Brutal crackdown

Print edition : February 17, 2017

The burning of the fish market at Nadukuppam has left the vendors, mostly women, inconsolable. Photo: ARUN SANKAR/AFP

Arson near Marina on January 23. Photo: L. Srinivasan

R. Thesamma, a resident of Nadukuppam, whose left hand was fractured when the police beat her. Photo: T.S. Subramanian

G. Sampath, a resident of Mattankuppam, shows the lathi that the police left behind at his home after assaulting his family. Photo: T.S. Subramanian

Gajalakshmi, G. Sampath's wife, who suffered a head injury. Photo: T.S. Subramanian

Professor A. Marx, who headed a fact-finding team that produced the first report on the police action. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

NOBODY would have expected the situation to sour so quickly, let alone come to such a violent and bloody pass. The cheerfulness and geniality that was evident among the thousands of students and other young people who had gathered on Chennai’s Marina beach from January 17, seeking revocation of the ban on the traditional sport of jallikattu, evaporated with the brutal police action on January 23. The young protesters and activists were sleeping on the pavement adjoining the beach sands of the Marina when a large police contingent arrived around 4:15 a.m. on January 23.

The police had instructions to clear the Marina promenade on Kamarajar Salai for the Republic Day parade. They woke up the sleeping students and asked them to disperse. As the tired protesters resisted, the police kicked them. When the students sat bunched up together and knitted each other’s arms in a chain, the police pulled them apart and tossed them around. Then the police beat them up with lathis and drove them away.

S. Rajesh, a student of BSc (Electronic Media) in a Chennai college, who was one of the 50 students who first gathered on the Marina on January 17, opposite Vivekananda House, said: “Up to 3 a.m. on January 23, everything was all right. Around 5 a.m., the police arrived and began their action. They told us: ‘Anti-national and anti-social elements have infiltrated your agitation. You disperse now.’ The previous night the police had praised us no end for the peaceful manner in which we were protesting for a week. Now they told us that anti-social elements had hijacked our movement. When we resisted, they beat us up. The police claimed that stones were thrown at them from the beach. Where can you find stones on the beach? There is only sand.”

A few hundred protesters ran into the sea, where the police could not follow them. V. Dhanalakshmi, another student, was sure that the police action was pre-planned. “It was a conspiracy by the police to break the unity of the students. Our agitation was peaceful for seven days. There was no violence whatsoever. Our struggle will continue until there is a permanent solution to the jallikattu issue,” she said.

Many of the protesters, fleeing from the police, ran into fishermen’s settlements in Nadukuppam, Ayodhi Kuppam, Mattankuppam, Canal Bank Street and Pazhandi Amman Kovil Street, all situated opposite the Marina beach. This caused hordes of police personnel to descend on these localities in order to flush them out. The police apparently kicked open the doors of fishermen’s homes to check whether any protesters were hiding inside. The fisherfolk, who had provided water and biscuits to protesters and allowed them to use their toilets, had in any case made themselves unpopular with the police when the protest was going on at the Marina.

Arson at Nadukuppam

What happened at Nadukuppam, a fishermen’s settlement a few hundred metres from the protest site, was particularly horrifying. It is a working-class locality well known for its fish market. Most of the residents are fishermen who go out to sea in their fibreglass boats with outboard motors. Around 8 a.m. that day, a contingent of women police personnel descended on the neighbourhood. It burnt down the fish market, allegedly after looting all the choice fish. The fisherwomen this reporter spoke to said that the policewomen went about setting fire to autorickshaws, cars and vans and smashing the windshields and headlamps of cars and two-wheelers. The acrid stench from the burnt stalls, charred fish and gutted vehicles hung in the air even around 10 a.m. on January 26 after a nominal Republic Day parade had just concluded on the Marina. The police had “secured” the area for three days to enable Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam to hoist the national flag and watch the parade. There were other signs of violence: a Maruti Omni car with its front and rear windshields smashed, two-wheelers with headlamps and mirrors broken, and toppled fish carts.

A tall arch, named after M. Singaravelar, a trade unionist and one of the pioneers of the communist movement in India, leads into Nadukuppam. There is a network of lanes and bylanes, where people live in tiny homes. The other areas that saw police action—Ice House, Ayodhi Kuppam, Mattankuppam, Pazhandi Amman Kovil Streets of Triplicane and Chepauk—are all adjacent to Nadukuppam. The Buckingham Canal slices through these localities. Fear stalked the area on January 26, and all local residents gave a wide berth to the Republic Day parade and celebrations on the Marina, which lacked elan and enthusiasm this time and ended quickly. Most of the men, who were sullen and unwilling to talk, claimed they were somewhere else when the police unleashed the violence. But the women were bold. Not only did they speak about how the police went berserk, they also gave their names to be quoted and were willing to be photographed.

