The Tamil Nadu gov­ern­ment lets loose a reign of ter­ror to crush a long-stand­ing peo­ple's strug­gle against a plant of Ster­lite Cop­per, a sub­sidiary of the multi­na­tional Vedanta group


The po­lice open fire, in a “stage-man­aged” riot sit­u­a­tion, on peo­ple protest­ing against the Ster­lite cop­per smelter plant in Thoothukudi, Tamil Nadu. The death of 13 peo­ple and the griev­ous in­juries suf­fered by many have only strength­ened the res­i­dents’ re­solve to fight against in­dus­tries that threaten lives and liveli­hoods.

ON THE MORN­ING OF MAY 22, VANITHA stood at the doorstep of her one-room house in Lion’s Town, a fish­er­men’s lo­cal­ity in Thoothukudi town in south­ern Tamil Nadu, and caught sight of her daugh­ter wav­ing to her from the street corner. The 18-year-old “dar­ling” of her par­ents and two el­der brothers was on her way to the Our Lady of Snows Basil­ica nearby. Res­i­dents had been asked to as­sem­ble there to par­tic­i­pate in a rally to mark the 100th day of the “anti-ster­lite strug­gle”.

Snow­lyn Jack­son’s en­thu­si­as­tic in­volve­ment in so­cial is­sues did not sur­prise Vanitha. Snow­lyn had cleared her school fi­nal board ex­am­i­na­tions a week ago and was pre­par­ing to ap­ply for a de­gree course in law. She, Vanitha said, had been pas­sion­ate about is­sues con­cern­ing the liveli­hood of fish­er­folk. Nat­u­rally, Snow­lyn re­sponded spon­ta­neously to the call for a “Seize the Thoothukudi dis­trict col­lec­torate” rally in or­der to get a prom­ise from the Col­lec­tor to close down Ster­lite In­dus­tries’ cop­per smelter plant in the town. “She took her sis­ter-in-law and her eight-month-old baby, too, for the ag­i­ta­tion,” Vanitha told Front­line.

The protest left 13 peo­ple dead in the worst po­lice fir­ing Tamil Nadu has wit­nessed since In­de­pen­dence. Snow­lyn fell to a po­lice bul­let near the col­lec­torate. The im­pact of the gun­shot was such that it ripped off a part of her face. “Every day I used to give her a kiss. Now I can­not even kiss her good­bye. Where is her an­gelic face?” Vanitha broke down even as her hus­band wept un­con­trol­lably be­side her.

A crowd of around 500 peo­ple, mainly women and chil­dren, had gath­ered in front of the his­tor­i­cal church at about 9 in the morn­ing. Plac­ards and hand­writ­ten posters de­mand­ing the clo­sure of the plant were dis­trib­uted to them. In the sur­round­ing vil­lages, too, peo­ple had started to set out for the col­lec­torate. One of the vil­lages, A. Ku­mared­diya­pu­ram, was where a de­funct Anti-ster­lite Move­ment of the 1990s found new vigour that sus­tained it for 100 days.

The Ster­lite plant, peo­ple allege, has been a pol­luter of air and wa­ter ever since it was set up more than 20 years ago. Ster­lite In­dus­tries, a sub­sidiary of the London Stock Ex­change-listed con­glom­er­ate Vedanta Re­sources, has been syn­ony­mous with con­tro­versy since the day its foun­da­tion was laid in 1994 by Chief Min­is­ter Jay­alalithaa de­spite stiff op­po­si­tion (see “Pres­sure in London” on page 21). In the past two decades it was closed down sev­eral times for flout­ing var­i­ous rules and also be­cause of ac­ci­dents, some of them se­ri­ous (“Saga of a strug­gle”, Front­line, April 27, 2018). A gas leak in the early hours of March 23-24, 2013, left half of Thoothukudi’s nearly four lakh res­i­dents gasp­ing for breath even as they slept. Ster­lite de­nied the leak, the source of which still re­mains a mys­tery. Since then peo­ple of the town have dreaded the plant.

Cut­ting across caste and com­mu­nal lines, peo­ple from all walks of life joined hands against the in­dus­try. This ruf­fled a few vested in­ter­ests that were apprehensive of such unity up­set­ting their well-laid-out plans. Jothiku­mar, a col­lege stu­dent be­long­ing to the Nadar caste, and his friends reached the church to join the pro­test­ers. “When the gas leak oc­curred in 2013, my fa­ther, an asthma pa­tient, al­most choked to death. We had to rush him to hospi­tal to save his life,” Jothiku­mar said. He re­called his fa­ther telling him that “these el­e­ments had

em­ployed the ‘di­vide and rule’ ploy to neu­tralise all an­ti­s­ter­lite move­ments since 1996”. The anti-ster­lite ag­i­ta­tion has to be eval­u­ated in two phases—1994 to 1999 and from March 23, 2013, when the gas leak hit the town, and the present move­ment which went on for 100 days.

