Published: 22nd May 2019
What happened on May 22, 2018? Reliving the day Thoothukudi lost its hope in humanity
Time has passed and families recall the events of the day the police opened fire on lakhs of people without a warning, killing 15 people and leaving hundreds injured. What really happened that day?
On May 22, 2018, while the rest of Tamil Nadu was running away from the 40-degree Agni Nakshatram sun, the people of Thoothukudi packed lunch boxes, biscuit packets for the children and filled up their water bottles. They were preparing for another long day of protest under the hot sun — it was the 100th day. A small milestone in a two-decade-long saga that had been on-and-off for the most part. When they gathered, they were a couple of hundred but by the time they reached their destination, the number had swelled into lakhs. The people had waited 99 days to meet the Collector — that day they were determined to ensure the Collector accepted their petition.
The protestors had decided that the women would lead the protest because they wanted to let the authorities know that this was an issue that affected entire families. And they were all in this together. So, some of the initiators of the protestors stood right in the front, the women were right behind them, many with little children in their hands — and then the men followed.
They had no clue what was to come.
That their world would never be the same again.
When the crowd heard the first gunshots, it surprised them but it didn't scare them. The second round of shots scared them but they didn't run. When the third round started and they saw the bloodied bodies of people being carried out, only then did their eyes and ears allow them to believe what was happening.
The police were shooting.
May 22, 2018 | 7.39 am
Snowlin: Of poetry, Cadbury and a life cut short
According to a report by Reuters, the autopsy of the 13 people who were shot dead that day revealed that they had all been shot in the head, neck or from the back. The youngest victim, 17-year-old J Snowlin had a bullet pierce her head and exit through her mouth. "I was holding my one-year-old grandchild in my arms, so I was walking behind slowly. Snowlin was much ahead of me," Vanitha Jackson, her mother says. She named her child after the famous church in Thoothukudi, Basilica of Our Lady of Snows, Vanitha tells me as she hands over her daughter's diary. As I flip through, I see three empty covers of the Cadbury Dairy Milk chocolate neatly tucked inside. One the pages, Snowlin has written poetry, mostly about her mother and her best friend, Mekala.
Vanitha was the first one to tell Snowlin about Sterlite, "I would walk to work in the morning and had to cross Sterlite every day. Sometimes the fumes would be so strong, I would be coughing, hardly able to breathe. I would get mouth ulcers all the time and I used to tell her about them when she was a small child." She also told her child about the trees that went bare when the smoke touched them. So when the 100-day protest was launched, Vanitha knew she had to take her family and stand with the protestors. But it was only when they got to the scene of the protest that Snowlin was completely consumed by the fight for justice, "Everyday that we went, we would meet people who had lost their husbands, wives, parents or children to cancer. They would tell us their horrific stories and Snowlin keenly listened. She was often moved to tears," the grieving mother recalled.
Which was why Snowlin was in front of the crowd that day, fearlessly yelling at the top of her lungs for justice. Despite being so young, the older protestors remember her as being very enthusiastic and fiery during those last few days.
"Our entire family got up at 7 am that day and prepared for the big protest. But we were all scattered and since I was holding the baby, I remained behind. Then a smoke bomb fell right next to me and smoke began to cloud the area so my first instinct was to keep the baby safe. The baby needed water and looked like it would faint, so I was looking for water," Vanitha said. This whole time, Vanitha was worried about the safety of the rest of her family members but she says her primary concern was the child and getting her home safely. "I thought everyone else would find their way home once things calmed down. A neighbour saw me and offered to drive me home," Vanitha recalled and so she went home.
While they rode back, Vanitha saw an ambulance cross them — at that time she didn't know that her daughter was inside. She returned to an empty home. Her eldest son ran in screaming for Snowlin and it was only then that they turned on the TV and saw her lifeless body in the images,
"I had taken my own daughter to her death," she whispered. The tears are a foregone conclusion.
