23-year-old Santosh Raj remembers going down on his knees fearfully in the Thoothukudi Collectorate on May 22. Pulling his hands up to his head, he crouched in a symbol of complete surrender.
"We just want to sit and protest," he recalls yelling at the blur of khakhi racing past him. But the time for negotiation was long gone.
Within seconds of his gesture, he allegedly saw 65-year-old Kandaiah hit the ground just a few metres from him, collapsing as the blood stain spread across his chest. "At that point, I didn't even realise they were shooting at agitators," he alleges.
Before Santosh could register this shocking sight, a swift blow from a lathi to his head left him bleeding profusely. His mobile phone was snatched away by a policewoman who then proceeded to smash it with a rock, he alleges.
And as he sat there, blood gushing from his head and wounded from the tussle of bodies pushing past him to exit the Collectorate, he did not think he will live to see another day.
"I thought I was going to die in the Collectorate. It seemed like my efforts to ban Sterlite Copper in my hometown would end that day," says Santosh, shaking his head.
But little did he know, that his battle was just beginning. Not only did he survive the brutality but from his hospital bed in Kamarajar Nagar he has now shot to fame for posing tough questions to every politician who dared to visit the victims of police excess.
Over the last week, Santosh has fearlessly asked Deputy Chief Minister O Panneerselvam how much money he received from Sterlite to keep it open and further embarrassed Superstar Rajinikanth with a stinging "Who are you?" when he arrived over a week after the clashes in the district.
A new protester
As TNM made its way to the Thoothukudi Government Medical College Hospital, the overbearing presence of the police could not be missed. They sat in groups at entrances to arterial roads and government buildings, warily scrutinising the surroundings. This despite Collector Sandeep Nandhuri promising a phased removal of the men in khakhi from the region.
On the fifth floor of the hospital, the ward that separates victims of the gunfire from the awaiting media carries an 'Entry strictly prohibited' sign. The long corridor houses hundreds of victims who were assaulted, lathi charged or shot at by the police as they attempted to march their way into the Collectorate to register their protest against Sterlite Copper. With section 144 imposed in the region, what started as a peaceful rally metamorphosed into a violent display by the police machinery. Thirteen people died as a result of gun shots and the scars left behind by the encounter, runs deep into the psyche of Thoothukudi's residents.
The air is grim in the ward as nurses and attendants keep an eye out for any suspicious activities.
Dressed in a black t-shirt, Santosh himself stares into space as he lies against pillows that his mother is arranging behind him. He offers a quick smile when we spot him and gestures to a seat near his bed.
"Activism is relatively new to me. I was part of the Anaithu Kalloori Manavargal Kootam (All college students' union) in college and together we had protested for jallikattu in January last year," explains Santosh earnestly. "It was only in April that I became a part of the anti-Sterlite agitation," he admits.
And what led to this?
"We had done a door-to-door census in our village and it showed that 20 people had died of cancer in 2017 alone while 20 others are suffering from various types of cancer. Till then, the enormity of the issue did not hit me," he says. "After this survey, my mother confessed to me that she had to remove her uterus in 2014 because there was a tumour in it and she was not the only lady in the village who suffered in this manner. The water from our ground was literally killing us," he adds.
Soon, the young man was attending every public meeting that opposed Sterlite and claims it dawned on him that health issues the villagers brushed away for years was, in fact, a result of the contamination of their air and water.
"We can't use the water from our wells even for cooking. You can't even keep the liquid in your mouth, it has a rancid taste," says Santosh, his face scrunching up as he explains with disgust. "As for the air...our skin would often become dry and start cracking. On the shoulder, the back, the waist...it would break into angry blisters. Do you know what we call it?" he asks.
Before we could chance a guess, 48-year-old Vasanthi, Santosh's mother interjects, "Sterlite patthu (scars)."
She explains that no amount of oil could keep it from appearing and for the families near the plant it became a part of their lives. A video of Vasanthi had been circulated by the police earlier. She was heard asking citizens to march to Collectorate and to thrash police personnel.
