Kamal Hassan. | Photo Credit: R. Ravindran
Makkal Needhi Maiam founder says bullet injuries sustained by the protesters indicate firing from a distance
Actor and Makkal Needhi Maiam founder Kamal Haasan said he saw about 20 people in the Thoothukudi government hospital with bullet injuries to their upper body indicating that they were fired upon from a long distance. He saw only one person with a leg injury during his visit on Wednesday.
“They [police] were aiming for the gut and shoulder,” Mr. Haasan said, charging that the entire police operation during the 100th day of the current agitation against the Sterlite Copper plant in the town on May 22 was carried out against standard policing protocols.
Even if those going in procession were throwing stones, the police had the equipment to face the situation, and officers usually “wait at the peril of their life for a magistrate’s order.”
In Thoothukudi, given that the agitation was going on for 99 days, and there was an announcement of the 100th day protest, why was it not monitored and escalated to higher levels of government for a solution, he asked in an interview to The Hindu on Friday.
Mr. Haasan warned that there should be no attempt at burying the large scale violence that engulfed the town by making an individual policeman the scapegoat. To say that “one police officer went berserk and did it is not acceptable,” he said. The handling of the jallikattu protests in January 2017 and torching of vehicles then showed that police personnel could themselves be involved in arson. Why was there no suspension of the police personnel involved, and only transfers in Thoothukudi, he asked.
Those agitating against the industrial plant were not carrying weapons, unlike several protests in north India, where people brandished unsheathed swords and carried sticks. It became clear in the aftermath of the violence that bystanders suffered bullet injuries, such as a worker carrying a headload and a student waiting for his examination results. The inquiry into the violence should cover the aspect of why a second round of firing was ordered when people had started dispersing.
No official move
The sequence of events made it evident that the government had ample opportunity to defuse the situation, explaining to the people that electricity to the Sterlite plant had been cut.
Official representatives could have visited the town and assured the protesters that there was no plan to let the plant resume operations. None of this was done, and neither were preparations made to deal with the protest. “It is a lame excuse to say that the police had run out of rubber bullets,” he said. “You say the agitation was pre-planned, but you sat there without any plan,” Mr. Haasan said, referring to Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami’s comments. It was wrong to start blaming the church and infiltration by extremists for what happened.
He said regulations governing the running of Sterlite Copper had been violated, and the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board went into “deep sleep”, because “they were asked to sleep.” As evidence, he referred to reports, such as the one on water quality, being produced by entities funded by Sterlite. The mandated green belt around the industrial unit was “a sham.” Why was there no white paper on the issue, he wondered.
Denying that his visit constituted the violation of prohibitory orders, he said, “This is about people, not the law.”
Mr. Haasan said that during his visit he came across injured people who were not getting food in the hospital, and their relatives were not there either. He tried to intervene with the police to see that food was allowed to be brought in, if needed, under inspection. But people who had met him were arrested the next day. “People in Thoothukudi are agitated, and the police are equally agitated,” he observed, adding that the cost of shifting the copper plant out of the area would be cheaper than what it would cost to continue there.
Sterlite’s plant came to the town after it had been turned away from Gujarat, Goa and Maharashtra, he pointed out, declaring that while he was not against big factories coming to Tamil Nadu, it could not be done by flouting the law.
Asked why the plant became a target of the agitation when there were other polluting industries in the area, he said activists homed in on it as it was “a blatant case of flouting of all laws.”
Kamal Haasan on Thoothukudi police firing