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FRONTLINE EXCLUSIVE

Thoothukudi firing: Inquiry Commission report names top police officials for violations

Print edition : Aug 28, 2022 T+T-

Thoothukudi firing: Inquiry Commission report names top police officials for violations

Police chasing anti-Sterlite protesters marching towards Thoothukudi collectorate on May 22, 2018.

Police chasing anti-Sterlite protesters marching towards Thoothukudi collectorate on May 22, 2018. | Photo Credit: RAJESH N

The Justice Aruna Jagadeesan Commission report was submitted to M.K. Stalin on May 18.

The Justice Aruna Jagadeesan Commission of Inquiry (CoI) that probed the 2018 police firing on civilians protesting against industrial pollution in the port town of Thoothukudi in Tamil Nadu has described it as a “dastardly act”.

“Does it deserve a comment that it is a dastardly act, the Commission is left to wonder,” said Aruna Jagadeesan, the Chairman of the CoI, in her final report on the police firing that took place on May 22 and 23 in which 13 people, including an 18-year-old schoolgirl, Snowlyn Jackson, were shot dead and scores of others sustained bullet injuries. One more died of bullet injuries after prolonged hospitalisation.

A video grab of a policeman in plainclothes shooting at anti-Sterlite protesters in Thoothukudi on May 22, 2018.
A video grab of a policeman in plainclothes shooting at anti-Sterlite protesters in Thoothukudi on May 22, 2018. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

A peaceful, 100-day-old civil protest against Sterlite Industries’ copper smelter plant in Thoothukudi, which residents claimed had been causing ecological damage, thus ended in unprecedented violence. Hundreds of youths were detained, tortured, and arrested; the Internet was shut down in the district from May 23 to May 28, 2018, a first for Tamil Nadu.

Aruna Jagadeesan, a former judge of the Madras High Court, has called out senior police officials and the District Collector for lack of coordination and using excessive lethal force on the rally taken out to mark the 100th day of the protest. She has urged the government to take criminal and departmental action against the offenders.

Frontline has exclusive access to vital portions of the Commission’s report of more than 3,000 pages across five volumes. These sections of the report, which was submitted to Chief Minister M.K. Stalin on May 18, 2022, damns the official machinery and the police in no uncertain terms, for opening fire on unarmed civilians. Under Section 3(4) of The Commissions of Inquiry Act, 1952, the report has to be placed before the State Legislative Assembly within six months of its submission.

Extensive analysis

The panel has analysed the volatile issue in its entirety and meticulously reconstructed the incident that resulted in one of the worst police actions that Tamil Nadu has witnessed. Dismissing the then AIADMK government’s claims that the police had to open fire to quell mob violence, Aruna Jagadeesan notes: “[T]here is no material on record to show that it was only to deal with a militant crowd of protesters that the opening of fire was resorted to”. She has also stated that the firing was “unprovoked”.

Justice Aruna Jagadeesan, Chairman of the Commission of Inquiry probing the 2018 firing in Thoothukudi, at the collectorate on June 4, 2018.
Justice Aruna Jagadeesan, Chairman of the Commission of Inquiry probing the 2018 firing in Thoothukudi, at the collectorate on June 4, 2018. | Photo Credit: RAJESH N

According to the report, the police “had fired on the fleeing protesters...”. It further says: “Here is a case of police indulging in shooting from their hide-outs at the protesters who were far away from them.” The report makes it clear that the protesters were unaware of where and which direction the bullets were coming from, resulting in total chaos, destruction, and death.

In the first shooting at the Thoothukudi collectorate, in which five protesters died, the police hid themselves in the Heritage Park on the collectorate campus and opened fire, the report says.

The 100th day of protest against Sterlite Industries’ copper smelter plant in Thoothukudi, on May 22, 2018. This ended in unprecedented violence.
The 100th day of protest against Sterlite Industries’ copper smelter plant in Thoothukudi, on May 22, 2018. This ended in unprecedented violence. | Photo Credit: PTI

The shocking details in the report give a diabolical twist to an incident that severely embarrassed the then ruling AIADMK. The State shut down the plant on May 28 by an order from the Forests and Environment Department citing non-compliance with the rules.

During the campaign for the 2021 Assembly election, the DMK promised to punish those responsible for the tragedy if voted to power.

Top police officers named

The Commission has named top police officials responsible. They include the then Inspector General of Police (South Zone) Shailesh Kumar Yadav (now ADGP, Police Welfare); Deputy Inspector General of Police (Tirunelveli Range) Kapil Kumar C. Saratkar (now an Additional Commissioner of Police, Chennai city); Superintendent of Police (Thoothukudi) P. Mahendran (now Deputy Commissioner (Admn), Chennai); and Deputy SP (Thoothukudi) Lingathirumaran, and three Inspectors, two Sub-Inspectors, one head constable and seven constables.