Lost Dreams: Snowlin's house is filled with photos of her and her many diaries are staked up in their bookshelf
May 22, 2018 | 11.47 am
'We thought they would fire into the sky, not at us'
When A Kebiston saw the guns, he knew the police were not going to let this be a peaceful protest but never in his wildest dreams did he think he would see his friends drop dead around him. "Vaanathala shoot pannavanganu nenachen (Only thought they would shoot at the sky)," Kebiston said.
Words that were repeated by almost every person we interviewed for this story.
Kebiston, who is from the fishermen community, has been part of the anti-Sterlite movement from when he was as young as 10-12 years old. "There was a time when only the fishermen were protesting against Sterlite and nobody in the land would believe them when we said the factory was poisoning the water. It was only when cancer and other diseases struck them, did people come out and protest," he said. So on February 12, the first day of the protest, Kebiston was among the first few to start off the protest and on the 100th day, he was among the ones right in front.
He will never forget that march to the Collectorate, "There was an entire battalion standing at the entrance of the Collector's office and when the second round of shooting happened, I knew they were not just going to shoot at the sky, they were going to shoot at people," Kebiston said. But he was not scared, "I thought anyway they'll shoot at our legs and for this soil, I felt it didn't matter if I had to shed some blood. I even remember thinking that I would be able to protect the other innocent people behind me. So a few of us stood right in front of the police." But the police were clearly not aiming there, it took Kebiston a few seconds to realise. "Kaaka-kuruvi maadhri sutaanga. Thoothukudi oru vettai tharaiya maariduchu, (They shot at us like we were birds, it became a hunting ground)" he said, looking down.
Young Blood: A Kebiston has lost three of his family members to cancer. He says that just going on the terrace of his house would suffocate them and kill all the leaves of the trees in their house
May 22, 2018, 12.28 pm
Death. Despair. And all that comes after
Tamilarasan and Snowlin were right next to Kebiston, "They just fell to the ground. Even then I couldn't believe what I had just seen," Kebiston recalled. Anamika Tamilatchi, in a statement in the People's Watch fact-finding report also recalled seeing Tamilarasan dying but said she did not know right then that he had actually died, "While we were about ten metres from the Collector's house, we decided to sit down because we were sure the police would not shoot at peaceful protestors. So I suggested to the people around me that we sit inside the office," Anamika had said.
But a man in a red shirt told her that it is best that they wait a little while longer before they entered, "Then as he was talking he fell backwards. We did not know what had happened and shouted for help to lift him. As we lifted him, his head hung. I felt for his pulse but it had stopped. We wanted to carry him to the hospital and carried him up to the main road. Then I ran back to the Collector’s office to get my sister. While going I learnt that the person had been shot was dead," Anamika stated.
His name was Tamilarasan.
May 22, 2018 | 12.44 pm
Memories of Jallikattu, Horrors of Thoothukudi
Twenty-one-year-old Manikandan U, his friend Karthikeyan M and a couple of friends were sitting in the small garden outside the entrance of the Collector's office. It was Karthikeyan who had gotten the group together. They had attended the Jallikattu protests together and now, they were running the anti-Sterlite agitation. He was always the first one to participate in social activities and May 22 was no different. The young boys were laughing and talking when they heard the gunshots but they reassured each other that the police would only shoot at the sky. Then they saw the body of a person being carried out, Karthikeyan ran to help. After he was able to put the injured person on a two-wheeler, he ran back in, "Then he collapsed to the ground," his friends recall. Karthik had been shot on the left side of his forehead.
