TAMIL NADU: Sterlite and the Peoples’ Movement Thoothukudi – The Ground Zero

SP Rajendran

FINALLY it happened.

The Sterlite Copper Smelter factory was shutdown, after claiming 13 lives in a pre-planned cold blooded murder by the police in Thoothukudi, the southern port city of the country.

The shutdown may be a drama of the AIADMK government, as the issue is lying with the High court. The credibility of the same government is questionable as it has close contacts with the BJP led Modi government, which is a very big financial beneficiary of the Vedanta group, the mother concern of the Sterlite Copper Ltd, Thoothukudi.

Moreover, the same AIADMK government has lost its minimum capacity to hold dialogue with the people as it refused to talk them while they were protesting for the past 99 days against the expansion of the Sterlite factory, as well as demanding a shutdown of the existing factory.

On the 100th day, May 22, the people of Thoothukudi city and the rural people from 18 adjacent villages organised a very big rally towards the collectorate of the district. They wanted their voices to be heard against the worst kind of environmental pollution caused by hazardous chemicals like sulphur dioxide, arsenic and other poisonous elements released by the copper smelter unit, contamination of entire ground water systems and the increasing incidence of health issues like the systemic increase of diseases like cancer across the region.

People from various walks of life assembled at different points and moved towards the office of the collector.  There were fishermen, small traders, farmers, agricultural workers and middle-class professionals. Huge number of women participated in the rally with many joining with their entire family members, particularly children. Their only slogan was, "Shut down the poisonous Sterlite factory".

Police forcibly stopped them and started lathi-charge and then without any warning, started firing on the protestors which killed 12 people including a 17-year old girl, Snowlin.  

Three days after, CPI(M) leaders including district secretary KS Arjunan, town secretary, T Raja, K Samuel Raj, general secretary of TNUEF, Mohammed Riyas, president of DYFI, S Bala, state secretary of DYFI, P Suganthi, AIDWA state general secretary and others visited the girl’s house to console her parents and relatives. 

What they revealed about that day’s incidents was heart-wrenching.

Snowlin's mother Vanitha said: "We started at 8 am on May 22 from our home. We were very glad to participate in the protest against Sterlite along with other people. Our entire family walked in the rally. My daughter Snowlin, was inspired by the protest. My husband Jackson and sons Godwin, Malton, Godwin's wife Merilda and their two-year old child Godslina, six-month old baby Jhibanshi – all were participants.

“Chief Minister Edapadi Palaniswami and the BJP leaders had branded the protesters as Maoists and perpetrators of violence.

“I ask them a question: Are the two-year old Godslina and six-month old Jhibanshi, Maoists? Or perpetrators of violence?

“Does a person go with the entire family to indulge in violence?

“The reality is, the pro-corporate government incited the police to provoke the people and only then they had indulged in ‘violence’; they only torched the vehicles inside the collectorate.

“While we were reaching the gate of the collectorate, the police started lathi charge. My young daughter Snowlin asked a policeman to stop the attack. Within a fraction of second, a bullet shot through her rear head, smashed her brain and came out from her mouth. Lot of blood was shed. Snowlin was dead. We cried. But the police kept firing and attacking continuously. Even we were not able to stay near the body of our lovely Snowlin, in order to save our other children..." Vanitha's statement exposes the horrors of the day.

Another woman's story, Janshi’s, was also heart-wrenching. She is no more to re-tell her story.

While Snowlin and other 10 were shot dead on the spot at the collector’s office by snipers, a practice new to Tamil Nadu, Janshi was shot dead with a pistol. She was shot from very close range by the police, in her forehead.

The fact is, Janshi was not at the site of protest. She was at Thireshpuram, which is located 4 kilometres away from the collectorate. After the firing at collectorate, the entire Thoothukudi city was sealed by police force. A section of their strike force moved to Thireshpuram, an area known for fisherman community. On seeing the police force in their area, people moved away with fear. But Janshi did not move and questioned the police. Within a second, a bullet pierced into her head and killed her. Immediately, some police men tore a nearby flex banner and took the body of Janshi without any sense of remorse. But the split brain of dead Janshi refused to follow the policemen. It slipped down on the street….Janshi's blood was everywhere!

A similar thing occurred in Anna Nagar also. Kaliappan, a 21-year youth was shot on his chest from a close range – the bullet instantly sucking life out of him and he is dead.

And another tragedy was Kandhiah's death. He was shot dead, again the bullet leaving a hole in his chest. His 27 year old mentally challenged son is looking and laughing at his father's photo on a banner paying homage and hung at the corner of street at Masilamanipuram. He is unable to understand that his father is now a mere photo and no more. He remains in perennial waiting for him.

Similar are the stories of Ranjith Kumar (22), Karthik(20), Kilastan (39), Maniraj (28), Antony Selvaraj (46), Tamilarasan (42), Jayaraman (45) and Selvasekar (42).

The thirst of the government and the police at the service of Sterlite did not end with these killings and the terror since unleashed. It continued on for the next two days, May 23- 24. Entire city was put under the siege of police, a force consisting of more than 10,000 cops. They hunted for people in each and every street; attacked and arrested hundreds of youth and detained them illegally without producing them before the magistrates.

Bringing to light one such incident, the CPI(M) leaders and cadre immediately intervened with the help of advocates belonging to AILU and others to locate a secret place, where 64 youth were imprisoned and were repeatedly attacked by the police. These advocates, with the help of judicial magistrates secured the release of these 64 youth by moving their bail pleas. All the youth underwent unspeakable torture in the hands of the police.

It is not only the common people, even political leaders were not spared by the police. Though they were not physically assaulted and treated like the people of Thoothukudi, police filed fake cases against the entire spectrum of opposition, including K Balakrishnan, CPI(M), MK Stalin (DMK), R Mutharasan (CPI), Thirunavukarasar (Congress), Thol Thirumavalavan (VCK), Vaiko (MDMK), Vijayakanth (DMDK) and Kamal Hassan (MNM).

Continuing their repression and also in order to ensure that the outside world does not get to know about their brutalities, the government resorted to containment of information flow. They had blocked all social media services and the internet in Thoothukudi and all other southern districts.

When all such measures failed to curtail the flow of information and people across the state and the country became aware of the police atrocities and joined spontaneous protests, the state government once again resorted to brutality. Thus, the submissive AlADMK government has done its best service for the Vedanta group and the BJP government, which is the political guardian of Anil Agarwal’s Vedanta, led Sterlite Copper Ltd.

Unfazed and undeterred by all the police brutality and violation of democratic norms by the government, the people of Tamil Nadu, particularly people of Thoothukudi remained determined. They were and are not cowed down. They are condemning and protesting the government atrocities. The entire trading community, opposition parties, mass organisations held protests across the state. One day hartal was held on May 26.

A mood of anger against the BJP central government, AIADMK government in the state and the Vedanta group has developed among the people from all walks of life after the brutal firing.

The ministers who visited the people on May 27 faced their ire. O Panneerselvam, deputy chief minister, himself saw the intensity of peoples’ anger.

It is this popular anger that forced the government, which has got no other option, but to act against the Sterlite factory. Though it may be a drama, the chief minister Edapadi Palaniswami announced the shutdown of Sterlite Copper Ltd permanently on May 28 and immediately the doors were sealed.

The people's movement won.

The cost of victory is forever etched in the minds of the people and if the government tries to reverse the decision at any point of time, Thoothukudi will burst again.

These are the voices and their echoes from the ground zero.

 

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