Saying that they “have certainly exceeded the limit”, the report has asked the government to take action against the police officials for “their acts of commission and omission departmentally without prejudice to launching criminal action”.

It has singled out the then District Collector N. Venkatesh (now with the National Fisheries Development Board, Hyderabad) for his “abdication of responsibility, gross negligence and ill-conceived decisions”. Instead of staying at the headquarters in Thoothukudi, he was at Kovilpatti, some 100 km away, on May 22 when the town was under siege. The Commission has asked the government to take departmental action against him.

Ballistics report

The ballistics report, which the panel analysed, reveals yet another disturbing aspect of the police action. According to the report, “the shooting was from long range [weapons], and not short range”. (“Gunning down a protest”, Frontline, June 22, 2018), describes how the protesters were “shot dead like sparrows”.

Post-mortem reports and case studies on the gunshot wounds of the injured persons correspond with the ballistics reports’ claims of “long-range shootings”. The nature of the gunshot wounds, the panel surmises, attests to how the police opened fire on the fleeing public.

The entry and exit points of bullets on the victims’ bodies indicated that the bullets entered from the back of the skull and exited through the front of the face. That the victims died without even knowing what hit them is now an established fact. Frontline’s story “Revealing Report” in its March 13, 2019, edition states that six of the 13 dead, including Snowlyn Jackson, were shot from behind.

The police, the report points out, did not follow the Police Standing Orders (PSO), or “Dos and Don’ts” laid out for such situations. There were no deterrent acts, such as warnings, use of teargas or water cannons, lathi-charge, or warning shots in the air, as mandated by the PSO. (“Violation of Police Standing Orders”, Frontline, June 6, 2018)

Unsubstantiated claims

After extensive analysis of the incident through material evidence and statements of the affected, the panel has found no evidence to corroborate the then government’s claim that the police opened fire as they could not control the crowd.

The report points out that those who took part in the May 22 rally were “unarmed and indulged only in pelting stones”. There was no “imminent threat to the life and limb of the policemen”.

It further notes that “no policeman sustained fatal injuries nor suffered any injury grave in nature, barring one Manikandan who sustained grievous injury. In almost all cases of policemen claiming to have been injured, either the injuries were too minor to be taken note of or no injury at all except small swelling or tenderness.”

The report states that the police “had the opportunity of dissuading the protesters from proceeding towards the collectorate but by their ineffective handling floundered in every vulnerable point…”.

The vehicles burnt by the protesters during the protest against Sterlite Industries in Thoothukudi on May 22, 2018.
The vehicles burnt by the protesters during the protest against Sterlite Industries in Thoothukudi on May 22, 2018. | Photo Credit: SHAIKMOHIDEEN A

The crowd, according to the report, reacted angrily when it came to know that the police had shot protesters dead. In a fit of rage, they burnt down vehicles parked at the collectorate. The police, it feels, should have used non-lethal weapons and methods to control the crowd instead of resorting to instantaneous shooting.

The report points out that policemen did not even aim below the waist and knees, which is the classic deterrent action. They took random shots at people gathered at various points in the town.

‘Demonstrable failure’

“There had been a demonstrable failure on the part of the police higher-ups to organise the police personnel properly and to issue commands effectively,” the panel says, adding that “there was total lack of coordination between the police officials in the hierarchy.”

It notes that IG of Police Shailesh Kumar Yadav, the senior officer in command, was totally unaware of the shootings that took place elsewhere in the town. He was not informed about the opening of fire near the collectorate at the instance of DIG Kapil Kumar C. Sircar and DSP Lingathirumaran. Similarly, the shooting by Sub Inspector Rennes purportedly on instructions from Inspector Thirumalai was also not conveyed to the IGP.

Sudalaikannu, the hit man

The lack of coordination among top officers on the ground aggravated the chaos. To cite an example of the police’s extrajudicial adventures, the Commission has singled out a police constable, Sudalaikannu, calling him an “ace-shooter”.

According to the panel, he was the only cop who could be found “willingly and exuberantly” everywhere across the town on May 22, carrying a long-range Self Loading Rifle (SLR). He opened 17 rounds of fire at the collectorate, Third Mile, Food Corporation of India (FCI) Roundtana, and Thereshpuram, where many were killed.

The Commission records that when IGP (Madurai Range) and DIG (Tirunelveli), both non-Tamils and “new to the language and topography of the area”, struggled to control the mobs inside and outside the collectorate campus, Thoothukudi SP Mahendran and his counterpart from neighbouring Tirunelveli district, Arun Sakthi Kumar, accompanied by Sudalaikannu, were in action at the FCI godown, where two persons were shot dead, and later at Thereshpuram, where a woman succumbed to a bullet.

