The Big Story: Bullet holes

The Tamil Nadu government is still struggling to deal with the situation in Thoothukudi, where 12 people demanding the closure of a copper plant were killed in police firing. Eleven people were shot dead on Tuesday as thousands of protestors took to the streets against the planned expansion of the Sterlite plant. As the area continued to be tense on Wednesday, the police killed one more person. The Tamil Nadu government has suspended internet services in Thoothukudi, Kanyakumari and Tirunelveli districts for the next few days with the aim of preventing making it more difficult for further protests to be organised.

Questions loom about the actions of the Tamil Nadu police on Tuesday, when, in addition to the 11 deaths, hundreds were injured. The main point of contention: Why were police firing at the protestors in the first place? Videos from Tuesday purport to show one policeman taking aim at protestors from the top of the van, while another voice is heard to say, “At least one should die.”

Activists from the area say that most of those who died or were injured sustained bullet wounds on their faces or torsos. This suggests that standard crowd control protocols were violated. According to most police manuals, including the Tamil Nadu Police Standing Order book, crowd control must proceed with gradation. This means using the simplest techniques at first, such as asking the crowd to disperse. Firearms are only meant to be used as the last resort.

As former Tamil Nadu Director General of Police R Natraj explained to Scroll, “First we engage the agitators in dialogue and once the crowd knows we are firm, they disperse or facilitate them to achieve some success like meeting the authorities or giving some assurance. If that doesn’t work, warn them to disperse. Slowly use hierarchy of force like teargas water canon, that doesn’t work then lathi charge. Only If there is extreme violence and arson, police resort to firing, that too just injure. We have rubber bullets and buck shots with pellets which disperse causing injury but not kill. Also aim below the knee to save vital organs.”

In the case of Thoothukudi, while it is true that the protestors did get violent, pelting stones at the collectorate office in particular, some reports suggest that the crowds got more agitated because of the gunshots. The police did not seem to use the gradation of tactics strategy, such trying to control the crwod with water canons and then rubber bullets. They seemed to simply jump straight to firing bullets, and that too with an aim to kill.

The National Human Rights Commission taken suo motu cognisance of the incident, serving notice to both the Tamil Nadu government and the police. The government, after insisting that the deaths were “unavoidable” on Wednesday, announced that it was constituting a one-person commission to look into the police firing and the deaths. But considering India’s woeful history in holding the police responsible for the lives of protestors, it is incumbent upon the government as well as other institutions, including the judiciary, to ensure that some accountability is maintained in a case in which 11 lives seem to have been lost for no reason.

The Big Scroll


  1. “If the office of the state governor didn’t exist, no republican democracy would invent it,” writes Mukul Kesavan in the Telegraph. “A state’s governor is a provincial pro-consul. In British India, its institutional necessity was obvious: the governor represented viceregal authority in the same way as the viceroy represented the British monarch’s imperial prerogative.”
  2. Gautam Bhatia, writing on the same topic in the Hindu, says, “If we want to put an end to the continuous misuse of the Raj Bhavan for partisan political ends in a manner that threatens both federalism and democracy, we have to rethink the role of the Governor in the constitutional scheme.”
  3. “The UPSC must not be converted into an institution that merely provides a bunch of probationers who will be fitted into various services later after completion of the foundation course,” writes KM Chandrasekhar in the Indian Express. “The integrity of the process will then be called into question, the credibility of governmental processes being generally not too highly regarded. There could be allegations of capture of the selection process by politicians and bureaucrats and of discrimination on the basis of region, religion, caste and community.”


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