Justice for Sterlite victims

Tamil Nadu government's remedial measures come as solace for Sterlite police violence victims

Print edition : June 18, 2021

During a protest against the Sterlite copper smelter, in Thoothukudi on May 22, 2018. Photo: N. Rajesh

Justice Aruna Jagadeesan (retd), who is probing the Thoothukudi riots and police firing. Photo: N. Rajesh

Chief Minister M.K. Stalin. Photo: PTI

The Tamil Nadu government upgrades the appointments of those affected by police violence in Thoothukudi during the anti-Sterlite protests three years ago, and promises to implement other remedial measures recommended by a commission of inquiry.

Honouring a promise he made during his election campaign at Thoothukudi town in Tamil Nadu, Chief Minister M.K. Stalin revised the previous government’s orders and reissued them to employ 17 persons who survived or lost family members to police firing on people protesting against the Sterlite copper smelter on May 22, 2018, in which 14 civilians died and dozens were injured.

The All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) government had issued orders appointing family members of the dead and survivors of the police firing as assistants in village administrative offices and cooks in anganwadi centres in Thoothukudi district. The beneficiaries resented the orders saying that the jobs offered were not commensurate with their educational qualifications. They also claimed that the previous government did not entertain their pleas in this regard.

The Justice Aruna Jagadeesan One-Member Commission of Inquiry into the Thoothukudi disturbances, which submitted its Interim Report to the government on May 14, pointed out that many of those affected by police violence were graduates (including an engineer) and recommended that they be given employment on the basis of their educational qualifications. Stalin reviewed the appointments and, on the basis of educational qualifications, upgraded 16 of them to Junior Assistants and appointed one person as a driver in various government departments such as Revenue, Rural Development and Town Panchayats, all in Thoothukudi district.

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The Chief Minister also announced that the government would soon withdraw the cases registered by the Thoothukudi Police against hundreds of people in the aftermath of the firing and subsequent law and order issues—except cases that had been handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) or which involved damage to property, or those pending before the Supreme Court. He added that in accordance with the recommendations of the Commission, the government had withdrawn 38 cases filed against 13 leaders of various political parties, including R. Nallakannu of the Communist Party of India (CPI), K. Balakrishnan of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), Vaiko of the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK), Premalatha Vijayakanth of the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK) and T.T.V. Dhinakaran of the Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam (AMMK). Stalin said that the government would provide a solatium of Rs.1 lakh each to 93 persons who sustained injuries and underwent traumatic experiences owing to police action and inquiries. A sum of Rs.2 lakh would be given to the 72-year-old mother of a person who died in prison after being arrested in connection with the disturbance.

He announced that as recommended by the Commission, no-objection certificates would be issued to those youths who were harassed by the police so that they could apply for jobs or continue their education. In the past three years, many persons lost their jobs or discontinued their studies in this connection.

The Chief Minister said that the government would soon take necessary action on all other recommendations of the Commission, which suggested other remedial measures.

Criticism of commission

People’s Watch, a Madurai-based human rights organisation, while appreciating the Tamil Nadu government for accepting the recommendations of the Commission, pointed out that none of its present recommendations was related to the first three terms of reference: (i) causes and circumstances leading to the opening of fire resulting in death and injuries to persons on May 22, 2018; (ii) whether appropriate force was used and whether prescribed procedures were observed before opening of fire; and (iii) whether there was any excess on the part of police officials. Henry Tiphagne, executive director of People’s Watch, told Frontline that merely paying compensation or providing employment would not deliver justice to those killed in the firing and subsequent violence. He said that the institutions that were asked “to investigate the culprits responsible for the opening of fire and use of violence on May 22, 2018, such as the CBI, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and the Justice Aruna Jagadeesan Commission of Inquiry, have failed to do so”.

He added that the Tamil Nadu government should immediately ask the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court to take over the monitoring of the CBI investigation ordered by it on August 14, 2018, and the issue of filing charge sheets on those responsible for firing within a stipulated time.

He said: “If the CBI fails to oblige, the government should constitute a Special Investigation Team (SIT) to be constituted by the High Court in consultation with the State government.”

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Tiphagne claimed that there “have been no special efforts by the Commission to hasten the process of the inquiry” by either working on a higher number of days every month or by summoning police witnesses. He demanded that all the evidence gathered by the Commission so far be made available to the public. The State government must ask the NHRC to make public its report on the Thoothukudi violence, as it was the only independent report available now, he said.

Commission reaction

Reacting to his statements, Justice Aruna Jagadeesan (retd) told Frontline that she was pursuing everything through a systematic process of investigation and inquiry, which “are to be within the legal purview”. She said: “In a highly sensitive case such as this one, we should not be hasty as per others’ wish. I am literally a one-man commission today. You have to function within a system with its constrains. At the crisis time of the pandemic and frequent lockdowns, I cannot summon all those involved in this law and order issue asking them to come to Chennai and to depose. Hence, I have to go to Thoothukudi, where I have a small team to assist me.”

Justice Aruna Jagadeesan further said that issuing summons to hundreds of them was a laborious exercise. She said: “Each witness would be given 15 days’ time to appear before the Commission, and on appearance, they would be cross-examined by lawyers besides the Commission. It would take at least an hour or so for one witness to complete his or her deposing. It is not a case in the High Court where videoconferencing could be feasible in a hearing, since a minimum number of persons would be involved. So far I have completed [hearing] 700 witnesses and recorded and videographed their statements. I will resume my inquiry from June with hundreds of others in which summons would be issued to police and revenue personnel, besides the public.”

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The Sterlite copper smelter has been shut since April 9, 2018, following the Tamil Nadu State Pollution Control Board’s refusal of consent to operate the plant for its failure to adhere to environmental regulations.

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