The two ma­jor so­cial groups of the town, Nadars, who are pre­dom­i­nantly traders, and fish­er­men, have been cau­tious against any move to di­vide them on com­mu­nal lines; the ex­pe­ri­ence of 1996 when ri­ots broke out and a cou­ple of fish­er­men died is some­thing that is not for­got­ten eas­ily. “We are clear in our stand. We do not wish to be a par­tic­i­pant in any de­vi­ous act that would di­vide the town on com­mu­nal lines. We fight as one. That is why the traders’ body ex­tended to­tal sup­port to any peace­ful anti-ster­lite ag­i­ta­tion,” said a traders’ rep­re­sen­ta­tive.


As peo­ple started march­ing through the streets, the crowd swelled into a mas­sive rally that peace­fully made its way to­wards the col­lec­torate. So­cial me­dia up­dates and mo­biles made co­or­di­na­tion easy for groups of pro­test­ers con­verg­ing at the col­lec­torate from dif­fer­ent lo­ca­tions. “In fact, it was a fes­tive mood. We were asked to come with our fam­i­lies. The Fed­er­a­tion of Anti-ster­lite Move­ments, an um­brella or­gan­i­sa­tion of so­cially con­scious groups, which has co­or­di­nated the strug­gle against the plant, asked us to bring drink­ing wa­ter, food, eat­a­bles, etc., to pre­vent de­hy­dra­tion and fa­tigue,” said Pal­pandi, 45, who was re­cu­per­at­ing at the Thoothukudi Gov­ern­ment Med­i­cal Col­lege Hospi­tal from an in­jury he suf­fered.

He said that the or­gan­is­ers had told the peo­ple that it was a to­ken protest and that they could dis­perse af­ter meet­ing the Col­lec­tor. “Is it not ab­surd to ac­cuse us, who

came with our wives, daugh­ters, sons and chil­dren, of in­dulging in vi­o­lence? It was the po­lice who taunted the peace­ful pro­test­ers by hurl­ing abuses all along the route of the rally,” he said.

A few Tamil tele­vi­sion chan­nels had tele­cast the rally live in the morn­ing but, for rea­sons best known to them, dis­con­tin­ued it mid­way.

If the claims of the peo­ple are true, the vi­tal ques­tions would be when and why the sit­u­a­tion de­te­ri­o­rated into a se­ri­ous law and or­der prob­lem as claimed by the State gov­ern­ment and its po­lice. The key to an­swer­ing these ques­tions can per­haps be found in a se­ries of de­vel­op­ments that took place in quick suc­ces­sion.

The ad­min­is­tra­tion had clamped Sec­tion 144 of the Code of Crim­i­nal Pro­ce­dure (un­law­ful as­sem­bly) on the town on May 21, but its en­force­ment was in­con­sis­tent; ini­tially it was im­posed in the Tu­ti­corin South po­lice sta­tion area, which in­cludes ma­jor parts of the town, and the SIPCOT po­lice sta­tion area, where the Ster­lite In­dus­tries and the col­lec­torate lie.

On May 22, a con­tin­gent of po­lice­men first en­gaged the ral­ly­ists near the Tu­ti­corin South po­lice sta­tion and asked them to dis­perse. Even as peo­ple who had as­sem­bled in the town were asked to dis­perse, those in the vil­lages were al­lowed to pro­ceed. This, a se­nior ad­vo­cate pointed out, caused con­fu­sion and mis­trust in the minds of the peo­ple. “They thought the po­lice were try­ing to break their sol­i­dar­ity,” he said.

Soon ar­gu­ments broke out be­tween the pub­lic and the po­lice at var­i­ous points en route the col­lec­torate. “We tried to make them un­der­stand that it would only be a to­ken protest at the col­lec­torate and that we had no idea of in­dulging in any un­war­ranted ac­tiv­i­ties. We wanted a prom­ise from the Col­lec­tor on the sta­tus of the plant in or­der to con­vince our peo­ple,” said Bry­ton, 26, a labourer, who was in­jured in the po­lice fir­ing.