These two officers did not inform the IG and other senior officers about their movements and activities. The next day, on May 23, when SP Mahendran went to Anna Nagar, he faced the fury of a crowd of youths protesting the deaths in police firing the previous day. In the stone-throwing that followed, a police officer sustained a bleeding injury in his left leg. Instead of handling the situation sensitively, the SP “took away the pistol from his gunman Stalin” and opened nine rounds of fire, which resulted in the death of a 25-year-old youth and caused serious injuries to a few others.

IGP to blame

The Commission blames the IGP for failing to evolve “fitting strategies” even after receiving intelligence inputs that strongly suggested the possibility of a breach of peace on May 22. After the initial shooting inside the collectorate, which claimed five lives, the IG ordered the opening of fire outside the premises on “mere apprehensions of violence” against the police, it states. Sudalaikannu was brought in here again, and he, with another constable, Sornamani, opened fire, resulting in the death of three more people.

Thus the panel’s findings suggest an “unprovoked and indiscriminate” shooting spree by the police. The report says: “The conclusion becomes irresistible that there had been excess on the part of the police. The totality of the facts and circumstances would not suggest that the police had been acting in exercise of right of private defence. As a matter of fact it is not even the version of police.’’

Missing in action

The Commission has expressed its anguish over the way Collector Venkatesh handled the situation. It appeared that he was indifferent from the beginning. He did not even preside over the peace committee meeting prior to May 22. Had he taken it seriously and not left it to Sub Collector M.S. Prasanth to handle, the issue would not have “ended in fiasco”. At that time, he was very much available at his camp office, the report points out.

The Collector told the Commission that he was unaware of the protesters’ plan to picket the collectorate on May 22. He claimed that neither the IG nor the DIG or the SP shared with him the intelligence inputs that indicated the possibility of disturbances.

The Commission rejects his claim outright. As Collector, he should have personally convened another peace meeting “expeditiously” to defuse the palpable tension that had been building up in the town, it notes.

Prohibitory orders

Despite requests from SP Mahendran, who insisted that the entire Thoothukudi town and district be brought under Section 144 of the CrPC, the Collector chose to promulgate it the previous night only in a few areas falling under the Thoothukudi SIPCOT and South Police Station limits.

This partial imposition of prohibitory orders not only caused confusion among the public who were heading to SAV High School grounds, an officially permitted protest venue, but by preventing them from reaching the venue it made the crowds restive.

The Commission has devoted one full volume of 200 or so pages to the haphazard implementation of prohibitory orders just prior to the May 22 protest and its impact on the incidents that unfolded thereafter.

According to the commission, “there is total inaction, lethargy, complacency and dereliction of duty on the part of District Collector”. It has also named three special executive magistrates Sekar, (Deputy Tahsildar, Elections), Kannan (Divisional Excise Officer), and Chandran (Zonal Deputy Tahsildar)–all from Thoothukudi, who “have been marshalled and planted wherever necessary” by police officials to get orders under Section 21 of the CrPC for opening fire at various places across the town on May 22 and May 23. It has asked the government to initiate “departmental action and other actions known to law as against these Special Executive Magistrates/Deputy Tahsildars”.

The panel has also raised the issue of the non-identification of some 20 persons who can be seen committing arson on the collectorate premises and the adjacent residential quarters of Sterlite Industries after the police opened fire outside the collectorate. It points out that they are clearly visible in the video clips.

CBI investigation

Neither the State police nor the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), which investigated the case on Madras High Court orders, was able to identify them. The panel wrote to the CBI seeking assistance on the issue of identification. But the Central agency wrote back saying that it could not identify the individuals. Incidentally, the Commission has noted that the CBI charge-sheeted many persons for the violence but there were no officials among them.

Instead, it filed a supplementary FIR against some “unknown persons and servants from police and revenue departments”. The CBI filed two charge sheets in this case before the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court. The Commission hopes that the CBI investigation will be “fair and just”.

Further, it has asked the government to enhance the compensation to the families of the dead from Rs.20 lakh (which has been paid) to Rs.50 lakh, and Rs.10 lakh to the injured. It calls it “neither illusory nor on the higher side but realistic”. It also wants appropriate compensation to be paid to Justin Selva Mithesh, who succumbed to gunshot injuries later. The Commission suggests that his mother be given a government appointment. The medical expenses of the injured constable Manikandan should be taken care of, it notes.

The Commission has not found any “specific evidence” that points to the involvement of either Sterlite Industries, as claimed by a few activist groups, or any outfit, as alleged by the then government and a few individuals such as actor Rajinikanth, in the violence of May 22, 2018.