Thoothukudi violence: Officials transferred, Sterlite ordered shut, one more dead as protests rock town

Thirteen people have been killed in police firing over three days in Thoothukudi; over 80 people remain injured and 16 had to undergo critical operations to survive

A Joseph May 24, 2018 15:02:12 IST
Thoothukudi violence: Officials transferred, Sterlite ordered shut, one more dead as protests rock town

Thirteen people have been killed in police firing over three days in Thoothukudi; over 80 people remain injured and 16 had to undergo critical operations to survive. The victims were part of the group of protesters, whose voices are allegedly by being trampled under the feet of Tamil Nadu’s police force; they have been demanding permanent closure of the Vedanta-owned Sterlite copper plant.

On Wednesday, before N Venkatesh — now former district collector — visited victims at the Thoothukudi District Hospital, the police dispersed protesters, including relatives of those injured or killed in police firing on Tuesday, by firing two rounds. Following this, violence escalated in all parts of the district, with unidentified person(s) burning down two police vehicles. The police allegedly opened fire in Byrant Nagar, where an angry mob destroyed a police vehicle. A man named Kelayaan from Anna Nagar was reportedly shot dead in Wednesday's firing.

"We had used tear gas to avoid attacking civilians and public property. Even after several warnings, the protesters did not disperse and kept threatening the police, forcing us to open fire," DGP TK Rajendran said. After videos and pictures of the police thrashing mobs, pelting stones, opening fire and victims bathed in blood went viral on social media and got extensive coverage online, the state government ordered all internet services to be shut down for five days. Television media has also reportedly been barred from covering the protests.

Thoothukudi violence Officials transferred Sterlite ordered shut one more dead as protests rock town

Protests in Thoothukudi. The NewsCart/A Joseph

Venkatesh and the superintendent of police P Mahendran, whose alleged actions have invited the ire of the mob, were transferred. Sandeep Nanduri, who took charge as Thoothukudi collector on Thursday, said, "My main intention is to restore normalcy in the district. I will bring the situation under control by talking to people. I will also visit the (Thoothukudi) government hospital and assess the situation," adding that he will keep the media and the country updated on the latest developments.

But, the group of over 1,000 protesters — including farmers, fishermen and activists — refused to budge from their primary demand of permanently closing the Vedanta-owned Sterlite copper factory and justice for the victims, who were shot dead by policemen on 22 and 23 May. The voice of the Thoothukudi protesters has reached several parts of the country, including National Capital New Delhi and state capital Chennai.

In Chennai, 22 members of the Tamil Desa Makkal Munnani were detained for protesting against the Vedanta-operated Sterlite copper plant amid police brutality against protesters. They staged a 30-minute road block from 9.30 am in the morning. Eight members of the Makkal Vazhi forum announced a fast unto death, while at least 50 other protesters organised a hunger strike in Koyambedu, Chennai, on Wednesday.

Protests continue in New Delhi, where the Krantikari Yuva Saghatahan, demonstrated in front of Tamil Nadu House, raising slogans against the Edapaddi Palaniswami-led government and the Vedanta group on Thursday morning. The state government seems to be acting with an aim to ease pressure and has adhered to two of three primary demands put forth by protesters across the country. The Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) has issued an order to close down the Sterlite plant and the electricity supply to the factory has been disconnected.

But, while both the erstwhile district collector and superintendent of police have been transferred, protesters are yet to be assured justice for the victims who died as a result of police firing. The state government announced compensation for the victims on Wednesday. Family members of the deceased were to receive Rs 10 lakh and those injured were to be compensated with Rs five lakh each.

The Madras High Court too has ruled in favour of demands made by the protesters. Hearing a petition, filed by Fatima Babu, an environmental activist, the Madras High Court, which had on 29 September, 1998, ordered the plant to be closed, extended its stay on the Sterlite plant expansion. But environmental and anti-nuclear activist Dr SP Udayakumar, who founded the Patchai Tamilagam Katchi (Green Tamil Nadu Party) said, "Is just a transfer enough for killing people? Why didn't they arrest the accused? How can they kill people? People are arrested for killing a peacock, a snake or a monkey. Are human lives cheaper? There are more than 60 people in the hospital. They simply transfer an officer and expect us to be content."

"This is a pre-planned, calculated mass murder. 'Better lie down and accept what we do' is the message they (the government) is sending us. What the state government is doing, is at the behest of the Central government, who is acting on behalf of corporate houses," he added. Residents in and around Thoothukudi said that the firing was unprovoked and demanded for immediate action against the police force. The police confirmed that its personnel opened fire on four occasions since Tuesday.

On Wednesday’s firing, 42 people were admitted to the district hospital, some of whom had to be transferred to the Tirunelveli Medical College and Hospital. Director of the Tamil Nadu Medical Education, Edwin Joe said that a team of six doctors had initially examined two of the deceased’s bodies in the presence of four judges. Joe added that Seval Sekar, 42, succumbed to his injuries while being treated.

Meanwhile, the police force has been accused of going door to door and intimidating residents. The blockage of internet and media has added to the backlash the Tamil Nadu government is facing.
"Sixty youths were arrested yesterday. The police went door-to-door, like the Nazi army, marching to drag people outside their homes and beating them up in front of their families. This isn't Benito Mussolini's Italy or Adolph Hitler's Germany or Idi Amin's Uganda. What is going on in Thoothukudi is brutal. It is a complete negation of the democracy of India. This is not the country we dream about," said Udayakumar.

"The government has to listen to the people and not to the big corporates. They should shut the plant and shift it to London, where Anil Agarwal is. This 'police-raj' needs to be shut down. Tamil Nadu is not a military dictatorship. It's a part of democratic India," he added.

The author is a member of The NewsCart, a Bengaluru-based media start-up

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