When the protest reached its 100th day, the protesters decided to march to the District Collectors Office, the Tamil Nadu government’s highest-ranking agent in the district, to hand in a written petition.
It was then that disaster struck, as police opened fire, killing 13 of the protesters and injuring many more. The incident was shocking for several reasons. The resort to firing by the police was not preceded by any warning; no attempts were made to use water cannon or rubber bullets as is the usual practice in crowd control before resorting to shooting; and ominously, there were no warning shots or shooting aimed at knee level. Instead, the firing was aimed at heads and chests.
More tellingly, among those killed on May 22, on the 100th day of the protest, eight were the main coordinators of the event, prompting Father Jegath Gaspar Raj, a Catholic priest and social activist, in an address to the Chennai Press Club to state that the “first eight killings were planned in advance by the police and executed with precision by well-trained police shooters who mingled with the protesters as civilians.”
This declaration by Gasper Raj has been backed by the national secretary of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, V Suresh, citing numerous video recordings and witness accounts, to announce that snipers standing atop police vehicles had shot directly at people leading the march, aiming to kill them and pointing to the fact that most of those killed seemed to have sustained bullet wounds in the top torso or part of the body above the waist.
The seriousness of the assertion that the killings were deliberate has been further underscored by a Public Interest Litigation lodged by Advocate G S Mani calling for a murder case to be brought under Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code to be registered by the Central Bureau of Investigation against all concerned officers of the Tamil Nadu Police, specifically the superintendent of police of Thoothukudi district.
The charge that the killings were deliberate has also been echoed by one of India’s well-regarded human-rights activists, Henry Tiphagne, executive director of People’s Watch, who agreed that “it was certainly planned and intended at quelling the protests.”
The anger against Vedanta and the Indian government for permitting these atrocities has now gained international attention, with protesters in London gathering opposite the Indian High Commission last Saturday calling for delisting Vedanta from the London Stock Exchange. Notably, this included a large contingent of British Tamils.
Meanwhile, the British Labour Party has also called for Vedanta to be delisted from the LSE, with Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell arguing that removing Vedanta Resources from the London financial markets would prevent reputational damage from the “rogue” corporation.
In the same week, Amnesty International announced that police had “many questions to answer” and “those responsible should be brought to justice.”
In solidarity with fellow Tamils, protests were staged in several parts of the northeast of Sri Lanka, the Tamil homeland.
The absolute disregard for public opinion by Vedanta and its subsidiary Sterlite has caused much speculation about the support the company appears to receive from the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Indian government. H Raja, the BJP’s national secretary, has defended the police shootings, arguing that when protests turn into riots there is no other option.
Not surprisingly, Rahul Gandhi, leader of the Indian National Congress party, sought to politicize the issue by blaming the BJP. But this accusation has been proved to be hollow, with documents showing that the Congress party had on multiple occasions backed the controversial Sterlite project during the tenure of the United Progressive Alliance government in New Delhi.
It would appear the Sterlite issue is a direct result of governments working with conglomerates while paying little heed to the welfare of the people.