By Ravi Kiran Jain and Dr V Suresh*
The People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) strongly condemns the coldblooded and targeted killing by Tamil Nadu police of over 13 persons on Tuesday, 22nd May, 2018 in Tuticorin (aka Thoothukudi) in South Tamil Nadu. Many of those killed were part of a continuing unarmed, democratic protest by thousands of local people in and around the Sterlite plant on the outskirts of Tuticorin town, demanding the closure of the severely polluting and environmentally hazardous Sterlite copper smelting plant, part of the Vedanta group, and one of the largest such plants in the world.
What is especially deplorable is the tactics adopted by the Tamil Nadu police and the Government leading to the unconscionable and unconstitutional firing aimed to kill protestors. It was public knowledge that the Anti-Sterlite Movement, spearheading the People’s campaign against the Sterlite copper plant, had called upon people to gather on 22nd May, the 100th day of the protests, and march to the Tuticorin Collector’s Office demanding immediate closure of all construction activities undertaken to expand the Sterlite Plant and to close down the plant itself.
Knowing fully well that local sentiments throughout the District, and not just Tuticorin town itself, was against the continuation of the Sterlite plant, the District Administration and the Police, ought to have taken steps to defuse the situation by engaging in discussions and dialogues with the protesting group well in advance of the 22nd; in any case, on 22nd May, they could have invited a small representative gathering of leaders to meet the District Collector to submit their representation.
What however occurred on 22nd May, 2018, was a complete travesty of constitutional rule and a total breakdown of the rule of law and orderly governance. The authorities allowed the gathering of thousands of people outside the Collector’s Office. It is reported that the police resorted to severe and unprovoked lathi charge on the unarmed gathering without giving any prior warning. This is said to have provoked reaction from some sections of the gathering resulting in stone throwing. Without giving the statutory warning of the possibility of shooting, and violating the Police Standing Orders and Guidelines to handle situations of mob agitations, the Police instead fired into the crowd, aiming to kill. The guidelines state that the police should first shoot warning shots in the air, and then only below the knees, were brazenly flouted.
Numerous video recordings as also eye witness accounts state that the Police used professional police sharpshooters, standing atop police vehicles, in mufti, to shoot directly at people leading the march, aiming to kill them. This much is also made clear by the fact that most of those killed seemed to have bullet wounds in the top torso or part of the body above the waist. This is not only atrocious but also a matter of great concern that the TN Police target killing of unarmed, peacefully agitating protestors. The Tamil Nadu Police could not have committed such acts without the tacit or unspoken permission from the TN State Government.
The police shooting reminds us of the Jalianwala Bagh massacre during the independence struggle. It’s a shame that in independent India too such police killings is allowed to take place.
What concerns us greatly is that the people say that they heard more than 40 to 50 rounds of gunfire rained upon them by the Police. Yet the number of dead is only 13. Our worry is if there are still more local people seriously injured who are hiding because of fear of police brutality and reprisal. It s important that the Administration take the assistance of credible eminent people who enjoy the confidence of local people to reach out with the offer of assistance and help.
PUCL is constrained to point out certain disquieting trends in the manner by which the present AIADMK Government is handling situations of mass protests. As happened in the Marina protests of January 2016 or the Neduvasal and Kadiramangalam agitations against Methane extraction in the Pudukottai and Thanjavur area, the police this time too allowed for a large number of people to gather together before launching a major unprovoked attack on unarmed protesting people, with the sole aim of creating such mass fear through injuries and deaths, that it would be a lesson to any other group daring to protest against the government in the future.
Very clearly the Political Executive/State, along with the Administration and Police, have decided that they are not bound by Constitutional niceties, fundamental rights principles, Rule of Law guidelines and that they can and will break the law with impunity. After all, in numerous occasions before the police and state authorities have gotten away with brazenly breaking the law with impunity, that they need not fear yet another occasion when they will also similarly escape the clutches of the law. It is important that the police and other officials are made accountable to the law.
What concerns us more is that the Police have allegedly fired rubber bullets at groups of family members today, 23rd May, 2018, who had come to the Government Hospital to collect the bodies of their family members killed in the police firing. We condemn the firing and the insensitive response of the officials to the situation of grim tragedy suffered by local people.
PUCL demands that the Government give strict orders to the police and administration to stop taking storm arm actions against local people. PUCL also demands that all those police and administration officials present in the scene of the firing on 22nd May, 2018 be identified and suspended forthwith, pending police investigation into their role. The Government should take action not merely against the subordinate police and revenue officials but against the entire chain of command, responsible for overseeing the entire incident.
The PUCL calls upon concerned citizens and human rights minded groups throughout India to raise their voices against the abuse of law and killing in cold blood of over 13 citizens by the TN Police. PUCL also calls upon other citizens and human rights groups to extend solidarity with the Anti-Sterlite protestors of Tuticorin and support them in all ways including by solidarity visits to Tuticorin to study for themselves what happened.
PUCL would like to reiterate that it is only through an enlightened and vigilant citizenry that we can safeguard our rights and seek accountability from the state and its officials.
In this very grim scenario of the loss of over 13 lives in police firing on 22nd May, it is interesting to note that a Division Bench of the Madras High Court has granted Interim Orders staying further construction of the expansion plant of Sterlite Industries in Tuticorin, which has been a bone of contention and which sparked off the current protest. This timely intervention by the Judiciary provides a semblance of hope and is a measure of reassurance to the people of Tuticorin that justice will prevail in the end!
*National President, National General Secretary, PUCL