Editor’s note: A protest is a complex organism. The Thoothukudi agitation of 22 May, which ended in 13 deaths, scores of injuries, political wrangling, and the closure of Vedanta Sterlite’s copper smelter in the Tamil Nadu town, is no different. Firstpost described one aspect of this organism with a compilation of eyewitness recollections. The account reproduced here widens the scope of inquiry (and, consequently, the complications inherent in such a retelling).

“We did not even reach the protest venue until everything was over and everyone had run away,” says 51-year-old K Sivagami, a resident of Kumareddiyapuram village, the focal point of the anti-Sterlite protests that rocked Tuticorin (also known as Thoothukudi) and Tamil Nadu for 100 days this year.

“The police herded us into vans and wouldn’t let us go for the protests that we had begun,” she added.

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K Sivagami. All photographs by Sandhya Ravishankar

K Sivagami says the original protesters of Kumareddiyapuram made it to the protest site only once all was over

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As the machinery at Vedanta’s Sterlite copper smelter in the SIPCOT Industrial Area has come to a halt, Kumareddiyapuram is relatively peaceful. The spark that was ignited by the company’s expansion plans in 2017, turned into determined protests since March this year. The residents of this little village began the movement this time around, as the expansion plans would have brought the company literally into their backyard. The anti-Sterlite protests though have been rearing up on and off for almost two decades.

The details of the protests are now well-known. 13 people were killed in police firing and over 60 were injured in the violence. In the weeks that followed, close to 200 persons have been arrested by the police.

But what actually happened on that chaotic day? What made protesters who were protesting peacefully for 99 days suddenly turn violent, hurl petrol bombs, pelt stones and attack the police? The answers perhaps lie in the events of the preceding two weeks.

Original protesters never participated

The main protesters — the villagers of Kumareddiyapuram, Madathur and Veerapandiyapuram and surrounding areas — were unable to reach the protest site. These were the people who had, from the beginning, espoused non-violence and had debarred politicians and later, even activists, from joining their cause.

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In the weeks that followed, close to 200 persons have been arrested

The original protesters of Kumareddiyapuram who opposed the expansion plan of Sterlite

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Despite the local temple festival celebrated annually, villagers of Kumareddiyapuram decided the anti-Sterlite cause was worth more than their faith. They woke up early, paid a quick visit to the local deity and by 9 am they had assembled under a large neem tree to head to the district collectorate.

“But the police stopped us even before we left the village,” said Sivagami.

Nineteen-year-old P Mahalakshmi chimed in. “They herded us into three vans and took us away. We fought with the driver and stopped the vans near the railway crossing and got out. We started walking, some of us sprinting to the collectorate,” she said. The collectorate is about seven kilometres from the village.

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P Mahalakshmi

P Mahalakshmi recounts how the police herded them into vans and buses and did not allow them to reach the protest venue

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But the police had placed blockades in various parts of the town and stopped them yet again at the main road. “There was one big van this time and we were all forced to get into it,” continued Sivagami. “The police driver kept telling us that if we wanted to protest, we could go to the SAV Ground and he would drop us there. If we insisted on going to the collectorate, we would be detained in marriage halls,” she said.

The villagers insisted that their chosen venue of protest was the district collectorate. The driver refused to take them there and turned towards the Tiruchendur road, according to the villagers. Worried that they would miss their own planned protest, the villagers caught hold of the steering wheel and forced the vehicle to stop. “We got off at the market near the old bus stand and began to walk again,” said Mahalakshmi. “But by the time we got to the collectorate, it was all over.”

Residents of Madathur and surrounding villages too have a similar story to tell. Most did not reach the protest venue until it was too late. Some, like 23-year-old Esakkiyamma of Therku (South) Veerapandiyapuram village, did not make it there at all.

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Esakkiyamma

Esakkiyamma went back home with her two young sons when she was told the protesters had become violent

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"Our family was not very keen on the protests, to begin with,” said Esakkiyamma. “My husband, my younger brother and a brother-in-law all work at Sterlite. My husband was a JCB operator and the other two were welders,” she said.

