Wealthy industrialists, with their considerable donations to political parties, have been able to by-pass most legal bars and establish industries at places of their choice, unmindful of its effects on the people and the neighbouring environment.
Bhopal gas tragedy exposed over five lakh people to methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas, killing more than two 2,500 people in 1984. Union Carbide India Ltd, a US-based company, opened shop in India, polluted the country and escaped with minimal damages due to the protection it enjoyed through our corrupt polity. Relatively low damages were slapped by our courts compared to the counterparts in USA and other parts of the world. There have been many tragedies due to faulty industrial set-ups, thanks to the politicians turning a blind eye, the judiciary letting them off with just some fines and the general public being vulnerable spectators.
The people of Tamil Nadu have taken to the streets to press for their causes and needs as the political will failed and the judiciary did not deliver on time. Marina saw one such uprising last year for Jallikattu. Now a similar uprising has begun against Sterlite in Thoothukudi. Our Constitution confers on its citizens’ fundamental rights to assemble peacefully, right to form associations, right to freedom of expression and speech, the tools for expressing dissent in a democracy.
The elected representatives / legislators being purchased through their political parties and otherwise by industrialists have become deaf to the pleas of the citizens. Therefore, it has become necessary for concerned citizens to organize themselves into groups / associations and assemble and protest to voice their dissent and seek remedial measures.
The state has a duty to safeguard its citizens and also promote an atmosphere where the citizens can enjoy their fundamental rights. It is hence the duty of the state to not repress and curb groups / associations but encourage and streamline their activities to ensure safety of those assembled. We are no more subjects of any foreign ruler, our country is a sovereign democracy where its subjects are in fact the masters. The elected representatives are for the people, of the people and by the people. But the ruling party of our state and that of most other states, including the central government look at the citizens of our country as their hostages who have to necessarily obey them. They are not allowed to form their opinions and voice them even when supported with facts, statistics and reason.
This autocratic tendency as was displayed by the British when they were our rulers continue to haunt our ruling parties. Any gathering of dissent is still seen like those who assembled at Jallianwalla Bagh in 1919, all police officers seem to still have the same mindset as that of General Dyer. They see protesting citizens as their potential enemies who need to be silenced at any cost. On July 23, 1999, a brutal police attack on a procession before the Collectorate on the banks of Tamirabarani claimed 17 lives. The protesters just wanted the Collector to listen to their grievances, a simple meeting with the protestors would have saved 17 lives. September 11, 2011, at Paramakudi seven people were shot dead while dispersing the crowd of protestors who were assembled there. After every such killing the state constitutes a Judicial Commission of Enquiry to be taken care of by a retired High Court judge who invariably gives a clean chit to the state police. Such commissions are mainly to make the public forget the incidents and justify the state actions / inactions and evade judicial scrutiny which can impose executable sentences against erring officers. The recent Sterlite protests have so far consumed 13 lives and 102 people have been injured.
Justice Aruna Jagadeesan’s Commission of Enquiry is just not sufficient to meet the ends of justice. The photographs and videos circulated on the police shooting shows cold blooded murder by a police officer aiming and shooting at those assembled from the top of a police van. It is definitely not an act to disperse the crowd. All norms and standards set by the standing orders on crowd dispersal were thrown to the winds. Point blank shooting seems to have preceded warning the crowd through loud speakers or lathi charge or use of water cannons. Pre-meditated or not, such point blank shooting is cold blooded murder and those responsible should be charged with offences under section 302 of the IPC (murder) among others. Let them face the ordeal of a criminal trial and be acquitted if not guilty. But to let them be without any criminal action is definitely against human rights of the victims.
The National Human Rights Commission had, in cases of death in police custody / encounters, given a clear direction that all such death should be registered as a criminal case and the officers involved ought to be tried for their culpability. The acts of killing in Thoothukudi should hence be registered for murder and the concerned officials should be brought in and punished for their excesses. They definitely did not kill anyone in exercise of their ‘duty’. A public out-cry is not to be ignored, belittled or throttled with bullets. The state should ensure that there are dialogues and patient hearings followed by responsible and matured handling of dissent – a must for any peaceful solutions to issues. Cutting off communication by blocking internet usage and imposing section 144 CrPC (Code of Criminal Procedure) to curb public gathering are not democratic steps to be taken by the state. The Chief Minister and other leaders have to reach out to the public and not fight shy of facing its citizens. Promulgation of section 144 CrPC does not mean that the chief functionaries cannot be made available to the public. The Madras High Court’s interim injunction order, had it been granted immediately after the case was argued, could have saved 17 lives; the decision of the Chief Minister to shut Sterlite and cutting its power supply, taken on May 24, 2018 is nothing but a knee jerk reaction after the state lost its face due to its indefensible plight.
People lose their life during public gatherings and protest routinely. Our rulers are insensitive. Opposition leaders are clueless and powerless to steer the gatherings. Lessons are not learnt by either the state, the public or the leaders. Several commissions of enquiries, whether it be by the judicial officers or public hearings / fact findings come out with various recommendations. Nothing is followed in letter or spirit. It is high time the state learns lessons and not let even one life or even a limb be lost due to such curbing of democratic dissent.
— The writer is Senior Advocate, Madras High Court