As many as 13 people were killed in Thoothukudi following police firing on protesters in May. The protesters were demanding that the Sterlite Copper plant in the town be permanently shut. It was on the 100th day of protests, during which the agitators attempted to besiege the collectorate, when events took a violent turn. One of the victims of the police firing was a 17-year-old girl. Subsequently, police has claimed that the protest was infiltrated by outsiders and had turned violent thus forcing them to open fire.
However, as the recent order from the Madurai Bench of the Madras HC highlights, the actions of the administration and of the police raise many questions. In an order directing that investigation of all cases related to the violence in Thoothukudi be transferred to the CBI, the court asked how no FIRs had been registered against cops—despite petitioners wishing to do so. It directed the CBI to probe the incident, making it clear it had no faith in investigations by the state’s agencies.
The order is undoubtedly a victory for the people of Thoothukudi. Families of the people who lost their lives have said some of the victims were not even protesters, but had been shot nonetheless. The court rightly raised the question of why police did not follow their own procedures before opening fire; it asked how the firing orders came to be given by persons with no authority to do so and questioned how police came to be using self-loading weapons. Citizens have the right to dissent and indeed protest.
However, in the question of who wields the most force, the scales are tipped in favour of the state. It is for this reason that unlawful behaviour by individuals or even groups cannot excuse reciprocal unlawful behaviour from the state. Instead, the police, by all accounts, has embarked on a campaign to intimidate civilians. It has also booked some protesters under the draconian National Security Act and ignored complaints against its own forces. In this light, the court’s order comes as a relief. It is now hoped that the CBI gets to the bottom of things so that justice can be served.