Police continues crackdown in Tuticorin after killing at least 13 people


  • May 24, 2018
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In Thoothukudi, Tamil Nadu police shot and killed another person, 22 year old Kaliappan on Wednesday and on Thursday morning another person, Selva Sekaran, succumbed to his injuries, bringing the death toll to at least 13, with more than 60 injured. Lois Sofia writes about the ongoing attacks and clampdown on the protesters. Read our earlier reports on the Anti-Sterlite struggle here and here.

Continuing Attacks, Clampdown

In an escalating assault, paramilitary commandos carrying weapons and riot control vehicle Vajra have been deployed in Thoothukudi. Police have rounded up and arrested almost 150 protesters. There is a heavy police presence in the city and since May 22nd life has come to a standstill. Shops remain shut and traders associations, fishing communities and some transport workers organisations have announced an indefinite strike to condemn the brutal killings and demanding that the government shut down the  offending Sterlite copper smelter permanently. Late on Wednesday, the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) ordered the closure of the plant and its supply of electricity was disconnected on Thursday morning.

No ministers or officials from the state government have visited Thoothukudi since the killings. Amid rising public outcry and protests by the public and politicians, the Tamil Nadu chief minister Eddapadi Palanisami met the press and justified the police savagery. Breaking the two day silence by the central government, the Union Home minister Rajnath Singh asked for people to “maintain peace”.

One day after the police killed almost a dozen people, the government blocked internet in Thoothukudi and the neighbouring districts of Tirunelveli and Kanyakumari for five days until May 27 and power was also disconnected in many parts of the city. Videos have surfaced on social media showing police entering the homes of people late at night and proceeding to drag and detain them.

The Tamil Nadu government transferred the Thoothukudi district collector N. Venkatesh and Superintendent of Police P. Mahendran out of their posts and replaced them with Tirunelveli district collector Sandeep Nanduri and Superintendent of Police of Nilgiris district Murali Rambha.

Background

Protests have been ongoing in Thoothukudi, Tamil Nadu for more than three months against the copper smelting plant Sterlite, a subsidiary of the UK based mining conglomerate Vedanta Resources, which has been constructing a second copper smelting unit to double its production capacity. May 22nd marked the 100th day of the protests and protestors had planned to surround the District Collectorate to reiterate their demand that the Sterlite plant be permanently shut down. The local administration, including the district collectors have been the target of people’s anger over their inaction since the agitations began. Despite making several representations and petitions against the ongoing construction of the second unit of Sterlite, on at least three consecutive “Monday meetings” to the collector, there had been no change in the situation on the ground. The Tuesday protest had been expected to outnumber the one which took place on March 24th when tens of thousands of people marched peacefully on the streets of Tuticorin. The day turned out to be the deadliest police action in Tamil Nadu’s history when live rounds were fired into unarmed crowds in multiple locations around the city.

May 22nd protest

On May 16, 2018 Sterlite Copper had approached the Madras High court seeking the promulgation of Section 144 which bars the assembly of more than four people around its factory in view of the planned protests. Justice M.S. Ramesh dismissed the writ petition on May 18 and directed the collector N. Venkatesh to issue appropriate orders and stated that invoking Section 144 was “highly recommended” which he did on May 21st.

Two days before the protests, on May 20th the sub-collector of Thoothukudi convened a meeting with a section of the people who were involved in the agitation against Sterlite. S. Raja of the Thoothukudi Traders Association, who was present at the meeting, says that the officials wanted to contain the protests and warned them that they were concerned it might turn violent. An agreement was reached between the local officials and some of the organisers to change the mode of protest and restrict it to an open playground belonging to the SAV school in the city.

The district administration appears not to have communicated the Section 144 orders or the change of venue to the people of Thoothukudi. As planned, on May 22nd morning thousands of protesters gathered together in several places to take out a rally to the district collectorate. Police detained hundreds of people from the villages of Kumareddiyapuram, Pandarampatti and others in Madathur. People from the neighbourhoods, mostly consisting of fishing communities, like Therespuram, Cruzpuram and other surrounding areas inside Thoothukudi city had also gathered at the Basilica of Our Lady of Snows, moved to VE Road and reached the VVD signal. Those present at the venue say that this is where the police provoked the people by setting loose a few bulls among them and attacking them with stones. The crowds swelled and moved towards the District collectorate along the Palyamkottai road with many joining in along the way.

The rally which began from VVD signal to the collectorate covered most of the nearly 6 km distance without violence. When those marching crossed the bridge at Third Mile, the police tried to stop them using barricades, withdrew inside the Collectorate premises and resorted to lathi charge and fired tear gas. As some protesters were taking refuge inside the collectorate and some others were fleeing, the police opened fire. Later in the day police again fired live rounds in Therespuram, a neighbourhood which houses people from the fishing community, without any exigent circumstances and killed two women who eyewitnesses say were simply bystanders.

Brutal Killings

It has to be noted that the protests which have been spearheaded by local villagers had been taking place since February without any untoward incident. Since plans of yesterday’s protests were made public around three weeks ago, it calls into question the narrative that the police was taken by surprise by the scale of the protests. Many have observed that the fatal shooting of protesters appears to have been deliberate and pre-planned. The location of the injuries in the deceased, mostly in the torso, lend credence to the charge that the police fired to kill rather than as a riot control measure as the Director General of Police claimed. The 17 year old young student who was killed, Venista was shot through the mouth. Reports also surfaced online from journalists of the government threatening local media organisations who were reporting on the events of the day. The Tamil Nadu government owned cable operator Arasu Cable TV Corporation Ltd blocked news channels including News18 Tamil Nadu, Polimer News and Puthiya Thalaimurai for broadcasting visual images of the police firing.