After the company stopped operations on 9 April as directed by the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board, the men of her family did not have jobs. Esakkiyamma said that she decided to show solidarity with the protesters on 22 May for two reasons: first, she did not wish to be ostracised by the rest of the protesting neighbours, and second, now that the jobs were lost, she thought she could at least contribute to the cause of clean air and water for her children.

She left at 8:45 am by bus, along with her two sons — five and three years old — to join the protesters at the district collectorate. On the way, a little before 10 am, Esakkiyamma says she received a call from her other younger brother who works with a political party Naam Tamilar Katchi. "Akka (Tamil for elder sister), you take the two boys and go back home," he reportedly told her. "There is big trouble coming. The protesters have already bashed up police and they are planning to do worse," he is said to have told her. Esakkiyamma quickly went back to the safety of her home.

While these villagers were picked up ahead of the protests, those from fishing villages and from Tuticorin town, along with the traders, however, arrived in force.

At The Church of Our Lady of Snows

Locally called ‘Madha Kovil’ (Mother’s Church), this was to be the rallying point for residents of the fishing villages that line Tuticorin’s coast. Around 3,000 residents of villages like Threspuram gathered at the Madha Kovil at 9 am as planned. A number of media persons from various Tamil news channels were present to film the rally.

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The Church of Our Lady of Snows

The Church of Our Lady of Snows or Madha Kovil, where the fisherfolk rallied and began their protest on May 22

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A young girl led the crowd, shouting anti-Sterlite slogans — this was Snowlin, the 17-year-old who succumbed to police firing later that day. Reporters who attempted to report on the rally say they were beaten viciously by some in the crowd as they began to march forward. Jaya TV cameraman Manickam’s arm was fractured because of the beating he received.

Kani, cameraman with Thanthi TV and Rajesh, photographer with The Hindu were beaten severely by protesters. Freelance photographer Bala Murugan who was on the ground for The New Indian Express had his camera snatched and broken. Other reporters also say that the crowd attempted to snatch their cameras, the batteries and chips on cameras.

"They clearly did not want their identity to be recorded," said one reporter who did not wish to be named.

More people joined in as they marched along. The crowd had swelled to around 5,000 by the time they reached the VVD signal, about 8 kilometres from the collectorate. At the VVD signal, the police stopped the crowd. Reporters at the location, who preferred not to be named, said that following a heated exchange of words, some members of the crowd began to attack the police.

One woman, according to a reporter who was an eyewitness to the incident, shoved a policewoman to the ground. Her trousers ripped apart at the seams and even as she stood in embarrassment attempting to cover the tear, the protesting lady then ripped apart her uniform shirt, and shouted, “Ivala thookkikittu ponga (Carry her away)."

The sobbing policewoman was quickly carted away by her male colleagues to safety.

“They (the police) let loose a herd of cows upon us,” said B Vinoth, 24, a resident of Threspuram village, who was at the location at the time. “Then the police conducted a lathi-charge. We fought back and moved ahead to the collectorate,” he said.

Subsequently, protesters from fishing villages and from the town itself poured in. In the melee, buses were torched, property and vehicles damaged. The Sterlite employee quarters, which shares a compound wall with the district collectorate, was also torched.

What was to be an anti-Sterlite picketing protest, in many places, turned into fury and violence against the police. A number of videos shot by reporters and protesters show how youngsters attacked the police, who were seen cowering in fright.

Many protesters also had their faces covered so as to mask their identity. This is the crowd that is now suspect in terms of intent — were they really protesting against Sterlite or were they simply using the movement to trigger anarchy?

A protest goes out of hand

One of the key protesters hailing from Kumareddiyapuram is 30-year-old M Mahesh. He, along with representatives from surrounding villages, formed the ‘Grama Koottamaippu’ (Village Association) — this included the villages of Kumareddiyapuram, Silverpuram, Palayapuram, Subramaniapuram, Pandarampatty, Sankaraperi, Veerapandiapuram, Madathur as well as urban areas such as Ceylon Colony, Fatima Nagar, and Pudu Theru, among others.

