Undeclared Emergency – Dissent Under Siege in Tamil Nadu: Part 1 – Thoothukudi

  • June 25, 2018

A whole month has passed since the police killed 13 people and maimed tens of others in broad daylight in Thoothukudi. While no action has been initiated against personnel who shot 131 bullets at unarmed protestors, the police have been rounding up and arresting people who participated in the agitation against Sterlite as well harassing civilians including women and children. Artists, lawyers, politicians and activists have been arrested in the name of the National Security Act. Thoothukudi is still on fire – writes Lois Sofia. This is the first part of the article.

The Tamil Nadu government led by Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami of AIADMK has launched a statewide attack on freedom of expression and is locking up scores of dissenters – from lawyers who assisted the public in Thoothukudi, to a frail old woman who objected to the government forcefully acquiring her land for the Chennai-Salem green corridor.

In 2015 Tamil Nadu topped the list of states where the most number of protests had been reported and while we have no data for the following years, one can be fairly certain that the state has not lost the top spot. It is witnessing a rise in environmental awareness and a surge in grassroot struggles fueled by the intense distress from years of neglect. There is wide public dissatisfaction with the state and central governments and the sentiment on the street is that Tamil Nadu is being turned into a battleground. While there are dozens of ongoing agitations against the implementation NEET, for a share of Cauvery water and against environmentally hazardous, farmer unfriendly projects in Neduvasal, Kathiramangalam, etc., the government chose to orchestrate a bloodbath in Thoothukudi. The Edappadi Palaniswami government is continuing this ruthless undemocratic experiment and already implementing the crushing tactics used against the anti-Sterlite protesters – what Makkal Athikaram’s state coordinator Raju terms the “Thoothukudi model” – elsewhere in the state.

Terrorising Thoothukudi

A whole month has passed since the police killed 13 people and maimed tens of others in broad daylight in Thoothukudi. While no action has been initiated against personnel who shot 131 bullets at unarmed protestors, the police have been rounding up and arresting people who participated in the agitation against Sterlite. The investigation on the events surrounding the shootings was transferred to the Crime Branch-Crime Investigation Department (CB-CID) on May 29th. There is also an investigation being conducted by controversial retired high court judge Aruna Jagadessan who was appointed by the Tamil Nadu government. Despite this, the Tamil Nadu police has been illegally conducting night raids, forcing their way into homes and arresting men in villages where people were protesting against Sterlite. The police went even further and lodged cases against two lawyers who had been providing legal assistance to the protestors and arrested one of them.

The suppression began soon after the shootings at the district collectorate around midday on May 22nd. Thousands of heavily armed police personnel were deployed in Thoothukudi during the next few days. As public outrage and international condemnation poured in following the brutal murders, the Tamil Nadu police continued with their reign of terror. Internet services were blocked in Thoothukudi and in the two neighbouring districts of Kanyakumari and Tirunelveli. As the city was cut off from the outside world, the police were illegally detaining, arresting and torturing hundreds of (mostly young) men, including many minors, while the district administration was busy assuring everyone that the situation was back to normal. In an interview with Pep Collective, D. Daniel, of DMK’s fisherfolk wing, recounted how he was brutally beaten up by the police for hours. Daniel was one of the 95 people who were detained at Vallanadu shooting range, where as many as 65 were held illegally. He and the others were severely attacked and kept in tiny spaces without electricity, adequate water or food and no access to toilets. Thanks to the efforts of the lawyers from the Thoothukudi Bar Association and neighbouring districts, the police produced more than 140 people in court and were released on bail.

The ‘Coordinating Committee for People’s Inquest into Thoothukudi Police Firing’ which conducted a People’s Inquest (PI) in Thoothukudi on June 2nd and 3rd published a preliminary report of its findings. It confirms the police force’s draconian actions, systematic illegal detentions, false arrests, fabricated cases, other human rights violations and the sheer terror faced by people. Quoting from the report: “As per one of the testimonies, a person who was already in police custody on May 23, 2018 since 1 PM has been falsely charged for torching a police bus in Anna Nagar, though that incident happened at 2.30 PM”.

