Published: 22nd May 2019
We're living in a police state: How the police ensured Thoothukudi won't rhyme with democracy
From the police always knocking on their doors to having their mobiles checked randomly, the people say they are constantly being hounded
Sorry, but it’s best that I leave you alone during the interview, Allwyn Prabhu said as we drove to the village of Kumarareddypuram on the outskirts of Thoothukudi. He got out of his car and quickly introduced me to some folks lying down under a giant neem tree and then rushed away. Catching the slightly confused look on my face, 56-year-old Vellathai Balaraj tells me, “The police are always watching us. One new face and they appear out of nowhere." By now I am beyond mildly surprised, but she quickly reassures me, "But you don’t worry.”
Soon, Vellathai, her husband Balaraj, 55-year-old Banumathi, Kannamma and 77-year-old Subramani and I form a circle under the neem tree. There's a morbid sense of nostalgia as we try and find the words to discuss the incidents of a year ago that put Thoothukudi on the national news cycle. For a bit.
In case the name doesn't ring any bells, Kumarareddypuram is the birthplace of the 100-day agitation against the Sterlite Copper Plant that rocked Thoothukudi last year. As the weary folk around me begin to talk about the day that changed their lives forever, the police arrived.
“They’re here,” Vellathai suddenly announced. Sure enough, there they were.
Solidarity Circle: The village of Kumarareddypuram where the 100-day protest first took birth
It had been about 30 minutes since I’d arrived, and just like Vellathai had predicted, three cops drove in on their bikes. One was in uniform with very Singam-esque shades on and the other two in mufti quickly came over to our group with a notebook in hand. Soon enough, two more cops drove in. Now there were five in all. They proceeded to ask us (myself and the freelance photographer who were working this story) for our IDs, addresses and phone numbers.
YouTube Video Link: https://youtu.be/Q3cVo70wbc0
Just a routine check, they said. So we complied.
Shot to the heart: The day the music died
It's been a year since the horrific shooting incident in Thoothukudi that led to the death of 13 people. Two more died in the days following May 22, 2018 from cranial injuries sustained during the many lathicharges that occurred. That fateful day, one that will forever be etched into their memories, about 2-3 lakh people had gathered on the roads leading to the Collector's office. They had waited 99 days to be given an appointment by the Collector to submit their petition against Sterlite.
On the 100th day, their patience waned. They decided that they would directly approach the Collector's office and take a stand. As they were prepared for a long day, families arrived in whole, they carried water, biscuits, lunch for their children who might get hungry. Some of the children were as young as three months old. What place did infants have at a protest? Considering it was meant to be a peaceful protest — like it had been for 99 days prior — it seemed fairly safe.
Until it wasn't.
At noon, the first shots rang out.
The result? Fifteen dead, hundreds injured, some permanently disabled.
Crime Site: A year ago, the District Collectorate had no walls. Today the area is fully done up, blood swept under the tar.
One year after: The police haven't lost their edge
A year later, the gun sounds continue to echo through Thoothukudi. Even if they choose to forget the sounds, they're reminded every day about them — by the cops that knock on their doors in the night, by those who stop them in the middle of the road to frisk them, by mandatory weekly visits to the police station, by the plainclothes policemen who are constantly watching their every move from the corner of their eye.
Today, someone might have tipped off the police. Again. "They might have seen the car parked on the main road or someone could have called them," Banumathi tells me. One of the women walked out of their house and up to one of the cops in mufti and sarcastically asked, “Yeppadi sir, evalo correcta varinga?” (How do you always turn up at the exact time?). This angered the cop who retorted by saying that he was only doing his job and no one had the right to question him. The rest of the villagers quickly laughed off the situation and then went on to engage them in necessary banter.
The villagers passed a series of sarcastic remarks about how they were just ‘Doing their jobs’, others used mock sincerity while saying things like, ‘They are always nice to us’. Understandably, the policemen seemed to be seething with rage. As we walked away, the women muttered under their breaths to come back later, saying they would take me into their houses and talk.
“But they’ll follow us inside too,” one of them added as an afterthought..
So I ask the cops if they would do that. Follow us inside homes too? They just smiled.
At least I knew irony wasn't lost on them.
Horror Sequel: The people of Thoothukudi have not been allowed to forget the police atrocities of May 22, 2018
Dawn of a disaster: How D-Day unfolded
Even though the villagers of Kumarareddypuram began the protests and spent 99 days in front of the Collectorate demanding a meeting, they were not present on May 22 — the day of the shooting. On the morning of May 22, the villagers were told that section 144 (prohibition of assembly of people) had been imposed in the district and that they were being taken to another location to meet the peace committee, "We refused to believe them but we had no choice. We were thrown into the vans," Kannamma said. So they were not witness to the shootings. They heard the gunshots from afar while being detained in a huge marriage hall.
It was only when they were released that they were able to see the massacre that had taken place. Little did they know that the trouble had only just begun.
Life in a police state: We didn't beat him, did we?