Numerous disturbing videos show the sheer brutality of the police response. In a video released by ANI, a plain clothes policeman atop a police vehicle is seen shooting at people using an assault rifle and one of the many policemen surrounding the vehicle is heard saying “at least one person must die”.

Footage has also emerged of police barging into the grounds of a private hospital  to attack the people inside.

Another video shot on Wednesday shows several policemen gathered around a dying or already deceased Kaliappan with one policeman saying “stop acting” and another “let him die” and other videos show them dragging him by his hands through the streets.

In yet another video a group of policemen can be seen setting fire to a fishing boat after another round of shooting as people watch from afar.

While the state government has charged the protesters with instigating the violence, the people accuse the police and other elements likely tied to Sterlite of deliberately engineering the events. Visuals show that shooters, who were not in uniform, used snipers and many have accused the police of deliberately targeting protest organisers. No effort seems to have been made to save lives and deescalate the violence. Even though police handbooks clearly state that firing at people should only be used as a last resort, after using coercive methods like tear gas, lathi charge and water cannon. It also directs that police should initially fire into the air, warn the people using megaphones and  if these efforts don’t work, to aim their fire below the hip as a deterrent and never to exact revenge. As more reports, images and videos emerge, it is becoming increasingly clear that the police did not follow this protocol, and their charge that protesters were violent has no truth in it. The state response seems to be a calculated effort to terrorise the public, smear the disciplined and non-violent struggle that the people of Thoothukudi had undertaken in these last few months and also to hide its own incompetence and unwillingness to act against Sterlite.

Response

Several politicians including M.K. Stalin, Thirumavalavan, Seeman, Anbumani Ramadoss, Vaikpo, Velmurugan, Rahul Gandhi, Mamata Banerjee, Akhilesh Yadav, Sitaram Yechury, Vaiko, Kamal Haasan and other public figures condemned the killings of innocent, unarmed protesters. Rahul Gandhi tweeted that this was “a brutal example of state sponsored terrorism”.  But on Tuesday Tamil nadu chief minister Edappadi Palanisamy had termed the killings “unavoidable” and “unfortunate” and announced a solatium of Rs. 10 lakhs to the families of the dead, Rs. 3 lakhs to the severely injured and Rs. 1 lakh to the mildly injured.

There have been widespread calls demanding the resignation of chief minister. A retired High court judge Aruna Jagadeesan, who in 2015 gave a clean chit to policemen accused of killing 5 men in alleged staged encounters,  is set to conduct the one-person inquiry into the deadly events, a controversial appointment which has raised questions. Politicians from the Tamil Nadu BJP, H. Raja and Tamilisai Soundararajan and others from the ruling AIADMK have blamed the violence on “foreign elements”, protesters and opposition parties.

DMK’s working president M.K. Stalin denounced the chief minister’s statement for painting the protestors as violent and strongly condemned the inhumane killings and the lackadaisical, violent methods adopted by the AIADMK government and tweeted the words “Mass Murder of Innocent People” along with a photo of a sniper rifle wielding policeman in plain clothes.

Leaders including M.K. Stalin, Thirumavalavan, Seeman, Vaiko, Kamal Hassan visited the families of the dead and injured in Thoothukudi on Wednesday. In response cases have been filed against them for breaching the Section 144 order which has been imposed. Opposition parties including the DMK, All India National Congress, Dravidar Kazhagam, Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, CPI, CPI(M), Indian Union Muslim League, Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi and Manithaneya Makkal Katchi have called for a state wide bandh on May 25th to oppose the violence unleashed in Thoothukudi and to demand closure of the Sterlite plant.

A group of lawyers filed a PIL with the Madras high court on May 23 in which they alleged that police in plain clothes fabricated the violence in order to fire at the protestors. The court ordered that the bodies of those killed by the police be preserved and will hear the case on May 30.

The Home Ministry has sought a report from the Tamil Nadu government and the National Human Rights Commision (NHRC) sent a notice to the Tamil Nadu Chief Secretary and the Director General of Police directing them to send a report on the killings within two weeks. Today a petitioner approached the Delhi high court seeking it to instead direct the NHRC to conduct an inquiry into the violence unleashed in Thoothukudi.

Legal challenges facing Sterlite

Yesterday, in response to the PIL filed by Fatima Babu challenging the legality of the environmental clearance granted to Sterlite’s new proposed plant, the Madurai bench of the Madras high court stayed the construction of the second copper smelter unit and ordered that public hearings must be held before September 23.

In yet another legal challenge, on May 17th the Supreme court sent a notice to Sterlite for dumping more than 3.5 lakh tonnes of copper slag in the Uppar river after a civil appeal was filed challenging a National Green Tribunal judgment.

Last month the TNPCB cited the same as one of the reasons for rejecting Sterlite’s application to renews its Consent to Operate and recently a local news channel broadcast shocking images of huge mounds of toxic slag the copper smelter had deposited in and around the Uppar river. Sterlite has appealed TNPCB’s decision and the next hearing is scheduled for June 6.

Lois Sofia (Tweets @Red_Pastures) is a former resident of Thoothukudi.
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