Since May 22nd, a slew of public interest litigation petitions have been filed with the courts seeking a proper investigation into the killings and a stop to abuses by the police. The Madras high court on June 6th directed the police to refrain from harassing the residents of Thoothukudi in response one such plea. Despite this the villagers around Thoothukudi who bore the brunt of the environmental destruction by Sterlite and led the protests are being continuously hounded by the police. Dozens of plain clothed police have been raiding the villages of Madathur, Pandarampatti, Kumareddiyauram, Silverpuram, Meelavittan and neighbourhoods including P&T colony, Bryant nagar, Third Mile, Murugesan nagar, Anna nagar, Dhamodhar nagar, at night, forcing their way into homes and harassing the women and children. Most of the men have either been arrested or have fled their homes to escape the high handedness of the police. Many men who are still in hiding haven’t seen or spoken to their families in weeks. In the latest PIL, the chief convenor of the Coordinating Committee for People’s Inquest into Thoothukudi Police Firing, AWD Tilak, has appealed to the court to pass orders halting the police’s illegal detentions. He is also seeking the court’s directions to the District Legal Services Authority to provide 24-hour legal assistance to everyone who has been arrested by appointing a panel of lawyers in eight police stations in Thoothukudi district. The New Indian Express reports that he also pleaded to the court that it direct the “Chief Judicial Magistrate in Thoothukudi to inspect the Armed Reserve camp in the district in order to confirm that there is no illegal detention in relation to the anti-Sterlite protest in the town on May 22”.

The Madras high court on June 6th directed the police to refrain from harassing the residents of Thoothukudi in response one such plea. Despite this the villagers around Thoothukudi who bore the brunt of the environmental destruction by Sterlite and led the protests are being continuously hounded by the police. Dozens of plain clothed police have been raiding the villages at night, forcing their way into homes and harassing the women and children.

On June 16th, at a press briefing, Thoothukudi’s Superintendent of Police Murali Rambha informed reporters that 243 cases have been registered in connection with the damages caused to property in Thoothukudi and a total of 248 persons have been arrested. In another relentless move, the police filed a complaint against 1720 people who attended a public meeting organised by the CPIM in Thoothukudi, the first since May 22nd, after failing to obstruct it. The party approached the Madurai bench of the Madras high court to both obtain permission and to get the complaint quashed.

Scapegoating Makkal Athikaram

Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswami initially blamed the opposition party DMK and specifically DMK’s Geetha Jeevan, who is the current MLA of the Thoothukudi constituency. This was a preposterous claim since the anger on the ground in Thoothukudi was directed against all political parties including the DMK, which had allowed Sterlite to continue its operations. The movement had explicitly refused to align itself with any political party or organisation. While Geetha Jeevan along with DMK cadre had participated in the rally on May 22nd, police arrested and detained them in a private wedding hall before turning on the others.

Since then the AIADMK government, leaders of the Tamil Nadu Bharatiya Janata Party and the Tamil Nadu police have found a new scapegoat to pin the blame for the police’s savagery—Makkal Athikaram (People’s Power). Makkal Athikaram (MA) is a relatively new left leaning political organisation, formed in 2015, which has lent its support to several people’s protests. (We will be publishing an interview with Makkal Athikaram in the next few days.) Along with many other political groups, members of Makkal Athikaram also participated in the protests against Sterlite in Thoothukudi before and on May 22. One of the people shot dead by the police at the district collectorate, Jayaraman, belonged to Makkal Athikaram. The police launched a crackdown on MA and has been targeting its members, especially those living in the southern districts of Tamil Nadu such as Tirunelveli and Madurai.

Arrests under National Security Act

In a shocking development, six members of MA who had been arrested in the days following the police killings and charged under IPC Sections 147, 148, 188, 353, 506 (2) and Sections 3, 4 of Tamil Nadu Public Property Prevention of Damages and Loss (TNPPDL) Act, were booked under the draconian National Security Act (NSA) on June 11th. They are Kaliloor Rahman and his two sons, Mohammed Ishrath and Mohammed Anas, alongwith Velmurugan, Saravanan and Kottaiyan. An arrest under the National Security Act means that the person cannot be released on bail and can be held without charge or trial for upto a year. In the name of national security this act allows the preventive detention of persons for long periods of time, which itself serves as punishment even if charge is later dropped. Just this last year it has been used to silence and lock away the peasant leader Akhil Gogoi of Assam and Uttar Pradesh Dalit activist Chandrashekhar Azad Ravan, amongst others. Makkal Athikaram’s state treasurer K. Kaliappan said at a press conference “The accusation against these six people is that they participated in the protest against Sterlite. If participating in a protest against Sterlite implies anti-national activity or threatens national security, then our question is: who does this nation belong to? The Edappadi government and the central government are clearly relaying the news to everyone that the nation means bosses of corporations like Sterlite, and their security is the nation’s security.

