Remember Thoothukudi: A year later, no justice in sight for families of the dead

On the 100th day of anti-Sterlite protests, thirteen people were killed in police firing in Thoothukudi on May 22, 2018.
Remember Thoothukudi: A year later, no justice in sight for families of the dead
Remember Thoothukudi: A year later, no justice in sight for families of the dead
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On a scorching summer day in May last year, Jhansi and her family were watching television in their small living room, following the extraordinary events unfolding on screen. Thousands of men, women and children from across Tamil Nadu’s Thoothukudi district were marching to the district Collector’s office to submit a petition. They had been protesting every day for the last hundred days against the pollution caused by the Vedanta-owned Sterlite copper plant in Thoothukudi. With hundreds of policemen lining the streets in riot gear, cameras showed swelling crowds raising slogans and carrying placards against the copper smelter.

Around 10 kilometres away in her coastal hamlet in Threspuram, however, Jhansi was simultaneously preparing fish curry to take to her daughter’s house. Her daughter Anbarasi was sick and needed the food.

“Jhansi left the house in the afternoon. There was no question of any danger because the firing happened near the Collector’s office in the morning. She was on her way to her daughter’s house two streets away when suddenly the police van came and started firing. She got trapped, she didn’t know what to do. The boys and men in the area started running into a bylane. She hid behind a neem tree and was shot in the head. Her brain fell on the ground, the policemen wrapped her in a sheet and took her away. We had heard the chaos in the neighbourhood and went up to the terrace to be safe. It was around 4 pm when we started fearing why Jhansi hadn’t returned from her daughter’s house,” recounts Arokiamary, Jhansi’s niece.

Sitting across from his niece in the same small living room, looking dishevelled and angry is 50-year-old Jesu Balan, Jhansi’s husband. “She didn’t make it to my daughter’s house. We went and searched the streets, we couldn’t find her. We went and searched in the hospital, we couldn’t find her. I was asking everyone. Then they showed me. The only thing I could make out was the thaali I had tied on her neck when we got married. I knew it was her,” he says, as tears stream down his face.

(Jesu Balan and Arokiamary in front of a photo of Jhansi who was killed in the firing)

A fisherman by profession, Jesu Balan hasn’t ventured out to the sea in a year. “Her children were her life. She wouldn’t even raise her voice. She didn’t even go to the protest. They shot her in the head without a thought. So, what do you mean by justice?” he asks.

Jhansi is among the 13 who were shot and killed on May 22, 2018 — a date seared into the collective memory of Thoothukudi. A town known for its beaches, basilicas and blistering salt pans was raining bullets and bloodied corpses on that day last year. A day meant to commemorate the 100th day of protests against the expansion of the Vedanta-owned Sterlite copper plant, a known violator of environmental norms. A day meant to bring together residents from across the district who have been speaking up in the struggle against the plant for over two decades. A day to demand justice for people from the nearly two dozen villages surrounding the copper smelter who had long-endured the industrial pollution caused by the plant.

‘Major error of judgement’

When protestors gathered in large numbers on that fateful Tuesday a year ago, there were two groups: one marching towards the Collectorate and another gathered at the SAV School grounds. The anti-Sterlite group had split into two on account of differences of opinion among them following a ‘peace meeting’ with the then district Superintendent of Police P Mahendran on May 20, 2018. The meeting called by the SP was to go over plans for the 100th day demonstrations. While the merchants’ association among others were ready to accept the police offer of the SAV School grounds as the protest venue, some village leaders and others wanted to march to the Collectorate. It was on the evening of May 21, 2018 that Section 144, prohibiting the gathering of people was imposed.

Making damning observations, People’s Watch, a Madurai-based human rights NGO released an inquest report in July last year incriminating the district administration for its role in the avoidable loss of lives. It makes mention of two key points— first, that Section 144 was confined to the Thoothukudi South (where the Collectorate is located) and SIPCOT area (where the Sterlite plant is located) police stations and second, that the imposition of prohibitory orders was not sufficiently publicised. “To add to a potentially chaotic situation, no effective public announcements informing people about the assigned venue (the SAV School grounds) were made by the district administration which had actually negotiated this alternate venue through its peace meeting. The PI (People’s Inquest) team is of the opinion that allowing an assembly in a site that was clearly inadequate and prohibiting it in a larger and more suitable one near the collectorate, the district administration had made what appears to have been a major error of judgement which contributed to the tragic events that followed and made Section 144 practically unenforceable,” states the report.

(Agitators march through a street demanding the closure of Vedanta's Sterlite Copper unit as protest entered the 100th day in Thoothukudi/ PTI)

With instances of stone-pelting breaking out near the Collectorate, the situation soon turned violent, with police— some in plainclothes— charging and shooting at the crowd. Many of the injured who were receiving treatment at the Thoothukudi General Hospital told TNM the following day that there had been no warnings prior to the shooting, a flagrant violation of state and national police protocol. As men and women fell to the ground dead or injured, it was relentless pandemonium as the police proceeded to crack down on the fleeing protesters.