Rajeswari Kumaresan, 30, who lives on First Street, Nadukuppam, said: “My husband and I had locked our house on January 23 and gone to work when the policemen arrived and broke into our house. They pushed the fridge around, tapped the top of the television set with their lathis, rummaged around here and there. In their hurry, they left behind a lathi. We are unable to sleep at night because one of our two doors is broken. My schoolgoing daughter is not able to sleep.”

Everywhere, the residents were willing to show how the policemen had broken into their homes when they were out working. Clearly, the police were looking for student protesters whom they suspected of hiding in the fisherfolk’s homes.

Rajeswari’s 11-year-old daughter, Mithuna, found the house had been broken into and vandalised when she returned from school in the afternoon. “When I returned home, I found the policemen firing tear-gas bombs,” she said. Like other women in the area, she insisted that women police had set fire to the thatched roofs of the fish stalls by “throwing a powdery substance”, and damaged vehicles. Rajeswari’s next-door neighbours, Pavithra and her sister Vani, said they were assaulted by the police in their home. Pavithra showed lathi marks on her hands, and Vani said: “They swung the lathis against my legs. I could not get up for two days.” She, too, said that the women police were responsible for the arson,

Their grandfather Balan’s Maruti Omni car was parked opposite their home, covered with tarpaulin. Balan, who works as a driver, removed the tarpaulin and showed the windshields that had been smashed. He was too angry to talk. Vani said: “All the children in Nadukuppam are frightened. They are always looking scared.” Another woman, said: “When we asked the policemen why they were breaking open our doors, they yelled at us ‘Veliye Vaadi’ [an offensive way of saying ‘come out’]”.

The police did not spare even elderly women. Seetha, 85, was sitting on the road next to a vandalised car. She said: “The policemen kicked me. I folded my hands and begged them not to beat me, but they kicked me.” She showed this reporter her swollen hands and legs. Other women, who gathered around Seetha, said the policemen rained blows on them and demanded an explanation on why they gave “asylum” to the protesters and provided drinking water to them during the week-long agitation. “You are all extremists,” the police told the middle-aged and elderly fisherwomen and kicked them repeatedly. Some of the women spoke of how students had come running to Nadukuppam and asked residents to save them.

R. Thesamma said she was on the beach when policemen beat her with lathis. Her left hand got fractured.

P. Anand, 28, watched a policeman break his scooter’s mirror with his lathi. “The students came here weeping. About 50 policemen surrounded us and hit us. They did not spare even 12-year-old boys. The women police set fire to cars,” he said.

Nothing remained of the fish market. Three women fish sellers sat around what remained of their pavement stalls opposite the market. Ranjitham, Nayagam and Omiya, all in their seventies, showed their legs swollen from the blows they had received from policemen. “However, it was the women police who set fire to autos,” they chorused. “They set fire to the fish market. They looted all the big fish.”

More of the same

In the lanes and bylanes of Ayodhi Kuppam and Mattankuppam, the police in riot gear and youngsters threw stones at each other. But soon the police got the upper hand and unleashed mayhem in Mattankuppam, the nearby Sunkuvar Street, Canal Road near Palani Amman Temple Street, and parts of Triplicane. When this reporter visited these areas on January 25, signs of arson and destruction by policemen were everywhere: the shell of a burnt-out car near a bridge across the Buckingham Canal, an upturned water tank, smashed headlights of the scooter of a physically handicapped man, a destroyed roadside idli shop, smashed doors of houses and toppled Coca-Cola vending machines. People were especially agitated about how the police barged into homes and beat up women. All of them called the police action “arrajagam”, meaning “atrocity”. Many young people had fled their homes to stay with their relatives in other parts of Chennai because they feared that the police would return.

Gajalakshmi, her husband, G. Sampath, and their sons Prabakaran and Bhuvanesh, of Sunkuvar Street, Mattankuppam, were watching television on the morning of January 23 when the police came in and beat up all of them with lathis. Gajalakshmi and Prabakaran received head injuries. Bhuvanesh, a student of BCA in D.B. Jain College, Thorappakkam, had his right shoulder and arm fractured from the blows and had to have six stitches on his head. Gajalakshmi said: “The police dragged Bhuvanesh over a distance on the road and beat him up horribly.” Like many other youngsters, he left home after the attack and stayed with his aunt in another part of the city.