The media website Vinavu, which is run by supporters of Makkal Kalai Ilakiya Kazhagam or People’s Art and Literary Association (MKIK), has done a series of video interviews with the families of the six men who have been arrested.

Saravanan, 29, is a painter from Kovilpatti, and was arrested in the middle of the night on 26th May. Both Saravanan and his wife Subbulakshmi were politically inclined and had earlier participated in the protests against TASMAC. He suffers from seizures and has been hospitalised since his arrest. Subbulakshmi says that police threatened to shoot her husband unless he admitted to destroying public property, and described how the police had ransacked her modest home. She said: “Government has been hurting us and killing us. We get what we need only if we protest. If we turn our back to the problems, they will just burden the people. Makkal Athikaram has been doing good work. Many people want to cripple and ban them but I cannot accept this, it is a good organisation. The cases foisted on the six men are false. They did nothing wrong. They fought for justice and they should be released. If they are not released there will only be bigger protests”.

Velumurgan, 26, is from Alangulam in Tirunelveli district, and works as mason. He was injured after being struck by one of the bulls which the police had let loose amidst the crowd in Thoothukudi on May 22nd. Others who were present carried him over to the side and he was left behind as the rally progressed. Velmurugan and his wife Amutha have two young children, a son and daughter who are enrolled in the 6th and 3rd standard respectively. Anantharaj, a relative, strongly vouched for Velmurugan and said “He is a good boy, always helps the people of the village. No matter what the problem is, he always speaks up at the panchayat for the public good. He has never done anything bad, he is absolutely not an anti-national”. Amutha, Velmuguan’s mother and Anantharaj, all narrated the intimidation they faced from the police, who even threatened her young son. They spoke about the dire financial situation the young family finds itself in.

Kottaiyan, 36 is a daily wage labourer and father of three from Ariyapatti in Madurai district. He was in Thoothukudi on May 22 to march with the locals and ended up carrying fellow MA member, Jayaraman, out of the collectorate after the police killed him. His wife Selvi spoke to Vinavu about his arrest, and wept as she repeated how a DSP told her: “you are responsible for us shooting dead 13 people”. Their three children – two daughters in the 12th and 9th grades and a son who attends the 6th grade – have been unable to attend school due to intimidation by the police, and with the family’s breadwinner gone they have fallen into debt to meet their needs.

Kaliappan told us that 47 year old Kaliloor Rahman was working in Qatar until he was forced to return home on facing threats for his views against fundamental Islamic ideology. He has been working on a contractual basis with an auditor since he returned home and is educating his two sons by securing a loan. Mohammed Anas, 21 is a final year student at the White Memorial Homeopathic Medical college in Kanyakumari and his brother Mohammed Ishrath, 22 is a Masters student of Physics at Manonmaniam Sundaranar University. “My husband is not an anti-national, he participates in protests in support of the people, as one of them. We are ordinary folk who have to work to earn our daily food. My sons are studying. Their education will be ruined, please release them. They have never done anything wrong, they only participate in protests“ pleads Nasifa Banu. Kaliloor Rahman’s younger brother Rasheed Ali said “This government which murdered 13 members of the public has destroyed an innocent family to protect itself. They have unjustly arrested a man and his sons in the dead of the night and his wife stands abandoned. We don’t have the strength to fight. As a last resort we have trusted the press and the public with our plight. The public should take this fight to the justice department and see if it does or doesn’t have any mercy”. He also added “We don’t even have our basic needs. Our lives are such that we are forced to protest to even receive the basic necessities. That is why we are forced to protest, we want to protest. Instead of calling us anti-nationals, it is more apt to call this rule anti-national rule“. Rasheed Ali also spoke about how Mohammed Anas was arrested by the police and detained for two days for providing aid to people affected by the Ockhi cyclone.

