Jallikattu violence: Chennai's fishingfolk live in fear as 'savagery' of saviours robs trust off cops

Through a mutilated door, the old women watch M Kalaimathi, a middle-aged woman who is waking her two children to go to school while her husband is out at sea. Despite her eldest son's warning, the milk bubbling on the stove ascends and falls, as her lanky frame stares sullenly at the broken television set.

She and many suffered in the hands of violence, many reports emerging on alleged police atrocities and bodily harm to her back and arms.

Nadukuppam, a fisherman settlement, faces the Marina beach and was one of many other settlements to face violence on the seventh day of the protests demanding that Jalikattu be held on Pongal day in contravention of the Supreme Court’s 2014 ban. The other areas included Shivarajapuram, Mattankuppam, Ruthrapuram and near the famed Parthasarathy temple.

The day before the violence, Chennai Police had barricaded the entrances to Shivarajapuram and Mattankuppam, explaining to residents that they had done so for their safety. "We couldn't access the public toilets or go out to work. We were puzzled for a while," 25-year-old Ponni from Mattankuppam said. Murthy, who manages a petty shop nearby, springs upright at the mention of the barricading and shakes his head. "We felt trapped. This seemed planned."

In Nadukuppam, Senthil Mohan manages a dented blue corner shop with low scaffolding. During the protests, he handed out tea to those who occasionally came out for food. But by the third day, the customers dwindled due to the delivered food at the venue.

"Many come regularly to stay on rent in the houses in bylanes. Some had come in the week before the protests. While there is a priority for fellow fishermen, some from Rajasthan and Bihar come to stay as well. Lighthouse (Station) police tell us from time to time to ask for photo IDs. How many people follow it, I don't know," he says. This claim however, is not unanimously accepted by the community, but many agree that the kuppam (settlement) houses a floating population. “The police that attacked us are not from the Lighthouse police station, and we know that for sure,” he says, but fish sellers remain perturbed by the presence of police in the area.

A bloody Monday

In Mattankuppam, life for residents is slowly returning to normalcy. Divya Karthikeyan

In Mattankuppam, life for residents is slowly returning to normalcy. Divya Karthikeyan

On 23 January, residents woke up to a flurry of black shirted youngsters begging for shelter. This happened at 8 am when the men were at sea and the women and children were readying for the day. Between 8:30 am to 9 am police arrived on the spot and began a full blown lathi charge and assault on the women and children. "We allowed the protesters in. What do you expect us to do? They are humans too," Kalaiselvi Mani said.

The complex faces a bare orphaned market that was burnt to the ground, and men take to their tea breaks at the spot, huddled over newspapers and video clips on their phones. "We heard Hindi. Jao, jao. They kept saying that. We don't know if it's the police or other people because we were running and never looked back," said Anandi (surname withheld on request), as other women agreed with her.

A constable from the Light House police station who refused to be named said the Hindi speaking rogue elements may have bought training uniforms from Kodambakkam costume shops easily, and that it couldn't be the Chennai Police that did this. While residents of the Kuppam seemed to allege the same, Mylapore's deputy commissioner of police refuted the charges saying there was no possibility that it could be someone other than Tamil Nadu Police. "Rumours are amuck," he said. Whether the Hindi speakers could be police or locals lost in the din of the crowd is a matter for investigation.

In Mattankuppam, women alleged sexual harassment. "They (police) opened their zippers and told us to come to them, called us prostitutes. They spoke mostly in Madurai baashai (language). Most of them definitely didn't look like our local police," 70-year-old Malar (surname withheld on request) says. Malar was hit on the head by a lathi that did not look like the ones police are usually armed with.

This steel rod used was as a lathi in Mattankuppam. Divya Karthikeyan

This steel rod used was as a lathi in Mattankuppam. Divya Karthikeyan

"This was like a steel rod," she says, holding up a piece of the broken lathi. Many unidentified youth threw stones at the police from the MRTS rail tracks. “We definitely can’t trust the police in our area. To date, all of us women stay up all night for our own safety,” she says.

Wary fisherfolk

The fish sellers complex provided as compensation for the shops that were burnt to the ground. Divya Karthikeyan

The fish sellers complex provided as compensation for the shops that were burnt to the ground. Divya Karthikeyan

Two weeks have passed. The smell of fish that accompanies locals as they enter the market is absent. Women are hunched over kolams (designs drawn in rice flour on the ground) and officials from the public works department are hauling cement in machinery. The kuppam came together for an inauguration of the newly built complex for fish sellers and took shelter from the scorching sun while they waited for AIADMK (All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) MLA and Fisheries Minister D Jeyakumar to inaugurate it on 3 February. Some clutched their ration cards in hope of grace contributions of rice from the government.

