The smell of petrol and particles of ash laced the air of Nadukuppam, a fishing colony by Chennai’s Marina Beach, on Monday evening. The local fish market had been burnt to ashes. Black plumes of smoke emerged from a flaming minivan. At the entrance of Nadukuppam 1st Street, amidst scattered shards of glass and stones, two autorickshaws lay overturned.
Similar scenes presented themselves along many of the inner streets leading to Marina Beach. As the sun began to set, the residents of these streets came out to examine the damage, almost 12 hours after the city police attempted to clear the beach of thousands of protestors who had gathered to demand that the bull-taming sport of jallikattu be conducted without any restrictions. Some of them had been there since last Monday.
As the police moved in at around 6.30 am, the protestors scattered. Some splashed into the ocean, others darted through the streets leading away from the beach. The police followed. In the chaos that followed, some residents of Nadukuppam alleged that the police began to damage vehicles and had set the fish market on fire.
“The police came in around noon and began to set everything on fire,” alleged P Sumathi, a homemaker. “They stormed into the street, started beating people on the street and banging at our doors. They even began to damage our property.”
On the steps outside her house sat P Kayalvizhi, a resident of Nadukuppam, who had a blood-soaked bandage on her forehead. “When I heard the commotion I came out to stand on the first-floor balcony when a stone came flying to hit me,” she said.
A video uploaded to Twitter purports to show police officials damaging property in a street near Marina Beach.
The police action came after a week of protests across Tamil Nadu against the ban on jallikattu imposed by the Supreme Court in 2014. The sport is usually organised around the harvest festival of Pongal, which was on January 14 this year. Chennai’s Marina Beach was a particular focus for the agitation, drawing more than 50,000 people over the week. As public pressure mounted, the Tamil Nadu government late on Saturday passed an ordinance making the sport legal again.
But the jallikattu supporters on Marina Beach were not satisfied. At around 6 am on Monday, police personnel arrived at the beach and asked the protesters to leave. They provided them with a copy of the ordinance, telling the protesters that they had succeeded in having the ban revoked.
The protestors said that the document they were shown lacked a signature. “We asked for time to consult with lawyers to check if the ordinance had legal validity,” said B Rajeev, an IT employee from Thanjavur district who had been at the protest for a week. ”We want a permanent solution, not a temporary one. But the police refused to give us any time and began charging at us and hitting us with lathis.”
Violence in the city
As the police tried to evict the protesters on the beach at around 6.30 am, many of them scattered and began to run towards the water. “A lot of people jumped into the water out of fear and had to be pulled out,” said Rajeev.
The police had also barricaded all roads leading to the beach, and did not allow any vehicles to pass through the area.
As the protesters on Marina Beach attempted to regroup, word about the lathi charge spread across the city. At the Ice House Police Station in Triplicane, several vehicles were set on fire. The protesters on Marina Beach claimed that the police themselves started the fires as a distraction.
S Pandian, the Assistant Commissioner of Police of Neelankarai, who had been posted near Marina Beach since Friday, denied these allegations. “There was not a single police person around the police station,” he said. “There was only one lady cop inside the station.” He produced a video showing several youths damaging property outside the Ice House Police station.
Pandian said that after the police had scattered the crowd on Marina Beach in the morning, many youths had run into the interior streets. These protesters later came back towards the beach and created a ruckus by damaging property, he claimed. “We still have to investigate who was really behind this,” he said.
However, videos posted on Twitter and broadcast on local channels purported to show the police setting fire to autorickshaws.
The residents of Nadukuppam were adamant that it was the police who had set fire to vehicles and the fish market in their locality and had thrown stones at them.
“We have never experienced anything like this in our lives,” said R Charumathi, a fisherwoman. “We have never had any such clash with the police. They banged each of our doors and asked us to get out of our house in very foul language.”
In an earlier report, Scroll.in had also spoken to a resident of Nadikuppam who alleged that the police had dragged many youngsters out of their homes and taken them away.
Meanwhile, several other parts of the city were choked with traffic as jallikattu supporters took to the streets after hearing about the violence on Marina Beach. On the Old Mahabalipuram Road in South Chennai, the roads were blocked with dozens of empty public buses and other vehicles.
“The public has done this as a sign of protest against what happened at Marina Beach,” said V Shanmugam, an autorickshaw driver.
Back at the Marina Beach, some protesters were still refusing to move, although their numbers were dwindling considerably. With the lack of internet connectivity and with phones out of charge, many of the jallikattu supporters did not know about the violence in other parts of Chennai.
Pandian of the Chennai police pointed out that even jallikattu supporters like P Rajasekharan, the president of Jallikattu Peravai, who had been involved in this protest for almost a decade, had said that his organisation was calling off the stir as it was convinced by the assurance of the state and central government.
“The protest was started by students, but taken over by Tamil chauvinist groups,” said Pandian. He said that many political groups, especially those under the leadership of the opposition Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, had joined in the protest
last Tuesday, and taken over the leadership. “They are trying to create a situation wherein the protests don’t stop,” he said. “Everybody else who came here independently left yesterday itself. It is only politically-motivated groups who are still standing at the beach.”
The jallikattu supporters said that they would leave the beach if the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act of 1960 was amended to remove bulls from the list of banned animals. “But this is not the end,” said Rajeev, a volunteer. “After this, we will be taking up the Cauvery issue which has left our farmers in a state of misery. We will also be fighting for our fishermen who are constantly being caught for fishing in Sri Lankan waters.”