MAC: Mines and Communities

Tuticorin: a byword for terror unleashed in India

Published by MAC on 2018-06-06
Source: Sabrang India, The Daily O (2018-06-05)

The following articles have just been published by Indian journals, graphically describing the devasting  human impacts on those who were killed in the southern Indian town of Tuticorin last week, as well as their relatives and friends.

At least 13 - and possibly 17 - people were shot dead a week ago by police marksmen, as they joined with thousands of others protesting, for the most part peacefully,  against the highly polluting operations of a copper smelter owned by Sterlite, a subsidiary of the UK-lised Vedanta corporation.

How Tamil Nadu government turned Thoothukudi into a living hell

Grace Banu

Sabrang India

5 June 2018


The people of Thoothukudi, who were asking for relief from cancers were given bullets as medicines. Common struggling people were portrayed as extremists and troublemakers and shot and killed.


After hearing about the events that occurred and feeling nervous for my family and my people, I visited Thoothukudi, my birthplace on May 26. Thoothukudi is a coastal city, painted white from the vast salt harvesting pans with cool salty air wafting through. On this day, however, I was only greeted by empty ghostly streets hiding the chaos of conflict and suffering. The only people I could see were (police) barbarians carrying guns and lathis.

The people of Thoothukudi were still shut in hospitals and their homes. The media was announcing that normalcy had returned to Thoothukudi, but what I saw were terrified people crouched in their homes, afraid to step out even to get medicines for the ill or milk for babies. Mothers with adolescent and young boys were anxious fearing their children would be plucked from their homes by the police.

The first person I went to meet was Infanta. She was the friend of Snowlin, a girl who had been killed in the firing. Infanta was also beaten brutally by the police and she had been admitted to the government hospital. I met her around 3 pm on May 26. The 23-year-old had deep lathi marks on her back and neck but even so, it seemed as if those were less painful than the pain I saw in her eyes she had for her friend Snowlin. In many ways, she had not recovered from the shock of that violence.

Initially, I thought I should not talk to her and disturb her. However, the world needs to know these truths. Therefore, I went to talk to her with as much empathy and delicateness as I could muster.

How Snowlin died

After a little bit of conversation. I asked how Snowlin died. Immediately tears came from her eyes. But through the tears, she talked. “We saw so many people that day at the protests that almost everyone of us thought that for sure the government will be obliged to heed our request and close this Sterlite organisation. Snowlin had the same hope. Me, Snowlin and one more friend were together the whole time during the protest. We were holding each other’s hands and walking forward with enthusiasm. When the procession reached VVT signal, someone was throwing the stones and one stone came and hit my head and immediately after that police lathi-charged us. After a small interval, tear gas was thrown at us. And in the tear gas haze, people were being beaten. To escape from this tear gas, we wrapped our dupattas around our nose and eyes and kept moving forward. In the front of the protests were 20 trans-women, and behind them cis-women, and behind them were men. People managed to cross over the stone throwing, the tear gas, the barricades, and take shelter in the Collector’s office. At first cis-women and trans-women entered the collectors office; only a few men were entering the collectors office. When we entered the Collector’s office, it was peaceful. We were also sitting there peacefully. Suddenly, a lot of police came from inside the office and lathi-charged us. We started running. Our friend who was with us tripped over the speed breaker and fell. She has asthma and she started wheezing. Snowlin and I went to pick her up . At that time, bullets were flying past us. We dodged the first two bullets . The next bullet I saw hit Snowlin’s mouth. And she fell with a thud. For some minutes I forgot myself. I became numb. And then even the lathi beating they gave me I was numb to . After that, we picked up Snowlin’s body and took her to the hospital on the way we saw about 20 bodies lying in blood.” Infanta said all this describing the scenery while shivering nervously.

Bearing Infanta’s blood filled words in my mind, bearing the scenery in my mind, I went around 4 pm to visit the family of Terespuram Jansi, another victim of the shooting. All around the house they were a heavy air of misery. Jansi’s youngest daughter, a 10th or 11th standard student, was so sad that I could not express in words. In this young age, they had lost their mother. I could not even stand by them for a minute stably I wondered how these young children would bear this burden for a lifetime.

