In just a day, Chennai threw up images that will remain fresh in the public’s mind for a long time to come. Men and women running for their lives from the riot police, protesters and bystanders being beaten with lathis, pitched battles being fought between stone-throwing mobs and police personnel firing tear gas shells – these were sights no one expected to see on the streets of Chennai.
As Chennai and the rest of Tamil Nadu picks itself up after a day of unprecedented violence, arson and stone-pelting, the question that many – political leaders, observers and the protesting public – are asking is, should the police have waited for the protesters to disperse of their own will? Could Chennai have been spared the violence if the police had chosen to play the waiting game instead of dispersing protesters forcefully? Or had the protests drawn too many “anti-social elements” for the police to manage?
Elizabeth Seshadri, an advocate who had participated in the protests at Marina Beach says, “Everyone knew the Assembly was going to sit. What was the hurry to disperse? Why did they start the action? The kids had been so cooperative. What could have worried them?”
She feels that the police may have been motivated by two factors. With Republic Day fast approaching, the police may have wanted to evict the protesters from the Marina beach to make room for the parade. “If this was the case, they could have offered protesters an alternative ground – Elliots Beach or Omandurar Estate. Protests can go on for weeks – the freedom movement went on for years. What is a republic if you can’t treat people well?” the advocate asks.
The other motive to evict the protesters on Monday morning, she says, is that they wanted to quell the protests. “Revolutions in the past have brought leaders. Somebody didn’t want leadership emerging from this. They didn’t want any challenge from this protest. The police should have waited. But that process didn’t happen,” she reasons.
Elizabeth’s words are echoed by Chandra Mohan, an activist with Arappor Iyakkam, who says, “The protest was a slap on the face of the government. It empowered people and made them believe they can take on the system. It becomes dangerous for the government. Their motive was to ensure it did not end on a high note.”
Chennai’s first woman police commissioner and former DGP, Letika Saran says, “It was very sad. The very peaceful and spontaneous protests went tragically wrong after they got what they wanted. No one wanted this ending.” She, however, points out that the police were given no choice but to disperse the crowd after talks failed to persuade them to leave voluntarily.
“If protesters are saying they are not going to move, what can the police do? You would like them to disperse peacefully. Nobody wanted the police to have to come out and disperse them. Yesterday, I heard an interview of a DC, who said they were trying to have a discussion with protesters. If that didn’t take place, then it is tantamount that protesters are not intent on moving,” she notes.
Letika also points out that reports of anti-social elements having come into the crowds queered the pitch for both sides. However, Chandra Mohan alleges that the police action was premeditated. “It was a complete political drama. The decision to disperse protesters was taken day before yesterday. Goondas were hired, asked to throw stones, to beat up police. It was made to look like a law and order situation so the police could retaliate,” the activist claims.
Elizabeth argues that the police could have used other means to evict the protesters, including broadcasting television appeals from the police commissioner S George and Chief Minister O Panneerselvam, to get youngsters to leave the Marina beach.
Pointing out that the protesting youth only wanted an explanation that the ordinance route was sufficient, Elizabath asks, “Who are they to set a time limit to the protest? You did what they protested for. You gave legitimacy to protests. Then how can you set limit?”
She adds that the police need to explain their actions, saying, “Police could have finished in a much cleaner fashion. They could have given dignity to the protesters. Clearly instructions had come. But what was instructed? You became party to cause. You had to give them a better closure to the protests.”
But many are also demanding that the Commissioner give an explanation for the videos showing police excess on the streets of Chennai. Police Commissioner George had on Monday evening denied allegations of police committing arson, stating it was “ridiculous” and the videos had been “morphed”.
While condemning the alleged atrocities committed by men and women in khaki, Letika says, “It should not have happened If they happened, they can identify the culprits and they will take action. They won’t announce it to the world but any transgression will get disciplinary action.”