Who Threw That First Stone in Thoothukudi?

The history of state terrorism says the first stone is always thrown by representatives of the police.

In the Indian social context, Dalit and tribal communities have always borne the brunt of police excesses or, to call it by its proper name, state terrorism. This violence has been a part of normal life for them. They had to face it just as they face caste abuse and untouchability every other day. Whenever they have asserted their rights – against atrocities, untouchability, sexual oppression, for their right to live, their right to livelihood and better wages – police lathis have split their heads. The guns that fire never miss their targets. Their humble dwellings are vandalised and razed to the ground. In independent India, one could cite any number of examples to establish this pattern.

The truth is that general society – so caste society – is not aware of the pain inflicted on Dalits and Adivasis by the state. For them, it is not just another case of violence. It is a betrayal of trust that no human being should be made to suffer. It robs from them the bonds they have with what they thought was ‘their nation’. It removes from their soul the thought that they are its citizens. When a society oppresses someone, when a society denies someone their rights, the government should embrace and support them. But the Dalits, tribal communities and minorities in India have never had any such ‘luxury’. Instead, the government unleashes the worst kind of violence, turning victims into refugees in their own land.

Whenever they are victimised in this way, Dalits pose a tough question to the state. “Are we not citizens of this country? Are we refugees here?” they ask. They have asked this question in Kodiyankulam, in Thamirabarani, in Paramakudi and elsewhere. In response, the state has only intensified its violence. It has told them in no uncertain terms that they have no right on this land.

When the BJP assumed power in 2014, it expanded the reach of this state violence. Till now only Dalits, tribal communities and minorities were its victims. Now every other community (barring of course the ‘highest’ castes) are being victimised by state violence.

Paramakudi police attack. Courtesy: Jeya Rani

It is evident that the BJP, with its north Indian Hindutva outlook, regards the entire Tamil people as Shudras and is attempting to trample on the state’s growth and development, and, more importantly, its fiercely guarded values of social justice. Though caste Hindus in Tamil Nadu consider themselves dominant, they are, in the BJP’s worldview, simply Shudras.

Hindus in Tamil Nadu might be religious but they have also been secular and have given the minorities due recognition. The Dravidian ideology has trained them enough to identify communal fundamentalism. It is precisely this character that stops the BJP from gaining any foothold in Tamil Nadu. Tamil Nadu is arguably the only state to criticise, call out, identify the communal conspiracies of the Hindu fundamental forces and expose them. This could be one reason for the BJP’s hatred of Tamil Nadu. From the Koodankulam expansion to NEET and Sterlite, this also explains the almost daily provocations that people in the state are forced to confront. For the BJP, Tamil Nadu is Shudra land and it has no problem with state terrorism – hitherto reserved only for Dalits and minorities – being used on the entire state.

In the case of the Sterlite protest, the Tamil Nadu government unleashed the police on the protest of the Thoothukudi people in an attempt to bring a swift and decisive end to it. The government and the police claim that the protesters had thrown stones and set vehicles ablaze, leading them to open fire and kill 13 people. Chief minister Edappadi Palanisami says that if protesters indulge in violence, they will have to be dealt with in this way. The protestors were peaceful for 99 days. Why would they have indulged in violence on the 100th day? Who threw the first stone that led to the police opening fire?

The protestors were peaceful for 99 days. Why would they have indulged in violence on the 100th day? Credit: PTI

Anyone following the pattern of state violence unleashed on the Dalits and the tribal communities for over a quarter century knows that state terrorism is a well-scripted drama. Governments always have the script ready. While circumstances might demand some minor changes, generally all acts of state violence follow a strikingly similar pattern – they begin the same way, they have the same kind of twists and they end the same way.

The Sterlite protest committee decide to commemorate the 100th day of protests on May 22 by laying siege to the district collectorate and invited the general public to participate in the protest. Despite the imposition of Section 144, thousands took part in the protests. By a siege, the protesters obviously meant peacefully gathering around the collectorate because they knew that indulging in violence is a self-defeating act. But the police at Q Branch indicated that the protest could turn violent and just as they predicted, the protest did ‘turn violent’ after a point of time. When stones were pelted at the policemen, there was a lathi charge, leading to tension among the protesters. Vehicles were set on fire, petrol bombs were hurled and protesters were killed.

