Brainwashing and betrayal: In Thoothukudi, a rift in the anti-Sterlite movement

While fisherfolk from at least three villages have blamed Makkal Adhikaram for instigating them, the left leaning group says the state is trying to divide protesters.
Brainwashing and betrayal: In Thoothukudi, a rift in the anti-Sterlite movement
Brainwashing and betrayal: In Thoothukudi, a rift in the anti-Sterlite movement

Close to two months after protests against the Vedanta Sterlite factory in Thoothukudi shook Tamil Nadu, a few members of the fishing community alleged that they were brainwashed into picketing the District Collector’s office. Adding to the administration's narrative on the involvement of 'anti-social elements', fisherfolk from at least three villages have alleged that it was the left leaning Makkal Adhikaram that influenced the fishermen into taking up aggressive methods of demonstrations. 

This revelation has created a fissure in what was depicted as a unified agitation and given the state more ammunition against Makkal Adhikaram which had also protested against the Kudankulam power plant. 13 people were killed in the police shooting that took place in Thoothukudi on May 22 to stop protesters from laying siege to the Collectorate. 

In a petition to the District Legal Services Authority on 2 July, residents of Madathur and other fishing villages sought legal help as they were apprehensive that several residents may be arrested in connection with the violence. 

The villagers said in their petition they had assured the district authorities at a peace meeting on May 20 that they would hold a peaceful demonstration at SAV grounds on May 22 in order to draw the attention of the government to the alleged pollution caused by Sterlite. Advocates Hari Raghavan and Vanchinathan who are allegedly associated with Makkal Adhikaram however, 'changed our hearts' says the letter. 

"Advocate Hariharan used social media, he came to places where women and youngsters were protesting and stoked their emotions. He changed their hearts and made them choose the demonstration over the peaceful protest initially planned. He said laying siege to the Collectorate and opposing the police's oppressive behaviour was our only aim. We have several video and audio evidences of this."

They further allege that they were forced to bring up the matter to the District Legal Services Authority, as Makkal Adhikaram was now attempting to blame the fishermen for protests turning violent.

Members of the fishing community who were close to these developments told TNM that they were forced to write the letter because the state police was constantly targeting them and because of Makkal Adhikaram’s attitude.

“It is true that members of Makkal Adhikaram attempted to paint the fishermen as violent following the May 22 shooting despite the fact that they were the ones who encouraged us to march to the Collectorate. This made us very angry. But we had to take the matter up to the Legal Services Authority because the police was coming into our homes, foisting cases on our people and detaining them,” says a fisherman from Gandhinagar. “I don’t think it is right to have accused the Makkal Adhikaram lawyers like this. But our community couldn’t take the atrocities of the police. We were pushed to such a situation,” he adds.

Most of the fishermen claim to be angry because their community was targeted by the police while members of the Makkal Adhikaram remained unscathed.

“Makkal Adhikaram members ensured they were safe with anticipatory bails. But we suffered,” he adds.

In their petitions, the community has further requested that bail not be granted to the lawyer who ‘changed their hearts’.

According to the a report by the ‘Coordinating Committee for People’s Inquest into Thoothukudi Police Firing’ , authorities in Thoothukudi, have been deploying a system of filing "open FIRs"- a way of stacking on multiple names to a single complaint- “as a device to threaten, intimidate and entrap people at will and prevent victims, eyewitnesses and concerned citizens from filing complaints against the police in relation to the same and related incidents.”

The Makkal Adhikaram however denies allegations by the fishing community and claim this division was engineered by the state.

“The police have been constantly trying to create fissures in this group united against Sterlite. This is their first success,” says Marudhu, spokesperson for Makkal Adhigaram.

Responding to claims of fishermen being brainwashed, he points out that the villagers were not naïve enough to act solely under the influence of an external group.

“Our lawyers have said nothing against the fishermen. This is an effort by the state to pin the blame for the murders they carried out on a certain group. When threatened with the law, the common man is often left not knowing how to fight back,” explains Marudhu.

Another leader of the movement, who has worked with both groups, told TNM that while the fishermen's sudden outburst may have stemmed from a sense of betrayal, the timing could not have been worse.

"People associated with Makkal Adhikaram did come to the villages and give impassioned speeches. In fact they convinced the villagers to become part of the larger demonstration to the Collectorate. But when questioned in court about the violence, members of Makkal Adhikaram have said that it is the fishermen who could have begun the violence," says an important leader of the movement. "This really ticked them off. While their anger is understandable, the timing of their letter has unfortunately shrouded the entire movement in suspicion," this leader adds.

Henry Tiphagne, founder of People’s watch, who led an inquiry into the happenings of May 22, alleged that the intervention came from the ministerial level to frame certain groups.

“When I met prominent fishing leaders in Thoothukudi, they explained that they went to Minister Kadambur Raju to stop the police from indiscriminately arresting their men. The Minister then directed them to the Legal services authority, where they were told to sign the petition asking for bail to be denied to the lawyers. Why would fishermen even request that by themselves?” he asks. “This was clearly an effort to divide and rule, in order to break the movement. But sustained efforts to keep the fight alive will continue.”

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