I talked to Jansi’s older sister and her husband. Through her tears, her sister explained to me. “She went to buy fish for her eldest daughter living nearby. She went near the bridge and she saw the procession and the people and she stood there watching as a bystander. But watching the crowd was a crime to the police and they rained bullets on her. Her one side of the face was torn off. When she fell, they wrapped her body in a banner and put her in the police van and took her away. When we went to the hospital, they first told is there is no such woman here. We continued to ask and push them angrily. After that they showed us her blood-stained bangle. We screamed and wept when we saw that the bangle was our sister’s. The police are saying the protesters had weapons. But the weapon my sister had was the packet of fish she had in her hand for her daughter. If we catch fish they are shooting us (fishing in border waters between Tamilnadu and Sri Lanka is dangerous), if we carry the fish we caught, they are shooting us so how are we expected to live??” Jansi’s sisters question rung in my mind. Her question was a question for the whole state whose forces and actions have been oppressive.

Eaten by bullets

Laying grief after grief down in my heart, I went to visit the next person’s house where another man called Clauston, was eaten by bullets. His wife was there. She didn’t want to talk to anybody. She sat in a corner hoping that everything that had happened would turn out to be a bad dream. Hoping she would wake up any moment from this nightmare. She felt if she spoke that the nightmare would become real. She stayed alone. Clauston’s 11th standard daughter spoke to me. “Mother has not been talking to anybody, since father was shot by the police.” Hearing the child say that I was sure no one could hold back their sadness and tears. I was in dilemma as to whether to talk to that child or not. But she started speaking herself. “Can they give me back my father? We cannot leave this as it is, we have to take action”. I could only give her my tears as a reply.

Then, I went to Peruni Jai where 61 men who were remanded illegally were being released. The swift action taken by Thoothukudi lawyers collectives had resulted in their release. But it wasn’t before they were first tortured. They had been taken to an ammunition hold in Wallanad. There they faced intense violence. Some people’s ankle was swollen and broken. Many people’s backs were bruised after they had been beaten with lathis. Some people sustained head injuries. They recounted their painful experiences. One of them said that Wallanad ammunition hold was no less than a concentration camp of sorts.

That night I couldn’t sleep. I thought about how the government and the corporations are birthing novel ways to repress people. Our people too had to find new ways to resist. I thought about everything I had heard that day. I thought about Thoothukudi, a place I was born and raised in. I recalled the places where I would play as a child and the beauty of the town. But now Thoothukudi had become a literal hell.

The next day at 12 pm I went to see Snowlin’s mother. The mother who lost her beautiful girl, her beautiful warrior. Seeing her, I didn’t have it in me to ask this mother who is such deep pain any questions.

I just told her, “Amma all the daughters here are your daughters. Please take care.” In truth, such mothers are the mothers who birth this nation.

Finally, I went to meet my brave people, the first row protestors, the “thirunangai” (trans-women) community. Transwomen are generally not given front row spaces at state-level issues but in Thoothukudi, it was the first time that the people demolished these Brahminical ideologies of gender that prevent us from joining protests or being a full part of larger society. I spoke to Reena. “We have seen a lot of suffering including untouchability and exclusion, but we have never witnessed such a cruel oppressive government. Many of us have lathi bruises. It was in front of us that Snowlin was killed. Even the lathi wounds will heal but watching Snowlin die….and the scenes of death and destruction…. that wound will never heal.” said Reena. I understood how much pain she was in. Offering her words of consolation I had to move on.

On 28th morning, I visited Pandarapatti, a village where around 30 women were still fighting against Sterlite unfazed by bullets. I talked to an elderly woman in that group. She spoke with wrinkles on her face but not in her voice or content. “When people are fighting for their rights against the state, it is not without precedent that the state retaliates violently with shooting. It is not at all new. In the Manjolai tea labourers protests in Sivagangai district, the police put them on the banks of the Thambarabarani river and lathi-charged them brutally. I was there. I saw many people jump in the river in front of me and I saw them drown and die. I too should have died in that struggle. The life I have now is a sort of bonus life. Unless I see that Sterlite out of here, chased away, I will not be able to exit this life in peace!”

