A Smelter That Keeps Thoothukudi Fuming: Two Years after Sterlite Violence, Many Wounds are Still Raw

CNN-News18

Two years have passed since the carnage.

The police force of the district of Thoothukudi in southern Tamil Nadu opened fire at a massive rally marking a hundred days of protest against the operations of a copper smelter owned by billionaire Anil Agarwal. With the death of 13 people and several others wounded, the shooting in May 2018 shook the national consciousness and pivoted debates around need-based manufacturing.

In the residence of late teenager Snowlin, a silent teardrop is shed. A sorrow that seemingly brushes aside all the socio-political context surrounding the killings of Thoothukudi and the multiple reasons advanced for it: a class undercurrent that swelled at the wrong time, corporate muscle-flexing, anti-social elements out to create trouble, and more. But, all that aside, the terrible human cost for the reopening of a copper smelter eclipses all the reasons advanced for the ghastly incident.

Families of the those killed in the shooting are holding memorials. In many places, posters with pictures of the deceased have come up. In May last year, the fishing community had held a memorial service for the dead in the same church that was a rallying point for protesters in their deathly march towards the district collector's office. For its part, Thoothukudi has been resilient in defending and holding up the memory of those slain in the shootout.

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The Anil Agarwal-owned Vedanta has vigorously contested the closure of the factory. The Edappadi K Palaniswami government, relatively new in terms of months at the office, had hurriedly shuttered the factory five days after the police firing. The company has been fighting it legally, engaging a battery of lawyers, some of whom command great respect in the country's legal fraternity. As of now, the case is sub-judice at the Madras High Court, after lengthy adjudications at the National Green Tribunal and the Supreme Court.

Thoothukudi has been a port town for several years now, but age-old rivalries in caste and community have been quietly simmering beneath the surfaces of communal interactions. For the fishing community at least, the shooting has dealt a blow to the collective psyche as the losses were predominantly on their side. For their part, the police have been watchful ever since the incident tracking strangers in town and following the usual suspects.

For what it is worth, politicians have plumbed the depths of the issue in order to take on the state government's actions to douse passions related to the copper smelter and the protests. While the DMK has predictably held protests and staged demonstrations and public meetings, the role of actor-turned-politician Kamal Haasan has also been significant. He visited the site of the protests even before the massive hundredth-day rally. In social media posts and speeches, he has kept his torch burning on the copper smelter saga. In a tweet on Friday, Haasan strongly condemned the state's action and sent out a remembrance message for the people of Thoothukudi. MK Stalin, too, had put out a strong statement condemning the government.