On May 22, 2018, the Tamil Nadu police opened fire on people protesting environmental pollution in Thoothukudi that had been allegedly caused by Sterlite, a company owned by the global metal and mining firm Vedanta. As 13 people were killed and hundreds injured, fingers were pointed at the police for firing to kill rather than to control the crowd. Videos of the incident seemed to show lethal force being used: one policeman was firing at protesters in the distance from on top of a van. In another video, one person was heard saying, “At least one should die.”
Autopsy reports that came to light on Saturday seem to prove this contention. Twelve of the 13 people shot by the police were hit by bullets in the head or chest. Half of those shots entered their bodies from the back. The youngest person killed – 17-year old J Snowlin – was shot at the back of the head.
The guidelines in Tamil Nadu for the police to open fire are clear: the bullets should be directed below the waist and only the most threatening parts of a mob should be shot at. It seems clear that these norms were flouted in Thoothukudi.
In spite of this evidence, however, not much action has been taken against the policemen who opened fire. The Union government’s Central Bureau of Investigation, which is inquiring into the matter, filed a case against unknown persons, seemingly unable to identify who fired the shots. Moreover, even seven months after the massacre, there is lack of clarity on who ordered the firing.
The police in India often have carte blanche to use violence. This manifests itself in a variety of ways: shooting protestors, so-called encounter killings (which are most often merely a euphemism for extra-judicial killings) and the deaths of people in custody due to torture. Many of the methods used by the police in India are still colonial, geared more towards controlling a subject population rather than serving communities of citizens.
Since Independence, this structure has been maintained using excessive centralisation – unlike other democracies, local governments do not control the police in India, preventing communities from taking charge of their own law and order. The result is a police force that is rarely cautious about using lethal force. That is evident from the record of firings: the police in India have killed two people every week on an average between 2009-’15.
The Tamil Nadu government and the Central Bureau of Investigation need to break this chain and conduct a thorough investigation into what happened in Thoothukudi.