Blaming the victims

Published : Jan 06, 2001 00:00 IST

The Justice Mohan Commission's report on the violent death of 17 persons when the police cracked down on a procession of tea estate workers in July 1999 faces criticism from political parties and human rights groups.

IN one of the most tragic incidents in the recent history of labour struggles in Tamil Nadu, 17 persons were killed and scores of others injured in Tirunelveli on July 23, 1999 when armed policemen descended on a procession of striking workers of the Man jolai tea estate, brutally beat them up and chased them into the Thamiraparani river (Frontline, August 13, 1999). The incident, which was widely compared with the Jallianwalahbagh massacre, sent shock waves across the State and drew instant prote sts from political leaders and human rights organisations. Equally shocking is the report of the Justice Mohan Commission of Inquiry, which inquired into the incident. The Commission almost gave a clean chit to the police and the district administration. The State government has accepted the report.

This is the second time in a year that the State police has been absolved of any blame in an incident of such magnitude. In November 1999, the Tamil Nadu government released the report of the Gomathinayagam Commission of Inquiry, which exonerated the pol ice from the charge of letting loose a reign of terror in the Dalit village of Kodiyankulam in Tuticorin district on August 31, 1995, when All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) leader Jayalalitha was Chief Minister (Frontline, December 24, 1999).

The Justice Mohan Commission, in its report tabled in the State Assembly on November 13 (Frontline, December 8), pins the blame squarely on the "unruly behaviour and aggressive nature" of the processionists and "the total failure" of the political leaders who headed the procession "to control the crowd". It holds that the force used to disperse the procession was "warranted", though the act of the police in chasing the processionists on the river bed "amounts to exercise of excessive force". The inquiry indicts two police officers and a tahsildar for not having been "alive to the responsibilities of the offices held by them", and recommends action against them. Although there was "some excess" on the part of the police, the Commission observes, "I cannot lay the blame at the doors of the police in dispersing the unlawful assembly at Kokkirakulam Road." It says, "At the same time, I cannot also completely absolve the leaders of the political parties who had exhibited an obstinate and defiant att itude." The Commission's description of stone-throwing by the police as a retaliatory act seems to echo what Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi said a day after the incident: according to his information, Karunanidhi said, the police only retaliated when the crowd turned violent and threw stones at them.

The Commission has held that "the eleven (of the 17) deaths due to drowning will fall under the category of accident" and that six others died of "the injuries they received" earlier "on the road" before jumping into the river. The police could not be ch arged with having intended to cause their death, the report says.

THE media gave a graphic description of the violence that occurred on the banks of the Thamiraparani on that Black Friday, with telling photographs. The fact that the victims included two women and a child made the tragedy even more poignant. And the fac t that the victims included 11 Dalits and four Muslims, as also Karunanidhi's attempt to give caste hues to what was essentially a labour dispute involving thousands of tea estate workers, made the two vulnerable sections - Dalits and Muslims - close ran ks.

The procession by the 3,000-odd workers in Tirunelveli town was the culmination of a series of legitimate trade union actions, including a strike, legal measures in labour courts and picketing of government offices. The workers were marching to the Colle ctorate to present a petition to the District Collector demanding, among other things, the release of about 600 workers and their family members who had been detained at the Tiruchi central jail following an earlier agitation. The petition also sought to press the demand for an early settlement of their wage-related dispute with the estate management (Frontline, August 27, 1999)

Leading the procession were S. Balakrishnan, leader of the Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC) in the State Assembly, Dr. K. Krishnaswamy, Dalit leader, member of the State Assembly and president of Puthiya Thamizhagam (the P.T. spearheaded the agitation) and f our TMC legislators, besides local leaders of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Communist Party of India. Members of the Thamizhaga Muslim Aikkiya Jamaath also participated in the procession.

The procession was stopped by the police when it was 50 metres from the Collectorate. The leaders, who came in a jeep, pleaded with the police officials to permit them to enter the Collectorate and meet the Collector. Commotion ensued when a section of t he procession at the rear neared the gate. Subsequently, the processionists and the police threw stones at each other. The police then resorted to caning and burst tear gas shells. This sent the processionists helter-skelter. With the police on three sid es, the only escape route available for the marchers was the river. They ran towards the river in the hope of crossing to safety, but were followed by the police on chase, reports said. The brutal incidents lasted less than half an hour and left 17 perso ns dead. Among the 15 persons who were injured, V. Palani, district secretary of the CPI(M), received serious head injuries.

THE Karunanidhi government first announced by a notification on July 24, 1999 the appointment of K. Karthikeyan, a retired District Judge, as the one-man commission to inquire into "the incidents near the Tirunelveli Collectorate" and submit its report w ithin three months. Three days later this notification was replaced by another, which announced the appointment of Justice S. Mohan, a former Judge of the Supreme Court, to inquire into "the causes and circumstances that led to the use of force by the po lice on the processionists at Tirunelveli on July 23, 1999 and into the causes and circumstances leading to casualties reportedly by persons jumping into the river due to panic."

Krishnaswamy, not satisfied with the way the post-mortem of the victims was done, demanded a second post-mortem, but the Chief Minister rejected the demand. The P.T. leader's efforts to seek the court's intervention in the matter failed.

A number of fact-finding missions comprising human rights activists and leaders of women's movements unanimously concluded in their reports that the police were clearly in the wrong and demanded severe action. An Independent Public Inquest by a team of f our eminent persons - Justice V. Suresh, a retired Judge of the Bombay High Court, V.R. Lakshminarayanan, former Director-General of Police, Tamil Nadu, V. Vasanthi Devi, former Vice-Chancellor of Manonmaniam Sundaranar University, Tirunelveli, and V. Ka ruppan, a retired senior Indian Administrative Service officer - examined 44 witnesses and perused numerous media reports, photographs and video recordings. It concluded that all the 17 deaths (except that of the child) were caused by trauma prior to dro wning, meaning the drowning that caused the death was "due to fatal beating by the police in the first instance". The team found that the procession was peaceful all along. It faulted the police for attacking the processionists even after they dispersed and chasing them into the river. The brutal lathi-charge was uncalled for, the team said. Two copies of its 266-page report, with photographic evidence, were submitted to the Justice Mohan Commission. (The Commission has made no mention of the report.)

