Fish Workers Protect Students; face the brunt of police brutality

Fish catch and equipment worth lakhs of rupees destroyed in police arson

burnt fish market at Nadukuppam

The weeklong Jallikattu protests at the Marina Beach in Chennai and other parts of the state came to a violent and tragic conclusion on Monday, 23nd Jan 2017 (few protesters continued the protests at Marina late into 24th Jan).  Apart from protesters, the main victims of the brutal and extra-judicial crack down by city police, were the fish workers and their communities bordering Marina Beach. Nadukuppam, a fishing hamlet with road access to  marina beach,  was vandalized by the police. Their fish market, with lakhs of rupees worth of fish, vending trays,scales and even electric ice boxes, were set ablaze by the police. They chased the vendors, predominantly women, and even broke down house doors in the attempt to catch protestors. This was in retribution for the residents having helped the students evade capture by police. Videos shot by the residents of police personnel setting fire to autos have gone viral. Yet again, the fishing community and the Dalit community have borne the brunt of the police violence

Read about Jallikattu protests in Tamilnadu here

The road through Naadukuppam, a fishing hamlet with a thriving fish market at its heart, connects the Light house MRTS station with Marina beach. It is populated by fishworkers and a few dalit households. The glass strewn roads, charred vehicles and the gutted fish market clearly revealed the extent of damage it had sustained from the previous days police crackdown. The fish market is a raised platform, with wooden roofs and partitions. Over 200 women use this space for selling fish that they buy wholesale from the fishermen. Each person invests between Rs.10000 to 30000 everyday on fish. This capital comes from informal lenders at a high rate of interest. They also invest in equipment, like trays, scales, cutting tools as well as refrigeration equipment. After cyclone Vardah last month, many had to incur costs for repairs. The arson by police has led to all this material going up in flames. The entire area is gutted. “We have lost everything. We don’t even have the trays and vessels to clean and keep the fish. Our ice boxes have been destroyed so we can’’t keep the fish from rotting. We don’t have money to restart business; it is going to take a while before we can start work. Even then I don’t know how I will be able to afford the repairs. I have a daughter at home and have to also take care of her two children” said one of the vendors. From discussion with vendors, we estimate that each vendor has sustained anywhere between Rs 30000 to Rs 50000 worth of damage. This alone runs to several a lakhs of rupees overall. Not only the market, but many commuter autos owned by residents and two wheelers have also been burnt down or broken by the police.

Burnt Refrigirator at fish market

Ice breaking machine burnt

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The police justified the use of excessive force including baton charge and  tear gas to disperse the protestors as well as arrest and detain as many of them as possible, saying that had no legal right to assemble peacefully given  that radical/anti social elements had taken over and set fire to a police station at Ice House. However, given the increasing video evidence of against the police, these claims are not being appreciated by most people. Even in Nadukuppam, the residents vehemently maintained that they did not see any violence by protestors who were running away from the police. Instead they recount tale after tale of police excess in dealing with those who were captured. “the police have asked us to sign a letter saying that students burned the market, they have promised immediate compensation if we do so, but we shall never forsake the poor students who did nothing. It was the police” asserted another women vendor.

Materials used by police – Rubber Bullets, Broken Lathi

The residents maintained that even though they did not participate in the protests, they did support the protests in various little ways. They also said that the students had in no way inconvenienced them or made them feel insecure. “There was no problem/all was well all these days. It was only because of the police action that violence erupted. What are we to do, let the kids get brutally beaten up? They might not be our children but we are also parents.  What do the police want, after all the protestors were running away? Why burn our vehicles and market? What did we do? They abused us calling us prostitutes; they drove us away and burnt the place. We could not recover anything” said another vendor.

Many other places along this stretch have also faced similar vandalism by police. Maatankuppam, and Ambedkar Pallam, two other low income settlements along this road have also reported loss of property due to arson by police. Many youth from the community have also been arrested by the police. This was confirmed by an independent fact finding team led by Professor A.Marx and others who visited several of the communities on the next day.

Another team, led by Dr. Vasanthi Devi, former vice chancellor, visited the area and enquired about the events from the women. The report, which was released yesterday, calls for action against the senior police officers responsible for these actions and fair compensation for the losses suffered by the workers. The National Fishworkers’ Forum has also released a statement demanding action against police for the violence.

Nevertheless, it is going to be a hard time for the fish vendors, who have already suffered losses due to demonetization and cyclone. Hundreds of working families have been left in lurch clearing up the debris of state violence, even as the nation celebrates its Republic Day.

 

 

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