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Tamil Nadu unleashing police force as public protests grow

LiveMint logoLiveMint 04-07-2017 Dharani Thangavelu

Chennai: On 30 June, when news came of a leak in an oil pipeline in Kathiramangalam, Thanjavur, villagers gathered to protest against groundwater contamination. In ensuing clashes with the police, many were injured. Ten people were arrested.

On Monday, Tamil Nadu chief minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami defended the police action, which M.K. Stalin, working president of the opposition Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam(DMK), called an attack on human rights.

“Police used minimum force to disperse villagers after asking them to peacefully disperse, even as the villagers continued pelting stones and resorted to violence,” Palaniswami told the state assembly.

The incident in Kathiramangalam was only the latest in what’s turning out to be a summer of unrest in Tamil Nadu, which has also been beset by political uncertainty following the death in December of chief minister J. Jayalalithaa.

That’s turned the spotlight on alleged police high-handedness in dealing with protests and the benignness with which the government justifies police methods.

“Not just in Tamil Nadu, any state will always justify its police action,” said retired Madras high court judge D. Hariparanthaman.

Recently, Thirumurugan Gandhi, leader of a pro-Tamil Eelam group, and three others were charged under the so-called Goondas Act for conducting a candle-light vigil in memory of Sri Lankan Tamils who died in the last phase of the island’s civil war in 2009. The incident sparked criticism of the alleged violation of fundamental rights through the use of draconian rules.

The Tamil Nadu Prevention of Dangerous Activities of Bootleggers, Drug Offenders, Forest Offenders, Goondas, Immoral Traffic Offenders, Sand Offenders, Slum Grabbers and Video Pirates Act, 1982, known as the Goondas Act, enables the authorities to detain “habitual offenders” for up to one year in prison.

Tamil Nadu has topped all Indian states over the years in the use of the preventive detention law. According to the latest data available with the National Crime Records Bureau, in 2015, a total of 1,268 suspects including 21 women were lodged across various prisons in Tamil Nadu, the highest among all states and Union territories. Telangana was second in the list with 339 detainees.

Use of police force in the face of public protests is not new to Tamil Nadu. Observers recall the 2011-2012 protests against the Kudankulam nuclear plant which too the police broke up with the use of force. Since 2011, over 8,000 villagers protesting against the nuclear plant have been slapped with sedition charges.

“Now, the people’s resistance is not just becoming bigger, it is also getting more apolitical,” Hariparanthaman said.

Earlier this year, a week of peaceful protests against the apex court’s ban on Jallikattu, the bull-taming sport popular in Tamil Nadu, turned violent when the police attempted to disperse protesters in Chennai’s Marina beach.

The issue of widespread demonstrations for liquor prohibition targeting the Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corp., which runs liquor shops in the state, and the use of police force, was raised in May in the Madras high court, which questioned the state on the arrest of anti-liquor protesters.

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