M Rajkumar, 32, an administrative assistant at a private hospital in coastal Tamil Nadu’s Thoothukudi town, was hard at work last week updating financial records. He had to make up for lost time. It had been only a month since he returned to his job after spending 45 days in jail. Rajkumar was arrested on June 14 for participating in protests against the expansion of a Sterlite copper smelter on the edge of the town, which residents feared would greatly increase pollution levels. He was booked in an astonishing 133 cases, mostly for destruction of property.

The police’s decision to file so many cases against a single protestor may seem absurd. But it fit into the pattern of how the Tamil Nadu government dealt with people arrested after the peaceful protests against the Sterlite plant took a violent turn on May 22, with police firing leaving 13 people dead and dozens wounded. In several cases, the police registered multiple first information reports about the same incident – but named a different set of people in each. As a consequence, some people stand accused of breaking the law at different places at exactly the same time.

Murugesan Nagar resident S Arun, 32, for example, was named in 72 cases relating to the destruction of vehicles. Going by the FIRs, Arun was involved in damaging or burning 38 motorcycles and cars exactly at noon on May 22, all at apparently separate locations. Similarly, P Essravel from Kumarareddyapuram village was named in 46 cases.

S Jimraj Milton, secretary of the Chennai chapter of the non-profit People’s Right Protection Centre who is part of a team of lawyers providing legal aid to the accused, said that the police booked nearly 200 people for allegedly indulging in violence during the May 22 protest. More than 20 of them have been named in multiple cases. P Manikandan, a lawyer for some of the accused, said that at least seven people were booked under the stringent National Security Act and three under the state’s Goondas Act.

Fatima Babu, 65, who has been at the vanguard of the battle against the Sterlite factory for 23 years, was named in at least six cases. “I am aware of six cases but there may be more,” she said. “Only recently, I stumbled upon a case registered against me that I didn’t know existed.”

Lawyers jailed too

The police did not spare even lawyers providing legal aid to the arrested protestors. S Vanchinathan, who practises at the Madras High Court’s Madurai bench, was arrested on June 20 and kept in jail for 16 days. He was a legal adviser to the Thoothukudi District Anti Sterlite People Federation, which organised a peaceful 99-day protest against the factory early this year. “Is it an offence to represent the protestors seeking permission for a protest before the High Court?” he asked.

Vanchinathan said it was only because his wife filed a habeas corpus petition that he was not charged under the National Security Act. Instead, he was booked for sedition. He was eventually granted bail on the condition that he remain in Madurai town and not engage in any activity related to Sterlite.

In all, according to a Public Interest Litigation filed before the Madras High Court last month, the police filed 243 FIRs in connection with the May 22 protest. In response to the petition, which challenged the arbitrary arrests and detentions of the protestors, the court told the police to combine all these cases.

The inquiry into the protest and the police firing is being handled by the Central Bureau of Investigation.

Said Rajkumar, the hospital worker facing 133 cases: “We feel relieved after the court ordered the merging of all cases against the protestors into one.”

M Rajkumar was booked in 133 cases and spent 45 days in jail.
M Rajkumar was booked in 133 cases and spent 45 days in jail.

Punished for speaking out’

Though Rajkumar’s neighbourhood of Therku Veerapandiyapuram is where the mining and metals giant Vedanta’s Sterlite plant is located, the protests against its plans to double its capacity to 8,00,000 tonnes actually started in Kumarareddiyarpuram, 1.5 km away. Rajkumar explained that this was because every family in his area, save his own, depended on Sterlite for their livelihoods. They either worked at the factory or leased vehicles to it. His family was the first in his village to declare support for protestors in Kumarareddiyarpuram, Rajkumar said. “That may be why we have had to face so many fabricated cases,” he said.

Rajkumar was arrested from his home in the wee hours of June 14. He was initially accused in 63 cases. Another 70 were added while he was in jail. He was released on July 25 after obtaining bail in 63 of the cases.

His brother M Mahesh Kumar, 30, was arrested on June 11 and accused in at least 93 cases under the Goondas Act. His wife and 5-month-old child had to wait 50 days to see him again. “Fortunately, the lawyers worked hard to have the Goondas Act charges filed against my brother quashed,” Rajkumar said.

Fearing the police would come for him after arresting his older brothers in the dead of night, M Ravi Kumar, 27, went into hiding, leaving the family’s women and children to cope without a breadwinner for a month and half. Mahesh Kumar had already resigned from his job, refusing to bow to the diktat of the private chemical factory in which he worked to stay away from the anti-Sterlite protests. Their joint family is now sustained by Rajkumar and Ravi Kumar.

Rajkumar was around five when his father died and his mother moved the family to her paternal home in Therku Veerapandiyapuram. He remembers Sterlite sending a bus with medicines to their village every Saturday for nearly seven years. “There would be a doctor and a nurse on this company bus that would go around all the villages once a week,” he recalled. “This company gave us diseases and then provided medicines. This is what prompted the residents across the barriers of caste and class to join the protests.”

Now, Rajkumar rued, they are being punished by the state for raising their voice against the company that had poisoned their land and water sources, and damaged their health.

Wider crackdown on dissent’

Rights activists believe that the crackdown can’t be blamed on Tamil Nadu’s All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam government alone. D Hariparanthaman, a former judge of the Madras High Court, contended that the Thoothukudi police’s actions must be seen in the “larger context” of what is happening in the country, especially the targeting of human rights activists in connection with the Bhima Koregaon case in Maharashtra.

“It is not entirely the rule of AIADMK today,” he said, alluding to the widespread perception that the Edappadi K Palaniswami government is operating at the direction of the Bharatiya Janata Party government at the Centre.

Other activists have made the same point, holding up the arrest of Thirumurugan Gandhi as an example. Gandhi, 42, the coordinator of the May 17 Movement, a prominent civil rights group, was arrested at the Bengaluru airport on August 9. He was returning from Geneva, where he had spoken at a United Nations Human Rights Council session about the police firing on the May 22 protest in Thoothukudi.

This is the second part of a two-part series on Tamil Nadu’s crackdown on anti-Sterlite protests.

Read the first part here: Tamil Nadu is silencing anti-Sterlite protests by forcing hundreds of people to exit WhatsApp groups