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Vizhinjam Part 2: Police beatings, false accusations and intolerable pressure - how a huge grassroots protest against an Adani port project was crushed
Jan 18, 2023
A powerful grassroots protest in the southern Indian state of Kerala brought construction on Adani's destructive Vizhinjam port to a halt - until the authorities' tactics became brutal.

In 2022, a large grassroots protest against Adani’s port project in southern Kerala halted construction for months. Then, in November 2022, there was a sudden escalation in the conflict. Provocations occurred; protesters were beaten by police; charges were laid; false accusations were published against prominent organisers; central government agencies became involved; and intolerable pressure was placed on community leaders. Many believe that the violence was engineered as a means of bringing the protest to an end.

Adani’s huge Vizhinjam port is being constructed within the former precincts of fishing villages about 24 km from Kerala’s capital city, Thiruvananthapuram. Initially, the protest was held in front of the administrative offices of the capital city from 20 July 2022, but the location was changed to the port entrance after India's independence day on 15 August.

Anti-port protesters, comprising hundreds of fisherfolk, march on the port entrance in August 2022. Image courtesy Mathrubhumi

Protest and counter-protest

A pro-Adani group, the Janakiya Prathirodha Samiti, called for an end to the fishers’ protest and the resumption of port construction. Leaders of this group claimed to be residents of Mullur, a village near the port entrance, and to be politically neutral. There are reports, however, that members of the BJP, the party of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, were leading this counter-protest. A member of the Samghaparivaar, Venganoor Gopakumar, was convening this counter-protest group. Another group, the Viswa Hindu Parishad, also organised a march in favour of Adani’s development.

Attendees of a rally in support of Adani's port development at Vizhinjam, Kerala, demonstrate their enthusiasm.

The political rivals, the BJP and Left partiesmarched together on 2 November 2022 to call for an end to the blockade of Adani’s port works.

Violence erupts 26, 27 November

On Saturday, 26 November, there was a clash between supporters and opponents of the port at the port entrance when dump trucks carrying rock for the project’s massive breakwater were blocked. When the pro-Adani group attempted to demolish the fishing community’s tent, tensions increased. According to media reports, the two sides fought using sticks and stones. The police filed cases against 96 people from the fishermen's side only, including one against a senior figure in the Latin Church. The accusation infuriated the fishermen, but the priests intervened and calmed them down.

Protesters from threatened fishing communities block the gate to Adani's construction site at the Vizhinjam port project.

On Sunday 27 November, all the churches along the coast received a circular from the bishop calling for further strengthening of the protest. The circular stated that the government was to blame for the recent violence.The mainstream media reported that fishermen attacked the Vizhinjam police station that evening, injuring 35 officers. They were accused of surrounding the police station and burning four jeeps, two vans and 20 bikes in protest at the detention of several fishermen. The police responded with tear gas and baton charges to disperse the protesters. Wireless sets and furniture were destroyed in the station building. The police claimed that protesters did not allow an ambulance to pass.

A still taken from a video of the chaos outside the police compound on the night of 27 November 2022.

However, alternative media outlets have reported the encounter very differently. A journalist who is also a member of the fishing community and a research associate at IIT Madras, Sindhu Maria Napoleon, said, ‘two men claiming to be plain-clothes police grabbed two men standing near Vizhinjam Mukola. Upon realising one of them was a representative of the local government, he was released. All these negative events began with this. The mainstream media has failed to report this.’

This catalytic event involved a fisherman called Seldon who was not even part of the protest. Seldon is a fisherman from Vizhinjam. He is also the Parish level president of the Kerala Latin Catholic Association. On 26 November, he was in his boat fishing at sea when an accident occurred and his boat capsized. The coast guard assisted him and, when ashore, he went to the police station to report the disappearance of his boat, as required by local regulations. Once at the police station, however, he was taken into custody.

An injured protester following the attacks on rallying fishing communities by Kerala police in late November 2022.

Seldon was then transferred to an unknown place by the police. Upon his disappearance, the parish vicar sent four people to investigate the matter. The police then took those four people into custody, after which things began to escalate.

