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Raja, a contract labourer at the Tuticorin port, was heading to the collectorate on the morning of Tuesday, May 22, as per plan, when he saw fires raging inside the complex and policemen in uniform and civvies standing there. Raja was among those walking, or rather marching, toward the collectorate. Raja found himself next to a man who was wearing a red shirt and shouting slogans on the top of his voice. He was calling for the Sterlite plant to be shut down permanently and for “comrades” to raise up. They were some 50m from the collectorate when a bullet from somewhere pierced the man wearing the red shirt. “Some of us rushed him to the hospital as fast as we could. Later we came to know that the dead man was Tamilarasan from Tuticorin Kurukkuchalai,” says Raja.

Tamilarasan has been identifed as an activist of the Revolutionary Youth Federation (RYF), which is a mass organisation of the TNMLP – a leftwing political party tracing its origins to the CPI(ML) that split from the CPI(M) in the 1960s. Jayaraman of Usilampatti, another person who died in the firing, has been identified as an activist of Makkal Adhikaram, a mass organisation of the State Organising Committee (SOC) – CPI(ML) – another leftwing political party that too traces its origins to the CPI(ML).

Police officials in Tuticorin have attributed the violence in Tuticorin, which, according to them, provoked the firing, as an outcome of the “infiltration” of the anti-Sterlite agitation by what they call as fringe outfits – among them are RYF and Makkal Adhikaram. “These Leftist activists may have joined hands and helped to organise the people, but the anger against Sterlite is widespread and the demand to shut it down has unanimous approval in these parts,” says Joseph* (name changed), an activist who has been a prominent figure in the anti-Sterlite agitation but refused to be identified for this article, fearing police reprisal.

Photos apparently of policemen taking aim from atop vans have gone viral on social media leading to charges that the firing was a deliberate sniper-like action targeting activists and others. But, N. Maruthupandian, a spokesperson for Makkal Adhigaram, refuses to commit to this theory. “We don’t know yet. But we do know that what happened was similar to the Operation Green Hunt that targeted tribals near Niyamgiri, Odisha, who opposed Vedanta’s project,” he says, asking what wrong did a young girl, who was among the dead, do.

“We are supposed to have democratic rights to go and question injustice anywhere in India. Did Periyar infiltrate the Vaiko agitation?” – N. Maruthupandian, Makkal Adhikaram.

Maruthupandian calls the police’s version of infiltration an attempt to sidetrack the issue. “We are supposed to have democratic rights to go and question injustice anywhere in India. Did Periyar infiltrate the Vaikom agitation?” he asks.

Fissures among leadership
The anti-Sterlite agitations have been ongoing for nearly 15 years but they picked up intensity only this year, says Kishore Kumar, a 40-year-old taxi driver in Tuticorin, who has been participating in the agitations for more than a decade. He attributes this to the company taking up construction work as part of its expansion project. “There was already resentment because people found that their groundwater had turned yellow and they felt the air they breathed was not of good quality,” says Kishore Kumar, dismissing suggestions by health officials that there is no evidence to link diseases found among people in the area with the plant.

Joseph says a series of cancer-related deaths in the area in April and health problems that cropped up in some young women who had to remove their uterus were the trigger for the agitation. Joseph believes a scientific study will show that the fears of the people are not unfounded. He lists some 16 villages under three panchayats where anti-Sterlite feelings reached a high point due to these health concerns and this ramped up the intensity of the agitations.

The closing down of the plant by the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPSB) did not seem to have doused the protest fires. “In the past too, the TNPCB had stopped the operation of the plant but, somehow or the other, the plant was able to restart. There was no assurance that this wouldn’t happen again,” says Tuticorin district CPM leader K. Kanakaraj.

To mark the 100th day of the agitation, the convening committee of the protests had called for a march to the district collectorate. As soon as this was announced, the police had issued summons to many people who were participating in the protests to attend a meeting at the collectorate on May 21. “Since I got the summons too, I went to the meeting. The sub-collector was there along with the police. They said if we laid siege to the collectorate, we would be lathi-charged. At the meeting, it was decided that we would hold the protest at the S. A. V. school grounds to ensure the safety of women and children who often come to the protests,” says Kishore Kumar, a cab driver who has been participating in the agitations.

Among the leaders who attended this meeting was Fathima Babu, an environmentalist, who has been in the public eye as a leader of the agitation. “After the meeting, many of us got anonymous messages that Fathima Babu had been removed from the leadership,” says Kishore Kumar. Maruthupandian of Makkal Adhigaram too alludes to the fissures in the leadership and says this was indicative of the people’s desire to intensify the agitation. Kishore Kumar says people started gathering at the collectorate since there was too little time to spread the information about the change in venue of the protest to S A V grounds.

On May 9, right from 9am people started gathering near the collectorate. Kishore and his friends were at the S A V grounds. “By 10:30am, I got a phone call from a friend who told me that there was trouble at the collectorate. When we reached, we saw bikes burning there. Protesters were running out of the complex with injuries,” he said.

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