How ordinary and every day are great revolutionaries I thought to myself.

Is this government for us or Vedanta?

The next stop was Kumararettiyapuram village – a great big Neem tree sits at the centre. It is there that people come and meet, and is usually bustling. That day it was almost vacant. But about 5-6 woman was protesting there. They were also the elderly. “There are no youths here, daughter. They are all afraid of police and have disappeared to keep safe. But we are not leaving just yet, we are still here to fight.” Like old and rooted neem trees, these ladies also remain.

That evening we went to the house of Tamilarasaan. His house welcomed us with posters of Marx, Ambedkar, and EVR Periyar on the walls. Tamilarasan was not married but his brother, his brother’s wife and their kids spoke to me. ” He was a kind of a root for our town. He held it down for everybody. He has always been there for everyone. Whoever needs help. He sacrificed his life in his same act of rootedness.”

When revolutionaries are killed, the relatives and other people get threatened by the government. Even after the death of Tamilarasan, o his relatives are still getting threats and his sister-in-law was beaten at the hospital. They kidnapped Tamilarasan ‘s mother compelling her to take the body from the hospital. (People were refusing to take the bodies of their loved ones for final rites until Sterlite is shut down)

Finally, at around 4.30 pm, I went to the hospital to meet more people who were injured by bullets but survived. I was speaking with them when the Tamil Nadu government order to close Sterlite was announced. I informed everyone. They showed little happiness and more anger. They could have done this much before instead of taking our lives and maiming us in this way. Is this government for us or is it for Vedanta?

People suffering the outcomes neo-liberalisation, globalisation, privatisation all over the world are asking the same questions.

The author is a Dalit trans-rights activist, the first trans-woman engineer in India, technologist at Project Mukti, and the founder of Trans Rights Now Collective.


 Sterlite police firing: J Snowlin is dead, but Tuticorin is not defeated

Days after the police brutality, terror looms large across the town and villages surrounding the Sterlite plant.

by Amit Sengupta

The Daily 0 (India)

On June 3, at least 5,000 people walked in silence with the body of a
schoolgirl, J Snowlin, in the scorching heat, amid wailing friends and
relatives, with a band playing a farewell song. Some fainted on the way,
quickly carried away by volunteers. At the Sahaya Annai Church at
Lionstown, with her body in the coffin and flowers hiding her face, it was
a solemn occasion, replete with collective tragedy and anger.

Snowlin was shot dead at the Collectorate by an unknown sniper on May 22,
as a mass procession of peaceful protestors moved towards the district
collector’s office, to hand over a petition. A bullet entered her neck and
smashed her face. That is why, the flowers in her coffin were hiding her
face.

Locals are convinced that many of the killings were allegedly targeted.
Tamilarasan was the coordinator of the anti-Sterlite movement. Snowlin was
at the forefront of the Madha Koil protest. Maniraj was the organiser at
Damodar Nagar, and Gladston coordinated the rally at Metupatti. They were
all shot dead — reportedly by the snipers, on the head or chest.


Alleged targeted killing was also reported in Terespuram, a fishermen’s
colony. A 47-year-old woman, an anti-Sterlite leader who did not
participate in the rally on May 22, was on her way to her daughter’s house
in the neighbourhood. She was shot in her head — her face was destroyed.
Terespuram was not under Section 144, as was the area near the Sterlite
plant and the Collectorate. So why did the cops shoot to kill her?

The Tuticorin police and district administration were on tenterhooks on
June 3. The entire top brass was holed up at the Collectorate. The
district collector and superintendent of police, who held charge on May
22, have been transferred. The industrial hub was tense, simmering with
rage and sorrow.

Across the town were splashed huge posters announcing the funeral with the
following message in Tamil (loosely translated): “She is dead, but we are
not defeated. We will rise again, until Sterlite is forced to go.” No
wonder, there was not a single cop accompanying the funeral procession.

