A small, unpaved lane lined with construction material leads to the home of Maheshwari, a 46-year-old Dalit woman in Tamil Nadu’s Thoothukudi. Emerging from her tin-roofed, one-room house where she lives with her husband and young daughter, her stoic demeanour hides the agony that has been the past twelve months
Nearly a year ago, as the town witnessed the gunning down of men and women taking part in the protest against the Sterlite Copper plant, police officers in full riot gear taunted the lifeless body of Maheshwari’s son. In visuals that have now become the exemplar of police impunity in the state, police officers tell Kaliappan— a man they had shot just moments ago— “Stop acting and leave.”
“He was just 23. I have given away my 23-year-old son. Where can I seek justice? What is there left to say?” opens up Maheshwari who lives in a rented outhouse. Her son’s tragic death came a day after the police gunned down nearly a dozen people who participated in or were in the vicinity of the anti-Sterlite agitations. Protests broke out in various parts of the town following the police firing the previous day. Kaliappan was caught in the crossfire as the police lead a crackdown in the Anna Nagar area of Thoothukudi town on May 23. As Kaliappan lay motionless on the ground, policemen picked his feet up and dropped it back on the ground in an apparent attempt to gauge whether he was alive.
Kaliappan was Maheshwari’s son from her first marriage to Peruman. Her difficult marriage came to an end in a few years and her family got her married a second time to Gopalakrishnan, who occasionally works as a daily wage labourer. She lived with Kaliappan and her 12-year-old daughter Rathi, pinning her hopes on their future. Soon after the government announced Rs 20 lakh compensation for the families of the deceased, a family feud broke out over the money.
“My sister’s son did everything for us soon after my son died. My family began accusing me saying I am giving him all the compensation money. Whose side do I take? I don’t know how to live anymore. He (sister’s son) took half the money and left. All 13 families are living this way, there are problems in each of their houses,” she says, breaking down. In the aftermath of her son’s death, she has had to face a number of people— including the media, neighbours, government officials and strangers— making insensitive remarks about her son’s parentage.
She says, “There is no peace at home. There is no peace for me. Everything is gone. I have suppressed everything inside because I don’t want to open my mouth. I’m done with everything, with their compensation, with my husband, with everything. They are speaking so badly about us. What will I even ask?”
As recompense for the violence unleashed on scores of people last May, the state had also promised a government job to one family member of the deceased. Maheshwari says, “I am doing the job they gave. I work as an assistant cook in the government’s Nutritious Meal program. My salary is only Rs 4,000. I am not educated, right? So they gave me this job. They should know that this will not be enough. They could have given me a job at the Collector’s office as a sweeper or something else. I am not in a position to ask anyone anything. If they don’t give me that, I will just do my work here.”
Maheshwari had hoped that Kaliappan’s income would help uplift the family and educate her daughter who is now in Class 7. With his death, the hopes came crashing down. “If things continue to be like this, I will take my daughter and go somewhere where nobody knows us.” she says, as her daughter brings her a glass of water.
Months after her son’s death, she marched to the state-appointed probe panel and demanded justice for Kaliappan last year. However, she has not heard back. The multiple probes instituted following the deadly events in the district have yet to reach a conclusion on who gave the shooting orders to the police. While Maheshwari awaits justice for her son, the trigger-happy police officers have not been brought to book.
She says, “The government gave Rs 20 lakhs and a job, that’s all. They never asked anything after that. Nobody came after that. Initially, they all came— authorities, leaders of political parties— but after that, nobody came. We asked for justice. They heard us but they have not followed up with us. Where can I go for justice? That’s all.”