On being approached, the youth are guarded. College students immediately disperse at the sight of anyone unfamiliar, and none are seen on the streets. The 25-year-old Suresh (name changed on request), and his friend were found crouched inside an auto rickshaw and were reluctant to speak. "We go to college and back. We don't want the police arresting us. Just a few days back, the police dragged two of our friends to police enquiry," he said.

Parthiban Anand is running his fingers along the rust that hangs from the head of the auto rickshaw. The rickshaw made headlines as an unidentified policewoman whose face was covered completely with a handkerchief, set fire to his vehicle. He looks on at the preparations and adjusts his pants, lost and confused. "Time to do something else, I guess," he says. The bikes scattered around the auto are reminders of the kuppam that was not so long ago, ensconced in reams of smoke and aflame in chaos.

The auto that was set ablaze by an unidentified woman in police clothing and a covered face. Divya Karthikeyan

The auto that was set ablaze by an unidentified woman in police clothing and a covered face. Divya Karthikeyan

In a statement on 31 January, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister O Panneerselvam announced an enquiry commission headed by high court judge would look into the possibility of police excesses. The commission will submit the report in three months and work along with the cyber crime cell to identify the perpetrators.

In Mattankuppam, enquiry officials of the commission, are doing the rounds with visiting cards peeking out from their yellowing notepads. The settlement rings of laughter and sighs as women are bunched up playing a game of snakes and ladders. They digest and neutralise the trauma they have suffered with jokes on the police. "You know, we have a stupid neighbour called Rani. She keeps saying "police dhaan, aana police illa." (They are the police, but they are not the police.) While Rani means to say that they were police but didn't behave like police, the women immediately alienate her as they believed she was defending the police. The police of E6 station near Mattankuppam is familiar to all the residents, but they were let down by 4-5 of them who participated in the violence themselves, they say.

The police version

Burnt bikes are still scattered across what was the old fish market. Divya Karthikeyan

Burnt bikes are still scattered across what was the old fish market. Divya Karthikeyan

V Balakrishnan, Mylapore deputy commisioner of police who oversaw most of the police deputation at the Jallikattu protests, arrives far earlier than the scheduled time of interview. Composed and civil, Balakrishnan has experience handling various protests across Madurai and Theni. He enquires about the ground findings and listens intently to the complaints of kuppam residents that were collected.

"The entire violence was perpetrated by antisocial elements. These people have been arrested at various police stations. They infiltrated the protestors and had a plan. The police had to react and that's why we preempted the attack and brought in riot vehicles as well," he explains.

“The emotionally instigated Nadukuppam people tried to break the barricade, and while police warned them, they allegedly began throwing stones and launching petrol bomb attacks. Police suffered injuries and had to use tear gas. Mild force had to be used. The agitators regrouped and attacked them again. Chilli solution was being prepared inside the Kuppam," he maintains.

Balakrishnan says lathis were not deputed to be used in Jallikattu protests. They were all collected and kept in a place safely. But in Nadukuppam, they were allowed to be used.

The policewoman with the face covered is being enquired into. They were however not deputed to cause the violence (burning of autorickshaws and bikes) as is being alleged, he says. The responsibility of leading the operations was vested with a senior police official and IG level officers were present. "The police had to disperse in different directions. When the riot breaks out, minimum force is used to disperse them. The rioters tried to attack them from the housing board area. They had to find their hideout and catch them," he says.

"We have on record which police were leading the protests. City police are trying to collect information on tenants in all the houses. Whoever has stayed in recent times may not have given their details. Some of the protestors were found to have stayed in nearby mansions. We are trying to track down where they stayed. There are antisocial groups involved," he says. Balakrishnan also clarified that the burning down of the Ice House police station was completely done by these anti social groups. "They are not of any specific religion. They are all from different groups," he said.

Balakrishnan admits that the government-ordered commission needs to analyse the reaction by the police. He also revealed that the PA (Public Announcement) system was damaged by the rioters. Further expanding on the antisocial elements, he said they had spread rumours that a lot of people were killed and residents of the kuppam immediately believed this. He however, admits that innocent people were caught in the crossfire.

Justifying the use of barricades at the fishing hamlets, he said the “antisocial elements” had a plan to cause violence on 23 January after the protests ended. "Images being aired on social media belonged to Telangana and other states," he says.

Police are banking on photo IDs to match the video footage. However, he says some individual houses in the kuppam areas that may have housed antisocial elements unknowingly, may not have asked for identifications as rigorously as nearby mansions. As a result, Triplicane mansions are being included in the investigation.

But fear and mistrust of the police reigns in the fishing hamlets along the Marina Beach. "They hit us under the impression that we were harbouring protestors and giving asylum to them. Then why would they drag women and harass them?" Mattankuppam resident Murthy (surname withheld) mulls, chewing at the last piece of his hard earned fish.

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Updated Date: Feb 05, 2017 11:45:35 IST

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