Snowlin was one of the young leaders of the mass protests, which
originated in thousands from lanes, bylanes and villages, walking across
miles to escape police barricades. She was one of those who led the rally
onto the Tirunelveli Street, close to the Third Mile Bridge, which is
adjacent to the "gateway" to the collector’s office. The first killings
happened here on May 22.

A woman in Anna Nagar went with her daughter and son to the rally. She
said that Snowlin told her moments before she was shot dead that “we have
to fight for our generation and the future generations”.

“She held onto my daughter as she fell, her face smeared with blood,” said
the woman. Did she see who shot her? “No,” she said.

Snowlin was with three of her school friends, according to those who saw
her there. Her friend, Infanta, just about escaped, when a bullet, again,
fired from an unknown area, perhaps from a height, by an unknown sniper,
almost grazed her. Another school-going friend had her hand twisted so
brutally by a cop that her hand is in a plaster cast.

I saw her picture with an activist, she, smiling, despite the pain, her
hand in a plaster cast. Can I take this picture, I asked? The activist
refused. She said the schoolgirl does not want to share it — the cops will
then file false cases against her, as it has done against hundreds of
others, mostly youngsters.

Days after the firing which killed 13 people, in a largely peaceful
protest with women carrying their children along and packing basic food
and sheets for a prolonged non-violent dharna, the death toll has gone up
to 15. Terror looms large across the town and villages surrounding the
Sterlite factory, which has been ordered to “permanently” shut down by the
Tamil Nadu government, which defended the killings.

Even after May 22, there have been police atrocities all over the
localities, young men are picked up randomly, beaten up for many hours,
detained on fake charges, and, sometimes, allowed to leave with the threat
to keep their mouth shut.

Around 95 people, mostly youngsters and teenagers, were picked up on May
22 morning. They were illegally detained at South Police Station and
SIPCOT Police Station. They were reportedly stripped, made to sit in only
their underwear, assaulted, kicked and thrashed. No food or water was
given to them until May 23 evening. Many of them had their limbs swollen
and were found limping.

A police inspector, Hariharan, from the SIPCOT Police Station, has been
named in this case, as in many other cases of illegal detention and
torture, by locals. His notoriety across Tuticorin is legendary. Locals
allege that “he is on the payroll of Vedanta”. He was transferred on June
2 from the SIPCOT Police Station to Madurai.

At the intervention of the Tuticorin Bar Association, the principal
district judge gave directions for the magistrate to visit the police
station to enquire about the 95 detained persons.

The police shifted all these men to the Vallanadu Shooting Range, thereby
deliberately deceiving the magistrate. Finally, when the magistrate
reached the firing range, he found that 30 of them were minors/juveniles.
He ordered their immediate release.

Members of the Tuticorin Bar Association informed this columnist that the
district judge released 366 innocent people who were falsely detained
without any bail or surety after a marathon court session which stretched
till late night.

The entire Tuticorin town seems to be proud of the Bar Association and is
full of praise for the extraordinary woman judge, V Charuhasini, who has
since retired.

On May 23, as hundreds gathered at the general hospital where the dead
bodies were kept, the police randomly lathi-charged, used rubber and metal
bullets, barged into homes, smashed cars, windows, doors and two-wheelers,
and beat up all and sundry, including mothers and sisters.

This was most prevalent in Anna Nagar, which is close to the hospital on
the main road, though at quite a distance from the Sterlite smelter plant.
One person, Kaliappan, was killed by the police.

This columnist heard several eye-witness accounts of residents in Anna
Nagar. A young woman’s little children were not spared. She said, in
tears, that 15 cops entered her house, threw her two-year-old daughter on
a wall, and when her five-year-old brother rushed to his little sister,
they stamped his chest with boots. Two of her family members, both
educated, young men, were taken to the police station, their hands tied to
the window, and beaten up for hours. There are scars all over their bodies
now.

A young boy was targeted by cops, and asked to locate an address. As he
walked along, he was taken to a police vehicle and then assaulted. “For
two days the police were coming again and again, shooting rubber and metal
bullets at random, breaking open doors, barging into homes and beating up
people. They were searching door to door and would beat up and pick up all
young men, come what may, though most of them had nothing to do with the
rally,” said a young girl who works in a bank.

