In its final report, the Justice Aruna Jagadeesan committee that looked into the massacre at Sterlite protests of 2018, which took place in Tamil Nadu’s Thoothukudi district, concluded that police shooting at protesters was an unjustified and indiscriminate act. According to the aforementioned report, which was presented to the Assembly on October 18, the former chief minister Edappadi Palaniswami displayed a pattern of carelessness and indifference by failing to take action after being given information by the then Intelligence Officer K N Santhiyamurthy to diffuse the situation. According to the report, there was a massive unjustified police overreach.
As reported by The Hindu, the commission stated in its findings that the police fire during the event was carried out not at a close range but rather from a considerable distance, indicating the involvement of sharpshooters. “Here is a case of police indulging in shooting from their hide-outs at the protesters who were far away from them,” the commission said in its report said. “[T]here is no material on record to show that it was only to deal with a militant crowd of protesters that the opening of fire was resorted to.”
The committee, led by former Madras High Court judge Justice Aruna Jagadeesan, was established to look into the incidents and circumstances that led to the police firing shots on May 22, 2018, killing 13 anti-Sterlite protesters and injuring countless more in Thoothukudi. The commissions noted that two groups were to protest on 22 May to coincide with the 100th day of their protest against Sterlite expanding its operations. One group was planning to demonstrate outside the Collectorate’s office, while the other planned to demonstrate on the SAV school premises with authorization. Tamil Nadu’s intelligence officer had gathered that if the fisherman didn’t go to sea due to the fishing ban period, it was most likely that they would involve themselves in the protest prompted and persuaded by the leftist organisations.
As per the Hindustan Times, the reported stated that “He (Santhiyamurthy) would also depose that he met the then Chief Minister Thiru Edappadi K. Palaniswami at Salem and suggested to him that a dialogue could be opened with the Fisherman Associations through the Secretary, Fisheries Department in order to dissuade them from plunging into the protest.” Furthermore,“The then Chief Minister would appear to have responded saying that he would do the needful. Unfortunately, the well-meaning efforts of the Intelligence Chief did not yield any result in as much as no follow up action was taken immediately thereafter to defuse the situation…It is quite baffling to note how a message with a potential for grave law and order situation remained unattended even though the relevant Intelligence had been promptly conveyed to the Chief Minister. It would appear to be a classic instance of indifference and lethargy, and had this grave issue been seriously attended to, it is quite likely that the issue would have been tackled effectively at the initial stage itself,” the report said.
The Commission has thoroughly examined the days that preceded the firing and has named a number of senior officials. The Commission has recommended departmental action against the former district collector N Venkatesh, whose manner of conducting himself is likened to abdicating his duty, according to the report. Action against 17 police officers, including Superintendent of Police P Mahendran, Deputy Inspector General Kapil Kumar C Karatkar, and Inspector General of Police Shailesh Kumar Yadav, has been advised.
Three special executive magistrates who are intended to support the police have been referred for disciplinary action due to their absence from their respective jurisdictions. One specific example cited by the Commission is how Rajkumar, one of the special executive magistrates, disobeyed the authorities by refusing to allow them to provide evidence indicating the starting of fire was ordered by the special executive magistrate. Therefore, they decided on a compliant special executive magistrate named Sekar so they could create the impression that they only used firing as a last choice after complying with the pertinent Police Standing Orders rules. According to the Hindustan Times, the commission said, “He (Sekar) is featured in the scenario simply to add legitimacy to an otherwise criminal behavior.”
According to the report, the protestors were unarmed and limited their actions to throwing stones at police, posing no threat to their safety. The committee stated that this is not an instance of the police employing reasonable force and added that the shooting was unprovoked. “Here is a case of police indulging in shooting from their hideouts at the protesters who were far away from them,” the report said as per the Hindustan Times. The structure of police officers was completely devoid of cooperation. The report further stated that the Inspector General of Police, who is at the top of the hierarchy, was unaware of the shooting that took place at the direction of DIG Kapil Kumar C. Saratkar and deputy superintendent of police Ungathirumaran. The IG was also unaware of the shooting that sub-inspector Rennes allegedly carried out on Thirumalai’s orders.
As reported by the Hindustan Times, the report states that, “Thus there is a spectacle of DIG disregarding even the presence of IG and arrogating himself the authority to issue directions for shooting.”
“The conclusion then becomes irresistible that there had been excess on the part of the police,” the committee said. “The totality of the facts and circumstances would not suggest that the police had been acting in exercise of the right of private defence.”
Favouring increasing the compensation granted to kin of victims ,and appreciating the government gesture to provide employment on compassionate grounds to the eligible kin of the deceased, the report suggested a compensation of Rs 50 lakh to the kin/legal heirs after deducting Rs 20 lakh ex-gratia already disbused. “As for the injured, the commission recommends a compensation of Rs 10 lakh each, deducting the compensation of Rs 5 lakh already paid to them,” the panel stated as reported by the Indian Express.