"Villagers took it all in their stride. The skin problems, bad water, the burning eyes and even the smell of rotten eggs that would permeate the air every evening," says Santosh. "But not anymore," he warns.
A BCom graduate from V.O Chidambaram college, Santosh belongs to the humble Pandarampatti village which is about four kilometres from the centre of the town. His father is a security guard while his mother, describes herself as 'just a homemaker’.
But together mother and son have become the nightmare of Tamil Nadu's top politicians.
"Who are you?"
Santosh by his own admission is a fan of actor Rajinikanth.
"I've fought queues to watch his movies on the first day, I have danced in the theatres and grown up thinking of him as a 'Superstar'," he says. "But when he came to the hospital on May 30, I saw him as a politician, not a childhood hero," he adds.
Rajinikanth had come to Thoothukudi to visit the injured, yet another politician who made a beeline to the district after tempers had settled. But little did he expect to face what is perhaps the most embarrassing question he had to handle in the limelight as a politician.
"Who are you?" Santosh asked him abruptly, as cameras zoomed in on Rajinikanth's mildly shocked expression.
To this, the actor replied, “It’s me, Rajinikanth.”
Santosh then claims that he asked the actor why he was in the district. The superstar immediately said it was to meet the injured.
"So, I asked him, does it take 100 days to come from Chennai to Thoothukudi," Santosh recalls. "He just smiled and walked away," he adds.
The actor may have chosen to leave the uncomfortable situation but what has followed, left Santosh regretting his decision to even question the star.
And the trolling began
As #NaanthaanpaRajinikanth began to trend and Santosh's question went viral, efforts to defame him had already begun.
"A man named Dileepan came to the ward and requested for a selfie just hours after Rajinikanth left. I didn't think much of it and agreed," says Santosh. "But later after he posted the photo on his Facebook wall I came to know that there is a case against him already for burning the national flag," he adds.
This was fodder enough for the Superstar's enraged fans to carry out what can only be termed a slander campaign. Pictures of Santosh and Dileepan were tweeted from multiple fan accounts and soon the man who questioned multiple leaders was termed an 'anti-national'. Fans questioned how such a 'traitor' could pose humiliating questions to the Superstar.
"I couldn't believe what I was seeing," says Santosh. "I got really scared. I am fighting for my people and I was getting called anti-national. The trolling was getting too intense and I had to do something. My family was scared that they will file a case of sedition against me," he adds.
And when, a day later, Santosh put up a video clarifying his stance, not many questioned his intention.
In the one-minute clip, Santosh says, "The video is going viral but the reason I said it (Who are you?) is different. All media people and trolls are portraying this differently. Everyone knows other politicians are respected only if they have power...but Rajinikanth is respected just for who he is. He does not need any position for that, unlike the others. So, I meant that he didn't come for 100 days. If he had supported us, it would have been a huge strength for us. Only for this reason I said this. Because he is coming to help people, I asked rightfully. But media guys and trolls are taking this in a different direction. It has really affected me."
The video clip was published on Twitter and was later posted by Raju Mahalingam, who is the Secretary of the Rajini Makkal Mandram.
Did he think this would stop the trolling though?
"I don't know if it will. But honestly, I didn't have a choice," says Santosh pulling at the green strings from his bedsheet and turning away for the first time. The sudden silence that descended was interrupted by his mother.
Threatened by Rajini Makkal Mandram?
"They came at 12.30 in the night and took him away to the corner to shoot the video," alleges Vasanthi, looking at her son worriedly. "I was asleep and we suddenly heard the nurse yelling. My son was with two boys from the Rajini Makkal Mandram. I told her that we knew them because I didn't want any problems," she adds.
What did they ask him to do?
"They told me to refer to Rajini as Thalaivar and say that I asked him what I did because I am a fan and want him to become the next CM. I was instructed to say that after getting discharged I will go to Chennai and seek Rajini's forgiveness. They asked why I questioned him in such a disrespectful manner. I tried to tell them that I was just being straightforward but they told me I have to put out a video clarification. They in fact shot it on their phone," explains Santosh.
