There are two things that I have suspected after the Thoothukudi firing – which may seem obvious to many of the readers here. But let me reiterate those for the sake of the rest of what I am about to say. The first is that the 22nd May massacre in Thoothukudi was no accident, but was deliberate – the numbers may have gone wrong – but the shooting was done to kill – as the voice over in that viral video commanding the sharpshooter atop a van clearly says – to take a life. The second is that the governments have absolutely no intention in creating an hostile environment for Vedanta – rather they seem to be doing every bit to ensure that Sterlite re-establishes shortly with strength and the movement against Sterlite weakened and broken through multiple means including state prosecution. The hollowness of the state claims is what this essay will try to unravel.
In the aftermath of the international attention and pressure, first the Tamil Nadu Electricity Board (TNEB) cut electricity supply to the Sterlite plant in Thoothukudi. This was followed by an assurance by the Chief Minister that the plant will be closed. People were not satisfied and were demanding a government order to the effect, when the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) issued an order on 28th May for the closure and sealing of the Sterlite plant under the Water Act. Immediately after this on 29th May, the State Industries Promotion Corporation of Tamil Nadu (SIPCOT) withdrew the allocation of land that it had made to Sterlite for its expansion and decided to take back the land at the price it was offered to Sterlite.
Before we get ahead, let’s examine the legality of these two orders. In both cases processes of natural justice wasn’t followed and the company wasn’t heard before the orders were passed giving good enough technical ground for Sterlite to challenge the orders before a court of law. Moreover the TNPCB order isn’t a reasoned one – vaguely worded makes it easy for any challenge. Again the TNEB shutting electricity from the plant wasn’t done according to protocol. Lest, I be misunderstood, it is not my argument that these actions shouldn’t have been taken. My argument is that all actions should have been taken with due diligence that Sterlite shouldn’t be able to challenge the same and my question is why the government has been lackadaisical in this despite all the resources available to it. What one doesn’t understand is also the reluctance of the government to pass a cabinet resolution on the matter or table an urgent law before the assembly which will make the process for reopening of sterlite much more difficult despite demands from the opposition for the same.
But that’s just one part of the story. Let’s look at what the state is doing to break the will of the protestors and the anti-Sterlite movement and what would be their motive for doing the same. On the day of the massacre and the following day even as the embers of death and tragedy were fanning out – the police cracked down and arrested hundreds of civilians/protestors – while no action was taken against those who fired or gave the order for firing. Fortunately an honest judge immediately gave bail to all those who were rounded up by the police without delay. The earnestness of the state government to prosecute these people is obvious in that they have filed a petition in the Madurai bench of the Madras High Court on 6th June 2018 asking the court to cancel the bail as the government wasn’t given a chance to be heard and that these people posed a danger to law and order.
While all this was happening, the state government, apart from shutting down internet in Thoothukuid and neighbouring districts of Kanyakumari and Thirunelveli issued an oral gag order to the media which included strict directions not to use the term “massacre” and instead use the term “Incident”. The government was also monitoring people entering and leaving Thoothukidi district as far as possible.
In the meantime, let’s take a look at the two FIRs that were filed in the case. It is not surprising that both the FIRs put the blame squarely on the shoulders of the protestors for the violence that happened on 22nd May and the massacre thereafter. But, they aren’t drafted in such a way to investigate the reasons for the massacres including the lack of protocol. Shifting the onus from the police and the administration, strangely two deputy Tehsildars claimed that they issued the firing orders when they were faced with danger. Questions about the authority of a deputy Tehsildar to issue such an order notwithstanding, it isn’t clear where the District collector who was supposed to be at the scene was. Later duty chart of the Tehsildars for that day as drawn up by the sub collector revealed that the two deputy tehsildars who claimed to have given the firing order were not supposed to be present at the spot of the massacre as the duty chart required them to be elsewhere until further orders. When, the opposition leader M. K Stalin raised this in the assembly, his remarks were expunged.
While there was speculation, and news reports, immediately after the massacre that the Director General of Police of Tamil Nadu, T. K. Rajendran had issued the order to fire, to add insult to injury, his report on the massacre that he filed before the high court was conveniently selective and contradictory – glossing over the massacre and narrating the entire violence as one sided from the part of the protestors.
The gusto with which the state government unapologetically wants to keep the cases alive against the protestors is indicative of only one thing that the state wants to go after them and break the movement once the heat and pressure over the massacre cools down. They have already prepared the ground work for that by labeling the protests as the handiwork of outsiders and hinting at involvement of Maoists – a fashionable excuse for state repression nowadays. As and if the government manages to weaken and scare the movement to death, it will be the opportune moment for Sterlite to make its re-entry through proper judicial means – as the government has given it enough space to manipulate its way back to existence.
Bobby Kunhu is a lawyer, researcher and writer.