Mahesh, who in 2013 was a contract worker with Sterlite, says that he had been cajoled by the company into participating in pro-Sterlite protests at the time. "At that time I was young, it was about ‘suyanalam’ (self-interest),” said Mahesh. “It was only later, after I quit the job, that I came to know how much my people are suffering due to Sterlite and from then on I was firmly against the company,” he said.

Mahesh is currently in hiding, outside of Tuticorin, fearing police action against him. His fellow villagers say the police come regularly to the village looking for the youngster since 22 May.

Fatima Babu, a retired professor, has been at the forefront of the anti-Sterlite movement for the past 20 years and she extended her support to the people of Kumareddiyapuram early this year when they rebelled against the company.

More activists and NGOs arrived on the scene, offering support and solidarity to the villagers of Kumareddiyapuram in their fight against Sterlite. A traders’ association led by one Vinayagamoorthy too jumped into the fray, offering support. But a couple of weeks preceding 22 May, the protesters, who had thus far managed to carry out largely non-violent protests, began to disagree among themselves.

“We were not happy with the activists — a lot of NGOs came in. We did not want them to interfere," said Mahesh. "All through our protest, we had managed to keep politicians out. All political parties tried to express support to us — we told them we do not want to politicise the protest, that it was a people’s protest."

Babu agreed that there were some disagreements but that they were minor. "The differences of opinion only lay in the way we were organising our struggle. The objective though was the same," she said.

The splintering

The problem began two days before the planned 22 May protest. The district administration and the police called for peace talks — 23 members of various protesting groups were present, including Babu and Vinayagamoorthy. Mahesh, though, was not called for the meeting, according to him.

It was decided that instead of picketing the collectorate, a Satyagraha type of sit-in protest would be held at the SAV School playground which can hold around 6,000-7,000 people. All groups, including Babu, signed the agreement. But when the message was taken back to the people of Kumareddiyapuram, they vehemently opposed the idea.

“We were very clear that we only wanted to picket the district collectorate,” said Mahesh, adding, “We did not agree to this SAV ground plan. Police called us late that night — we told them categorically that we were not going to sit in SAV ground and that our aim was to picket the district collectorate,” he said.

In effect, there were two groups by 21 May — one which would demonstrate at the SAV ground and another that planned to picket the collectorate.

Babu, having signed on the document, says she was unable to go back on her word, even though her heart was in the picketing plan. "I was at SAV Ground at the time," she said, adding, “Then we got a call that one person had been shot and killed. I immediately told (everyone to) wind up the meeting and go home. I tried to go to the collectorate but I couldn’t make it.”

As the protesters were fighting amongst themselves in the weeks leading up to 22 May, messages were flying over WhatsApp — exhorting protesters to attack the police. "The police are taking the side of Sterlite, don’t spare them. They have taken money from Sterlite to stop the protests. Beat them up," was the urgent call in these messages.

The vitriol against the police was being spread among the people of Tuticorin. A sense of disillusionment of the last 20 years of protests — frustration and anger at the powers that be who continually allowed Sterlite to function despite serious grievances — perhaps also came together in the weeks that preceded 22 May.

“During the protests I kept getting calls and messages, telling me of rumours about the presence of anti-social elements in our struggle group which kept disturbing me,” said Babu. “But I did not know whether these messages were true and I did not know who they were.”

“The TNPCB closed the plant on 9 April and we issued a press release on 10 April and informed the protesters too,” said Sandeep Nanduri, presently the collector of Tuticorin.

“On 22 May, we have evidence that protesters were breaking CCTV cameras first before indulging in violence in various places. They had covered their faces with handkerchiefs. There are obviously some groups which entered the peaceful protests with the intention of resorting to violence,” he said.

The chief minister, as well as the police, are firm that "anti-social elements" had penetrated a people’s protest and caused violence. Small groups with extreme Left-wing ideology seem to have played the role of instigators of violence, according to the police.

Police sources say they are investigating groups such as Makkal Adhigaram and RSYFI among others. Makkal Adhigaram, in a statement on 29 May, denied having instigated the violence, although they did participate in the protests.

Mahesh admitted there may have been some who came prepared for violence. “But it was certainly not the genuine protesters,” he said.

