Sterlite Protest
Could the police really have been caught unaware, when there were clear signs of a massive protest that could turn violent?

A middle-aged woman walks up to a make-shift stage and starts speaking, as a small group of people listen to her with rapt attention. Dressed in a saree, she speaks in a calm and decisive manner. "It doesn't matter who came or didn't come for protests till today. The protest that is going to take place on (May) 22, is not a normal one," thunders the unidentified lady.

"The world should be shocked by the people of Thoothukudi. All of us must lay siege to the Collector's office with our children. No matter how many people come in our way," she says. 

“How many of them will be there?” she asks, referring to the police, “Even if you take the whole of TN, will there be 2 lakh policemen? There will be seven lakh people from Thoothukudi. We will hold every one of them and beat them,” she says as the audience breaks into applause. 

This video, among several other similar ones, had been circulating on WhatsApp and Facebook groups long before May 22, the 100th day of the public agitation against the Sterlite Copper plant in Thoothukudi. Police officers had also seen such clips, which called on protesters to join the 'siege' of the district Collectorate. And yet, the police claim that they were caught unawares by the violent crowd on May 22, the fateful day when 11 protesters died due to police firing. 

Were they really caught unaware, and was there an ‘intelligence failure’ in predicting the nature of the protest, as many officers now claim?

The peace meeting 

In his press release after the incident, DGP TK Rajendran 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 claims. 

Fathima Babu of the Anti-Killer Sterlite People's Movement, who was present at this meeting, however says that while there was an agreement at the meeting, it was well-known to the police that not every group was on board with it, and that a siege of the Collectorate was going to happen anyway. 

"First of all, of the 100 groups that were part of the protests, the district administration invited only 23," explains Fathima. The district administration says only a few were invited since the meeting was convened hastily. 

At the meeting, even if a few groups did agree to not go ahead with the siege, it was due to the promises made, Fathima says. "The Vanigar Sangam agreed because they wanted to take part in the protest (shut shops) only if we had permission. The other representatives including myself agreed because the Collector promised to take us to the Chief Minister for a meeting. To me, this was part of finding a solution to the problems," she explains. 

However, representatives of villages across Thoothukudi were not in agreement with the compromise. "They did not want a simple protest because they believed that it wouldn't shake the system. They wanted to carry on with the original plan of a rally up to the Collectorate," says Fathima. "The rest of us did not have a problem because it is every individual's right to register protests, however they want to. And there was no violence planned," she states. 

Fathima rubbishes the idea that the police did not know the scale of the protest. "There was a full-fledged plan to lay siege to the Collectorate on May 22. Till now, we have never got permission to conduct any protest in connection with Sterlite. So, we did not bother asking them this time. Messages were sent out on social media and the whole of Thoothukudi knew what the plan for day 100 of the agitation was," she says. "We were going to enter the Collectorate and hold a sit-in protest. It was to be like the Satyagraha movement," she adds. 

"Even a small child in Thoothukudi knew that a massive rally was going to take place in the town on May 22," says Fathima. "How could the police not have known?" she asks. 

The assertion that the police did not know how angry the protesters were, also runs contrary to court filings. While hearing a petition by the Vedanta group on May 18, the Madurai bench of the Madras High court directed the administration to impose Section 144 in Thoothukudi on May 22, based on the pamphlets being distributed for the mega rally.  

"The wording in the pamphlets indicates that the protesters do not have any intention to conduct a peaceful protest," the court observed, while adding, "The proposed protest is likely to trigger a law and order situation, and in this scenario, invoking Section 144 of the CrPC would be highly recommended in public interest.” 

Could it really have been an ‘intelligence failure’ when the signs of a potentially violent protest were there for everyone to see? 

Failure to control 

Former IAS officer and civil rights activist MG Devasahayam says that the police were unprepared to implement the Section 144 order and alleges that they let the situation escalate deliberately. 

"They were completely unprepared to impose section 144. The necessary police force, barricades and equipment were not in place," says Devasahayam. 

Eyewitnesses and ground reports however do point out that the police attempted to contain the situation with lathi charge, but they were unable to. A statement by People’s Watch, a human rights organisation which was present on the ground to monitor the protest, said that the police tried to lathi-charge protesters several times, but they failed to disperse the crowds. 

“After due notification to the Superintendent of Police, we witnessed several failed attempts by the police to lathi charge the protesters, who were approaching the epicentre of the protest rally from all directions. The lathi charge saw little to no impact on the marching crowds whose growing numbers posed a direct threat to the safety of the police contingent. The police were forced to fall back and were eventually delegated to guard the Collectorate," it reads.  

"They were lathi charging us at every spot," says 43-year-old Kittu, who was part of the protests. "Even women and children were beaten up,” he says.  

The police claim that violence exhibited by the crowd forced them to shoot, as the protesters were putting public life and property in danger. The agitators' actions were further in contradiction to Section 144 of the Crpc imposed in the region, they say. However, People’ Watch claims it was police excess which turned the protesters violent. When people found out that fellow protesters were shot dead by the police and several others were left injured, they resorted to violence, People’s Watch report says.  

Shooting to kill

"If they had to shoot, first they had to give a warning to the people, shoot in the air and then use rubber bullets," Devasahayam says, adding, "What we witnessed was cold-blooded murder. The police were clearly shooting to kill. The 7.62 SLR which was being used by the police is a very dangerous weapon. It has a killing range of 300-500 metres and even the military in Kashmir does not use this against protesters.” 

As per a TOI report on the TN police training manual, a series of steps have to be followed by the police before firing. When crowds turn violent, they would first have to be declared an unlawful assembly and be ordered to disperse. If they do not disperse, the Collector should order the police to invoke coercive measures. After this, the police can use tear gas, mild lathi charge and then water cannons. And if all this fails, police can open fire, but only after issuing a warning through a megaphone, stating that lives could be lost. They are also required to host a riot flag. And finally, while opening fire, they must first shoot in the air and then aim only below the hip. The rules further mention that firing should be used for deterrence, not as punitive measures.  

Activists allege that on May 22, no announcements were made, no water cannons were in place and most victims took bullets to the chest and head. Several protesters present at the site recalled to the media that the bullets started raining on them without warning.  

The fact that three of the protesters shot dead by the police on Tuesday were prominent leaders of the anti-Sterlite movement, raises doubts even more. Tamilarasan, coordinator of anti-Sterlite movement; Maniraj, coordinator of Damodar Nagar and Gladston, coordinator of Metupatti – were among the dead, due to which activists claim that the firing was planned.

"These were planned murders," says G Sundarrajan of Poovulagin Nanbargal. "Intelligence failure could have been in terms of how many people would turn up. But the larger aim of the police was to finish this protest violently like they did in the case of Jallikattu. And they achieved what they wanted. The people of Thoothukudi are now afraid to protest for their rights."