Dis­trict Col­lec­tor N. Venkatesh, how­ever, was nowhere to be found at the head­quar­ters. A se­nior rev­enue of­fi­cial told Front­line that the Col­lec­tor was in Kovil­patti town to con­duct “jam­a­bandhi” (rev­enue au­dit­ing) and had re­mained at the pan­chayat union of­fice at Ot­tap­i­daram, some 25 kilo­me­tres from Thoothukudi, when the po­lice ac­tion was un­der way. This was at a time when the ag­i­ta­tion was peak­ing and the ten­sion was pal­pa­ble. “Sec­tion 144 was in force and the Anti-ster­lite Move­ment had de­clared well in ad­vance that it would be lay­ing siege to the col­lec­torate on that day,” said Henry Tiphagne of Peo­ple’s Watch, a Madu­rai-based hu­man rights or­gan­i­sa­tion.

But for rea­sons best known to him, Venkatesh was not present at the head­quar­ters, leav­ing the dis­trict ad­min­is­tra­tion in the hands of the po­lice for two full days. The po­lice force was led by the Ad­di­tional Direc­tor Gen­eral of Po­lice (Law and Or­der) and had four In­spec­tors Gen­eral (I.GS), two Deputy In­spec­tors Gen­eral (DIGS), 15 Su­per­in­ten­dents of Po­lice (S.PS) and scores of Ad­di­tional Su­per­in­ten­dents of Po­lice (ASPS) and Deputy Su­per­in­ten­dents of Po­lice (DSPS) when vi­o­lence rocked the town. A sem­blance of or­der re­turned only af­ter the gov­ern­ment sent Tirunelveli Col­lec­tor San­deep Nan­duri to take charge from Venkatesh on May 23. P. Ma­hen­dran, Thoothukudi S.P., was trans­ferred the same day. But the State gov­ern­ment had no ex­pla­na­tion to of­fer on the ab­sence of se­nior rev­enue of­fi­cials, in­clud­ing the Col­lec­tor, the Dis­trict Rev­enue Of­fi­cer and the Sub Col­lec­tor, dur­ing the cri­sis.

The State gov­ern­ment or­dered the sus­pen­sion of In­ter­net ser­vices from May 23 to May 28, an act that has no prece­dent in Tamil Nadu, to stop the spread of “provoca­tive mes­sages with half-truth”. The or­der was with­drawn on May 27.


The run-up to the vi­o­lence pointed to the hard re­al­ity that the in­tel­li­gence ma­chin­ery had failed the dis­trict ad­min­is­tra­tion. “The po­lice promised us that noth­ing would hap­pen. We be­lieved them,” the rev­enue of­fi­cial said. It per­haps of­fered a plau­si­ble an­swer to the Col­lec­tor’s in­ter­est in rou­tine work. A clar­i­fi­ca­tion from the State gov­ern­ment on the ab­sence of se­nior of­fi­cials would help ex­plain why a cou­ple of ju­nior-level of­fi­cers in the rank of Deputy Tah­sild­har had is­sued the fir­ing or­ders. Un­der Sec­tion 21 of the CRPC, they are spe­cial ex­ec­u­tive mag­is­trates and have “all the pow­ers ex­er­cis­able by an ex­ec­u­tive mag­is­trate”.

The pub­lic out­cry over the heavy loss of hu­man lives left the All In­dia Anna Dravida Mun­netra Kazhagam (AIADMK)-LED State gov­ern­ment red-faced, and it moved quickly to close down the plant on May 28 by an or­der from its Forests and En­vi­ron­ment Depart­ment

cit­ing non-com­pli­ance with rules. (See “Ar­bi­trary act” on page 19.)

On May 28, the depart­ment pointed out that the Tamil Nadu Pol­lu­tion Con­trol Board (TNPCB) had is­sued di­rec­tions on May 23 for the clo­sure of and dis­con­nec­tion of power sup­ply to the unit. Ac­cord­ingly, the gov­ern­ment di­rected the TNPCB to seal the unit and close the plant per­ma­nently un­der Sec­tion 18(1)(b) of the Wa­ter Act, 1974.

On May 29, the Man­ag­ing Direc­tor of the SIPCOT In­dus­trial Com­plex can­celled the al­lot­ment of land (342.22 acres) for the pro­posed ex­pan­sion of the plant (Phase II) in view of the se­ries of ag­i­ta­tions and protests and the con­cerns of the peo­ple of the area about their health. It fur­ther noted that the land price col­lected would be re­funded as per the norms of SIPCOT. “It is an un­for­tu­nate de­vel­op­ment. We will de­cide the fu­ture course of ac­tion soon,” said a state­ment from Vedanta.