Sampath showed this reporter the lathi left behind by a policeman. Prabakaran, who brought out the “CT scan brain (plain)” reports of the head injuries that he, his mother and brother received, said the police entered more than 100 houses, all tiny dwellings packed in mini-lanes branching off from lanes, and beat up everybody who was at home.

Saraswathi, who lives a few feet away from this family, was another victim. She made a living by cooking idlis, which she sold on the pavement outside her tiny two-room house. The police smashed her gas stove and turned on the tap in the cylinder, shouting: “Let your house go up in flames.” Sarawathi said: “They smashed everything, pots, pans, stoves. They pulled down the cloth awning over the door, under which I used to sell idlis. The policemen used vulgar language.”

Everyone in the neighbourhood wanted to show this reporter the destruction that the policemen had wrought in their homes. At Punitha’s home, the police broke all the doors, and just one horizontal bar of one door remains. They vandalised her house and beat up her son Karthick. Just outside her house was a shop with a Coca-Cola vending machine. The policemen toppled it and went away.

On Canal Street and Palani Amman Kovil Street, young men and elderly women told the same story of police violence. “The policemen came home last night and took away my younger brother,” said one youngster who at first gave his name but later did not want his name to be mentioned. There are fears of reprisal by the police. “They descend on our homes at night and take away the youngsters after identifying them with the help of videographs they have already taken,” said another young person who also did not want to be identified.

Resentment ran so high that one man said the settlement would fly black flags from their homes on Republic Day. “We will not attend the Republic Day parade. No crowd will gather there,” he asserted. (There were eventually no black flags, but the parade did not draw any crowds.) Shakila, who was standing nearby, broke down. Policemen had beaten up her son and taken him away. “I do not know where he is. People tell me that he is in the Puzhal prison [the Central Prison at Puzhal, about 30 km from Chennai],” she kept wailing.

S. Sampath Kumar, 54, a ragpicker, could not contain himself when he described the violence. He called the students “good boys” who had “behaved well” all through their protests. “For seven days, the students never took to violence. Did they misbehave?” he asked. “The fault lay with the police.” M. Murugan, another ragpicker, agreed. “They were all children from good families. They committed no crime when they protested on the Marina for bringing back jallikattu,” he said. Sampath Kumar, who alleged that the policemen set fire to the car that had been parked near the bridge, however, said that the students did make a “small mistake”. “They should not have protested for the restoration of jallikattu,” he said. “The villagers concerned should have done that. After all, the students are only spectators.”

Public outrage

There was public outrage when some videos showing police brutality went viral: a policewoman setting fire to a hut in a fishermen’s locality, a lone police constable repeatedly striking at the windshield of a parked autorickshaw with his lathi, and groups of policemen beating, with their lathis, motorbikes parked by student protesters on Kamarajar Salai. News 18 Channel aired a video showing policemen setting fire to vehicles parked on Radhakrishnan Salai, which leads to the Marina.

As news spread of police using violence to evict protesters from the Marina, demonstrations erupted across Tamil Nadu. Young people sat in protest on Old Mamallapuram Road, Chennai’s information technology hub. Riots broke out in parts of Chennai and brought the city to a halt. The situation was so serious that government buses suspended services. There were traffic snarls everywhere. To block youngsters from other parts of the city from joining the protesters who were being evicted from the Marina, the police barricaded all roads leading to the Marina—Cutchery Road, Karaneeswarar Kovil Street, Dr Radhakrishnan Salai, Dr Besant Road, Bharathiyar Road and Wallajah Road. In the afternoon, schools started declaring a holiday, which caused more traffic snarls.

Police version

The decision to remove the protesters from the Marina was reportedly taken at a meeting of top police officers on the evening of January 22, which was presided over by Chennai Police Commissioner S. George. On January 21, Governor Ch. Vidyasagar Rao had signed the Tamil Nadu government’s ordinance proposing amendments to the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960. Named the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Tamil Nadu Amendment Ordinance), 2017, it would have enabled the conduct of jallikattu in the State. But the protesters insisted on a “permanent solution”.

The Police Commissioner claimed on January 23 that the violence had been instigated by “vested interest groups acting through anti-social elements”. He said: “We could see that anti-social and anti-national elements had infiltrated the congregation [on the Marina]. So we acted upon the intelligence outputs.” But he declined to name the “anti-national” groups. Anti-social elements, in big numbers, threw stones at police personnel near the Ice House police station, he said.