Front-line: On the last day, she raced ahead with the black flag in her hand shouting "Sterlite Down". Her family thinks this was why she was shot that day
Sethmaraj G had not been to the protests before but decided to show his support on the 100th day. The oil company he worked at had anyway declared a holiday that day, so he quietly stood on the road leading to the Collector's office. "There were a bunch of us standing near the GRT Hotel gate situated right opposite," the 24-year-old said as he lay down on his cot, his bullet-hit leg propped up on a pillow. "When they started shooting, we ran for cover. There was no warning, nothing. We gathered in a corner and stood quiet and scared, suddenly I felt a piercing pain in my leg and collapsed," he said. People carried him all the way to the closest private hospital but he had already lost a lot of blood and was asked to be taken to the Government Hospital. "I was shot at around 1 pm and I only went into surgery at 9," the young man said.
Except for hospital visits, Sethmaraj hasn't moved from his bed in the last year.
May 22, 2018 | 14.47 pm
Where did humanity go in Thoothukudi?
When the police were beating polio-stricken Pradeep I, they were taunting him for being disabled, "They kept asking how I had the guts to come and stand in the protests when I didn't even have normal legs." Just before he had been pinned to the ground, he had caught sight of his uncle and his aunt. He didn't know that they were coming too. When the shots began, his uncle told him to run and asked the others in his family to take care of him. "We became separated at that point, I think a couple of minutes after that he was shot dead," Pradeep said, "It could have been me."
K Cladson was another victim who was shot on the left side of his chest. In the fact-finding report, Cladson's sister said that when her grieving sister-in-law ran to the station begging to see her husband's face for the last time, a policeman held his gun to her forehead and threatened to send her to the same place her husband 'had left for'.
May 22, 2018 | 13.42 pm
Collateral Damage: What did Antony do to deserve this?
There were those that were protesting and then there were those who just happened to be there. Forty-five-year-old Antony Selvaraj was one such man. As we enter his home, we see his daughter wrapping her books in brown paper, preparing for the new academic year. She's going to the ninth grade. Last year, around this time, her father had taken permission to leave the office early so he could distribute invitation cards for his daughter's puberty function."He was supposed to pick me up from work at around 1 pm but he was late," his wife, Kalpana said. Antony was such a punctual man, that a neighbour once said to his wife that they knew what time it was depending on what work her husband was doing. "We had nothing to do with the protests, we were just focused on our family and had no idea about what was happening with the protests," she said.
Bedridden: Sethmaraj has had three failed operations and the government compensation is nowhere close to the money he's spending on medical care
A little past 1.30 pm, her husband's name flashed on her phone screen but it wasn't his voice on the other side. She was told he was in the hospital. After searching everywhere for an entire day, it was her son who finally found his father's body. The sky blue shirt he had left in that morning was blood-soaked, a bullet had gone right through his chest. Kalpana has no recollection of the next ten days.
Another person, who found himself at the wrong place at the wrong time was 25-year-old Vijay Kumar. He had been called to collect his transfer papers from the office he had been working at, "When we came out, we saw that both on the left and right side there were huge crowds. There was no way we were going to be able to get out, so we decided to wait for ten minutes," the young man recalled. But when the guns started to go off, a terrified Vijay began to run and then he felt his thigh split open, "The flesh from my leg was strewn all over, then somebody carried me to a two-wheeler and I was rushed to the hospital."
About a month ago, Vijay took his first steps in 11 months. He still has to use a walker and he has lost his job but it still feels like yesterday he said, "I still find it so hard to believe that the police actually shot at innocent people. I remembering googling about the bullets while I was on the hospital bed and realising that they were the same ones used by the military."
May 22, 2018 | 18.44 pm
'Only one group wanted blood. It wasn't us'
During the last few days of the protest, three people who had also been part of the protests died from cancer. "We were grieving, frustrated and disappointed. They knew we had reached our wit's end and decided to take advantage of our mental state, they thought we would fight back. But we didn't have weapons, we had children in our arms," Kebiston said. All the victims and their families say the same, "If we had violence in our minds, would we carry babies to the protest? Would we have taken our wives and our mothers? Would we have carried water bottles and biscuits?"
