At 3 pm on Tuesday, 47-year-old Jhansi, a homemaker and a resident of Thres Puram fishing hamlet in Tamil Nadu, was walking home after dropping off a parcel of fish at her sister’s house in the neighbouring street. This was when a police van swerved around the corner, said her relatives.

The police had arrived to arrest young men from the neighbourhood, blaming them for rioting earlier that day in the town of Thoothukudi (which was previously known as Tuticorin). The police allegedly fired at the group of men they were looking for. One of the bullets hit Jhansi in the head. “We were told her brain matter was strewn on the road,” said her sister, crying uncontrollably. “The police bundled up the body and took it away.”

Jhansi had not participated in the largescale protests that wracked the town that morning, when thousands of people started marching towards the Thoothukudi collectorate. They wanted to convey to the collector their opposition to the plan to expand a copper smelter owned by Sterlite Copper, a subsidiary of the Vedanta Group, one of the world’s largest mining and metals conglomerates. The plant lies at the edge of Thoothukudi town. Residents claim it is contaminating the region’s air and water resources.

Tuesday’s march was the culmination of a 100-day protest against the plant that the people of Thoothukudi had organised peacefully.

But when the police barricaded the path to the collectorate office, the crowd allegedly turned violent. According to the state government, they overturned police vans and set fire to vehicles in the premises of the collectorate. A few residents, however, claimed that the police had set the vehicles ablaze themselves and blamed the crowd for it. The act of setting the vehicles on fire reportedly led to the police firing.

Jhansi’s relatives did not know that she had died until 7 pm that day. The police were unable to identify the person they had shot, said her relatives. “It was only when the nurse of the government hospital handed over her jewellery that we found out that our sister was dead,” the relatives said. They had gone to the local police station and then to the hospital looking for Jhansi as she had not returned home till sunset. “What did she even do to be shot?” they asked.

Shot without warning

On Thursday, the narrow lanes leading to Thres Puram were barricaded with logs, bricks and damaged boats. These were to keep the police from entering the fishing hamlet, said the fisherfolk.

Thres Puram was not the only neighbourhood that was furious at the Thoothukudi police. On the streets of Mini Sahaya Puram of Thoothukudi town, the anger among residents was palpable. This was where 18-year-old Snowlin lived. She was also killed at the protest on Tuesday.

For over a month, Snowlin had expressed an interest in the protests against the copper smelter. On Tuesday, Snowlin marched towards VVT signal in central Thoothukudi along with several other residents of the locality when the police stopped them. Several protesters said that the police let loose two huge bulls into the crowd in an attempt to force the protestors to disperse. This did not work. The protesters then began tearing down the barricades and allegedly hurled stones at the police contingent.

One local resident said that the protestors never intended to get violent. “Everyone went to the protest with the intention of staying till the night,” said one resident. They were hoping that the protest would force the administration to lock the plant down. “If we had intended to get violent, why would we have taken our children along with us?”

The crowd marched on. The police reacted by shooting teargas shells. This too did not stop the march, leading to the gunfire.

A bullet hit Snowlin in her face.

On Tuesday, television channels broadcast images of police commandos shooting at targets from the top of a police van. Several protestors said that the police issued no warning before shooting at them. This is a statutory requirement.

The Opposition called the police action “fascist murder”. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam has demanded the resignation of Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami and has called for a state-wide bandh in protest on Friday.

In response, the chief minister said that the police acted in defence as the mob went out of control and was damaging property. He said that the Opposition was instigating the agitations. He also said that the government was looking at the legal route to shut the copper smelter down. On Thursday, the government disconnected the plant’s water and electricity supply.

The Madras High Court has directed the government to preserve the bodies of those killed till further orders.

Injured protesters and their relatives at a government hospital in Tuticorin on Tuesday. (Photo credit: AFP)
Injured protesters and their relatives at a government hospital in Tuticorin on Tuesday. (Photo credit: AFP)

Onlookers injured

At the Thoothukudi government hospital, stories of how even spectators were injured during the police action abound. In the corner of a crowded ward, 27-year-old Sesu Anand – a welder who had stepped out of his home near the collectorate to watch the protest from the side of the road – was lying on a hospital bed with bullet injuries. One bullet had lodged itself in his right thigh and another had grazed the skin of his neck.

Two beds away, 36-year-old Prabhu nursed a bandage around his amputated arm. Prabhu had lost half of an arm in an accident four years ago. That arm was hit by a bullet when he attended the protest on Tuesday. Prabhu did not immediately realise that he had been shot. It was only when someone pointed out that his shirt sleeve was soaked in blood that he rushed to the hospital.

“We brought him in a scooter at least three times [to the hospital] before we were able to admit him on Wednesday morning,” said Prabhu’s cousin Priyanka. On Thursday, Prabhu was under heavy medication and weak and unable to respond even as politicians visited the hospital to check on the injured.

In another ward, lay a few women who were injured in Tuesday’s violence. Maria Judy Hema, a member of Tamil nationalist party Naam Tamilar Katchi, is being treated for severe internal bleeding. She says she was hit on her stomach with a rifle butt during the protest. Her husband Bhagyaraj, a prominent face of the protest, said that he could not leave the hospital ward. “If I walk down the stairs, the police will arrest me and put me into the van,” he said.

Police blanket

Thoothukudi has been in a state of shutdown since the violence. In almost every street corner, police constables stood guard, stopping vehicles and asking residents probing questions about where they were headed. Many residents said that they were scared of stepping out of their homes. “We are worried that the police might capture us and slap cases on us,” said Rajkumar, one of the protesters.

On Monday night, the collector had imposed prohibitory orders under Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure – which bans the assembly of more than four people in an area. “Today the situation is less tense,” claimed senior Indian Administrative Services officer Gagandeep Singh Bedi. The officer added that he, along with other senior officers, had traveled around the town to find that some shops were beginning to open. The state government has said that in an attempt to restore normalcy, 15 superintendents of police from neighbouring districts, four deputy inspector generals, four inspector generals and three additional director generals of police have been engaged to ensure “miscreants do not cause more trouble”.

But wails of grief continue to echo through the streets of Mini Sahaya Puram. “She wanted to become a lawyer,” said Snowlin’s mother, weeping. Her daughter always spoke about wanting to dedicate her life for the good of society. “I never thought this is how she would sacrifice her life.”