At 1 am that night of the shooting, two men knocked on Vellathai’s front door and asked her where her husband was. In a daze, she pointed to the cot outside the house, “They shook him from his sleep and said the SI (Sub Inspector) wanted to meet him. Only then did I realise they were police officers in mufti. I felt so guilty because I felt like I had voluntarily surrendered my husband to them.” Balaraj had been captured in a news video and and so the cops had tracked him down.
The cops told the family that Balaraj would be back home the next morning.
Waking up to a Nightmare: At 1 am in the night, Vellathai and her neighbour got on his bike and followed the police jeep that had picked up her husband
He only returned after four months, because he had been booked under some 50 odd sections. When the topic comes up in front of the cops, the one in mufti said, laughing, “But your husband was in good health those four months. We didn’t beat him or anything, did we? He got good meals and was in better health than he is now.” Vellathai forced a smile.
The police also woke up two teenage brothers sleeping on the terrace next door and arrested them too.
That night the cops knocked on almost every door in Thoothukudi.
Anatomy of an arrest: His father told me to run for my life
Babloo Marimuthu, whose friend Karthikeyan M was shot to death that day, was also arrested. But not from the roads or from his house, Babloo was arrested at the hospital where he was waiting with a bunch of other friends to see if Karthik was going to survive the bullet to his chest. “The police walked into the hospital and started beating up people there. Then they dragged me and two other friends to the station. The sad part is, the other two weren’t even at the protests. They had rushed to the hospital when they heard that Karthik had been shot,” he said.
Fear of being incarcerated spread like wildfire. Families feared for their ebullient young. Manikandan U (21), who was standing next to Karthik when the shooting happened, said he was packed off and sent to live in a relative’s house when his family heard about the random arrests. “Even as his son lay dying on the stretcher, Karthik’s father begged us all to leave town. He didn’t want any of us to have the same fate. So my parents sent me away, I only came back after a couple of days when things had quietened down,” he recalled.
Since Babloo looked younger than 18, the cops asked him to lie about his age and released him in three days. The other two friends had various cases slapped on them and took months to come out. People arrested in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, say they were in prison for a period ranging anywhere from a couple of weeks to 5-6 months.
No one cared. No one asked. The news cycle had long since ended.
Fighting Back: While speaking of his friend, Manikandan chocked but would not hold back. "This has to get out, people should know," he said.
Prisoners of circumstance: Have you been charged with a 'Sterlite case'?
Today, while the prisons are not swelling with people, the residents say their everyday lives have begun to seem like one. “We are living in a cage. No one outside knows this but we’re prisoners in our own city,” 45-year-old G Ameer, one of the protestors, said.
Every now and then, Babloo gets a call from the station. The last one was as recent as last month, “They ask me to go to the station to ensure I’m not up to anything ‘wrong’. They check my phone in and out and then send me back,” he said. Not just this, he constantly gets recognised on the streets, now that the police are in every nook and cranny of the city at all times. “The other day, my classmates and I had gone to take a graduation picture and the police were there. They immediately called me and asked if I had been charged with a ‘Sterlite case’ and I said I wasn't but they didn’t believe me. Then they checked my phone as usual.”
So now Babloo barely ever gets out of the house and when he does, he’s always with someone, “Every ten minutes I get a call from home, asking where I am. The other day it was Karthik’s birth anniversary so we wanted to meet up and pay our respects but my parents were so worried and kept asking me not to go,” he explained.
That climate of fear we spoke about? It's a whole lot worse than you can imagine. According to a report released by Madurai-based NGO People's Watch, people who were injured did not dare to seek medical attention or report their injuries because they were petrified that false cases will be filed against them.
Case in point: Rajkumar's 133 cases and a 'relative' problem
Both of Banumathi’s sons have cases filed against them too. “Do they go to work or do they go to the police station whenever they call? Are they not supposed to get on with their lives?” Banumathi asks. M Rajakumar is a third generation protestor from the village but is the first to have 133 cases to his name, “Every now and then I get issued a summon and I have to attend a hearing. Now my charges have been reduced to about 90,” he says laughing and shrugging in hopelessness.
The villagers of Kumarareddypuram especially have a hard time when people come to visit. If someone new even looks in the direction of their houses, the police are there checking on them. “My relatives have stopped coming to visit us. When they come, the police immediately arrive and question them. They want to know where they’re from, why they’re here or if they have a hidden agenda, they harass them enough to make them leave,” one of the ladies says. Whether it be religious festivals or weddings, the villagers now think a hundred times before planning something, “I can’t even imagine a wedding here, the police would be all over it,” she adds. Some of the residents say they have not had a single relative visit them in the last year.
Second Home: Black shirts, WhatsApp groups, meeting friends — reasons cases are being slapped on ordinary citizens
There's an Emergency on and no one cares
On the day that we arrived in the city to meet people for this story, several people had been summoned to the Sub-Collector's office. As the line grew longer, we had to whisk away some of the young men from the compound of the office for the interview. But they did not mind. So we quickly grabbed our things and headed to the beach close by. Further enough to avoid the cops but close enough that they could run back when someone saw the Sub-Collector's car enter the campus.