Pressing Question: "Is the government on our side or on the side of the corporates?" Krishnamurthy asks
Most took to the streets that day expecting it to be like the Jallikattu protests, "We protested for 99 days! 99 days and we didn't lift a finger. If we wanted to indulge in violence, why would we have stayed so peaceful for so many days," a seething Krishnamurthy M, one of the anti-Sterlite campaigners said. Krishnamurthy recalls all the protestors running forward as the police kept chasing them backwards, "There were lakhs of people gathered there, there was no way we could run backwards, we could only run forward. We didn't even hear the gunshots, just saw bloodied bodies being carried out." Some people say they were informed about section 144 being imposed in the district late into the night, most say they didn't even know about it because it wasn't announced. "Despite everything, what we cannot and should never forget that it was a peaceful protest," Krishnamurthy added.
May 22, 2018 | 14.36 pm
The shootings happened everywhere
Witnesses say that unlike common perception, the shootings did not happen in one particular place. It was all over the city and it happened to the most random people. "My wife had gone to visit our daughter who lived two streets away. On her way back, she was stopped by the police," her husband Jesu Balan said in the People's Watch report. Jansi Jesu was shot from a distance of 20 feet straight through her forehead, "Witnesses said her brain was split open on the ground. Then the police put a part of her head in a bag and drove away." When we attempted to visit Jansi's family for this report, social workers said the police might harass the family and not let us meet them. Kalaippan, who was killed the next day was again in the backyard of his own home. The autopsy report said that the bullet had pierced him from the back, killing him instantly.
N Anand, was on the streets that day to honour his mother's spirit. Four years ago, she had been diagnosed with mouth cancer. Three days from the day of her diagnosis, she passed away. "For her and so many others that I'd known, I knew I had to fight tooth and nail for Sterlite to be shut down," he said. Anand said he was one of the first to be beaten up by the police. His head split open and he began to bleed profusely. "I had to get 10 stitches," he says showing me his head. While 13 is the number that is etched in everyone's memory, we often forget that two more died that day just from head injuries sustained from lathi-charge.
Fighting On: Even two days ago Anand saw his young relative and noticed she had lost all her hair. "She said she had stomach cancer, she's barely 15," he says.
May 22, 2018 | 16.54 pm
Dark night, the darker mornings
As the families of the victims went scurrying around trying to locate the bodies, the police threatened them or tried to coerce them to sign false documents stating the cause of death. Antony's family was asked to sign on a blank paper and on a document permitting a post-mortem exam. "The police told me my husband was involved with some violent anti-Sterlite groups and claimed he had been indulging in violence that day. I asked them why somebody who had such intentions be running around to get their passport to go abroad for a job?" Kalpana told us.
The family refused to sign any documents shoved in front of them.
According to the People's Watch report, all the other families say they had similar experiences too — Jansi's husband said the police offered one lakh rupees if they took back the body without a post-mortem exam when they refused they resorted to threats. "That night my family and I took shelter on our boat because the police were beating up the people in our area and arresting everyone," he explained. Pradeep said that the police told his family to sign a document saying his uncle fell down a rod had pierced him.
May 22, 2018 | 15.22 pm
Even the Nazis allowed medics to do their duty
Families say there were instances where the victims could have survived had they gotten immediate medical assistance. But there were almost no doctors on call that day, only nurses. "Since we knew one of the prominent doctors at the GH, we called him and begged him to come and check on Karthikeyan. But they said they were given government orders to not go to the hospital," 21-year-old Babloo Marimuthu, who was later arrested said.
Vijay Kumar said the doctors kept saying that his wound would heal soon and neglected the injury, "Only the next day when my leg started to smell, did the doctors finally take an X-ray and found the bullet." Sethmaraj found himself in a similar situation, "They neglected me for hours together and since then I've had three failed operations."
