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'The cops came out and started firing'

By A Ganesh Nadar
Last updated on: May 31, 2018 15:29 IST
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'I joined the protest on the 100th day to show solidarity with the farmers.'
'I was outside the collector's office when people started running.'
'I was wondering what had happened when I felt a pain in my hand and it began bleeding.'
Victims of the anti-Sterlite protest speak to Ganesh Nadar.

Thoothukudi protest against Sterlite 

IMAGE: Members of the transgender community at a demonstration in Chennai protesting the police firing in Tuticorin/Thoothukudi, Tamil Nadu, on May 22, 2018 in which 13 people were killed. Photograph: P Ravikumar/Reuters

The mood at the Thoothukudi Medical College and Hospital is grim.

With more policemen than patients and doctors visible on the premises, it looks more like a police camp than a hospital.

Most of the police personnel are sleeping; the ones who are awake are glued to their mobile phones. Riot shields are strewn around; one cop is using his as a sleeping bag.

Peace has descended on Thoothukudi which witnessed violence of the worst kind last week.

It was unleashed by the Tamil Nadu government on a crowd protesting the pollution unleashed on their town by a powerful multinational.


"Everybody in Thoothukudi knows Sterlite is polluting the atmosphere," a retired Tuticorin Port Trust employee, who did not want to be named in this report, tells this correspondent. "I have experienced it. Sometimes, there is a horrible smell in the air."

Sterlite, which is owned by Vedanta Resources, a London-headquartered metals and mining conglomerate, says it uses sulphur dioxide to prepare sulphuric acid. The company claims the gas is not let out into the atmosphere.

In order to locate the victims -- 48 people were wounded in the police firing on May 22, 2018 -- you have to trudge up and down 10 floors of the Thoothukudi Medical College and Hospital.

When you finally locate the victims inside a ward, they have been segregated into an enclave guarded by an ominous sign, 'No entry without permission'.

One of the victims -- since they have been ordered not to speak to the media, let's call him Victim A -- whose hand and leg are bandaged, is in his early twenties.

He is being visited by three of his friends who are doing everything they can to take his mind off his injuries.

"Did a girl come to see him?" they rib the patient, adding, "He is glowing!"

His exhausted mother, who has been looking after him, explains seriously: "He normally roams around in the sun and, for the past week, he has not stepped outside this air-conditioned hall. So he looks fairer."

"I joined the protest on the 100th day to show solidarity with the farmers. I was on the road outside the collector's office when people started running," recalls Victim A.

"I was wondering what had happened when I felt a pain in my hand and it began bleeding."

"My friends took me to a hospital across the road. There, they pointed out that my leg was also bleeding. I had not noticed."

"I didn't know I had been shot. All I felt was a sharp pain. The hospital bandaged my wounds and my friends brought me here in an autorickshaw."

Thoothukudi protest against Sterlite

IMAGE: A demonstrator displays a placard during a protest in Ahmedabad organised by the All India Democratic Youth Organisation after 13 people were killed in the police firing in Tuticorin/Thoothukudi. Photograph: Amit Dave/Reuters

"Were they right in firing at us? We didn't do anything wrong. We never entered the collector's office. The cops came out from there and started firing at us," says another victim, whom we shall call Victim B.

"I was coming back from Kovilpatti and got down at the new bus stand. I saw people running and shouting, 'They are shooting'."

"Later, I came to know the firing was taking place at the collectorate, which is more than five miles away from the bus stand. The people must have been terrified if they had run five miles and were still running," says Victim B's friend.

I want to know how come no one from the 17 villages who started the protests and were protesting for 99 days are in the dead or injured list.

"The police had cordoned off our villages and blocked the roads. Every village was individually isolated. The cops did not allow us to venture out on that day," says a young boy.

There were many reasons why so many people had gathered outside the collector's office on that terrible Tuesday.

A television evangelist had urged his followers to 'join the protest against the polluting Sterlite'.

A lady activist had been expelled from the Anti Killer Sterlite People's Movement Committee. As a show of strength, she mobilised fishermen to attend the rally. In the police firing that ensued, seven fishermen were killed.

The lady activist had formed a peace committee and issued 'peace agreements' without the approval and knowledge of the protesting villagers.

The protesting villagers wanted to disown her peace committee by giving a representation to the collector. That is why they had gathered at the collectorate.

DMK MLA P Geetha Jeevan, who represents Thoothukudi, is said to have led a group of 150 protestors, a claim hotly contested by another protestor.

"She and her supporters went to the Kalaighnar Arangam and had lunch. She is the MLA; she must have known that the order to fire had been issued. She kept her distance from the protest," alleges this participant.

The Kalaignar Arangam is on Ettayapuram road, at the other end of the city.

The victims at the hospital say Tamil Nadu Deputy Chief Minister O Paneerselvam visited them on Wednesday, May 30 and gave them cheques worth Rs 200,000 each as compensation.

Earlier in the day, they were visited by movie superstar Rajinikanth, whose film Kaala is scheduled to release on Thursday next, June 7.

"You see that fellow," says Victim A's mother pointing to one of the patients. "He was in the ICU. When he heard that Rajinikanth is coming, he got up before sunrise, had a bath and sat down here. In the morning, they gave us a bag with biscuits, bread and other eatables and said he was coming."

"He (Rajinikanth) had to leave after visiting only one ward as his fans became uncontrollable. They (the fans) should have stayed outside the hospital. He gave the three victims he met Rs 10,000 in cash. We would have got it too if those fans were not around."

"Outside the hospital," another boy at the hospital added, "Rajinikanth said he wanted to visit the families of victims in Thresapuram. The cops refused. 'We could not control your fans inside the hospital; they will run berserk in the open. Please come some other time,' the cops told him. He left looking disappointed."

"My son has to be here for another four weeks," says Victim A's mother but we are happy that the company has been closed."

On Monday, May 28, the Tamil Nadu government ordered the permanent closure of the Sterlite plant.

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A Ganesh Nadar /