Civil society group releases damning findings on Thoothukudi police violence

The independent body conducted an inquest in June and presented their findings in Chennai on Sunday.
Civil society group releases damning findings on Thoothukudi police violence
Civil society group releases damning findings on Thoothukudi police violence
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Nearly two months after the tragic police shooting in Thoothukudi snatched away the lives of 13 civilians, the ‘Coordinating Committee for People’s Inquest into Thoothukudi Police Firing’ — a coalition of civil society groups in Tamil Nadu — released their findings in Chennai on Sunday.

The People’s Inquest is a 23-member team composed of retired justices, former senior bureaucrats, academics, lawyers, social activists and journalists.

The 2445-page report has accused the Thoothukudi district administration of being inept and allowing the situation to precipitate. It has also alleged that there is sufficient material to suggest that police personnel had indulged in arson and stone pelting to create chaos.

The People's Inquest team includes former Justice of the Madras High Court Hariparanthaman, former Haryana Chief Secretary MG Devasahayam, Madras High Court Lawyer Geeta Ramaseshan, Convenor of the Corporate Responsibility Watch Tom Thomas, and Senior Advisor at the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative Maja Daruwala among others.

Events leading up to May 22

While protestors attempted to lay siege to the District Collector's office even as Section 144 was in place on the day of the firing, the People's Inquest finds that “the administration had full knowledge of the year – long preparations being made for (the rally), its scale and intention, as well as full knowledge that there would be a large number of families, ordinary men, women, children and older people present, but deliberately neglected to arrange for the safety of the rallyists.”

In his press release shortly after the incident, DGP TK Rajendran had said that during the peace talks held between the district administration and protest groups on May 20, it was agreed that instead of a siege, the protesters would gather at a school ground in Thoothukudi. But the demonstrators went back on their word, and marched towards the Collectorate on May 22, the DGP claimed.

The People’s Inquest says that the administration did little or nothing to ensure that people were made aware of any last-minute Section 144 orders, despite orders being issued by the Madurai Bench of Madras High Court on May 18.

The report faults the district administration for being absent from the scene on May 22 and leaving the situation to the police instead.

May 22

Soon after the police shootings, the district authorities were slammed for lack of clarity on who gave firing orders and why the trigger had to be pulled in the first place.

With protestors saying that they were shot at without warning and the Chief Minister justifying it as natural and spontaneous, the report states, “There is sufficient preliminary information and eye-witness accounts to merit investigating the allegation that stone-pelters and arsonists may have been from within the police itself.”

The report has called for the government and police to hold inquires into allegations by Thoothukudi residents that police personnel had indulged in arson and stone pelting. Alleging that the police failed to follow standard operating procedures to disperse the crowd, the report states, "The police used excess force in many separate places and at many different times against the marchers often without provocation. Eye-witness accounts strongly suggest police violence was not with the intention of dispersing the crowd but intended to intimidate, hurt and panic them."

In this regard, the People’s Inquest also highlight the gunning down of long time anti-Sterlite protester Jansi at Therespuram, located miles away from the site of the rally.

Aftermath of the police violence

While the shootings killed 14 civilians and left over 200 others maimed for life, several in the district have alleged that police intimidation and harassment has continued to this day.

The report states, “..police powers apparently unsupported by valid authority are being abused to conduct searches, make unjustified spot arrests, and hold people in custody in denial of their rights to be arrested for valid reason, be provided with representation and be brought before a judicial magistrate at the earliest. Widespread accusations of such repeated illegalities we believe amount to abuse of power and serious crimes under the IPC and amount to obstruction of justice as they prevent victims from accessing justice without fear or favour.

In a shocking allegation, the report states that the authorities 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.”

Pointing out that there is no need to continue the enhanced police presence in the district, the People's Inquest states, "Its continuation affirms public fears that the police and the administration are motivated in their actions by an intention to break the movement against polluting industries wherein Sterlite is a prime contributor."

Difficulties in releasing the report

The report is a detailed compilation of people’s testimonies, eyewitness accounts, documents and records available in the public domain. However, the report makes clear that these findings "deserve the fullest administrative and criminal investigation in order that responsibility can be fixed at the earliest possible time and recompense provided to those who have suffered death injury or rights violation."

Speaking at a gathering on Sunday, the People’s Inquest team also said that they had faced obstacles in their effort to releasing the report.

Speaking to TNM, Prince, an activist who has been involved with the Thoothukudi protests for decades says, “We planned to come from Thoothukudi and so we arranged buses. But despite talking to the SP, DSP, IG(South), the bus owners were intimidated. There was heavy police at the toll booths the bus passed by. Many of them were in plain clothes. We planned to bring three buses. But as soon as they got to know that we are going to release the report, the bus operators got scared and we got only one bus.”

Henri Tiphagne of People’s Watch who was instrumental in bringing out the report also informed the gathering that the book has not been printed in Sivakasi owing to restrictions on the printing of Sterlite-related matters in Virudhunagar district.

The five volume report is available for download here

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