Procedures have been laid down in police manuals on how to handle a public protest. The police should fire tear gas, resort to lathi charge and then water cannon before opening fire. The police is meant to issue a warning over loudspeakers before opening fire. If the protest continues to be ‘violent’, the police is meant to open fire by firing at or below the knees of people and not by targeting their faces and chests. The government instead chose to unleash extreme violence on the protesters in Thoothukudi. The police did not adhere to any procedure and used snipers to shoot protesters. The government now says that shooting was unavoidable since the protests were infiltrated by ‘anti-social’ elements.

Who are these anti-socials really? Who throws the first stone that leads to a clash? The history of state terrorism says the first stone is always thrown by representatives of the police.

In Tamil Nadu, since the 1990s, many state-sponsored terrorist acts were conducted to drown the struggles of Dalits in a hail of bullets.

The same script was enacted by the state government in the Thamaraparani massacre on July 23, 1999. In a strikingly similar fashion, thousands of Dalit labourers from the Manjolai tea estate undertook a procession towards the district collectorate to hand over a memorandum demanding better wages. The collector refused to meet them, leading to arguments among the leaders of the rally. The first stone was thrown from the crowd. Many stones followed. The labourers were branded anti-socials. It was later established by some fact-finding teams that the first stone and the stones that followed were actually thrown by the police. The police resorted to a merciless lathi charge after the alleged stone-throwing. The lathi charge scattered the crowd and many ran towards Thamirabarani river that flew along the district collectorate. Several women, children and old men went into the river to escape lathis. Seventeen people were killed.

Like Sterlite, this was also described as another Jallianwalabagh. Just as Palanisamy has announced now, the then government also constituted a judicial commission headed by Justice Mohan. The commission gave a clean chit to the police, stating that the protesters would have vandalised Tirunelveli if the police had not resorted to a lathi charge. Not a single FIR was filed against any policeman in the incident. One can now foresee what the commission appointed by the present government will conclude, given Palanisamy’s characterisation of the firing as an act of ‘self-defence.’

When Dalits had gathered at several places in Paramakudi to commemorate the death anniversary of Dalit leader Immanuel Sekaran on September 11, 2011, the police attempted to stop them. The cops got John Pandian, leader of Tamizhaga Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam, arrested. Condemning this and demanding that Pandian be allowed to pay his respects to Sekaran, the party cadres staged a road roko. Till then, the protest was peaceful. The state began to show its ugly face after this. The police claimed that the protesters hurled stones and resorted to a lathi charge. They finally opened fire, killing six Dalits. The indignity did not end there. The police carried the corpses by tying them to poles like they would carry dead animals and threw them into the vehicles. A judicial commission headed by retired Judge Sampath said the police was forced to open fire since the protesters were ransacking public property. The commission also said rallies by ‘caste organisations’ should be disallowed in the state. Ironically, the government not just allows guru puja conducted by the dominant Thevar community every year, it also participates in it.

On October 10, 1994, the Dalits of Karanai village staged a protest in front of the sub-collector’s office in Chengalpet demanding that their Panchami lands be retrieved. Before resorting to a protest, they had submitted an endless number of memoranda. Protest was their final option. Then there was a lathi charge and firing. Two Dalit youth – John Thomas and Ezhumalai – were killed. No policemen were punished. On January 20, 1995 police opened fire at Dalits who protested the vandalising of their locality by caste Hindus in Thittakudi. They shot dead Shanmugam and Tholar Ramesh.

