Report on Public Inquest on Tuticorin Police Firings
Incidents of police brutality have had a place in our country’s history, with the infamous Jallianwalabagh Massacre of 1919, being one of the most prominent examples of such incidents. Close to a century later, not much seems to have changed with respect to the restrictions on the powers of the police.June 6 marks the anniversary of the killing of seven farmers in Mandsaur at the hands of the police, and not much has changed even a year after the killings. In a similar incident, the brutal attack on the protestors in the town of Thoothukudi (Tuticorin), carried out in a manner similar to Jallianwalabagh, resulted in the death of at least15 protestors.. This is an example of the gross negligence of fundamental rights guaranteed by our Constitution, and is a stain on the traditions of democracy of our country.
Several citizens of the country reacted with outrage to this incident, with a former bureaucrat writing to the PM, and numerous prominent citizens issuing statements condemning it. In an example of citizens stepping in to ensure accountability on an occasion where the State fails, a People’s Inquest was organised by a team comprising former judges, ex-bureaucrats, professors, journalists and activists, including retired Judge B.G. Kolse Patil, retired IAS officer M.G. Devasahayam,Professor Shiv Visvanathan, andsenior journalist. Pamela Philipose,among others.
May 22 marked 100 days of protests against the Sterlite Copper plant, known as Sterlite Industrial India Ltd., a unit of the Vedanta group that has setup a smelter, refinery, acid plant, and copper road plant on the land allocated to it by the State Promotion Corporation of Tamil Nadu. The people’s inquest’s report, containing interim observations, noted thatpeople have cited cases of cancer, lung and breathing-related ailments that they attributed to Sterlite, and highlighted the apparent existence of a ‘skin patch, now “notoriously called as ‘sterlite patch’”. The report noted that health concerns played a major role in galvanising people against the plant.The protest was attended by nearly50,000 people. Throughout the 100 days, the protests had been peaceful, and there were no signs of violence or disruption of public order. The protests had gained massive momentum, with close to 2 lakh people gathering in the month of March for this very purpose. On May 22, the protestors marched towards the office of the District Collectorate, demanding the closure of the plant.
The Tuticorin administration claims to have adopted means of peaceful resolution to tackle the protests. According to the inquest’s report, there seems to be sufficient evidence to substantiate that the means adopted were flawed. The meeting organised by the administration on May 20 for peaceful resolution, was only for select organisationsthat were a part of the protest. People the inquest team met alleged that this was an effort by the administration“to divide the anti-Sterlite movement”. Also, the meeting was not attended by the District Collector, who heads the local administration. The imposition of Section 144 of the CrPC seemed to have been done with numerous irregularities, according to the report. It was imposed the night prior to the gathering, i.e. the night of May 21, butno attempts were made for the proper communication of the imposition of 144 to the people, resulting in most participants of the rally being unaware of it. Also, Section 144 was imposed only to the extent of the jurisdiction of two police stations, hence the participants of the rally were not completely restricted from marching towards the office of the DC.
Article 19(1)(b) of the Indian Constitution guarantees the fundamental right of forming peaceful assemblies without arms. The rally on May 22 had no signs of violence, with women and children carrying food and bedding with them, indicating that it was a peaceful protest carried out with an intention to petition the Collectorate. The inquest’s report noted that people’s testimonies indicated the use of lathi-charge on protestors in certain areas of Thoothukudi, “including brutal attacks on women and children”.“People’s testimonies alleged targeted firing at the District Collectorate state that gunmen with assault rifles climbed on top of the police vehicles and also from the upper floors of the District Collectorate and shot at the protestors,” the report said. Testimonies also alleged that some police officers masqueraded as protestors, wearing white shirts and khaki pants and pelting stones. They reportedly fled when some protestors identified them.
The right to health has been interpreted within the meaning of personal liberty under Article 21 of the constitution, and is a fundamental right. The impact the Sterlite plant had on the health of the locals, is in violation of their fundamental rights, and signals that even years after the Bhopal Gas Tragedy, the State is unable to keep a check on harmful impacts of industries. This incident is a gruesome example of the steps allegedly taken by the State in order to curb the demands and the rights of the people, in order to favour corporations.
There are no specific statutory provisions available for victims subjected to police brutality. Keeping a check on the instruments of the State is a necessity in a democracy, and hence such incidents must be addressed with due care.
As of this writing,Tamil Nadu Chief Minister K. Palaniswami on 28th May said that the Tuticorin police are making arrests based only on available photographic evidence to prove that certain protestors engaged in violence. He went on to say that the general public, who protested peacefully, have the protection of the law and shall not be harassed. He also stated that based on the inquiry into the incident, headed by a retired High Court judge, action will be taken against officials who misused their power. However, the people’s inquest’s interimreport mentions testimonies indicating that there were numerous wrongful detentionsfollowing the incident on May 22, and that people were subjected to cruelty while in police custody.
In 2010, the Madras High Court ordered the closure of the plant. However, on appeal, the Supreme Court stayed this order and imposed a fine of Rs. 100 crores on the company. Vide a government order dated May28, 2018, Tamil Nadu’sgovernment has endorsed the closure of the Sterlite plant in greater public interest.