Another group that appears to have taken an active interest in the protests is Foil Vedanta, a UK-based organisation whose mission is to expose Vedanta’s crimes to the world. Samarendra Das, its founder, arrived in late February in Tuticorin to meet with protesters and to provide them with legal advice, according to the protesters themselves.

“Foil Vedanta are advisers in Zambia against the Vedanta case in British courts and they have achieved a few successes in their legal battle," said Babu who was at the meeting with Das. "They came to us and expressed solidarity for our cause. There was no monetary support, just an exchange of ideas and their experiences in the legal battle in the Zambia case,” she added.

Foil Vedanta declined to respond to a detailed questionnaire emailed to them.

Outnumbered one to 10, the 2,000 policemen in Tuticorin could not handle the 20,000 protesters who arrived on 22 May. While there is evidence that tear gas was used, there is no evidence as to whether the police made announcements over loudspeakers warning the protesters of firing, whether they fired in the air first or whether they knelt down to shoot below the hip at the crowd.

These facts, once established by the one-woman commission inquiring into the firing should throw light on whether the police anticipated the mob and deliberately fired to kill or whether they lost control and fired in panic.

Two weeks after the tragedy though, a shroud of anger and tension still hangs in the air over Tuticorin.

“The most I had bargained for was a heavy lathi-charge as a frightening number of police personnel were coming in every day,” lamented Babu, adding, “I certainly did not expect police firing. Had I known things would take such a nasty turn, I would have done my best to keep women and children away.”

A fierce protest that remained non-violent for one whole year in the neighbouring district of Tirunelveli was the battle against the Kudankulam nuclear power plant. Spearheaded by a group of fishermen leaders and activists in the tiny coastal hamlet of Idinthakarai, the protest continued without any loss of life or property.

The geography of the area, says SP Udhayakumar, one of the key leaders of that protest, was an important factor that helped them keep the protest non-violent.

“It (Idinthakarai) was like a pier and we were inside. Outsiders could not come in or go out easily. There were only people who were affected by the Kudankulam project. We had a lot of time to do the homework — we kept telling the residents that there should be no violence. We had a strong leadership committee. We were very patient. Some people were of the opinion that we can go in and break up the (nuclear) plant. We were very clear that no such thing should happen because then it would go out of hand,” he said.

As for the violence in Tuticorin, Udaykumar feels that the state and the police had planned the attack well in advance and pooh-poohs the government version that 'outsiders' indulged in violence.

"The police, the intelligence, and the government must acknowledge the fact that people are very intelligent," said Udhayakumar, adding, "They know the problems they are facing and they can organise themselves and take political initiatives. They do not need anyone from the outside — Maoists or Americans or anyone — coming in and 'teaching' them things. The people know their issues themselves. The government also has not reached out to the people when the protests were on to convince them that their demands would be respected. But I strongly believe that Tuticorin (firing) was well planned by the police and the government in order to send out a strong message to the people that protests will not be tolerated."

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Barricades at the Vedanta Sterlite plant

The Vedanta Sterlite plant is shut and heavily guarded now

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As the Sterlite plant now stands shut and heavily guarded by police against vandalism, about 13 kilometres away, the small fishing village of Threspuram is mourning the death of J Jancy, 47, a mother of three who had stepped out of her home to give home-cooked fish curry to her son. Jancy was shot in the head by the police as she ventured out of home.

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Jancy was shot in the head by the police as she ventured out of home

Banners mourning Jancy have been put up at Threspuram village

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“The police shot her to scare us,” said Vinoth. “But we are not afraid, we are only angry. At least with Sterlite, one can say that it did not affect us so much. Still look at how we came out in unison to protest (against it). There are schemes like Sagarmala that are coming now. This scheme will hit fishermen like us right in our stomachs. Do you think we will keep quiet? We will shout even louder,” he said.

Perhaps, another protest is in the offing. But one thing is sure, the people of Tuticorin see the incident as a dereliction of duty by the collector, who according to an official, was "checking revenue records in a nearby taluk" when Tuticorin was burning. They also perceive the police to be against the people and as being trigger-happy killers. The Tamil Nadu government has its task cut out to instill some amount of confidence in the people.

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