Chief Min­is­ter Edap­padi K. Palaniswami told the As­sem­bly on May 29, while re­ply­ing to a spe­cial call­ing at­ten­tion mo­tion on the is­sue, that “un­der un­avoid­able cir­cum­stances the po­lice were forced to take ac­tion”. He, how­ever, did not men­tion even once that 13 peo­ple had died in po­lice fir­ing. In­stead, he said that the 13 had died, with­out re­spond­ing to treat­ment in hospi­tal. He did not fail to blame the op­po­si­tion Dravida Mun­netra Kazhagam (DMK) and anti-so­cial el­e­ments for the vi­o­lence.

The mis­han­dling of the sit­u­a­tion be­gan even be­fore the an­nounce­ment of the 100th-day rally. In­stead of en­gag­ing the cam­paign­ers in di­a­logue, both the dis­trict ad­min­is­tra­tion and the po­lice, ac­tivists claimed, at­tempted to split them, which led to sus­pi­cion and mis­trust among the peo­ple. A peace meet­ing was or­gan­ised the pre­vi­ous week to which only a few ac­tivists and traders were in­vited even as ma­jor groups that were in­volved ac­tively in or­gan­is­ing the ag­i­ta­tion were kept out. “It was a de­lib­er­ate move to split the anti-ster­lite or­gan­is­ers, which boomeranged. Those who at­tended the meet­ing were co­erced into ac­cept­ing the sug­ges­tions to stage a to­ken dharna on a pri­vate school cam­pus. The ma­jor­ity ve­toed it and de­cided to go ahead with the rally,” said Tiphagne.

The first signs of trou­ble came when the po­lice be­gan stop­ping at var­i­ous places ral­ly­ists mak­ing their way to the col­lec­torate. At first, the con­flict be­tween the po­lice and the peo­ple was limited to spo­radic in­ci­dents of heated ar­gu­ments and the oc­ca­sional fling­ing of footwear. But when the po­lice re­sorted to lathi charge at some points, the crowd re­sponded with stones. “It was the po­lice that drew the crowds to the col­lec­torate cam­pus. Had they wished to break up the rally, they could have done it eas­ily, ei­ther at VVD Sig­nal junc­tion or at Ma­dathur, in the 9-km stretch,” pointed out Vanchi­nathan, a le­gal ad­viser to the anti-ster­lite protest com­mit­tee and a mem­ber of the Makkal Uri­mai Padukappu Maiyam against whom five cases have been reg­is­tered un­der var­i­ous sec­tions.

In­formed sources said the dis­tur­bances first started when the po­lice led by Thoothukudi ASP Sel­vana­garathi­nam re­sorted to a lathi charge at VVD Sig­nal junc­tion around 11 a.m. The same of­fi­cer, in­formed sources said, later in the af­ter­noon led a posse of po­lice­men who opened fire near Theresh­pu­ram, 3 km from VVD Sig­nal junc­tion, in which one wo­man res­i­dent iden­ti­fied as J. Jhansi Rani, 37, was killed. That a mob as­sem­bled in front of the camp of­fice of the S.P. was said to be the rea­son for the fir­ing.

Mean­while, around the same time, at the Tirunelveli by­pass road, the po­lice used tear gas against the ral­ly­ists

and re­sorted to a lathi charge to dis­perse the crowd that was mov­ing to­wards the col­lec­torate. Even women and chil­dren were not spared, and many of them suf­fered in­juries. In­fu­ri­ated by this, a sec­tion of the pro­test­ers turned ag­gres­sive and started throw­ing stones. “Thus a per­fect set­ting was cre­ated to open fire near the col­lec­torate,” said a lawyer-cum-ac­tivist.