Social mindedness seems to be the only crime of these six working class men who have been arrested under the NSA. Their arrests have left their families personally and economically devastated. Even in their distress, the wives, children and other family members speak with courage, clarity, empathy and profess their solidarity with the affected people in Thoothukudi and other downtrodden in Tamil Nadu. Two other Makkal Athikaram members, Murugesan and Sateesh, were arrested on June 11th. Police personnel in their dozens have been visiting the families of three other MA members from Kovilpatti, Sakthivel, Ganesan and Ponraj, and tormenting them. Besides verbally threatening the families, accusing the men of being terrorists, conducting night raids and confiscating Ponraj’s two wheeled vehicle, the police’s actions also resulted in Ganesan’s landlord abruptly ejecting the tenant family. Kaliappan has filed a PIL on behalf of Makkal Athikaram asking the Madras high court to restrain the Tamil Nadu police from continuing with the indiscriminate arrests.

Lawyers and politicians arrested

Advocate S. Vanchinathan, the state coordinator of People’s Rights Protection Centre (PRPC), which is an organisation of lawyers that works with Makkal Athikaram, was arrested on June 20 around midnight. Vanchinathan practices law at the Madras high court’s Madurai bench. He and Advocate K. Hari Raghavan, a lawyer based in Thoothukudi also affiliated with PRPC, were  charged in Crime no. 190 of 2018 Sipcot Police station under IPC Sections 147, 148, 188, 353, 506 (2) and Section 3 of the TNPPDL Act.  Both lawyers served as legal advisors to the anti-Sterlite Struggle committee which was formed in Thoothukudi. Vanchinathan represented their case at the Madurai bench of the Madras high court when police refused permission for the protest rally which was held in March. The Newsminute reports that the Madurai bench of the Madras high court denied anticipatory bail to the lawyer duo and observed “The petitioners do not dispute the fact that they were the leaders. As many as 13 persons have died in the protests. The petitioners should not stand shy of police interrogation.” His arrest has been widely condemned by social activists and lawyers. Indian Association of People’s Lawyers (IAPL) has released a statement denouncing the police action.

PRPC worked with other like minded lawyers to provide legal assistance to several human rights and people’s struggles. Advocate Adhisayakumar of Thoothukudi said: “Vanchinathan is a human rights defender who has provided legal help to the people of Thoothukudi. This government has an obligation to respect the United Nations 1998 Declaration on Human Rights Defenders“. National Secretary of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), Advocate V. Suresh told Newslick, “As part of his professional duty, he had gone to the local Tuticorin court to appear for a bail hearing and had met people there. Now, they (the police) have slapped cases against all of them who were supporting the protesters from outside. What the government wants to do is very clear: suppress any form of questioning and protest or opposition against the government’s functioning.”

Banner at the hunger strike organised by the Thoothukudi Lawyers Association which reads: “Announce the permanent closure of the Sterlite factory as a government policy! Give justice to the 13 people who were brutally murdered! Stop the continuous police arrests and let people sleep in peace at night!” Coutesy: Advocate Adhisayakumar

T. Velmurugan of the Tamizhaga Vazhvurimai Katchi (TVK), who organised several protests, including the “Go Back Modi” protests when the Prime Minister visited Tamil Nadu, and against IPL matches being held in Chennai during the Cauvery dispute, was detained at the Thoothukudi airport on May 26th when he arrived to visit those injured by the police violence. A few days later he was booked under the NSA in relation to a month old case. On June 19th he was released on a conditional bail. It has been reported that TVK’s Thoothukudi district president Kidar Bismi who had assisted the dead and injured on May 22nd, was arrested by the police after the latter broke down doors.

The Thoothukudi Lawyers Association observed a hunger strike on Friday (June 22) condemning the police action against advocates Vanjinathan and Hari Raghavan, and demanding an end to the continuing police action. Henri Tiphagne of People’s Watch said at a press conference that a complaint has been submitted with the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions regarding the detentions made under the provisions of the NSA. He expressed confidence that they would get the seven detention orders made under the NSA without any evidence squashed, just as they had when Thirumurugan Gandhi was booked under the Goondas Act last year. Tiphagne was in Thoothukudi as an observer during the police violence and the crackdown that followed. CPIM’s Brinda Karat who visited Thoothukudi this week condemned the use of the NSA. Other leaders including MDMK’s Vaiko, DMK’s Kanimozhi, A. Raja and T.K.S. Elangovan have also spoken against this repressive action by the government.

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