Thoothukudi: Actor Rajinikanth’s remarks on intrusion of ‘anti-social elements’ into a peaceful anti-Sterlite march to the district collector’s office at Thoothukudi on May 22, converting it to a violent one that resulted in the loss of 13 lives and injuring around 140 on both sides of the protesters and police, may not have been wide off the mark. His observations draw attention to the need for vigilance, if one sees the sequence of the events here on that fateful day.
After 99 days of peaceful protests in the villages around the copper smelter plant since February 11, the Thoothukudi District Anti-Sterlite Forum — a federation of several anti-sterlite outfits, had decided to lay siege to the collector’s office indefinitely by gathering thousands of people to mark the 100th day of their relay protest on May 22.
Outwardly, the stated objective of the protesters though, to gherao the district collectorate, which the village leaders said in public till they commenced the protest march from ‘Our Lady of Snows Church’ from the beach road, however, has not been denied by the rally leaders. They continue to maintain that the march towards the collector’s office was only to petition the district administration and not with the intention of laying siege to the collector’s office. (This they may say to project their innocence.)
Significantly, on the morning of May 20, two days ahead of the day of the tragic happenings, at a peace talk held by former district SP, Mahendran with some 23 members who included traders representatives and a section of the protest leaders including seniors like retired Prof. Fathima Babu, the police official advised them to only hold a peaceful protest (in contra to the indefinite siege of collectorate plan) between 9 am to 5 pm (on May 22), at the SAV School ground near the old bus stand in the heart of the port-town. They agreed to the SP’s suggestion apparently in writing.
However, the ‘agreement’ with the district SP by a section of influential protesters, was resented by the more virulent (Vegamaaga sella ninaikkum poratta nabargal). The hardliners soon convened a meeting on the evening of May 20 at Pandarampatti village. They brought together all the other protesting groups/factions to form a district-level forum mentioned above. That meeting, organised by some advocates close to ‘Makkal Adhikaram’, took a different line and they expelled the 23 persons including Ms. Fathima Babu, who earlier took part in the peace meeting with the SP, from the joint protesters forum. This internal split in their ranks reflected when the protesters initially gathered near the old bus stand on May 22 morning. The seniors including trade representatives then backed out at that point.
It is also important to keep in mind the speeches made by some of those, who were in the forefront of the protest on the previous day of the fateful rally. Vasanthy, a 52-year-old lady, addressing the protesters at the preparatory meeting held at Pandarampatti village (on May 20 evening), had said that the protesters should be grouped in tens to attack one policeman. Moreover, it is to be noted that Vasanthi is the mother of the youth, Santhosh Raj (22), who questioned the state minister for Information and Publicicty, Mr. Kadambur Raju, the deputy Chief Minister, Mr. O Panneerselvam and also Rajinikanth, when they visited the injured at the hospital. Sathosh Raj is under treatment for head injury.
Ringing the church bell, the clergy gathered around 5,000 people, mostly belonging to Catholic Fernandez group, at ‘Our Lady of Snows Church’, from where the procession commenced on May 22 morning. On the way, people joined to make it around 20,000. Catholic clergy in civil dress too participated in the mass procession that, however, was stopped at Thoothukudi South police station, from where the prohibitory order under section 144 Cr.P.C. was in force. The front-liners in the rally yet continued their march pushing aside the policemen, numbering around 20.
This ‘success’ in violating the prohibitory order and brushing past the policemen enthused the youths, who showed their might by lifting and throwing down the steel barricades. Some also threw chappals at the policemen. Another set of police with just lathis, led by Tirunelveli range DIG Kapil Kumar Saratkar stopped the procession at VVD signal near the famous VVD oil factory.
The attempt by the police however, turned counterproductive. Despite the proportionately small number of police, numbering around 50, resorting to a lathi-charge to disperse the mob, they were stoned by the people in the rally. Some of them grabbed the lathis from the cops and beat the men in uniform.
Unable to withstand the mob attack, the DIG and his men retreated, giving free hand to the mob that even damaged the concrete blocks used as road dividers for about two kilometres until they reach the third mile, where many of the leaders, like Krishnamurthy, S Raja, Prabhu some clergymen who pivoted the 100-day protest left the rally. The left party-men went as a separate group in the procession and Human Rights activist, Henry Tiphagne left the rally. It was after this point on the other side of the ‘third mile bridge’, the mob became completely unruly to attack the riot control vehicle that fired tear gas to warn the people from moving further. This happened in front of the FCI gowdown, where a team of around 50 policemen with lathis led by Tirunelveli district SP, Dr Arun Sakthi Kumar, were literally driven away by the rioters, who stoned the police and beat them up.
The street lights and the sign posts in the road were damaged by the mob, who also set on fire two-wheelers parked under the By-pass bridge. The rioters also continuously stoned for about a kilometre from the ‘Third mile bridge’ to the district collector’s office. Around 20 policemen were inside the bus, which however was well driven by the driver, who meandering past the unruly crowd, reached the collectorate premises.
In front of the collector’s office, a group of men attacked a policeman, who was injured at the back of his head and fell down. The protesters, however, did not allow the ambulance parked there following which the policeman was taken in a police vehicle to the hospital. After attacking the cop, the same mob capsized a police Sumo and set it ablaze. ‘The Hindu’ newspaper photographer, Rajesh and ‘Dinakaran’ photographer, Felix, who were taking pictures of this unruliness of the rioters from the terrace of a nearby shop too were attacked. The camera of a freelance photographer, Balamurugan, was fully damaged by the rioters.
However, before additional number of police force reached the entrance of the collector’s office, a section of the rioters entered and started ransacking. They set ablaze 25 two-wheelers of the collectorate staff at the vehicle parking area and capsized the government jeeps. Some of the rioters also tried to enter the office, threatening and pelting stones at the collector office staff inside.
It was at this point the police resorted to firing in which four including the 17-year-old girl, Snowlin Venista were killed inside the collector office premises. While a section of the rioters were indulging in violence at the collectorate premises, around 25 men entered the Sterlite staff quarters--Tamira-II, located adjacent to the district collector’s office and set ablaze 25 cars and two- wheelers. Luckily, they could not use the lift of the six-storied apartment blocks, as the power supply was immediately stopped. The families residing on the first five floors took shelter in the houses on the sixth floor.
Among the 13 killed in the riot on May 22 and May 23 (one was killed when police use rubber bullet to disburse a mob at Annanagar fifth street on May 23), 12 were said to have sustained bullet injuries. According to police, Jeyaraman, a cadre of ‘Makkal Adhikaram’ was from Usilampatti in Madurai district, and Tamilarasan of ‘Puratchikara Ilaignar Munnani’ was from Kurukkusalai, 35-km away from Thoothukudi.
Among the 102 members of the public injured in the riot, around 30 per cent were from outside Thoothukudi. This included a clergy, Rev Fr Leo Jeyaseelan, who sustained bullet injury above his right hip and is now under treatment. Fr Jeyaseelan is the Parish priest at a church in Nazareth, which is about 50-km from Thoothukudi. When DC reporter met him at the American Mission hospital, where he is undergoing treatment, the clergy said that he came all the way from Nazareth to participate in the rally on his motorbike.
It is to be noted that none of the priests who participated were in their clergy dress. When asked why he did not come in his clergy attire, as the policemen with firearms would at least think twice before using their guns in the presence of recognizable priests, Rev Fr Jeyaseelan said that had he been seen in a priest’s attire it could create unnecessary problems later.