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Now five people had disappeared and their relatives became alarmed. The five were not contactable by phone because the police had switched their mobiles off. Seldon’s wife and relatives, in turn, made the risky visit to the police station to find out what had happened, accompanied by priests. By now it was dark. When they arrived, they were pelted with stones by unknown persons on the roof of the station. When the party of women and priests attempted to enter the station to escape the hail of stones, they were allegedly beaten by the police. Ajitha John, one of the injured women, was later photographed and interviewed.

Outside the police compound, a large crowd gathered when fisherfolk were detained by the police, effectively 'disappearing' when the police deactivated their phones.

‘A police officer from Vizhinjam station came after us, shouting,’ sobbed Ajitha John, recounting her experiences on the night of November 27. ‘He hit me and Lissy's legs with a lathi, asking if we were a big show here. They chased Lissy [Seldon's wife], who was remanded by the police, and beat her with a lathi. The police officer slapped us again, shouting 'run away'. They grabbed the phone. Then they beat me up. I was hit when I was crying with my eyes closed. We were beaten up by male police officers.’

One of the anti-port protesters, Ajitha John, shows injuries sustained at the hands of the police.

Father Freddy Solomon later said that police had stood by and watched as protesters were abused and pelted with rocks by supporters of Adani’s port development.

This set of incidents provoked the attack on the police station. A local journalist, Joshi Shankhummugam, who was also allegedly beaten up by the police, said that the authorities had acted in a provocative manner.

An injured member of Kerala's fishing community following police attacks on protesters, 27 November 2022.

'The police should have given a warning first, and then used water cannons to disperse the crowd,’ he said in this media report. ‘However, the police came down first and made a strong baton charge and used stun grenades.’

The media reported that many protesters were injured and taken to hospital and that the police had registered cases against over 3000 people that they had identified as participating in the protests. Police were also reported alleging that the protesters had caused over US $100,000 worth of damage to public property.

Meanwhile, the Archdiocese of the Latin Catholic Church alleged that the government has ‘scripted the violence’ and demanded a judicial inquiry to identify the ‘external forces’ creating the tension.

The majority of protesting fishing people at Vizhinjam are Latin catholics. Other religious groups in the region used this as fuel for inflammatory accusations against the church and its priests.

On 29 November, defying a police order against further demonstrations, the counter-protest group Hindu Aikyavedi organised a pro-Adani rally in Vizhinjam.  Earlier, the police had denied permission for the march due to the risk of more conflict.

Environmental campaigners labeled conspirators

Political observers believe that Kerala's leftist government has adopted the same policy toward protesting fishing communities as that of the central right-wing Modi government towards protesting farming communities two years ago. According to one commentator, the Kerala government and the BJP opposition appear ready to help smooth the way for Adani by suppressing the protests. These major political parties are accused of aiding Adani in grabbing public wealth and resources.

Front-page accusations against environmentalists, community leaders, members of the Latin catholic church and other citizens (translation below).

Kerala has witnessed the most alarming press reports in which protesters have been branded as conspirators and traitors. One of the news reports was published under the headline ‘nine-member gang to sabotage Vizhinjam port’. Protesters were accused of receiving foreign funds to stage the protest and sabotage the Vizhinjam project; the Intelligence Bureau was said to be investigating the matter. A Bureau report was said to be the source of the story, but at least one insider has said that there is no such report. If so, then the accusation against the nine citizens is the worst kind of fake news.

Translation of the front-page newspaper accusations against the nine environmentalists, church figures and community leaders.

The people vilified in these stories have been giving dedicated service in the field of environmental protection for many years. One of this nine-member group, KV Biju, was a front-line campaigner in the farmers' protest in Delhi. At that time, the same newspaper hailed him as a leftist leader. When the issue of Vizhinjam came up, he was then accused of being a BJP (right-wing) stooge.

Another member of the nine, AJ Vijayan, is a citizen who has exposed the environmental damage associated with Adani’s port development by mounting battles in the courts. Even before Adani came into the picture, Vijayan had been writing and speaking about the havoc this port expansion would bring. His wife, Eliamma Vijayan, a prominent feminist, has been a great figure in the history of Kerala. Eliamma is a key member of Sakhi, an organization of which works to improve the lives of marginalised women in Kerala. It is also worth mentioning that their activities are with leftist organisations. However, some TV stations have featured commentators saying that protest leaders have accepted foreign funds. Eliamma has filed a defamation case against one of these TV stations.

