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Thoothukudi police firing: Probe report finds then CM EPS ‘indifferent’, ‘lethargic’

Led to the killing of 13 anti-pollution protesters against proposed expansion of Sterlite copper smelting plant

Edappadi K Palaniswami. (PTI)

The report of the Justice Aruna Jagadeesan Commission of Inquiry that probed the 2018 Thoothukudi police firing and the killing of 13 anti-pollution protestors raises serious charges against the then chief minister, Edappadi K Palaniswami or EPS. The report, tabled in the state Assembly on Tuesday, held 17 police personnel, the district collector and three deputy tehsildars responsible.

The commission also recommended a compensation of Rs 50 lakh to the kin of the deceased.

The report said days before the protesters picketed the Thoothukudi collectorate, and the police firing that followed, the then state intelligence chief K.N. Sathyamurthy had specific information about the worsening situation, and of the fishermen community joining the protest that had been organised by leftist organisations.

Sathyamurthy travelled from Chennai to Salem to meet EPS in person to brief him about the emerging situation in Thoothukudi, and suggested that EPS take steps to initiate dialogue with the fishing community, citing information that more fishermen families were joining the protest. The suggestion was to deploy the secretary of the fisheries department to dissuade the community from plunging into the protest.

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“Then the CM would appear to have responded by saying that he would do the needful. Unfortunately, the well-meaning efforts of the intelligence chief did not yield any result in as much as no follow-up action was taken immediately thereafter to defuse the situation,” the report said.

“It is baffling to note how a message with a potential for grave law and order situation remained unattended, even though the relevant intelligence had been promptly conveyed to the CM. It would appear to be a classic instance of indifference and lethargy, and had this grave issue been seriously attended to, it is quite likely that the issue would have been tackled effectively at the initial stage,” the report said.

The ‘Indifferent’ collector who skipped the peace meeting

Weeks before the May 22, 2018, firing incident, Thoothukudi SP P. Mahendran wrote to the district collector N. Venkatesh on April 10, 2018, alerting him about the emerging situation, the role of a variety of organisations involved in protest, along with details of cases pending against major protestors.

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The report said Mahendran, “in his anxiety to do something or other to salvage the situation and to prevent the scenario of various sections of society claiming to espouse the cause of the public at large”, had raised an alarm.

In his letter, SP Mahendran’s also suggested that a systematic study of the entire issue be conducted to assess the real impact of the Sterlite plant and analyse pollution details and impacts. “A well-meaning communication,” the report called this letter.

However, the collector, Venkatesh, did not reply to Mahendran. Venkatesh, however, submitted before the commission that he had already alerted Girija Vaidyanathan, the then chief secretary, in WhatsApp messages suggesting the formation of a community with medical experts and oncologists to study the impact of Sterlite smelter.

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The report observed that even as the collector sent WhatsApp messages to the chief secretary, there was no official communication sent in this regard about the “volatile situation that prevailed.”

It was in a May 11, 2018 meeting of protesters that the decision to picket the collectorate on May 22 was taken.

The commission observed that the collector, Venkatesh, should have made efforts to address the issue sincerely, all the while enlightening the public about the various steps taken by the authorities.

The report said the “failure and lapse” on the part of Venkatesh is “so very glaring and would only invite the comment and criticism that they were irresponsible and impervious to the sufferings of the people at large.”

In a peace meeting called by the district collector on May 20, two days before the killing of 13 people, the report said, “What is agonising is that the collector, Venkatesh, grappling with the sensational issue, thought it fit to abstain from presiding over the peace committee meeting and left it to be light-heartedly dealt with by” a sub-collector, who was third in the order.

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Noting that the collector was very much available at his official residence, the report said “he has avoided attending the meeting for reasons best known to him”.

Even as there were intelligence reports that Makkal Adhikaram, a fringe group with links to radical left organisations, CPI(M)’s youth movement DYFI and Student Federation of Thoothukudi, were planning to indulge in arson during the protest, they were not invited to the peace meeting. The report added that the district administration was also avoiding many political and religious organisations that played a key role in the protest. “It remains unexplained as to why the Christian community was omitted to be included in the discussion,” the report said, as the local churches and priests had a huge stake in sustaining the anti-Sterlite protests over the years.

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The DGP, in his submission, said the IG (Intelligence) furnished a list of names of people who would indulge in large-scale violence, but there were no preventive arrests made. There were 67 people in the list and only three had been taken in custody in advance, as police claimed the others had absconded.

On the day of the protest, the report charged that the SP, who was supposed to assess the gravity of the situation, had himself asked for a fewer number of vehicles and police personnel.

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“Had there been more Vajra vehicles provided, in all probability, the protestors could have been tackled more effectively in dispersing them by the use of tear gas shells which would have prevented the necessity to use arms…” the report said.

After the firing, due to the lack of coordination with the health authorities, the report said “those who sustained grievous injuries fighting for their lives could not be saved by readily and instantly attending them and by providing emergency medical aid…”

The report said the “fateful shooting” was between 12 noon and 1.30pm inside and outside the collectorate. Another shooting happened around 3pm in Thresapuram, killing a total of 12. It also found major lapses, procedural violations and derailing of hierarchies in granting permission for the firing.

The report named 17 police officers who were individually and jointly accountable for the incident. They include IPS officers Shailesh Kumar Yadav and Kapil Kumar C. Saratkar, who were respectively the Inspector General and Deputy Inspector General at the time, the Thoothukudi SP, Mahendran, deputy SP Lingathirumaran, and inspectors Thirumalai, Hariharan and Parthiban.

Also found guilty were head constable A Raja, sub-inspectors Sornamani and Rennes, grade-II constables Raja and Thandavamurthy, grade-I constables Shankar, Sudalaikannu (who fired 17 rounds), Satheesh Kumar and M. Kannan, and constable Mathivanan.

The report observed that SPs Mahendran and Arun Sakthi Kumar went on a ‘shooting spree’ with Sudalaikannu, who killed three people, without instructions from the IG.

The Commission also recommended that collector Venkatesh may face appropriate departmental action for “his style of functioning that is reminiscent of an abdication of his responsibility”, and suggested action against three officers who were then employed in Thoothukudi: Zonal Deputy tehsildar Kannan, Divisional Excise Officer Chandran, and Deputy tehsildar (Elections) Sekar.

First published on: 22-10-2022 at 11:18 IST
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