Did they threaten him?
"They made me talk to someone on the phone. I don't know who. He was angry that I spoke in that manner and asked me to give a video statement," alleges Santosh. "With the other two, it was more like coaxing. They didn't give me the room to argue. They said they will take me to Chennai and change my life. They promised to pay for my higher education," he goes on to allege.
So, is that why he agreed to do the video?
"No, I just wanted all these rumours about me to stop. I gave a generic clarification to the media after the incident. But they still came and threatened me, so I agreed," alleges Santosh. "Even then I didn't call him Thalaivar or listen to everything they said," he adds.
For the family, the shock of this midnight visit stems more from the fact that it was from a quarter they least expected.
"From a young age my son has always been frank and questioned everyone. Even me, if I make a mistake," says Vasanthi. "But now, when he has taken on everyone uniformly, why is he being targeted in such a manner?" she asks.
A week after the protests, Tamil Nadu Publicity Minister Kadambur Raju was the first representative from the AIADMK to visit the injured and grieving families. By then, the district was enraged over the ruling government's refusal to even come meet the victims. Opposition leaders who did arrive at the site were, meanwhile, booked for violating prohibitory orders.
But section 144 had finally been lifted and accompanied by a battalion of camera persons, the minister walked into Santosh's ward confidently. Raju, who also happens to be the Kovilpatti MLA, met two of the injured protesters before arriving at the 23-year-old's bed.
That was when a visibly angry Vasanthi first confronted him.
"Don’t try to fool us. Treat us with a humanitarian approach,” warned Vasanthi, giving no heed to the fact that she was addressing a minister. Pointing at her son's injured hand she asked, "What would you do if this happened to your son? Don't simply say ‘madam, madam’”.
The Minister then allegedly told her to 'keep quiet' and allow her son to talk.
"How can he say something like that to me," asks Vasanthi, clearly still offended. "I told him, he can't tell me to keep quiet. We are affected so we will talk," she adds.
But by then, Santosh took over the reins and argued, "If they (Sterlite) open again will you take blame? Write and give that you will."
And what was the Minister's response?
"He first said he will give an assurance in writing but when I insisted again, he tried to explain that it won't work that way," says Santosh. Rattled by the exchange, the minister left the hospital premises hurriedly. And the next day he brought along Deputy Chief Minister O Panneerselvam with him to the ward but this time, cameras were not allowed.
Minister Kadambur Raju had exited the ward just minutes before TNM visited Santosh and he came up to the family and enquired about their well-being. "When he realised I was disturbed because of the trolling, he assured me that there will be no legal action taken for the picture. When even ministers understand the sentiment behind my questions, I don't understand why Rajinikanth and his fans don't," says Santosh.
Glancing at her son, Vasanthi's face is a picture of worry.
"I am really concerned about him," she says. "We have no political leanings but even the AIADMK seems okay. It is the Rajini fans, I am really scared of," she adds.
"How much money did you take?"
There is no recorded version of Santosh's interaction with the Deputy CM. But as per the youth's version of events, this is how the exchange went:
Santosh: Does the government have the power to shut down Sterlite?
OPS: Yes, it does.
Santosh: Sir, do you know who gave the shooting orders?
OPS: Now is not the time to discuss that.
OPS then got up to leave when Santosh claims to have posed his final question.
Santosh: How much money has the government taken from Sterlite? Our people will give you more than that. Will you shut it down?
OPS: Listen, I have all your sentiments registered in my mind. We will definitely do something.
The same day, a Government Order was passed and Sterlite was sealed by the District Collector. Does Santosh see this as a victory for his stinging questions?
"It is a victory for our collective effort. Not just mine," says the 23-year-old, looking down at the scars on his arm, a result of blows from lathis. But wasn't he scared to ask these questions to such tall leaders in the government? "They almost killed me in those protests. I saw my life flashing in front of my eyes. So I figured, what more can they do?" he asks.