The Mohan Commission, which completed its work in 11 months, held 10 sittings, only three of them in Tirunelveli. The rest were held in Chennai, 600 km away from the scene of occurrence. It received 768 affidavits and examined 53 witnesses. Besides there were also three video cassettes and numerous media reports marked as exhibits by various witnesses.

With this mass of material before it and possibly more at its beckoning, the Mohan Commission could naturally be expected to bring out the truth. But its report, human rights activists say, has more to conceal than reveal. The Commission seems to have re lied more on police and government witnesses to arrive at certain conclusions, they aver. For instance, there was an allegation before the Commission that a section of the processionists indulged in teasing women constables, though the alleged incident f inds no place in the first information report (FIR). Relying solely on the oral testimony of a woman constable and taking as corroborative evidence a general observation in a single newspaper that the processionists abused and heckled the police, the Com mission finds truth in the charge. It rejects the contention that the "molestation" incident has not been published in any other newspaper and even the statement made by the Minister of Law in the Assembly after the incident makes no mention of such a ch arge. The Commission's remark that there was no cross-examination of this crucial witness has been denied by Krishnaswamy's counsel P.V. Bakthavatchalam. It also concedes that no photographic evidence has been produced, but says, "That does not mean that the allegation of molestation is altogether false".

However, while referring to the remark of S. Balakrishnan in his evidence that for the first time in his life he saw policemen stone a procession, the Commission dismisses it as "an exaggerated statement", saying, "There is not a single photograph to sup port this oral testimony." Although there were several photographs published by the print media marked as exhibits, in the "considered opinion" of the Commission "to support the so-called stone-throwing by the police, reliance cannot be placed on these p hotographs". The report says, "A careful perusal of these exhibits does not establish the police indulging in stone-throwing. At best it can be said that the Police were retaliating by indulging in counter stone-throwing..." The photographs include one t hat shows the marchers shielding the leaders in the jeep from flying stones.

The Commission, which, on the basis of oral testimony by a witness, blames the leaders for their failure to restrain the crowd, seems to have ignored the evidence of Palani and others that Krishnaswamy and other leaders had continuously appealed to the p eople to keep calm and maintain peace. However, it has not faulted the District Collector or the Commissioner of Police, who were in the vicinity but did not rush to the trouble spot.

While recommending payment of "an additional compensation" of Rs.1 lakh in the case of six persons, "who were injured on the road" and "met with a watery grave" later, the Commission adds a rider: "Of course, not that they died valiant deaths espousing a cause but they were misguided." A trade union leader said: "Considering the fact that the dead persons were either striking workers or members of their families, this only amounts to vulgarising their deaths."

Going beyond the terms of reference, the Commission makes a "strong plea" for banning political processions and observes, "Such processions belong to the past when the horizon of human rights had not been expanded. The modern era belongs to the common ma n whose human rights have to be respected. Failure to respect such human rights may result in anarchy and in uncivilised behaviour."

HUMAN rights organisations and political parties have deplored the "cover-up exercise" and appealed to the government to reject "this one-sided and biased" report. Addressing a meeting in Tirunelveli on December 23, P. Mohan, CPI(M) member of Parliament, demanded that the government withdraw its acceptance of the report. Henri Tiphagne of People's Watch - Tamil Nadu (Madurai), who represented some of the victims before the Commission, detailed a number of discrepancies in the report and regretted that t he Commission had said nothing about the injuries inflicted by the police on Palani or about the payment of compensation. He said that the video evidence had been "tampered with" by the police. Bakthavatchalam told Frontline that the Commission, w hich saw the police video film, expressed resentment when the film stopped abruptly when the scenes showing police action were to commence and resumed after a break indicating that the relevant portion had been "edited out". There were also before the Co mmission video films such as "Oru Nathiyin Maranam" (incidentally, this film was banned for public screening by the Tamil Nadu government a few months ago) that covered the entire incident. Henry Tiphagne said that they were contemplating further legal measures to bring out the truth and render justice to the victims of the police violence.

Justice H. Suresh told Frontline that it was regrettable that the Commission chose to ignore the findings of the Independent Public Inquest. "The Commission has not even cared to acknowledge its receipt in the report," he said. He said that most of the Commission's findings were "simply baseless" and "contrary to truth". He took strong exception to the recommendation that political processions be banned. "Holding processions" is a democratic right and democracy itself is a human right," Justice Suresh said. "It is shocking" that the Commission should have come out with such an "anti-democratic" recommendation, when the Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that holding processions was a fundamental right. "You cannot curb a procession. You can cur b violence," he said. Justice Suresh criticised the findings of the Commission at a public meeting in Chennai.

Lakshminarayanan regretted that the Commission had not suggested the institution of cases in respect of each of the deaths: "Those killed should have been given that dignity at least." Vasanthi Devi said the report had belied the hopes of an impartial in quiry. She said that the Commission had justified the police action on the basis of a "manipulated FIR".

Ravi Kumar, president of the People's Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL), Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry, said that the Commission's recommendation to ban political processions was "very dangerous" and that it went "totally against the spirit of the Constitutio n". He said that the report confirmed the general belief that inquiry commissions seldom brought out the truth and that "they only serve the purpose of temporarily preventing people from taking recourse to other means of getting justice".

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