As the town collapsed in chaos, 30-year-old Maniraj was caught in the crossfire and shot by the police. A newly-wed trader from Dhamodharan Nagar, he had asked his mother to prepare his lunch that afternoon. Anu, his wife was waiting for him to pick her up from her parents’ house. They would all eat together, he had promised. “He had told our mother that he will come back in 10 minutes. He didn’t participate in the protest, all he cared about was his family and his shop.” says Ramesh Kannan, his younger brother, feebly pointing to a framed photo of Maniraj.

Speaking to reporters at the Secretariat two days after the firing took place, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswami said that the shooting was a 'natural reaction’. “Some anti-social elements instigated the situation. They attacked the police. Police first used tear gas, then protesters tried to set fire to the Collector's office and vans. That's why the police had to resort to this. This is a natural reaction, it wasn't pre-planned," he said. Maniraj and others like him were just collateral damage, according to the state's many explanations.

However, like most other people who were shot, Maniraj’s postmortem report revealed that he had been shot in the head with a bullet wound entering and exiting the skull. While the very decision to resort to firing has been repeatedly raised to the state government, families and activists have also asked, “Why shoot to kill?” Protocols for the conduct of the police under such circumstances have been prescribed in detail in state and national police manuals. A month after the shooting, a Frontline report pointed out that the Madras Police Standing Orders (PSO) 1999 mandated that minimum force be used and firearms — to be used only as a last resort — were to be directed “preferably below the waist level and firing should be selective and controlled.”

Maniraj’s wife Anu had a miscarriage shortly after her husband’s death. “Our family has split. The loss is for us. The people who shot my son continue to have jobs and raise their children and be with their families. But I don’t have my son. They should be punished. If not, will they give my son back?” asks Maniraj’s mother.

(A photo of Maniraj at his residence)

An inquiry without a deadline

The day after the firings, the Thoothukudi General Hospital was overflowing with people— angry families, neighbours and villagers living near the Sterlite copper plant. As they demanded justice and refused to take home the bodies of the deceased, the police once again resorted to lathi charge, dispersing the crowds. As one leader after another made their way in to meet the injured at the hospital, violence and arson was underway in other parts of the town. The crackdown saw the police open fire for a second consecutive day— shooting and killing 23-year-old Kaliappan in Anna Nagar. Video footage showed police officers telling his lifeless body to “Stop acting and leave.”

With the police excess being slammed across the country and growing demands for the Chief Minister to step down, the state government appointed Retired Madras High Court Justice Aruna Jagadeesan to probe the police firings and killing of civilians. The controversial judge was part of the judicial bench that gave a clean chit to the police in February 2015 for alleged fake encounters in Chennai. With no deadline set for the committee, the one-woman inquiry panel has questioned over 250 people since June last year, including families of the deceased, bullet injured, those injured by lathi charge, eye witnesses, police officers and members of the general public.

However, some families like wife of 46-year-old Antony Selvaraj, who was killed in the police shooting, have lost faith and have chosen to stay away from the inquiry committee. “We didn't go (to depose before the Aruna Jagadeesan commission of inquiry). What will we go and do? We have to get justice. That’s what everyone is saying, we are saying the same. They say that a thousand criminals may escape but one innocent man should not be punished. What crime did he (my husband) do? Do you see how quiet the house is?” she asks.

(District Collector Sandeep Nanduri along with other officials seal the main gate of Sterlite Copper Unit, in Tuticorin on Monday, May 28, 2018/ PTI)

Soon after the incident, the state government ordered the closure of the copper smelter amid criticism that the order would not stand legal scrutiny, plunging the fight against the plant into a protracted legal battle. It was only in July last year— nearly three months after the firing— that the Terms of Reference of the probe panel was expanded to include an investigation into police excess. The panel was asked to “determine whether appropriate force was used as warranted by the circumstances and whether all prescribed procedures were observed before opening of fire.” However, given the political climate surrounding the anti-Sterlite debate, activists believe that it could be years before a report is forthcoming.

In August, the Madras High Court ordered a CBI probe into the police firing, and also ordered the clubbing of multiple FIRs that had been filed against various protesters. A month after its deadline to file an FIR expired, the CBI in November registered FIRs against a number of people, among them police and revenue department officials. The investigative agency is also reported to be looking into allegations of authorities botching the probe through incorrect documentation in an attempt to foist cases on protesters.

Prince Cardoza, a long-time anti-Sterlite activist alleges that the CBI probe is not being conducted in a proper manner. He claims, "The families and injured don’t know Hindi and the CBI officer is asking questions in Hindi. When the victim's family or injured person is talking to the CBI officer, the translating state police officer is giving the opposite meaning to the CBI officer. This is a form of harassment. Even today, Sterlite is continuing to carry out its CSR activities, despite the factory being shut. Why? They are very confident that the plant will re-open. The firing was to weaken the movement. But we will continue to fight.”

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