Anti-Sterlite Protest Killings: Enquiry Stranded after Three Years of Police Action
Three years after 13 anti-Sterlite protesters were killed in police firing on May 22, 2018, in Thoothukudi in Tamil Nadu, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) is yet to arrest or name anyone involved in the police action.
The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) had wound up its investigation in October 2018 citing an enquiry report, which is still confidential. After the NHRC closed the case, the People’s Watch, a human rights organisation, approached the Madurai bench of the Madras High Court. The court passed an order on June 25, 2021, instructing the NHRC to submit the 2018 enquiry report.
The court also ordered the state government to submit the interim report of the judicial commission. The Justice Aruna Jagadeesan Commission had submitted its interim report on May 21, 2021, after the new government had called for it. Some of the cases filed against the protesters stand withdrawn by the state government.
‘NO ONE BOOKED AFTER THREE YEARS’
The police action that killed 12 people on May 22 caused national outrage, as the protests against the copper smelter plant of Sterlite Copper were peaceful. One more person was killed the next day, taking the total casualty to 13.
The firing took place during a peaceful march on the hundredth day of the prolonged protests by the citizens of Thoothukudi. All the cases relating to the police firing were handed over to the CBI in August 2018 by the Madras High Court. The then All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) government justified the firing as a natural reaction.
Three years since the police firing and more than two years and 10 months after a CBI enquiry no considerable progress has been witnessed in the case. “The CBI has named 72 protesters while no one from police force or district administration were named in the two FIRs filed so far,” said Henri Tiphagne, Executive Director of People’s Watch.
The Madurai bench of the Madras HC observed: “It is somewhat alarming that the state through its police fired at unarmed protestors and no one is booked some three years after the incident”.
“It may not augur well for a civilised society governed by constitutional principles that we have to merely throw money at the families of the victims and give closure to an incident of possible brutality and excessive police action," the court observed on compensation being paid to the family of the victims.
‘NHRC INITIATED ENQUIRY AFTER COURT INTERVENTION’
The NHRC, after taking suo motu cognisance of the case – filed as No. 907/22/41/2018 on May 23 – the day after the police firing, restricted itself to sending notices to the state government.
“The NHRC did not send any officials for enquiry despite the serious nature of the case. The Hon’ble High Court of Delhi ordered the NHRC to pass suitable orders to conduct an independent investigation under Section 14 of the Human Right (Protection) Act 1993, led by the Director-General of Investigation,” Tiphagne said in the affidavit.
On May 29, 2018, the NHRC directed its Director General (Investigation) to depute a team headed by an officer not below the rank of Senior Superintendent of Police, assisted by three or more officers of the Rank of Deputy Superintendent of Police and Inspectors, for investigating the case.
Commenting on the lack of urgency by the NHRC to send its investigation team, Tiphagne said, “While eight U.N. Special Procedures came forward and condemned the ‘apparent police excessive and disproportionate use of force,’ the Hon’ble NHRC did not condemn these barefaced acts of police brutality on innocent and unarmed citizens, including children”.
WHY DID NHRC CLOSE THE ENQUIRY?
On October 25, 2018, the NHRC ordered the closure of the suo moto case. The report of the investigation team and its findings remain confidential and had reportedly prompted the closure of the case.
“Based on the compensation paid to the victims and the reported steps taken by the state government to maintain law and order in the district and the appointment of Judicial Commission to enquire about the police excesses, the NHRC felt that no intervention in the matter was required. The report is taken on record and the case was closed,” the affidavit submitted said.
However, organisations which led the anti-Sterlite protest, including the Peoples’ Watch, alleged that several protesters were illegally detained, tortured, that an open FIR was issued to intimidate the local community and a large number of persons were detained under the Tamil Nadu Goondas Act and the National Security Act.
Though the NHRC agreed to consider the reopening of the case in September 2019 in an open hearing, no progress was made.
“The NHRC has stated that the grounds for the closure of the case are that compensation was paid to the victims of the police firing. The compensation referred to is an ex gratia payment made by the Government of Tamil Nadu,” Tiphagne said.
The protests gathered momentum in 2018 after the UK-based Vedanta group planned to double its capacity, despite severe apprehensions from the public. In 2013, the Supreme Court levied a Rs 100 crore fine on the Sterlite plant for polluting the groundwater, air and soil with effluents discharged from the smelter plant. It said the plant also violated operation standards.
“After hearing my plea, the court had ordered the NHRC to submit its 2018 enquiry report and has called for the submission of the judicial commission report,” he added.
JUDICIAL COMMISSION SUBMITS INTERIM REPORT
The Justice Aruna Jegatheesan Commission submitted the interim report of the enquiry to the state government on May 21 after a prolonged delay. The NHRC, in 2018, took into consideration the formation of the commission as one of the grounds for closing the suo moto case against the police firing, but the progress of the commission received criticism from different quarters for its delay.
“The committee was initially given three months' time till August 2018 to submit the enquiry report. The then AIADMK government granted four more extensions for the commission – three months, nine months, 14 months and 21 months – in the last three years. The commission submitted the report only after the Chief Minister’s office called for it last month,” Tiphagne said.
The state government has withdrawn some cases filed against the protestors based on the interim report, but Tiphagne said that “the DMK government cannot take a similar position of the previous government and needs to speed up the process”.
The copper smelter plant was reopened in April this year, with the approval of the state government, for producing medical oxygen after hospitals ran short of oxygen due to increasing COVID-19 cases.
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