Thoothukudi: At Mini Sagayapuram in Thoothukudi, the vast campus of the 16th century Our Lady of Snows Shrine Basilica stands witness to the movements of people in the region.

While the fishing hamlets around the church had gathered in 2012 to voice their support for the protests at Kudankulam in the neighbouring Kanyakumari district, this time it was to protest for their own rights—demanding the closure of Vedanta’s Sterlite Industries Ltd and against the company’s proposed expansion plans.

According to people here, the women in Thoothukudi were the ones behind the huge support the protest gained over the last few months.

On 22 May, 18-year-old J. Snowlin—named after Our Lady of Snows—was among women from her fishing hamlet who had gathered near the church, accompanied by her mother, relatives and friends.

From there, they began a march at 10.30 in the morning towards the district collector’s office. Other protesters joined on the way. At least a lakh people were there, said Henry Tiphange, executive director of People’s Watch, who witnessed the protest.

“As we entered the collectorate, I heard gunshots. Within minutes, I fell down as a bullet pierced my left leg," recollected Nelson Roy, who is recovering at a government hospital.

He added that some women around him asked the men to step away and moved forward, assuming the police would not attack women. “But the merciless police weren’t concerned if they were women or children," said Roy.

Snowlin must have been a few metres ahead of Roy and raising slogans. According to her neighbour S. Selvi, who was also among the protestors, her last words before a bullet hit her were: “Down, down Sterlite."

Like the other 12 people who died with bullet injuries either in their head or chest, images of Snowlin show that she was shot on the face. Her brother J. Godwin said she could have been shot at the back of her neck and the bullet could have come out through her mouth.

“She (Snowlin) was a very bold girl and would bring her friends to the agitations. In the last few months, she attended most of the protests against Sterlite," said Selvi, who attended the protest with her daughter.

Selvi added that Snowlin’s activism was influenced by her mother Vanitha, who has been at the forefront in gathering her neighbours to agitate against the copper smelting industry. Leaving Godwin and his father at home, all the women and children of the household went for the protest.

On the afternoon of 22 May, when the police entered the fishing hamlet of Threspuram and started beating up people, 47-year old J. Jansi was returning from her daughter’s house, after giving her the fish she had cooked. She challenged the police action and became one of the victims.

Jana Rose saw her brother K. Glaston downed by a bullet. Flower vendor Mariammal who is recovering from injuries, has to take care of her husband who has sustained head injuries and a fracture.

The movement sustained for a longer period of time because of the women and the families they brought along, said Tiphange.

“On that day, I saw women calling all the bystanders on the road to join them. When people came in to protest as families, how would they instigate violence?" asked Tiphange.

Back in Mini Sagayapuram, Snowlin’s mother said that all the lives that were lost would rest in peace only when Sterlite shuts down.

The “Down, down Sterlite" slogans that engulfed the port town over the last few months seem to have died down. However, the voices have definitely not been silenced.

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