Despite threats, accusations and abuse, this group of brave women gathered on 5 January 2023 outside government offices in the state capital to call for a judicial inquiry into the violence perpetrated against protesting fisherfolk on 26 and 27 November 2022.

Intolerable pressure placed on protest committee

By 1 December 2022, the National Investigation Agency had arrived in Vizhinjam. It was reported that the agency was investigating whether there were external forces behind the attack on the Vizhinjam police station.

On 2 December, it was reported that the Kerala government informed the Kerala High Court that there was no objection to the deployment of forces of the central government at the Vizhinjam port. Such militias would be enforcing the court’s ruling that the Vizhinjam blockade of works should cease.

Fishing-community leaders said that local youths panicked after the police stopped them on their way to the market and asked for documents. Those intending to work abroad or who were ready to return home for the Christmas vacation were included in the list of the accused. As workers from the local branches of the BJP and Left party (both of which strongly support Adani’s port expansion) were helping the police to complete the list of accused, the fishermen's families became distraught. Fearing that their children's future would be ruined, many families were forced to withdraw from the struggle. Some of the leaders of the protest said that they had no choice but to give in to the pressure to end the blockade.

Despite state violence, the community still opposes Adani's port expansion, fearing the end of their livelihoods and way of life.
‘Mediation committees’ were set up in connivance with the government to put even more pressure on the fishermen. The ‘mediation’ was attended by prominent Catholic religious leaders of Kerala and leaders of other religions. Multiple discussions were held. On 6 December, the Chief Minister of Kerala himself engaged in the discussion. Pressure was building for the protests to be called off. Some people feared that the future of the youth of the area would be ruined if they were implicated in the riot case. The Latin church is a relatively weak and low-class section of the Catholic Church. It is also believed that pressure was exerted by upper-caste Catholics. It is important to note that all the political parties have sided with Adani on this issue.

On the evening of 6 December 2022, the fishing community’s organising committee announced that it was calling off the protest. The Archbishop, Thomas J. Neto, said in a church circular on 11 December that the protest had ended due to untoward incidents.

Archbishop Thomas Neto felt he had no option but to temporarily call off the blockade on 11 December 2022.

‘Hundreds of people including locals and police were injured. The peaceful atmosphere was broken. The police have registered non-bailable cases against many innocent people’, Neto said. ‘Freedom of movement is restricted… The protest was stopped temporarily to change the horrible situation and create a peaceful atmosphere. There has been a mixed reaction to the suspension of our fiercely fought battle for survival.’

No notable progress had been made in meeting the demands stated by the protest group. The government had previously announced that it would pay approximately US $67 a month to those staying in the camps for displaced people. The government said that, if required, it could allocate an additional US $30 a month from the Adani Group's corporate social responsibility fund. However, the protest committee said that, to maintain the dignity of the people it represented, Adani's money would not be accepted.

Another part of the settlement was to task a committee with studying coastal erosion. However, the government refused to appoint experts requested by the fishermen. In response, the fishermen have formed their own study committee.

In short, the government offered little other than a small amount of rental assistance. The urgent and critical demand that work on the port should be stopped while a study into coastal erosion was conducted was rejected.

In the longer term, land has been allotted for housing for those displaced by erosion and port development. However, displaced people will have to stay in other rented accommodation until construction of that housing is complete. The longer-term accommodation will not be available without an advance payment of three months' rent. These onerous conditions mean that many families are still staying in a concrete warehouse.

Members of threatened fishing communities, injured when police used batons and stun grenades against protesters on 27 November 2022.

The protest, which began on 20 July 2022, came to an end after 140 days. The government of the Left Democratic Front considered this withdrawal a major political victory. 

Police take celebratory selfies after the crushing of the Vizhinjam protest.

However, protest leaders indicated that the truce may only be temporary. In December 2022, it was decided that the protest would no longer be led by priests; lay people would now take the lead.

Meanwhile, Adani’s colossal breakwater continues to extend into the waters off Vizhinjam, disrupting wave patterns that have shaped this coastal environment for millennia.

The fragile lights of fishing boats at sea - in danger of being snuffed out by the impacts of Adani's enormous port complex at Vizhinjam.