Crowds of marchers from the town and from the vil­lages de­fied block­ades and ar­rived near the col­lec­torate around noon. “We were stopped some 300 me­tres from its en­trance. Then we heard a se­ries of gun­shots. This was fol­lowed by the burst­ing of tear gas shells and then a lathi charge. There was no warn­ing. We could see black smoke bil­low­ing from near the col­lec­torate and the ad­ja­cent res­i­den­tial com­plex of Ster­lite. A few ve­hi­cles were burn­ing though none of us, the pro­test­ers, could go near them. Sud­denly we saw peo­ple fall­ing to the ground, bleed­ing pro­fusely. The dead and the dy­ing and the se­ri­ously in­jured were taken away in two-wheel­ers. Com­plete chaos pre­vailed for about 40 min­utes when in­no­cents be­came the hunted,” said Eve­lyn Vic­tory, 43, who sus­tained a bul­let in­jury. Soon the enor­mity of the tragedy near the col­lec­torate started un­fold­ing. The shoot­ing had left nine per­sons dead. Among them, Snow­lyn and P. Tami­la­rasan, 47, an ac­tive anti-ster­lite protest or­gan­iser and a mem­ber of the Rad­i­cal Youth Front, died on the spot. Scores of peo­ple suf­fered gun­shot in­juries and bro­ken limbs. An un­con­firmed re­port claimed that 11 peo­ple, be­sides the dead, had re­ceived bul­let in­juries. Am­bu­lances of the Tamil Nadu Mus­lim Mun­netra Kazhagam and a pri­vate hospi­tal were pressed into ser­vice to trans­port the in­jured to hos­pi­tals.

S. Kali­ap­pan, 25, was killed the next day in po­lice fir­ing at Anna Na­gar when the rel­a­tives of the dead re­sisted at­tempts to con­duct post-mortem on the bod­ies. Yet an­other per­son, N. Ja­yara­man, 42, of Usil­am­patti in

Madu­rai dis­trict suc­cumbed to gun­shot wounds, thus tak­ing the toll in the po­lice fir­ing to 12. The 13th vic­tim was P. Sel­vasekar, 42, of Iru­vap­pu­ram, who died in hospi­tal af­ter he was al­legedly stomped by po­lice­men on the chest. This was the worst-ever po­lice fir­ing in Tamil Nadu af­ter the in­ci­dent at Para­makudi in 2011, in which six Dal­its were shot dead, and the one at Kurichanku­lam in Tirunelveli dis­trict in 1980, in which eight farm­ers were killed.

A list of the dead was in­cluded in a writ­ten sub­mis­sion made on be­half of the DGP on the fir­ing be­fore the Madras High Court on May 31.

A close study of some of the vi­su­als and the claims of rel­a­tives of the dead showed a dis­turb­ing pat­tern in the po­lice fir­ing. It was mostly from close range from pow­er­ful weapons.

Vanitha said Snow­lyn had been shot in the mouth. The bul­let went through her skull be­fore mu­ti­lat­ing her face be­yond recog­ni­tion. “They killed my daugh­ter bru­tally. At least they should have shot her in the legs and torso so that we could see her face,” she said.

Rel­a­tives and friends of the vic­tims claimed that “they were shot like spar­rows”. Jhansi Rani, who died in Theresh­pu­ram, had a shat­tered skull. B. Ran­jithku­mar, 25, of Pushpa Na­gar, a promis­ing boxer, and Tami­la­rasan re­port­edly had bul­lets in their heads. J. Antony Sel­varaj, 47, of An­nai Ve­lankanni Na­gar was shot in the chest, while G. Kanda­iah, 55, of Cy­clone Colony and S. Mani­rai, 22, were shot in the neck.

Of the 13 killed, four were Dal­its and three be­longed to the fish­er­men com­mu­nity. The other vic­tims be­longed to the Other Back­ward Classes.

San­deep Nan­duri con­firmed the death of 12 per­sons, in­clud­ing two women, in the po­lice fir­ing and one from in­juries in two days. A to­tal of 19 peo­ple, he said in a press re­lease, had sus­tained se­ri­ous in­juries. How­ever, he was silent on the to­tal num­ber of per­sons with gun­shot in­juries. As many as 83 peo­ple suf­fered mi­nor in­juries. On the

THE PO­LICE LATHI CHARGE against anti-ster­lite pro­test­ers at VVD Sig­nal junc­tion on May 22.

A VIDEO GRAB of a po­lice­man in plain­clothes shoot­ing at pro­test­ers on May 22.


PEO­PLE CON­VERG­ING at a place in Thoothukudi town on the 100th day of the cur­rent protest. Cut­ting across caste and com­mu­nal lines, peo­ple from all walks of life joined hands against the in­dus­try. The ag­i­ta­tion turned vi­o­lent later with the po­lice ac­tion, in­clud­ing fir­ing on the pro­test­ers.

THE BODY OF SNOW­LYN JACK­SON, who was killed in the fir­ing, in hospi­tal.

AN AN­GRY WO­MAN pro­tester con­fronting po­lice­men in front of the Thoothukudi Med­i­cal Col­lege Hospi­tal on May 23.

PRO­TEST­ERS TOP­PLING a po­lice ve­hi­cle in front of the Thoothukudi Gov­ern­ment Hospi­tal on May 22.

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