By Henri Tiphagne and Nityanand Jayaraman*
Citing evidence pointing to violation of Standard Operating Procedures, a total breakdown of civilian authority and possible malafide intent and murder, a 23-member team of retired judges, senior bureaucrats and police officers, and social activists have called for a full administrative and criminal investigations into the 22 May 2018 Thoothukudi police firings and violence that resulted in the deaths of 14 people.
Presenting the report Justice (Retd.) D. Hariparanthaman, who was part of the Inquest team, said police repression in Thoothukudi is continuing to this day, with the police intimidating van drivers and local people from coming to Chennai to participate in the release of the Inquest report. He appealed for a return to normalcy and an immediate end to the intimidation and arbitrary arrests of random people under “Open” FIRs filed against numerous unnamed people. “All deaths must be treated as murders at the FIR stage in line with prevalent law, and investigation must proceed on these lines until evidence points otherwise,” he said.
The report highlights the presence of sharp-shooters and snipers, the targeted killing of known anti-Sterlite protestors like Jancy of Theresepuram and the failure of the administration and police to resolve the matter despite the long notice of 100 days given by protestors. Coming down heavily on the district administration for being absent from the scene on 22 May, the Inquest report said the Administration ceded all civilian authority and power to the police contributing to the violence and deaths that occurred.
Former Chief Justice A.P. Shah who was to have released the report and spoken on “Democracy and Dissent” was taken ill and unable to travel. He has, however, conveyed his solidarity and urged the state administration to ensure an immediate end to the harassment of Thoothukudi residents by the police and the district administration.
On stage with Justice Hariparanthaman were AWD Thilak and Dr. X.D. Selvaraj, coordinators of the People’s Inquest Committee, Dr. Christodas Gandhi, IAS (Retd), T. Vellaiyan of the Federation of Tamil Nadu Merchants Associations, Prof. Shiv Visvanathan, Adv. Geeta Ramaseshan, Journalist Kavitha Muralidharan, Jasiah Joseph, T. Peter of National Fishworkers Forum, and social activist Tom Thomas.
Based on people’s testimonies, eyewitness accounts, documents and records available in the public domain to date, the People’s Inquest finds that the following circumstances deserve the fullest administrative and criminal investigation in order that responsibility can be fixed at the earliest possible time and recompense provided to those who have suffered death injury or rights violation.
- Well before the May 22 rally, the administration had full knowledge of the year – long preparations being made for it, its scale and intention, as well as full knowledge that there would be a large number of families, ordinary men, women, children and older people present, but deliberately neglected to arrange for the safety of the rallyists.
- The administration did little or nothing to ensure that people were made aware of any last-minute Section 144 orders.
- By deliberately absenting themselves from the vicinity on May 22 the entire administration abnegated its duties in a cowardly manner and ceded all civilian authority and power to the police. This in our view amounts to dereliction of duty of public servants and was strongly contributory for the violence of May 22 and for the deaths that occurred.
- The police, in its turn did not reach out to the rallyists nor make arrangements to accompany the peaceful march so that rallyists could exercise their fundamental right to peaceful protest in an orderly manner without fear of harm or disruption.
The police did not follow standard operating procedures to disperse the crowd.
- The police used excess force in many separate places and at many different times against the marchers often without provocation. Eye-witness accounts strongly suggest police violence was not with the intention of dispersing the crowd but intended to intimidate, hurt and panic them.
- The presence of sharpshooters/snipers placed strategically on rooftops and able to target the crowd who are widely believed to be policemen in plain clothes, is either evidence of unprecedented pre-meditated police planning with a view to maim and kill or it is a grave dereliction of duty on the part of the police and administration to allow the crowd to be prey to such ‘disruptors’. Either way given the video footage and police movement and communications the truth is easily investigated and established. Consequently, there is sufficient cause to ground investigations into murder which must be initiated forthwith.
- There is sufficient preliminary information and eye-witness accounts to merit investigating the allegation that stone-pelters and arsonists may have been from within the police itself. Even if untrue and exaggerated, in order to re-establish the communities’ trust the government and the police establishment must hold independent publicly accessible inquiries into these allegations.
- Given that it is widely believed to have been the handiwork of the police, there is sufficient cause to initiate a murder investigation into the killing of Ms. Jansy, a well-known anti-Sterlite organiser at Therespuram which is several miles away from the site of the rally as well as those of many others.
- Police on the ground do not act without sanction from seniors. In the wake of 14 deaths and multiple injuries and assaults on women and children, an administrative inquiry must be initiated into the role of superior officers in relation to the many negligent or illegal actions of the police in the run up to the rally, during the rally and after it.
- There is unequivocal evidence that immediately after May 22 in the aftermath of the rally police powers apparently unsupported by valid authority are being abused to conduct searches, make unjustified spot arrests, and hold people in custody in denial of their rights to be arrested for valid reason, be provided with representation and be brought before a judicial magistrate at the earliest.
- Widespread accusations of such repeated illegalities we believe amount to abuse of power and serious crimes under the IPC and amount to obstruction of justice as they prevent victims from accessing justice without fear or favour.
- The use of ‘open FIRs’ lends itself to being used as a device to threaten, intimidate and entrap people at will and prevent victims, eyewitnesses and concerned citizens from filing complaints against the police in relation to the same and related incidents.
- In the absence of any law and order problem in the area there is no need for continuing an enhanced police presence at Thoothukudi. Its continuation affirms public fears that the police and the administration are motivated in their actions by an intention to break the movement against polluting industries wherein Sterlite is a prime contributor.
*Senior human rights defenders
Download full report HERE