Panchami land activists John Thomas and Ezhumalai. Courtesy: Jeya Rani

It is difficult not to remember Kodiyankulam where, on August 21, 1995, the police waged a war against Dalits. Villages were razed, people were indiscriminately attacked and properties, destroyed. A judicial commission headed by Justice Gomathi Nayagam gave a clean chit to the police. In the 1990s, a series of caste clashes erupted in the southern districts of Tamil Nadu between the Dalit Pallar communities and the dominant Kallar communities. The police joined hands with caste Hindus to unleash violence on Dalit habitats. Many Dalits were killed in these clashes. Yet there was no action against anyone in uniform.

Scenes of protest for the 100th consecutive day in Thoothukudi against the Sterlite unit, May 22, 2018. Source: Author provided

Scenes of protest for the 100th consecutive day in Thoothukudi against the Sterlite unit, May 22, 2018. Credit: Surya, Tuticorin

Perhaps the only time the police were made accountable for the violence they unleashed was after the Vachathi incident. On June 20, 1992 the people of Vachathi, a tribal village in Dharmapuri, were forced to cut sandalwood trees by the forest officials. When the villagers refused to do so, a clash erupted. The same excuse was made again – that the people assaulted the officials. The next day, the forest officials along with policemen and revenue officials went to the village and ransacked it. At least 133 people were arrested and 18 women were raped. All this was done to ‘teach the villagers a lesson’. The judicial commission headed by Padmini Jesudurai said it was unbelievable that responsible policemen would have done such things. The case dragged on for over 19 years and on September 28, 2011, a special court passed orders convicting 215 of the accused. The remaining 54 accused were by then dead. Punishments ranging from one year to ten years of imprisonment were handed down to them.

A study by the Madurai-based organisation Evidence says that between 1990 and 2015, there have been 16 clashes during the DMK period and 21 during the AIADMK period. Most of these are related to caste issues. Almost every caste clash has been brought to an end by police violence. The state pretends to bring about peace by imposing its violence on public protest. Afterwards, it wraps everything up inside a judicial commission and hopes the issue will go away. To this day, no judicial commission constituted to enquire into state atrocities has ever stood by the people. It has only served the purpose of protecting the police and giving a clean chit to them. The recommendations made by the commission have never been adhered to by the departments concerned. Going by the past history of judicial commissions, there is no reason to believe the commission constituted to look into Sterlite killings will serve justice. The commission will only justify the shooting. It might even have a word of advice for tenth standard student Snowlin.

Snowlin. Credit: Twitter

Dalits are only too familiar with the pain of state violence and the betrayal of judicial commissions. The general society has till date tended to justify state violence aimed at suppressing Dalit protests. By standing aloof, by looking away, caste society had tacitly endorsed the killings. When the state branded the protests of Dalits as violent, the society was in agreement. All that the Manjolai tea estate labourers wanted was a hike of Rs 150 in their wages. They were made to pay for it with 17 lives. When Dalits took out processions, caste Hindus belittled them by worrying about the traffic. Society at large has never considered any protest by the Dalits to be its own protest. Since both the AIADMK and the DMK governments protected the interests of caste Hindus, they were not aware of what it means to fight for one’s rights.

In Tamil Nadu, the anti-Sterlite protest is perhaps the first incident after independence where state violence has been unleashed on society at large, killing so many people. Dalits have been suffering this forever. The official violence that had till now victimised only Dalits and tribal communities in Tamil Nadu is slowly becoming common for all, thanks to BJP’s anti-Tamil outlook and the encouragement this provides to the EPS government. Jallikattu and Sterlite are recent examples of general struggles in which Dalits have stood with the Thevars, Nadars, fishermen, Christians, Muslims and other backward communities to protest. On their part, caste Hindus have never considered a Dalit struggle to be a common one, leave alone supported it.

The Brahminical administration has brought caste Hindus on to the roads, making them protest over a range of issues, including the agrarian crisis, Jallikattu, hazardous development projects and NEET. This is the moment for society at large to understand how aggressively the government can trample on rights movements. Caste Hindus should now recognise the face of a government which can sends its policemen along with bags of stones and bullets to start a clash, after bringing people on to the roads by denying them their rights.

Translated from the Tamil original by Kavitha Muralidharan.

Jeya Rani is a journalist from Tamil Nadu with over 15 years experience.