On May 22, police shootings in Thoothukudi district killed 13 people, sending shockwaves across the country. And now, three months later residents here continue to live on the edge, as they allege that the police arbitrarily summon and warn them over statements and messages they forward on social media in connection to Sterlite Copper smelter.
According to residents, close to 10 people are summoned every day by inspectors in the local police stations. Their phones, specifically their WhatsApp messages and group chats, are then scrutinised. They allege that they first receive a phone call in which their address in taken down and they are then asked if they were part of the protests against Sterlite Copper in May. If they reply in the affirmative, a notice is allegedly sent to them through a constable.
"When we reach the station we are given a three-page form where we have to fill all our particulars and details about our spouse and children," said Ramu*, a resident who was summoned two weeks ago, under the condition of anonymity. "It also asked if we were using social media, if we went to the Sterlite protests and other questions. At the end of it we had to sign the form which said that we agree to stop forwarding or drafting any messages about Sterlite on social media.”
Further, he said, the police were aware that he had forwarded messages on pollution by Sterlite and the effects of copper residue from the plant on the health of those living in the district.
"What the police is doing is against the basic tenets of democracy. They can't dictate what information we consume and disseminate on social media," added Ramu. "They are curbing my freedom of speech. When I questioned them, they insinuated that I was part of a political party because I was on a WhatsApp group with some members of a political party in it. But I made it clear that I wasn't. I really did not want to sign it, but I was scared some harm would come to my wife and children.”
S Raja, the state organiser of the Tamil Nadu Vanigar Sangam Peravai has received over 10 such summons, and he alleged that the police are trying to frighten residents of Thoothukudi.
"They are basically threatening us because they don't want us to protest against Sterlite. They want to open the factory again and when they do, they are making sure that people are too scared to come out and fight against it," said Raja. "We have gone to the Superintendent of Police and the Collector asking them to put an end to this. They assured us it will stop but nothing has changed.”
When TNM contacted Collected Sandeep Nanthuri, he claimed to be unaware of these enquires and the forms the residents were made to fill.
"I have been in New Delhi for the past two days. I will have to ask the SP for details," he said.
SP Murali Ramba, meanwhile, first stated that no such enquiries were underway. When told about the allegations, however, he admitted there could still be enquiries conducted in some stations and that no case was filed.
"We don't want people to send any provocative or instigating messages that could create law and order problems. We take their signatures on a statement; this is common practice. We only call them because we have prior information that they are sending messages that could lead to violence," he said. "We are observing social media activity because we don't want a repeat of May 22. What is wrong in that?"
But according to advocate Athisiyakumar, who is also consulting for some of the residents brought to stations, the conduct of the police violates the Tamil Nadu police standing order rule.
"There is no provision to arbitrarily summon people with such a notice. Either section 41A (notice of appearance before a police officer) has to be invoked (in the case of an accused) or section 165 (search by police officer) of the CrPC. The police are blatantly deviating from the law," he said. "This is clearly an effort to scare the residents of Thoothukudi and ensure that there are no more protests.”