Police in the dock

Print edition : September 11, 1999

Independent inquiries by non-governmental organisations and social action groups find that unwarranted and brutal police violence led to the July 23 massacre in Tirunelveli.

A JUDICIAL inquiry ordered by the Tamil Nadu Government into police violence against a procession of tea estate workers in Tirunelveli on July 23, which claimed 17 lives (Frontline, August 13), is yet to take off. However, a number of non-governme ntal organisations and social action groups have conducted independent inquiries.

The Tamil Nadu unit of the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA), the People's Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL) - Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry, and the Writers and Thinkers Forum for Social Harmony (WTF), a human rights organisation in Madurai, s ent separate fact-finding teams. Other groups jointly held a joint "a public inquest".

CPI(M) district secretary V. Palani, who was injured in the July 23 incident, speaking at the public inquest in Tirunelveli.-P. SEETHARAMAN

The "jury" of the "public inquest" comprised Justice H. Suresh, former Judge of the Bombay High Court; V.R. Lakshminarayanan, a former Director-General of Police, Tamil Nadu; V. Vasanthi Devi, a former Vice-Chancellor of the Manonmaniam Sundaranar Univer sity in Tirunelveli; and V. Karuppan, a retired IAS officer. The organisers were the Human Rights Education and Protection Council, Tirunelveli; the Society for Community Organisation Trust, Madurai; the Society for Integrated Rural Development, Madurai; the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights (Tamil Nadu chapter); Human Rights Foundation, Chennai; and the People's Watch - Tamil Nadu, Madurai.

The reports prepared by the PUCL, the AIDWA and the WTF provided detailed accounts of the police action, which they descibed as "unwarranted". An interim report of the public inquest said: "Prima facie evidence indicates that the police were bruta l and callous in dispersing the crowd." According to the interim report, the crowd was surrounded by the police on three sides and the only way the people could escape from the lathi-charge was by jumping into the river. "If the objective was to disperse the crowd near the Collector's office, there was no need for the police to chase them up to the river and continue to beat them even when they were jumping into river," the jury members observed.

The interim report said that there was evidence to believe that most of the deaths had resulted from police beating and not cases of drowning. Photographs placed before the jury showed the victims bleeding ante-mortem, owing to head and chest injuries. T here were grievous injuries in other parts of their bodies. Post-mortem reports did not record the injuries suffered by the victims, the report said. It concluded: "This makes us doubt the veracity of the post-mortem reports."

(According to a government counter-affidavit filed in response to a writ petition by Puthiya Thamizhagam president Dr. K. Krishnaswamy, who has sought a second post-mortem, some of the bodies had only fish bites and minor aberrations and death in all cas es was due to drowning. The petition is pending before the court.)

All the inquires brought to light the humiliation meted out to some women processionists at a police station in Tirunelveli hours after the police action on July 23 afternoon. They were illegally detained at the police station and stripped and abused by police personnel. They were let off after they gave the police a written assurance of good behaviour.

A press release signed by the "members of the jury of the public inquest" said that 40 persons, most of them eyewitnesses, had deposed on the first day of the inquest, August 19. Many witnesses were women. They alleged that they were "beaten and chased i nto the river by the police and even stripped naked at the police station".

Vasanthi Devi told Frontline that there was a big response from the affected people, particularly women, at the public inquest. The organisers had invited officials to present their case on August 20, but no one turned up. Some local people who de posed on the second day said that processions organised by the Puthiya Tamizhagam usually turned violent. Some of them mentioned that women constables were teased by a section of the processionists. There was, however, no mention of such teasing in the p ress reports or in the first information reports (FIRs) filed by the police. Vasanthi Devi said: "What happened in Tirunelveli on July 23 was a heart-rending incident and a gruesome evidence of what is going on in our society."

THE PUCL team, led by its president Sudha Ramalingam, an advocate, visited Tirunelveli on August 8 and 9 and interviewed 18 eyewitnesses and 15 persons, including relatives of those killed in the incident. V. Palani, secretary of the Tirunelveli district committee of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), who was injured in the incident; District Collector K. Dhanavel; Commissioner of Police T.K. Rajendran; and legislators K. Krishnaswamy (Puthiya Tamizhagam) and Appavu (Tamil Maanila Congress) were am ong those interviewed.

