Vol. XLIII No. 11 March 17, 2019

Barbaric Killing of Anti-Sterlite Protesters

Hannan Mollah

THE All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS) has condemned the killings of anti-Sterlite protesters in Tuticorin in Tamil Nadu as the most barbaric massacre in recent times. On May 22, police opened fire without any warning on a peaceful rally of thousands of people seeking closure of the polluting Sterlite copper smelting unit, killing 13 people and leaving hundreds injured.

Soon after the news of the killings came, the AIKS decided to send a fact-finding committee. It also placed several demands – immediate resignation of the inept chief minister, a judicial inquiry by a sitting high court judge, removal of officers responsible for the massacre and registration of murder case against them, Rs one crore relief each to the kin of those killed and Rs 20 lakh to each injured person, job to a family member of those killed, and immediate closure of the deadly polluting factory.   

The fact-finding team was led by AIKS general secretary and CPI(M) Polit Bureau member Hannan Mollah. State Kisan Sabha secretary P Shanmugham, state president K P Perumal, joint secretary of Tuticorin K P Arumugham, treasurer Sami, CPI(M) town secretary D Raja were part of the team.

The team first visited the houses of those killed in the police firing. The team members first went to Sabenda Kullam, where a second-year B.Com student, Karthik (20), was shot dead. His father Muthupandi is a plastic factory worker and one brother works in a jewellery shop and sister studies in Class IX. They are all in great distress. Then we visited Lime Stone area, a former basti, where Snowlin, an 18-year-girl who just passed 12th exam was killed. She had joined the rally along with her father Jackson and mother Vanitha. The bullet passed through her head. She was a good student and mercilessly killed by the police. All the family members were injured due to brutal lathi-charge. Their family is engaged in fishing in the sea. They refused to accept the body of the girl from police as it was in bad shape and decomposed. Then the team visited another area called Theraspuram, a fishermen hamlet. After the main attack at collectorate office these people came back to their locality. Police raided their locality in the evening and attacked the basti, injured many people, damaged their houses. A 47-year-old woman was shot on her head and the skull was smashed. We saw the blood on the road side. She left behind her husband Jesubalan, three young daughters and elderly mother. Her family has also not accepted the body yet. The police were regularly coming to the basti and beating up people. Some more were injured and hospitalised a few days ago. All the people of the locality saw how she was killed. Police arrested many people from the basti area later on.

The next home we visited was at Peakulam, 15 km away from the city of Tuticorin. An agricultural worker, Selva Sekhar (40), was killed in the rally. He was a Kisan Sabha activist and used to join in all our struggles. His mother is very old and is not taking food – she is still in shock. The two sisters of the comrade are looking after her. He was beaten to death.

Then the team visited Tuticorin Medical College and Hospital. About 70 injured people were admitted to this hospital. Many injured people went to private hospitals due to fear of being arrested by police. Two full wards were occupied by the people injured in the protest. The police not only fired and killed people before the collectorate. After the main incident, they raided many localities and opened fire on unaware people at least at four places and injured many people. We met around 40 people with bullet injuries or broken limbs due to brutal lathi-charge. We talked to eight women also with bullet injuries.

The women were not only fired at, but they were beaten, assaulted and manhandled.  Most of the injured were young below 25 years of age such as Manikanda-19 years, Clinton-21, Chamaraj-23, Vijay Kumar-25, Benston-21, Muthukumar-23, Raja Singh-18, Devi-16 and Finolin Priyanka, 19 years.

The bullet injuries were on the upper side of their bodies. All of them told us that they were peacefully moving towards the collectorate but suddenly the police started firing. There was no warning, no lathi-charge in the beginning. The injured people got bullet injuries on their heads or chests, as if they fired to kill. Some said that police made a pre-planned attack. Some vehicles were put to fire before the rally reached the collectorate, even some stones were pelted on the gathering and some cows were pushed into the gatherings as a provocation. The crowd was very huge and the police did not anticipate such huge gatherings.

After the incident, police actions were continuing. A large number of people were arrested. Many of them were released by the court order. It was reported that police registered cases against 16,500 people in three police stations. They arrested indiscriminately and booked them in false cases. There was terror among the people in anticipation of future police action. The team discussed with a cross-section of people about the background and incidents in Tuticorin.

The Tuticorin Sterlite Private Ltd is a copper manufacturing unit. It has been working since 1996. The factory was on 190 acres of land and another 234 acres of land was allotted to the company for further expansion. About 900 permanent employees work there and 2,500 casual workers were also engaged for different works. The factory is a hugely pollutant industry. The raw materials come from Australia and daily 1.2 crore litres of water is used, supplied from the nearby dam. The underground water of the vast area was contaminated due to this industry and about 2,000 cancer cases were recorded in the Medical College since the inception of the factory.

The people have been fighting against the Sterlite unit for the past 20 years. Environmentalists opined against it. The High Court gave several judgments against pollution. But the company and the government were reluctant to listen to these objections. A foreign company Vedanta based in London is the owner of the factory.

Recently, the people of Kumereddipur village started a fresh protest against the polluting Sterlite factory. 100 days’ dharna was going on in the villages as police did not allow it near factory. Gradually people from nearby villages joined the dharna.

It was a spontaneous movement of the local people. The authorities neither paid any heed to them nor talked to hear them to find any solution. So, on the hundredth day on May 22, the people decided to march to the collectorate. They started the march two kilometres away from the collectorate. There was a huge gathering. The police tried to stop the march but they passed the police barricade and marched towards the collectorate. People came from villages and towns also. The government and the company blamed the agitators as anti-social elements whereas anti-social activities were committed by the police and their agents. The entire responsibility of the criminal acts goes to the government and the company.

The dastardly act of the police and administration caused serious anger among the people of Tuticorin and Tamil Nadu and even in the whole country. To cover up its own inept handling of the situation, the government is blaming different forces. But the government is also frightened by the popular reaction. They have transferred the superintendent of police and the collector and some other police officers. The government declared closure of the factory permanently.  The land lease of the additional land was cancelled. A judicial inquiry by a retired judge was ordered. After the visit, the team addressed a press conference and gave details of their findings to the media and reiterated their demands such as one job to each 13 families who lost their family members in police firing and action against police and civil officials responsible for the incident. After closure of the factory about 3,500 people would lose their jobs. The government should arrange for alternative jobs and livelihood without any delay.

The team at the end met the district collector and narrated their experiences before him and reiterated those demands. He assured to take necessary action. He promised to visit the victims’ families and ensured a job to one member of the family, check on police action and consider the cases carefully and sympathetically and ensure peace in the entire areas.