The Tamil Nadu police action in opening fire on protesters after they rioted in protest against the Sterlite copper smelting plant in Thoothukudi (Tuticorin) was brutal. Opening fire without warning shots in the air and aiming to shoot directly at people to cause deaths suggested a failure of anger management in the police. The death toll of 13 or more is the biggest civilian casualty in years in an event that is not a natural calamity or action by the security forces against rebels, militants or terrorists. The firing was the surest sign that this was a failure of the administration and police intelligence. The protest against the smelter plant had been gaining momentum for 100 days, which is when it exploded. In that time, the government did little to reach out to the protesters and try to address their anxieties and try to satisfy them that measures were indeed being taken to study the damage to health and environment from the plant’s operations.
Tamil Nadu has been beset by a number of agitations recently, the high-profile ones having begun with the Jallikattu protest on Marina Beach in 2017. While most protests, including a very long one against the Kudankulam nuclear power plant, were generally non-violent, the appearance of fringe political groups seems to have changed the atmosphere. Beginning with mild violence in the agitation for Cauvery waters against the holding of IPL matches in Chennai, the groups seem to have got bolder in activating ferocity in the protests. This is where prompt administrative action through precautionary steps and police intelligence may have helped to gain an insight on the seriousness of people’s discontent, and shape a more open approach in talking to genuine protesters. Those who were stone-pelting at the police, overturning the symbols of police oppression like vehicles, burning private cars and two-wheelers and ransacking the district collector’s office were taking the law into their hands, and could have been tackled with measures like the use of water cannons and rubber bullets to disperse them.
The government reiterated its stand that it had acted whenever the British-owned plant’s patchy record in environmental pollution got out of hand, such as during a gas leak in 2013, when it was shut. But now the matter lies with the pollution control authorities and the courts, and there are serious legal issues to be considered. However, to call the police action “state-sponsored terrorism” is needlessly politicising the situation. Tamil Nadu is outraged by the severity of the police firing, but at no stage would it be right to say that the AIADMK government, seen to be weak after the demise of strongwoman J. Jayalalithaa, would deliberately kill its own people to tackle protest movements. The way forward would be to study all evidence of the police action, including the unverified accounts of the use of assault rifles and predetermined aiming at people, and take appropriate action against all those deemed responsible.