Answering a question on the video clips that showed policemen damaging automobiles, setting fire to them and using violence, George claimed that the visuals were all morphed and that the City Crime Branch would investigate them. Later, he said: “There are videos and pictures [that portray] as if police personnel indulged in violence. We will investigate this, and if true, we will take action against such personnel. Our system will not allow that kind of excess.” ( The Hindu, Chennai edition, January 26.) Political parties roundly condemned George’s claim of “anti-social and anti-national elements” having “infiltrated” the peaceful gathering of protesters. M.K. Stalin, working president of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), demanded that he should be transferred for describing those fighting for Tamil culture as “anti-nationals and anti-socials”. He said there was no need to evict the protesters in a hurry when a special session of the Assembly was being convened in the evening. He demanded an inquiry commission headed by a Madras High Court judge to investigate the police brutality on the Marina and nearby areas. He added that the State Intelligence chief and other police officers should also be transferred. Stalin petitioned President Pranab Mukherjee for a judicial probe into the police violence and sent him a video of the police brutality.

Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Prakash Karat visited Nadukuppam with G. Ramakrishnan, State secretary of the party, on January 26. He said there should be an independent and impartial probe into the violence. Ramakrishnan demanded the suspension of George, Coimbatore Police Commissioner Amalraj and Madurai Police Commissioner Sailesh Kumar.

G.K. Vasan, president, Tamil Maanila Congress, said it was unacceptable that the police had arrested fishermen from Ambedkar Bridge, Mylapore, Nadukuppam and Ayodhi Kuppam, destroyed their shops, and filed false cases against them for helping students who were protesting in a non-violent manner.

Fact-finding team

A fact-finding team headed by Professor A. Marx and comprising eight other members (Professor Sivakumar, Dr J. Gangatharan, Ahmad Rizwan and the human rights activists V. Srinivasan, Professor M. Thirumavalavan, Professor G. Karthik, Natraj and Periyar Sitthan) demanded a judicial inquiry into the police action. The team, which visited these areas, prepared a report on the incidents on January 23. At Nadukuppam, the team found that the police had beaten up women and youngsters, ransacked their houses and damaged television sets and doors. It found that the fish market was burnt down by policewomen and that prawns worth lakhs of rupees were destroyed. Motorbikes and cars were damaged, and an SUV was completely gutted as the police allegedly threw “a flammable substance in powder form [phosphorus] on the parked vehicles”, the report said. The residents told the team that they were punished because “the injured students from the Marina ran and sought protection, water and first aid at Nadukuppam for the injuries they sustained during their forcible eviction from the Marina by the police”.

At Ruther Puram, a Dalit settlement near Ambedkar Bridge, residents told the team that the police had set ablaze vehicles parked at the entrance of their settlement—six autorickshaws, eight motorbikes and two cycles. One resident, Gnanammal, told the team that a large group of policemen drove up when hundred-odd people sat near the Citi Centre and raised the slogan: “Don’t beat up our students.” The policemen had stones and bottles with them and they set fire to the vehicles, Gnanammal said.

At Meenambalpuram, also near Ambedkar Bridge, Porkudi, 35, was assaulted by a woman constable when she went out in search of her son. At Hanumanthapuram, Canal Street, Thanigavel, 33, a construction labourer, showed the bruises all over his body to the team members. After the police beat up 10 residents, they bundled them into a police van and took them to Lady Willingdon School where they were beaten again. From there, they were taken to another place and beaten. Finally, at night, the police dumped them in a burial ground. At Rotary Nagar, a big group of women told the team members that policewomen abused them in foul language and twisted their hands. Two women got their hands fractured. The team members said that all the women residents they met reported large-scale violence and terror indulged in by women police personnel. They asked why the Chief Minister failed to talk to the protesters and dispel their concerns.

The team recommended that the State government should provide a minimum compensation of Rs.25,000 each to all the fish vendors of Nadukuppam. It also recommended that cases against those who were arrested and remanded in judicial custody should be withdrawn and they should be released unconditionally. The police personnel responsible for the violence should be suspended until the judicial inquiry was completed, it said.

Miscreants seize their chance

While the police went berserk, miscreants had a field day in neighbouring Ice House. A mob lobbed petrol bombs on the Ice House police station, which had its facade charred. As flames engulfed the main entrance, police personnel trapped inside were rescued through a rear door. The miscreants also torched impounded motorbikes parked in front of the police station. They set fire to tyres and rolled them towards the police personnel. Some miscreants set fire to a police booth near Ambedkar Bridge, Mylapore. Police vehicles and fire tenders were set on fire by roaming mobs at Arumbakkam and Vadapalani. The car of a Joint Commissioner of Police was set on fire near Dasaprakash in Purasawalkam. Miscreants broke the windowpanes of about 60 buses in different parts of Chennai.