ulundurpet last April. On May 24, Velmurugan had organised a massive protest against the Thoothukudi killings which was attended by many party leaders
3. How many have been actually killed? : While the death toll in firing officially remains at thirteen, locals say it could be more. In an audio message passed on to this writer by a source, a woman from Thoothukudi says they have been in hiding and safe. “Imposition of 144 continues in our area, but we are safe. We are in hiding. But what is more worrying is the number of deaths. We hear more than thirteen are dead,” the audio says. According to Devasahayam, technically twenty people could be killed at a time with an automatic weapon. Tamil writer and publisher Jeeva Karikalan says the civil society should put pressure on the State government to come out with a white paper on the number of deaths.
4. Why hasn’t the Chief Minister visited the spot yet? : One major criticism that the State government continues to face is that the administration did little to pacify the protesters over the hundred days. After the firing on May 22-23, while many leaders visited Thoothukudi, no Minister did. The Chief Minister told journalists that he was a law abiding citizen and did not visit Thoothukudi since 144 were in place. Ironically, the Chief Minister also holds the Home portfolio. On May 23, Deputy Chief Minister O Paneerselvam attended the puberty function of an AIADMK office-bearer’s daughter much to the chagrin of protesters in Thoothukudi.
5. Will the Sterlite be really closed? : The government announced soon after firing that it intended to close Sterlite down. Citing Jayalalithaa’s decision in 2013, Fisheries Minister D Jayakumar told reporters that they would close the industry. But experts have their own doubts. “If the government is sincere enough to shut it down, Sterlite only gives more than enough opportunities with violations et al. But the government does not appear to be sincere,” says Nityanand Jayaraman, an environmental activist who has been working against Sterlite. “The Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) on April 9 this year rejected the renewal of consent to operate for Sterlite but did that on weak grounds that will allow Sterlite to go on appeal and get it. The disconnection of power to Sterlite happened soon after the killings. It is a political reaction which is fine but should have been done on legal and ethical grounds. The government is perhaps trying to back-peddle on this issue – tell people that it did try to close Sterlite but couldn’t. The fact is if you are determined to shut it down, Sterlite violations only massively allows you to do so.”
Even as the questions remain unanswered, the police continued to make indiscriminate arrests. T Velmurugan of Thamizhaga Vazhvurimai Katchi was detained in Thoothukudi airport when he attempted to meet the families of victims. He was later arrested in a case related to attack on tollgate in Ulundurpet last April. On May 24, Velmurugan had organised a massive protest against the Thoothukudi killings which was attended by many party leaders.
At least twelve office-bearers of Makkal Adhikaram – a movement that had participated in the 100-day protests – have been picked up in the wee hours of Saturday. Several other activists including Uthiram who had participated in the protest along with Thamizharasan – killed in the firing – have been picked up by the police.
The police have been saying that it was Makkal Adhikaram that had intended to turn the protests violent. Denying any such idea, Makkal Adhikaram’s spokesperson Marudhu Pandiyan says the police are merely trying to make a scapegoat of Makkal Adhikaram. “The people are very politically aware in Thoothukudi. They really want Sterlite to be closed in their place.” Pandiyan says arrests have been made to put pressure on the families of victims. “Kottaiyan has been picked up from Aryapatti in Madurai district. He is the neighbour of Jayaraman – an office-bearer of Makkal Adhikaram and who has been killed in the firing on 22nd. The police want to put pressure on the family to receive the body. They want any evidence to be destroyed.”
Jeeva Karikalan, who is in touch with activists and lawyers on ground, says the police continued to arrest many youngsters even after they were brought out on bail. “To say that Thoothukudi is returning to normalcy is incorrect. People including juveniles continue to be arrested and threatened. There is of course peace as media says, but it’s very uneasy. Underneath this facade of peace is simmering tension."