Lost Opportunities: Vijay Kumar has been offered a job as the assistant to the Village Administrative Officer but unless he starts walking normally again, there's not much he can do
May 22, 2019 | 10.37 am
The call that went unheard
Today, outside the Collector's office, three huge banners are set up. They have the words — Call Your Collector and follow that up with a phone number. The banners were probably set up for the elections and it seems ironic now, but that was the only thing that the people of Thoothukudi wanted. They wanted to meet him and they wanted to hand over their 'manu' (petition).
A year later, the village of Kumarareddypuram is suffering without water — they claim that Sterlite had sucked out every last drop. But before they started the agitation, they were still getting water even though the groundwater has run dry. "Sterlite would send us tankers long before we knew they were sucking the groundwater out. They were sending around a medical van much before we knew what was making us sick. Now since the protest, we don't get any water. Now we have to pay 10 rupees per pot," Banumathi, a resident of the village says. For 23 years now, the Thoothukudi people say they've seen person after person die from cancer, suffer from chronic diseases, suffer from infertility, lack of immunity and watch their young children die from mysterious diseases.
"From the time I was a child, when we would go to the terrace of my house we could see the thick smoke engulf the whole place. It would smell so awful, the minute it touched the leaves of tree, they would shrivel up, cattle would just drop dead. Then it started killing people too," Kebiston recounts.
Kebiston asks another pertinent question — "This government conducts so many surveys, has so many top class hospitals. Are they not capable of conducting one study documenting the deaths in Thoothukudi and find out how many have died from cancer and what caused it? Won't those numbers be enough for us to be proved right? Then why is the government so hesitant to conduct such a survey when it's so simple? Maybe because they know its true?"
Small successes: This little child has been on medication from the day he was born. Now a year since the second Sterlite plant shut down, for the first time he's been able to stay without medication. People say crops are growing better too
May 22, 2019 | Noon
History repeats itself. But the fight isn't over
The shooting, the brutality, the injustice, the arrests, the unfair cases, the continued health risks, nothing has deterred the spirit of the people. If needed, they say they will take to the streets again, fearlessly. "They've told us that the plant has been shut down but we see people walking in and out every single day. They tell us that they're just shifting their things but we'll wait for a while. If we see that they're reopening it, we will be out on the streets again," vociferated Kebiston.
But the sentiment is not the same everywhere. But it's not out of fear.
It is out of disappointment and a feeling of utter hopelessness.
It was days before the families got to see the bodies of their victims. Some were outright denied, some were forced to sign false documents, which they didn't. The past year hasn't gotten any better. Some of them are forced to make weekly visits to the police, others are not allowed anywhere close to them.
But a year later, are they looking for justice?
Most say — no.
"Where do I go looking for justice? If anyone is willing to give me justice I can go to them. But I don't see anyone. Do I go to the police or the government? They're the ones who killed him, so who will I go ask," Kalpana asked.
Code Yellow: The image that will linger in the minds and heard of Thoothukudi and Tamil Nadu for years to come
May 22, 2019 | 1.43 pm
Hope in the time of oppression
In her diary, Snowlin wrote — "If I die, I don't want flowers to be strewn on my grave, my mother's tears are enough." But Snowlin's mother says she has no more tears left to shed. She echoes Kalpana's thoughts, "The police thought it was right to shoot a young innocent girl. So now I've given up on human beings knowing what is right and wrong," she says.
"I firmly believe that people will change but God won't. I blame no one. I derive my strength from God and hope that he will do justice. When the truth finally comes out, I don't know what it will feel like but nobody should have to go through what I've gone through."
The city might be fearless, but today, they trust no one.
The weapons and the institutions meant to protect them turned on them. Thoothukudi will go down in history as a city that led one of the largest, most powerful campaigns in the issue of corporate and environmental safety in post-independent India.
But there's a pre-independence event that Krishnamurthy chooses to compare May 22 with — the Jallianwala Bagh Tragedy.
The only difference?
There was no white man holding the gun, it was one of their own.
And that's what Thoothukudi will never forget.