Sterlite Protest
FIR has been filed against around 20 civilian groups, but no charges on police personnel yet.

Five days after the police force in Thoothukudi district opened fire at protesters who made their way to the Collectorate to agitate against Sterlite's copper plant, the official who gave the shooting order has been revealed. An FIR copy, in TNM 's possession against 20 citizen groups in the districts states that it was a 'Deputy Tehsildar' who gave the green signal to the police to shoot at demonstrators.

According to the account of P Shekhar, Deputy Tahsildar (Elections), 'over 10,000 'unlawful people' with 'dangerourous weapons' were heading towards the Collectorate at 11 am on May 22'. They were allegedly vandalising public property on their way and disrespecting police orders to turn back. The Deputy Tahsildar even claims that the crowds possessed petrol bombs as they made their way into the Collectorate.

This allegedly scared the government employees and public who had come to the Collectorate. The Deputy Tahsildar then says that the protesters were warned through a public announcement system that tear gas shells will be used if the unlawful assembly did not stop. He claims to have pointed out that section 144 was in place in the area where protesters were gathered.

'When they didn't listen, I ordered for tear gas shells to be used. But the crowd continued to be violent. They began to attack the police with dangerous weapons and stones," the deputy Tahsildar says in his complaint.

The protesters allegedly announced their intention to harm the men in uniform and were exhibiting the 'rage to kill'. "We warned the protesters that if they didn't disperse and continued the violent activity, we would have to shoot them. But they were increasingly becoming a threat to public life and property," he continues.

Following this, the deputy Tahsildar claims that a bullet was fired into the air as warning. "But none of this had an effect. The group continued to be violent. Being patient after this would have resulted in great damage to public life and property. So I ordered for guns to be used to disperse the crowd," he admits.

Can a deputy Tahsildar order for a firing?

Over the last week, one of the most commonly asked questions is who gave the order for firing. In a sting operation conducted by Republic TV, the former Superintendent of Police, P Mahendran said that the directive came from the executive magistrate. And legal experts tell TNM that only the magistrate or an official vested with powers of the magistrate can order for shooting.

"As per the code of criminal procedure, the magistrate can delegate power to issue such an order to the - Collector, RDO, Tahsildar or zonal Tahsildar. This is done in the case of an emergency. It is not a time consuming process. A government order has to be passed," says Justice K Chandru, a former judge of the Madras High Court.

"But from all my years in the legal system, I can tell that no GO would have been passed in this instance. The action comes first and later the necessary documentation will be cooked up. The police know that the administration will protect them, so they go ahead and act first," he adds.

Justice Chandru says that the police can only be exposed during cross examination in court.

Former bureaucrat MG Devasahyam meanwhile points out that it is odd for an officer at the level of a deputy Tahsildar to weild such power.

"I have personally never witnessed a case where a deputy Tahsildar has been given such enormous powers. We will have to see if a government order was even passed in this case," he told TNM.

'FIR against public'

But that is not the only concern raised over the FIR.

The document itself, experts believe, is against the public.

"The narration itself is completely untenable. But that aside, there are no sections mentioned for the death of 13 people as a result of police firing. Even when there is an encounter, you have to file a case under section 302 (Punishment for murder). But that is not the case here," says MG Devasahayam. "They should have atleast included section 304 (Punishment for culpable homicide not amounting to murder) in the FIR," he explains.

The document however has focussed only on the 'dangerous crowd' and the harm it posed to 'public life and property'.

The sections included in the FIR are 147 (rioting), 148 (Rioting, armed with deadly weapon), 188 (Disobedience to order duly promulgated by public servant), 353 (Assault or criminal force to deter public servant from discharge of his duty), 323 (voluntarily causing hurt), 324 (Voluntarily causing hurt by dangerous weapons ), 436 (Mischief by fire or explosive substance), 307 (attempt to murder) and 506 (criminal intimidation). In addition to this, protesters have been booked under the TN Public Property Act and the Explosive Substances Act.

"This is an FIR against the public. They merely want to establish that there was rioting, so that they can use it when an enquiry commission questions them over the incident," says Justice Chandru.

'One lie after another'

According to activists who were observing the protests, the agitators carried no dangerous weapons while marching to the Collectorate.

"The maximum the protesters did was throw stones at police officers who lathi charged them without warning," says Henry Tiphagne of People's Watch.

CCTV footage from the Collectorate supports the activist's statement. It shows tens of demonstrators flinging stones at the building. "This tale in the FIR has been fabricated after 22 senior IPS officers entered the city. This will be contested by the Bar association of Tuticorin," he adds.

Henry's team observed that no announcements were made to the public by the district administration or the police at the Collectorate. "The deputy Tahsilar's statements are all false. This is a cover-up and it will be challenged."