Protests against the proposed expansion of Sterlite copper smelting plant, a subsidiary of Vedanta has been happening for the past 100 days in Tuticorin. The people in the surrounding locality have been protesting against the plant’s operations after severe land, water and air pollution caused by the operations of the plant as well as numerous regulation violations by the plant. Yet the plant was never shutdown and continues operation inspite of all the environmental violations.
When Vedanta tried to expand its copper smelting plant in Tuticorin, the protests renewed against the operation of the plant. Thousands marched in the streets demanding the immediate shutdown of the plant. To mark the 100 days of the protest, the protesters had announced that they will protest in front of the Collectors office in Tuticorin demand the closure of the plant. Section 144, preventing unlawful assembly was immediately announced.
When the protesters gathered in front of the collector office on May 22, 2018 the police resorted to violence. Civilians including women and children were brutally attacked by the hundreds of police men who were deployed on the spot. In what appears to be a planned operation, tear gas was first used to disperse the crowd and they were herded into an open ground and then shot at. The Jallianwallabagh style operation was carried out using sophisticated weapons. Chilling videos of police men in t-shirts, standing on top of the vans and aiming at the protesters to take a precise shot emerged in the media.
Soon the media were also pressurized by the state to stop covering the police atrocities. Most of the media switched its narrative to “police taking actions to control the rioters”. Thousands of men, women and children gathered just months before, peacefully for their livelihood. They suddenly became rioters in the eyes of the state and its media.
Who gave the order to shoot at the peaceful protesters is still not known. Several times the question was raised to the police officers and none of them gave any reply to the question. The people’s protests were neither against the ruling government nor against any political party. Yet the state machinery has exposed itself as being a mere tool to the corporate looting.
The police have justified violence by saying that the protesters have torched the vehicles near the collector office and only after that they resorted to lathi charge. Anyone who remembers the police atrocities at the end of the Jallikattu protest can understand the fallacy of the police claim. During the last day of the Jallikattu protest police themselves torched the vehicles standing on the roads and blamed it on the protesters.
The official reports have said that 11 people have been killed in the police firing including a 17 year old girl. But ground reports indicate a much larger number in terms of both people killed and severely injured. Only an independent inquiry will give the real numbers and damage caused by the police atrocities.
TamilNadu has been seeing an increased number of police atrocities in recent years. Be it the protests against the Koodankulam Nuclear power plant or ONGC oil exploration the state has responded to genuine people demands with mass state violence. The people in the Cauvery Delta region in TamilNadu have been protesting against the proposed methane extraction project. The Centre has responded with deployment of around 2000 para-military forces in the region to quell the protests. Even lighting a candle in memory of the massacred Eelam Tamils is a crime. Activists in TamiNadu have voiced their concerns that TamilNadu is turning into another Kashmir.
Today on May 23, 2018, police renewed its attack on the relatives on those who were killed in the police firing yesterday, who had gathered in the Tuticorin government hospital where the post-mortem of was taking place.
Activists and democratic forces throughout India should come forward to condemn the state atrocity the put an end to the state error let loose in Tuticorin. An independent inquiry by the Human Rights commission should be immediately setup and state officials who ordered firing on peaceful protesters should be brought to books. The Vedanta Copper smelting plant against which the people have been protesting for more than a decade should be shutdown and all its environmental violations should be investigated.
Arun Kali Raja is part of the May 17 Movement.