Two years ago, on May 22, 2018, scores of men, women and children from Tamil Nadu’s Thoothukudi district marched in protest against Sterlite Copper, the industry that had been pulled up for polluting their surroundings. For 99 days, they had been protesting, day in and day out, hoping to be heard by authorities. On the 100th day, as they marched in defiance of restrictions, 13 civilians were shot dead by the district police. Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswami had called this a ‘natural reaction’ to provocation by protesters and anti-social elements.
Two years since, no police officer, bureaucrat or politician is yet to be held responsible for the violence that was unleashed on the day by the police, sending hundreds to hospital with injuries. Families that have lost loved ones say they have been silenced. Activists who have been vocal against the plant for decades allege surveillance by the state. While the legal battle against the Vedanta-owned copper smelter is still pending at the courts, justice is a long way away for victims of state violence.
“How many times do we answer the same questions? How many times will we relive the pain? It’s been two years. If I answer all the questions, will they bring to life the dead?” asks one protester who was witness to the horrific events two years ago.
The uproar caused by the chilling shootings led to the government instituting the Retd Justice Aruna Jagadeesan commission of enquiry in June 2018. Tasked with probing the firing and the events that led to it, the one-woman commission has reportedly questioned over 450 people in more than two dozen phases. Several protesters, activists, journalists and first-hand witnesses have deposed before the committee. Documents in the public domain include autopsy reports that show victims were shot in the head, chest or on the back, despite a ban on the police to shoot to kill.
No report has been forthcoming from the commission.
A court-ordered CBI inquiry into the matter has also been pending. According to one report in The Hindu, the CBI told the Madras High Court that it was probing overt acts by the police/ revenue authorities, ‘if any’, in an impartial manner. The FIRs filed regarding the death of the victims have also been transferred to the central agency.
The families, however, live in fear of the plant reopening. “As time passes, they may simply close the case. We are scared that all the effort and the fight for justice may end up amounting to nothing if the plant is allowed to reopen. Nevertheless, we live in hope,” says one family member of a firing victim.