At KVK Nagar, three young men were talking in their verandah, when the
cops took them away. They assaulted them for almost 24 hours inside the
police vehicle, with no medical relief, food or water. “A car was burning
in the distance. So the cops said, book them in this case,” said one of
them.

A father sent away his young son before May 22 to another town. He came
back on May 29. He was picked up while he was riding a bike. He is still
in jail.

Similarly, in a village close to the Sterlite factory, Meelavittan, where
women are in the forefront of the peaceful movement, cops in mufti arrived
at 3am in the morning on May 31 and randomly picked up three young men.
One of them was going to Kuwait for a job. The women went to the district
collector next day. He said they will be released in an hour. They are
still in the Palayamkottai Central Prison.

It is confirmed from local sources that hundreds of injured are still
hiding with their injuries, refusing to come out, afraid that the police
will book them. The general hospital did not register police atrocities as
the reason behind the injuries in many cases.

Private doctors prescribed medicines without assigning the reason behind
injuries. Some of them simply mentioned: “Blunt injuries.” Several FIRs
have been lodged and clubbed together against scores of "innocents" to
"crush the movement", said community leaders.

This pre-announced "rally" on May 22, with a strength ranging between
50,000 and 70,000 people, was the culmination of protracted non-violent
protests for 99 days demanding the shut-down and removal of Vedanta’s
Sterlite copper smelter plant in Tuticorin.

People have been up against the smelter plant which produces more than 40
lakh tonnes of copper since the past two decades. There is no medical
evidence to prove it, but almost the entire town is convinced that various
diseases have stalked the population, including cancer, heart problems,
skin and breathing diseases and 24 -hours itching due to air, water and
ground-level pollution generated by the plant and the waste it disposes.

The water in the villages close to the Sterlite plant is dirty yellow and
undrinkable. Amid bouts of stomach and other medical problems faced by
schoolchildren, even villagers are forced to buy mineral water from the
market.

Significantly, this columnist witnessed square white patches on the bodies
of several men and women, which spreads into shapeless patches across the
body. Locals call it the “Sterlite patch”.

Doctors outside Tuticorin have advised patients to move out of the area.
So much so, there are reports that people in other towns and villages are
refusing to get their sons and daughters married here.

Allegations that "outsiders or extremists" initiated violence has been
denied by all the parties and associations here, including the Tuticorin
Bar Association and merchants' associations.

Prof Fathima Babu, who has led the peaceful struggle since the beginning,
pointed out that the district administration had agreed in a meeting with
various organisations on May 20 (in which district collector N Venkatesh
was absent) that the rally can be held at the SAV Ground on May 22.

“The whole town was prepared to go to the Collectorate on the 100th day.
However, we were concerned with the safety of the women, children and
others. So, we agreed to hold the peaceful rally at the SAV Ground.
However, there was massive barricading and people were stopped at their
localities and villages and not even allowed to enter the ground,” she
said. Thereby, the scattered crowd started moving towards the
Collectorate.

Significantly, both the district collector and SP Mahendran were
reportedly not in town on this crucial day of mass protests. There are
unconfirmed reports that the police firing order was finally given by
three deputy tehsildars with magisterial powers.

Section 144 was imposed near the Sterlite plant and the Collectorate.
However, except a few places, no announcement was made by the
administration. The collector did not communicate with the people at all
during the 99 days of protests. No warning was given on loudspeakers or
otherwise. TV scrolls late at night did not help. No tear gas, water
cannons or lathicharge was used. The first killings, allegedly, were by
the snipers.

And why did the police kill people where there was no Section 144 imposed,
as in Anna Nagar and Terespuram?

There is nothing normal in Tuticorin now. The wounds are deep,
irreconcilable and simmering. The terror machine of the state backed by
Sterlite has taken a pause, but their character is out in the open. And,
yet, one thing is certain:

People will not rest here until they get justice.

This generation, and the generations to come.

 

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