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26 September, 2012

Reign of Terror in Koodankulam: Fact-finding team's report

A three-member fact-finding team which visited Koodankulam and neighbouring villages says in its report that the law-enforcing machinery has been behaving in a way which has no place in a country that calls itself democratic.

“If people who have resisted and protested peacefully for a year can be charged with sedition and waging war against the nation in such a cavalier way as has been done here, what is the future of free speech and protest in India?” the team asks in its report released today.

The team comprising  Mr. B. G. Kolse Patil, former judge of the Bombay High Court, Ms Kalpana Sharma, senior journalist, Mumbai and Mr. R. N. Joe D’Cruz, Tamil writer, Chennai, visited Idinthakarai, Tsunami Colony, Vairavikinaru and Koodankulam and recorded the testimony of witnesses regarding police atrocities of September 10 and 11.

The following are excerpts from the report:

From individual testimonies of people in Idinthakarai it is evident that many people have been injured. We saw people with burn injuries when they came in the path of the tear gas shells that were fired. Others had injuries from the lathi charge. In several cases people had to get stitches on these wounds. But the most important issue that appeared repeatedly was that people were afraid to step out of the village to seek medical help for fear that they could be arrested.

 Villagers complained about the desecration of the Lourdes Matha Church in Idinthakarai, where police had reportedly broken an idol of Mother Mary, and had urinated inside the church premises. Broken pieces of the idol were shown to the team.

In the Tsunami colony, the fear was palpable. Most houses were locked as people are afraid to return to their homes. Several villagers showed us their houses where windowpanes had been broken, cupboards ransacked and doors damaged allegedly by the police who entered the village on September 10. Thereafter for several days, a police force camped in the village. As a result even today many of the residents of the village are afraid to spend the night there and instead sleep in the tent outside the Lourdes Matha church in Idinthakarai.

Fear was also evident in Vairavikinaru village where villagers showed us evidence of the destruction to houses when the police party raided the village on September 10. Nine people were arrested including a 16-year-old boy and a 75-year-old man who is practically blind in one eye. The people we spoke to kept repeating that they did not know what they had done to invite such treatment from the police.

Villagers in Koodankulam are even more terrified as they live closest to the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Project. On September 10, a large police contingent entered the village, arrested 34 people, broke into houses where the frightened residents hid, and destroyed property and vehicles. Now, villagers said they are so afraid that they lock their doors after dark, many cannot sleep and are fearful when they hear a vehicle entering the village.

In all these villages, one common factor was that each of those arrested was charged under identical sections. These included 124A (sedition), 121A (waging war against the state), 307, 353 and 147 and 148.

The other more disturbing testimony was from the women in all four villages. They spoke of the abusive and sexist remarks of the police when they came to their village and also when some of the women went to the police station. One disabled woman gave evidence of physical molestation and another, who was part of protest on the beach near the plant, spoke of police chasing the women into the sea and making obscene gestures.

Despite this situation, villagers expressed their determination to oppose the project. However, they repeatedly asked why no one from the government or from the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited was prepared to hold a proper public hearing where they heard the apprehensions of the villagers and presented their point of view. They asserted that as the people living closest to the nuclear plant they had a right to question and to know all the facts.

Although we did not have the time to independently verify some of the things the villagers told us, we could conclude the following based on what we saw and heard:

1. We believe that our findings raise a matter of great gravity given that they endorse widespread reports about violence against women, children and the elderly by the police. The actions of the police also include acts of looting and damage to public and private property and open intimidation. Most importantly, they represent acts of illegality that cannot be challenged by the victims as the perpetrators of the crimes are the
police themselves. We urge the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights, State/National Commissions for Women, and the National/State Human Rights Commissions and the Hon'ble Supreme Court to take serious note of these violations and act to restore normalcy and a sense of justice.

2. That sections like 124A, 121A had been irrationally used to charge those arrested on September 10. Villagers showed us notices from the police with identical charges irrespective of the age of the person arrested, including four juveniles and several senior citizens.

3. The public humiliation and beating of young boys and old men is bound to leave deep wounds in the psyches of the victims and those who witnessed it. Mothers and husbands have seen their sons and husbands beaten and dragged off by the police.

4. So many women spoke about the abusive language and sexual gestures and actions of the police that we do not doubt their version.

5. The action of the police has created a fear psychosis in the area. There are police barricades at the entrance to Kudankulam and some of the other villages. When you go on the road you can see the massive presence of the force. People feel as if they are under a state of siege.

6. The desecration of the Lourdes Matha Church in Idinthakarai by the police is a dangerous and deplorable act.

7. The injuries that we saw were real and not imagined. The fact that people have little or no access to health care and are afraid to step out and seek it is a serious matter. Many said they did not dare step outside the village to seek medical help for fear of being arrested or attacked by the police.

8. The damage to homes in the Idinthakarai Tsunami Colony are also real and not imagined, as alleged by the police and mentioned in newspaper reports. The fear created by the police in that and other villages where they attacked is also there for all to see.

9. The fact that people feel helpless about reporting these atrocities is another reality that does not require further confirmation. Repeatedly we were told that people did not know how to seek justice when doing so would mean going to the very police that had attacked their homes and arrested their people.

10. The refusal of the authorities at the Juvenile Home to allow us to see the boys in their custody further strengthens our fears and suspicion that the boys had been badly beaten and traumatised.

We believe the use of force against peaceful protestors was extreme and totally unjustified. People have the right to hold a peaceful protest and even if the police have to disperse them, there are ways to do so without injuring people. Why was no effort made to negotiate with the leaders of the movement before lathi-charging a crowd in which there were so many elderly people, women and children?

The reign of terror that followed September 10, resulting in a palpable fear in all the villages, is condemnable, as is the desecration of places of worship by the Police. These villages have no choice but to live in close proximity to a facility that they believe puts their lives in danger. Is the government planning to continue terrorizing them to force them to stop expressing their concern?

The targeting of women by the police through abusive language and physical molestation has to be condemned in the strongest terms. Why were male policemen allowed anywhere near women protestors when women police were also present in strength?

Although we have attached a list of 56 people who have been remanded, many more people cannot be traced or have been reported missing. Furthermore, the police appear to have deliberately lodged those remanded in jails far away from the area, thereby making it virtually impossible for the families to visit them.

After two days of listening to testimonies and viewing the damage done to homes and vehicles allegedly by the police, we have to conclude that this kind of behaviour by the law-enforcing machinery has no place in a country that calls itself democratic. If people who have resisted and protested peacefully for a year can be charged with sedition and waging war against the nation in such a cavalier way as has been done here, what is the future of free speech and protest in India?

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