Print edition : July 31, 1999

Brutal police action on a procession taken out in support of agitating tea estate workers claims 17 lives in southern Tamil Nadu.


IN a reign of terror that lasted half an hour, the Tamil Nadu police enacted a mini-Jallianwallabagh on the banks of the Thamiraparani in Tirunelveli, 650 km from Chennai, on July 23. Seventeen persons lost their lives following a brutal police at tack on a procession taken out in support of a labour struggle. The victims, who included two women and a child, were drowned when they, along with scores of others, ran into the river to escape the lathi blows of the policemen who descended on them from all directions. (Search for the missing persons continued at the time of writing.) The processionists had marched to the Collectorate to demand an early solution to long-pending wage-related disputes in a tea estate at Manjolai in the district and the r elease of 652 estate workers who were lodged in jail following a demonstration by them before the same Collectorate on June 8. They also demanded that the State Government take over the administration of the tea estate, run by the Bombay Burmah Trading C ompany.

Besides resorting to lathi-charge, the police fired two rounds in the air and indiscriminately used a new weapon in their armoury - stones and bricks. "It is something unheard of: policemen pelting people with stones," said S. Balakrishnan, Leader of the Opposition in the Tamil Nadu Assembly. The Tamil Maanila Congress(TMC) leader led the procession, along with Dr. K. Krishnaswamy, president of Puthiya Thamizhagam (P.T.), which spearheads the estate workers' agitation for over one year, and the local le aders of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Communist Party of India. These leaders themselves became the target of police attack, but party volunteers formed a human shield around them in order to protect them. However, V. Palani, district s ecretary of the CPI(M), received serious head injuries. He was among the 15 persons injured. (According to CPI(M) sources, Palani was injured in the stone-throwing and lathi-charge. He fell unconscious and a Dalit youth, who was also injured in the attac k, took him to the hospital with the help of a Dalit woman. He regained consciousness after about 30 hours and has been declared out of danger.) Also injured were two mediapersons, Antony Xavier and Ramalingam.

The shocking incident drew instant protests from major political parties in the State. While Krishnaswamy and Balakrishnan likened it to the brutal killings at Jallianwallabagh by the British, general secretary of the TMC, Peter Alphonse, said that Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi was going the (former Chief Minister) Jayalalitha way. "The high-handed police action at Tirunelveli only reminds us of the anti-people stance adopted by Jayalalitha in the last phase of her government," he said. N. Sankariah, St ate secretary of the CPI(M), appealed to all democratic forces to rise as one man against the police attack. These leaders and CPI State secretary R. Nallakannu demanded an inquiry by a High Court judge into the incident. Krishnaswamy, who described the police action as "pre-planned and politically motivated", has demanded an inquiry by a Supreme Court judge.

The State Government, however, appointed K. Karthikeyan, a retired district judge, as a one-man commission to inquire into "the incidents near the Tirunelveli Collectorate" and submit its report within three months. Karunanidhi in a statement was highly critical of the demonstration. He castigated the leaders of the TMC, without naming them, for joining hands with "instigators of violence", the reference apparently being to Krishnaswamy, whose party has been championing the cause of Dalits. In what is i nterpreted as an attempt to belittle the workers' demand, he stated that all problems had almost been solved except one that related to "half a day's wage". (The workers, on the other hand, demanded that the 50 per cent cut in their daily wages effected by the management for the past four months as penal action be withdrawn as it cut into their paltry earnings.) Relying on information fed by the district administration, Karunanidhi said that the police only retaliated when the crowd turned violent and t hrew stones at them.

Balakrishnan has denied this version. He told Frontline over telephone from his residence at Paramakkudi in Tirunelveli district on July 25, that the police pelted with stones the open jeep that carried the leaders and that a section of the proces sionists retaliated. He said that the participants had been peaceful all along.

Lathi-wielding policemen chase the processionists into the Thamiraparani river.-ANTONY RAJ

Balakrishnan said that the police action appeared to be pre-meditated and pre-planned. The plan, according to him, was perhaps to injure the leaders and put the blame on the workers. "Their strategy, however, did not work," he said.

Balakrishnan said that the sordid drama could have been avoided had a senior official from the Collectorate met the leaders, six of whom were legislators, and allowed them to meet the Collector. Had the police stopped the procession elsewhere, there coul d have been more exit points for the crowd to disperse. What happened was that the demonstrators were chased and beaten by policemen who came from all directions. Moreover, there were few senior police officers present on the occasion, which meant loss o f control over the constabulary.

Here is a detailed eye-witness account of the incident:

Besides the P.T., the TMC, the CPI(M) and the CPI, the Thamizhaga Muslim Aikkiya Jamaath participated in the agitation. Among those who led the procession were four MLAs - M. Appavu, J. M. Haroon, P. Velthurai and R. Easwaran - besides Balakrishnan and K rishnaswamy.

Policemen hurl stones at the processionists.-ANTONY RAJ

About 700 personnel drawn from the Swift Action Force (SAF), the men's and women's companies of the Tamil Nadu Special Police (TSP), the Striking Force, the Armed Reserve Police and the local police had been posted at various points. Three officers in th e rank of Superintendent of Police (S.P.), three Additional S.Ps and nine Deputy S.Ps were also on hand. Shylesh Kumar Yadav, Deputy Commissioner of Police (Law and Order), along with the Striking Force personnel walked at the head of the procession, in which an estimated 5,000 people participated. The procession was peaceful. All shops in the busy road junction, from where the procession started around 1 p.m., remained closed for a few hours.

