An environmental activist based in Tamil Nadu has allegedly ‘disappeared’ hours after he released a video charging senior police officers with “negligence” and “collusion” in the Tuticorin police firing
A Habeas Corpus petition – literally meaning “produce the body” in Latin – was filed before the Madras High Court on Monday, demanding that the state police produce Mugilan, an activist, who has been missing since the night of February 15.
The petitioner, Henri Tiphagne, is a lawyer and a human rights activist who serves as the Executive Director of NGO People’s Watch. The hearing of the case is posted for February 22.
Mugilan is a self-styled sand warrior. The co-ordinator of the Tamil Nadu Environment Protection Movement, Mugilan alias Shanmugam Thangasamy, is a well-known name in Tamil Nadu for his activism on curbing illegal river sand mining in the Cauvery river bed.
On February 15, Mugilan, along with his colleague VP Ponnarasan had held a press conference at the Chennai Press Club. He released a documentary at the press conference offering “evidence” that a number of high ranking police officers had, on the day of the police firing in Tuticorin, either “neglected” their duty or worse, “actively colluded” with perpetrators of violence.
Documentary released by Mugilan at the Chennai Press Club on February 15
In the 40-minute documentary, Mugilan narrates a sequence of events in an attempt to show that police had allowed a group of people to break CCTV cameras at the Tuticorin District Collectorate. He also alleges that the same group of people were “allowed” by the police to set fire to bikes and bicycles in the vicinity. He states that this act of arson took place after the police had chased out protesters who entered the premises of the District Collectorate.
Mugilan does not offer conclusive evidence as to who that group of arsonists were – he assumes they are “goondas” hired by Sterlite. This documentary was not aired by any news channel, nor did many dailies carry a report.
After the press meet was over, Mugilan appears to have contacted his friend Mr Aseervatham, State Coordinator of HRDA (Human Rights Defenders’ Alert – India), an NGO, to ask him for his feedback on the press conference.
“I told him he had done well,” Aseervatham told The Lede. “Mugilan and I were part of the fact-finding team in Thuthukudy. He spoke to me about the press meet in Chennai. He called me around 6.30-7 pm and told me he had received threats though he did not specify who they were from. He wanted to meet me the next morning in Madurai,” he said. A number of NGOs, human rights activists, retired judges and forensic science experts had conducted an independent probe into the police firing in Tuticorin (also known as Thuthukudy) in which 13 people were killed in May 2018.
Aseervatham received an SMS from Mugilan at 9.30 pm that night stating that he had reached the Egmore railway station in Chennai. His colleague Ponnarasan took the Mangalore Express train to Karur. Mugilan took the Nagercoil Special train and intended to disembark en route in Madurai.
“Mugilan informed his close friend Sridhar in Madurai that the train was running late and he expected to reach by 10.30 am. But he did not reach Madurai,” said Aseervatham.
“At 6 am the next morning I called Mugilan but his phone was switched off. I thought maybe the charge on his mobile battery died. But as time went on and I did not hear from Mugilan, I called Sridhar. He had not heard from Mugilan. I then called his colleagues in Karur in the Cauvery Protection Front – no one knew where he was,” said Aseervatham.
Fellow activists, friends and NGO members began to make calls to various police stations to find out whether Mugilan had been arrested for speaking out against high ranking officers.
“It is on the basis of my personal enquiries with his wife and family members, his friends in Karur, his companions who had last seen him in Chennai the previous day and the valuable information that he had made public during his press meet that I myself have started to suspect foul play in this incident and suspected that he could have been abducted from the train itself after he had exposed the role of higher police officers in the Thoothukudi police firing and the violence. All our enquiries with the police control rooms of Chennai, Kancheepuram and Villupuram police to know if any police station had taken him into police custody in any case on the night of the 15th and 16th have proved futile,” said petitioner Henri Tiphagne in the Habeas Corpus petition filed before the Madras High Court on Monday.
Aseervatham fears that “external forces” could have abducted Mugilan. “I asked for a favour from a friend in BSNL who found out that Mugilan’s mobile has been switched off since 01.45 am in Olakkur, Villupuram district. If the Tamil Nadu police picked him up, we would know for sure by now. But no one has any idea where he is,” he said.
The immediate controversy that Mugilan has been mired in is his latest documentary. But he has been in trouble with the police for a number of years, for his fierce participation in protests against the Kudankulam nuclear reactor in 2011 and also for participating in the protests demanding the bull taming sport Jallikattu in 2017. Of course, he has also made enemies with the river sand mining mafia and politicians in the state thanks to his unrelenting activism.
“He has been targeted before over illegal sand mining. He was beaten by the Alanganallur police in Madurai during the Jallikattu protests in January 2017 allegedly for insulting then Chief Minister O Panneerselvam,” said Aseervatham.
Human rights lawyer Sudha Ramalingam who filed the Habeas Corpus petition on behalf of Henri Tiphagne on Monday told The Lede – “A social activist who has exposed the probability of involvement of high ranking officials including the IG, DIG and the SP through the CCTV camera footage captured by the CCTVs in the Collectorate is missing from the date of his expose. This is something which is of very serious concern because there is an apprehension that there is danger to his life and safety.”
As they await word about Mugilan, activists are attempting to push the National Human Rights Commission into action and lobbying for international support.
No State For Activists
Activists, especially those working in the field of human rights say that Tamil Nadu has become a state where it is difficult to raise a voice of dissent.
“The fact that the court in Madurai had rescinded an opportunity of considering a petition relating to a student who was injured in the police firing and lathi charge of 22 May (Tuticorin police firing)… that the student was instead picked up by the police, blindfolded and beaten and then produced before a magistrate… and then the same thing happened to another person. We demonstrated this in the Madurai bench of the Madras High court as to how police are terrorising people,” said Henri Tiphagne, Executive Director, People’s Watch NGO and the petitioner who has filed the Habeas Corpus in Mugilan’s case.
He gave an instance of a WhatsApp group that a number of activists, he included, were part of – the group was called “Anti Nuclear People’s Movement” group.
“People who belonged to the WhatsApp group were all called by the police. The police gave a questionnaire to all members of the group and they were asked to fill in all sorts details including details of their family members –in-laws as well! And then members were asked to leave the group,” he told The Lede.
“We did not get a hall to publicise the findings of our fact-finding team (on the Tuticorin police firing). The police kept harassing us. The police are out to create a sense of terror in the minds of people,” he charged.
“We had a meeting with human rights defenders in Thuthukudy on 15 August, 2018 and a policeman arrived there and asked my staff – ‘we heard there are four Naxalites here, where are they.’ I am doing a PhD on Human Rights! If academicians are going to be harassed in this fashion, then what will happen to ordinary people?” asked an angry Tiphagne.
“There is no doubt that the atmosphere and conditions in Tamil Nadu are completely against activists and dissent in the recent past,” continued Tiphagne. “All the actions of the police and government make that clear.”
Attempts by The Lede to reach the police officers named in the video as well as the Director General of Police did not succeed. This article will be updated if they respond.