What happened in Tuticorin? : An eyewitness account
Socialist India presents an eyewitness account of the incidents in the run-up to the police firing on the protest against the Sterlite plant of Vedanta in Tuticorin. This has been edited slightly by SI.
On 22th May 2018, people/protesters from almost 14 different localities and different unions (trade, lawyers, etc) called for a rally towards collector office to submit a petition against Vedanta. People around the Sterlite factory have been on relay protests at various locations. With Kumaretiya puram leading the bunch going into the 100th day of relay protest and Cruz puram, the latest addition to the relay protest at 10 days. The rally was to mark the 100th day of the protest and inaction by the government. People demanded the collector and chief minister to release an official statement stating clearly that the Sterlite plant will be shut down.
Instead, the government ordered a shut down until some violations are met. In the past, there were already some violations (over production, unsafe discharge of both fluent and solid waste, operating without appropriate license, etc). Shut down by the state in 2013 and allowed to reopen within 5 days by the Supreme Court. However, they had to pay a fine of 100 crores, which should be used to rehabilitate the affected people. And, if any violations occur in the future, the state can choose to permanently shut them down. Naturally, given this past, people were not so happy about the action from the govt. Hence they had to do the rally.
This rally was planned almost a week in advance and was communicated to the authorities. They naturally didn’t give permission. So a case was filed, the court gave permission and ordered the police to not stop the protesters until it’s peaceful. This was already a victory for the people organizing the rally. They were infused by the fact that the judiciary system stood up from them, when the corrupt government/administration sided with the Vedanta.
On that beautiful morning, almost 10,000 people started the rally from Our Lady of Snow Church, Trespuram. There were young and old, men, women, children, transgenders, and anyone in between. They were singing songs, raising slogans and dancing for freedom. There was such enthusiasm and hope in their hearts. By the time they reached VVD signal (almost 3 km from the church) there were more than 50,000 people marching.
This is where it all started to go wrong. The cops set blockades and asked them to stop the rally. To which, the people obviously said no. They wanted to march the rest of the 5 km and handover the petition in person to the district collector. In response, the cops unleashed fury on the people, irrespective of gender or age. This incited the people; they fought back with bare hands.
Something of interest here is that there are no video records of cops inciting the initial crowd. All we see is cops retreat. Almost 1000 odd cops run off towards the collector’s office. Few choose to chase the cops, whilst most chose to march forward towards the collector’s office in a peaceful manner. However, by now, the protesters had decided to occupy the office until official announcements arrive.
By the time, they reached the collector’s office; they wanted to occupy every inch of the campus. But, to their surprise police were waiting with guns and vehicles were already on fire inside the compound. Interestingly, the cops say that the protesters set the vehicles on fire. They also claim, protesters vandalized the building and so they opened firing. However, there was lathi charge to stop people from sitting down accompanied by firing. Even then, the regulations were not followed. No warning shots, no water cannons, no rubber bullets. They just went from lathi charge directly to real bullets, skipping all the steps in-between.
Now, to the real shooting itself.
Of the 25+ claimed to be dead by the protesters; 12 are accepted by the govt. In this, there are 10 chest shots and one close range (pistol in the mouth) shot on a 17 year old girl. What’s horrifying is that, the chest shots were taken by snipers from range. 9 out of the 12 dead are organizers from various localities. The videos shows one cop motivating the other to get at least one person killed. This brings us to the chilling conclusion that the cops are cherry picking their targets and this is no less than staged encounter. The targets were clear for the snipers- the wanted to eliminate the key organizers of the protest.
Government acted by declaring section144 in the entire region. By now, police claim some protesters vandalized the Vedanta Sterlite Employees Quarters and set all vehicles on fire. Still no video has emerged of anyone lighting a bike. Again, CCTV footage from the apartments will tell the real story.
By now, death count was trickling in and protests started in different parts of the state. The state crushed every protest within hours of their assembling. Worst is they jailed them all under two to three different sections (inciting violence, creating unrest, spreading rumor, etc). Whilst, this was happening elsewhere in the state, Tuticorin was in complete chaos and panic. Loved ones trying to reach one another, mothers searching for kids and husband searching for wives. In this stressful situation, the police acted in the most inhuman way possible. They went on a rampage on anyone who they could get their hands on. People could not even go and collect the dead bodies, nor help the wounded.
The darkest day in recent history, ended with couple more killings by the cops in the nearby fishing community (again chest shots). The entire Tuticorin was terrorized by the state they had elected just few years back. This was unexpected and the people at large didn’t know how to react. Protest and encounters are not new in the state. By night, most politicians had already condemned the government and asked them to step down. Similarly clear instructions were given to media houses on how to cover the killings and report it the next day. No new footages emerged in news media. By night, almost all media outlets started signing the same tune with almost identical lyrics. The message is that, silent protest turned violent due to fringe elements influencing the people. It was a much known script at play- something we had seen during the Jallikattu protests as well.
The next day (23/05/2018) started on a horrified note. News came in that more than 300 people were arrested overnight and taken into custody. These without letting their families know where they would be taken. All shops shut down across Tuticorin to show solidarity and moan the lives lost. Protests were planned across the state of Tamilnadu by various organizations and non organized groups. The highlight would’ve been the judgment that came on a case filed by protesters asking for a ban on the expansion. The court stayed the expansion work until further notice. Before, this news could infuse some positive energy; there was one more shooting and yet another 22 year old was killed.
This time shooting happened outside the government hospitals. Attached are videos of cops forcing themselves into the hospital and lashing out at protesting lot. The people gathered there were mostly relatives/friends of dead protesters who refused to take the body. They demanded for an inquiry commission to be set up to identify the culprits who gave the firing order and bring them to justice. The government’s way of responding to this was extending the 144 for couple more days, bringing almost 10k more cops (from 4 neighboring districts), disconnecting internet not just in Tuticorin district, but in 2 other neighboring districts (indefinitely) and finally, bringing in central reserve force (cherry on top). The whole town was now without power, internet and vital supplies.
By end of day two, the unofficial kill count had reached 20+. While the media and government claimed it to be still at 12. Some even go as low as 9. The human rights commission had stepped in and asked for a report from the state govt. The questionable thing there is the time given to submit it; 15 days. The state government promptly set up a one woman commission to enquire into the state sponsored killing. There were already reports from the hospital that none is allowed into the mortuary. Even some doctors and nurses working there were not given access. The relatives of the victims claim this is a stunt by the cops to bury evidence. They further accuse the cops of taking some bodies to government hospitals in nearby towns (Palaya kottai), so that the death count remains less. Perhaps, the one ray of hope for the day came from the justice department of course. They asked for postmortem reports and for the bodies to be preserved until then.
Only time will tell, what more awaits the commoners of Tuticorin. These days will go down in history as one of the most violent and brutal in recent memory. Perhaps it’ll be next only to the protests against British owned spinning mill by V.O.C and the subsequent formation of the Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company. But the fact that, this violence was unleashed upon them by their own kin and kith makes it even more painful.