The team observed that a common aspect of all the versions it heard was the idea that the problem was localised and could have been solved by "mature and balanced handling" by the police. "Even assuming that a section of the processionists indulged in so me unwarranted activities which provoked the police to take some action, the large-scale lathi-charge, stone-throwing and chasing of people down the ramp wall of the road and up to and into the river cannot be justified," the team said.

The very fact that all the deaths occurred in the Thamiraparani river more than 100 metres away from the place where the procession was stopped, the team said, "clearly establishes that the police did not stop with dispersing the crowd".

Disagreeing with the official view that the deaths were only due to drowning, the team noted that at least two of the victims, A. Syed Abdul Rahman, 24, and Shah Nawaz, 20, were good swimmers. The only logical explanation for their death, the team said, was that they received head injuries at the hands of the police even after they jumped into the river. The team observed that stone-throwing by the police, "a wholly irresponsible behaviour", aggravated the situation.

The team made a pointed reference to the absence of the City Police Commissioner at the scene, although the administration had anticipated a large turnout and Leader of the Opposition in the Assembly S. Balakrishnan was leading the procession, with some other legislators.

The team said that the Deputy Commissioner of Police was the senior-most police official at the scene. "It is very clear that the lathi-charge and the stone-throwing by the police personnel started even as the Deputy Commissioner was talking to the leade rs. According to him, he even physically prevented some of the constables who were close to him from beating up the people. Thus the absence of another senior officer on the spot is one of the major reasons for the incident," the team observed.

The team said that the lathi-charge had not been ordered by the senior-most police official present. "It is very clear that the police contingents present took the law into their own hands and were totally uncontrollable. Very clearly, the police did not behave like a disciplined force." The team dismissed the police version that their action was to protect the honour of the policewomen who were allegedly teased by some processionists.

The team said: "Since the offenders in this case are the police themselves, the investigation and the laying of charge-sheet against these personnel should be done by a Special Investigation Team constituted under Section 37 of the Protection of Human Ri ghts Act, 1993."

A SEVEN-MEMBER team of the Tamil Nadu unit of the AIDWA, led by its working president, Mythily Sivaraman, visited Tirunelveli on August 3 and 4 and met several persons, including members of the families of some victims. The AIDWA report said: "Unless the Collector and the DIG are transferred, an impartial inquiry into the police action is impossible." Citing the fact that the shops on the procession route had remained open, it said that the entire procession was peaceful.

Refuting the official version that the processionists triggered the violence by throwing stones at the police, the team observed that the women witnesses had told the team that there were heaps of stones inside the Collectorate and that the first stone c ame from policemen inside the Collectorate compound, even as the leaders of the procession pleaded with police officials to clear the way for their entry into the premises.

The team said that the only escape route was the river. It added that on being kicked by policemen, women rolled down into the riverbed through thorny bushes, and, hit on the heads, many fell into the river unconscious. The report alleged that the police snatched Vignesh, the 18-month-old son of Rathina Mary, and threw him into the river. The mother was chased and beaten. Both the child and the mother died.

The report said that policewomen stripped and humiliated a few women who swam to safety but were taken to the police station. Some women started bleeding after they were kicked in the abdomen. One woman lost three of her front teeth. The team said that t he injured victims, who were admitted in the Government Hospital, were ridiculed and chided by the staff and they received scant attention. The AIDWA team also demanded a second post-mortem of the bodies.

DESCRIBING the police action as "an unprecedented brutal attack on an unarmed, innocent people", the WTF team led by A. Marx, which visited Tirunelveli on August 15 and 16, criticised the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) Government's hard line towards Dal it processions. A substantial number of the Manjolai tea estate workers, who participated in the procession, were Dalits. Noting that the police had indulged in violence even after an official had ordered them not to attack the processionists, the team e xpressed concern over the growing indiscipline in police ranks.

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