Twenty-three-year-old A Kebiston wasn't even born when Indira Gandhi imposed an Emergency in the country but he compares the Thoothukudi of today, to India during the Emergency. "I've read about the Emergency and now I've experienced it too," the young man tells me. He says there's no other word that would explain the situation better. "It's full-time surveillance, where ever we go and whatever we do, the cops are waiting with a case to file against us, what else can you call this?" he asks.
The Sub-Collector’s office is like a second home for Kebiston who again has dozens of charges against him. But he’s ready to fight every single one of them. However, the 24/7 surveillance — he just can’t take that. “We’re randomly stopped on the roads, they demand to check our phones. And God forbid, two or three of us gather it’s only a matter of seconds before we spot one of the cops watching us. They’ll pretend to be on the phone but we can feel their eyes on us the whole time,” he said.
N Anand and Kebiston, both hail from the fishermen community and have been fighting against Sterlite even before the land had, as they claim, been poisoned. The factories had allegedly poisoned their water long before the people on the land had started to die from the diseases. “When three people in your family die of cancer, it becomes enough of a reason to join the protests," he reasons. The surveillance has gotten to him too, “At this point, I actually feel like they are tracking our phones. They even keep a track of our WhatsApp groups. The minute a few of us start to talk together on the phone, they check up on us,” N Anand said.
Bullet Proof: After the shootout, A Kebiston was forced to go into hiding by his relatives and comrades.
Why Thoothukudi doesn't rhyme with democracy
Forty-five-year-old J Ameer says he finds the police at his doorstep almost every other day. "From the time I wake up to the time I go to bed, they're always watching me. At work or if I'm outside meeting people. Their eyes are always on me. I don’t know how we can call ourselves a democracy anymore,” he says. Ameer had also been working with social activist and whistle-blower Mugilan, giving evidence and collecting evidence about May 22. The very same Mugilan who mysteriously disappeared on February 15 after giving a press conference claiming he had collected enough evidence to prove that no fault could be pinned on to the protestors that fateful day.
As we continue our discussion, we are joined by Pradeep I (35), who had just dropped off his aunt at the Sub-Collector’s office. She has been summoned because she requested the police for permission to hold a memorial in her dead husband’s honour. "She went to the police to seek permission and she came back with a case. It's again the same case that most of us are charged with, section 104 (Criminal Trespassing). Now they've asked her to appear," he said.
For those who have lost loved ones, even going to their grave means queueing up in front of the police station to seek permission.
“We don’t even have the permission to garland the graves of those who dropped dead right in front of us. Forget having the democratic right to protest or peacefully assemble, this is about paying respects to the dead. Even that is making the cops suspicious of us. Can we honestly say we're living in a democracy anymore?” a seething Kebiston asks.
In Shock: No government ambulance turned up at the shooting site, one or two that did were packed with policemen, Pradeep said.
In Dravidian heartland, orange is the new black
Anand says that he was once stopped and questioned by the police because he was shopping for a black shirt, “On May 22, people who were wearing black t-shirts were shot, irrespective of whether they were participating in the protests or not. Today, they question us for even buying black shirts, asking us what our plan is. Can it get any more ridiculous?” Anand asks with a smirk.
They're lucky Periyar didn't get wind of that one.
"You can point to any random person in Thoothukudi and there’s a good chance they have a case filed against them,” Krishnamurthy M, one of the leaders of the protest, who just returned from a hearing said. “Guess what it says in this summons?” Krishnamurthy asks as he waves it in his hands, “It says I’m being charged because I’m protesting against Sterlite. Is that even a valid case? But that’s what hundreds of other people too have been booked for. Sterlite is a private corporate company, why am I not allowed to protest against it? And you know what the funniest part is? Edapaddi Palaniswami, our CM said it too. He's said Sterlite should remain shut but he’s not being charged now, is he?"
Melting Point: They stood up for the soil, the water, the air, their mothers, fathers, siblings, children and friends and received bullets in return
Future tense? Yes and no
Many of the youngsters have lost jobs, some have had to move jobs, some have moved away entirely.
But despite the fear that is being spread by the police, the people say they are not scared. They are frustrated, angry, disappointed and distressed but the young people and the old say, they are not giving up. "Even two days ago I saw a young relative of mine, her head was all shaved. I asked her what happened, she said she had stomach cancer. She's barely 12 or 13, the fight is far from over," Anand said.
If there's any sign of the second Sterlite plant getting re-opened, the people say they will be out on the roads again. "If we don't fight for our children, who will? There should be some meaning in the deaths of the 15 people, shouldn't there?" Banumathi asks. But Thoothukudi has definitely changed in the last year. In some ways more than it had been changing in the last 25 years when the poison had begun to seep into the soil, water and bodies of the Thoothukudi people.
“Democracy is a joke,” Kebiston says, “Thoothukudi is now a police state.”