There are at least five entry points to the Collectorate and all these were sealed by the police in the morning itself. Demonstrations are usually held in front of the main gate. On July 23, the procession was blocked about 50 metres from the gate. An op en jeep carrying the leaders, which was in the middle of the procession, moved to the front on reaching the Collectorate. Haroon went up to Shylesh Kumar Yadav and pleaded that the jeep be allowed inside the Collectorate so that the leaders could present a petition to the Collector. When the discussion was in progress, about 150 persons, who formed the tail of the procession, got down on to the river bed (three-fourths of the river bed is dry), and moved closer to the main gate. They stood behind the po lice force that was blocking the procession.

These volunteers raised slogans demanding that the leaders be allowed inside the Collectorate. The SAF men suddenly swung into action; they tried to chase them away using force. Noticing this, another section of the processionists, who were standing on t he river bed, began throwing stones at the police. Soon the SAF men and the TSP women rushed inside the Collectorate and hurled stones at the crowd. As the situation was going out of control, the police once again resorted to a lathi-charge and opened tw o rounds of fire in the air. Shylesh Kumar Yadav and a few other officers were seen calling upon policemen to show restraint, but their appeal went unheeded. Hundreds of men and women ran helter -skelter and many of them stepped into the dry river bed. E ven at this juncture, the stone-throwing continued. Some of the stones hurled by the policemen hit their own officers.

As the volunteers had fled the scene, the jeep carrying the leaders was abandoned in the middle of the road. Since the SAF and the TSP men continued to throw stones, about half a dozen workers of the P.T., led by T.S.S. Mani, persuaded the leaders not to leave the jeep and shielded them from a possible attack. One stone hit the driver and he almost lost control of the vehicle. The driver recovered quickly and the vehicle sped away. Just then a stone hit Palani on his head and he was injured.

One of the participants of the procession holds the body of a child who was drowned in the river.-

Even after the jeep left, a large number of lathi-wielding policemen went into the dry river bed, as some persons were still hurling stones, and started chasing them. The panic-stricken men and women had no other option but to run towards the river. On s eeing the police still pursuing them, they jumped into the water. The policemen did not withdraw even at this stage. Some of them jumped into the water and hit on the heads of the volunteers with lathis.

On seeing women and a few others getting drowned, some people attempted to rescue them, but they too were not spared by the police. One person who rescued a woman was severely assaulted by a dozen policemen in the very presence of the officers.

Some policemen managed to reach the opposite bank of the river and continued their attack. Those who jumped into the river were attacked by policemen from both banks. Ramalingam, Abdul Hameed, Arulraj and Murugan, all mediapersons covering the demonstrat ion, rescued at least four women, but, on being challenged by the police they withdrew. Antony Xavier, who was taking pictures of his colleagues' rescue operation, was assaulted on the river bed. The police damaged the camera and threw the film roll into the water.

During the operation that lasted 35 minutes (from 2-40 p.m. to 3-15 p.m.), Shylesh Kumar Yadav was the only senior officer on the scene. District Collector K. Dhanavel later visited the scene. Fire service personnel were summoned and they retrieved three bodies, including the body of jailed estate worker Mariappan's two-year-old son. The body of the child's mother was recovered the next day. Fourteen more bodies were retrieved in the following two days. According to police, 21 police personnel suffered injuries in the stone-throwing. Three of them have been admitted to hospital.

The Collector and T. K. Rajendran, Commissioner of Police (in-charge), who did not come out of their office, denied at a press conference that the police opened fire. They said that the police resorted to only lathi-charge and the use of teargas shells. According to top police sources, the SAF and TSP companies had no proper officers to command them.

Puthiya Thamizhagam leader Dr. K. Krishnaswamy and Leader of the Opposition in the Assembly S. Balakrishnan leading a rally in Tirunelveli in support of the Manjolai estate workers.-ANTONY RAJ

MEANWHILE, following a discussion the Collector had with the Chief Minister, papers were presented before the court withdrawing the cases against the 652 estate workers lodged in the Tiruchi central prison. All the 39 persons taken into preventive custod y in connection with the July 23 procession were released. Reacting to this, Krishnaswamy said that the bloodshed could have been avoided had the Government acted earlier.

G.K. Moopanar, TMC president, who visited the spot on July 25, expressed the view that the police action was unwarranted and unprovoked since there appeared to be no evidence of any violence from the side of the processionists. He said that the Chief Min ister, who held additional charge of the Home Ministry, should own responsibility for the incident. Significantly, this has been the first time that Moopanar has been critical of the State Government after his party snapped its ties with the ruling Dravi da Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK).

The ghastly incident has thrown up certain questions concerning the DMK Government's crisis-management system and its approach to issues raised by political parties, trade unions and social groups.

The Chief Minister's statement on the incident raises doubts about the Government's seriousness in considering the demands of the demonstrators. While it is essentially a labour dispute involving 2,000 estate workers, an attempt is made to give a caste c olour to the demands, simply because Krishnaswamy happens to be a Dalit leader championing the cause of Dalits. The Chief Minister's statement indirectly questions the wisdom of TMC leaders joining hands with "casteist elements".

The administration, which had mobilised the police forces in strength in tune with its approach to caste-related agitations, does not appear to have taken care to provide proper guidance to the police. The number of police officers present during the inc ident was not proportionate to the large presence of the police force at the spot.

Such a policy of deploying the police force on a menacingly large scale whenever oppressed sections seek to exercise their legitimate democratic rights may at times lead to unintended consequences. It has the potential of sending out dangerous signals to social groups that are in conflict with each other, particularly in places where caste-related violence erupts very often, and encourage them to take advantage of a volatile situation.

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