Elusive justice

Print edition : March 13, 2020

Justice delayed is justice denied. This cliche rings true in the case of the gruesome murder of the inter-caste couple S. Murugesan, a Dalit, and D. Kannagi, a Vanniyar, in 2003. The crime revealed the degradation of a society that does not hesitate to murder young couples who dare cross caste barriers in Tamil Nadu.

Seventeen years have passed but the case is still before the court. While those who killed V. Shankar of Udumalpet, a western Tamil Nadu town, were punished within a year of the crime, the accused in the Murugesan- Kannagi murder case are out on bail, leading a largely normal life.

The problems began when the Vriddhachalam police showed a reluctance to pursue the case to its logical end. Murugesan’s relatives said that the police wished to close the case as “suicide”. A team of lawyers and activists under the banner of the Tamil Nadu Ambedkar Legal Services Movement, led by P. Rathinam, a senior advocate, and activists G. Sukumaran and R. Babu had to intervene to get the police to even register a first information report (FIR).

The Vriddhachalam police filed an FIR against eight persons under Sections 147, 302 and 201 of the Indian Penal Code. Strangely, it did not deem it necessary to invoke provisions of the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, although one of the victims was a Dalit. Instead, the police arrested Murugesan’s father Samikannu and uncle Ayyasamy, along with two others, both Dalits, in connection with the crime. The police also arrested four Vanniyars, including the girl’s father, C. Doraisamy, and her brother, Maruthapandian.

Samikannu was shocked that his name was included in the FIR. He strongly denied any involvement in his son’s murder. He maintained that he was not even aware of his son’s wedding until the couple’s death. Fearing violence and constant threats from the village’s Vanniyar community, Samikannu’s entire family migrated to another village for livelihood, abandoning their lands and houses. They still live there.

Persons close to Murugesan accused the Vriddhachalam police of selling out to the powerful caste Hindu group of Vanniyars. They told Frontline that the police included the Dalits in the crime primarily to dilute the case. A powerful caste-based political lobby, they claimed, had backed the perpetrators of the crime to save them. But on the advice of Rathinam and his team, Samikannu approached the Madras High Court seeking an investigation by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), and the court agreed.

The CBI took three months to complete its investigation and filed a new charge sheet before the Special Court at Cuddalore, invoking the provisions of the S.Cs and S.Ts (Prohibition of Atrocities Act), 1989. The investigating agency discharged Samikannu from its charge sheet, retained the names of Ayyasamy and another Dalit, claiming that they had assisted the main accused in the crime. The CBI named a total of 15 persons of whom 11 are Vanniyars, two are personnel of the Vriddhachalam police station who filed the first FIR and two are Dalits. The case has been transferred to the recently established Special Court to hear S.C./S.T. cases at Cuddalore and promises a quicker verdict.

Murugesan and Kannagi, who were both in their early twenties and hailed from Puthukkooraippettai village in Cuddalore district, fell in love when they were students of Annamalai University in Chidambaram. They got married secretly, fearing a backlash from the girl’s family. They got their marriage registered on May 5, 2003, at Cuddalore. Murugesan was a graduate in chemical engineering while Kannagi was a commerce graduate with an additional qualification of a diploma in co-operation.

The couple decided to keep their marriage a secret until Murugesan got a job. Kannagi was sent to live with a relative of Murugesan. Within a month he got a job at Tirupur and the couple decided to start a life together when they were murdered.

Kannagi’s family members, including her father Doraisamy, who was the panchayat president then, her brother Maruthapandian, a close relative named Rangasamy and others, apprehended Murugesan on July 7, 2003, when he came to take certain documents from his house. Later, the gang traced Kannagi too.

Then the barbaric crime was committed. The couple was forced to drink poison in the presence of many in the early hours of July 8, 2003, near the village cremation ground. The bodies were then burnt and word spread that the two had committed suicide. After a week or so, a local Tamil magazine exposed the heinous crime in detail. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) took up the issue. The Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi also raised the issue. An FIR (Crime No. 356/2003) was registered against four Vanniyars and four Dalits. The accused were released on bail within three weeks.

P.K. Ilavarasan, a lawyer who filed a writ petition in connection with the case in 2017, claimed that the CBI’s investigating officers were “corrupt and cunning” since the agency did not cite Murugesan’s stepmother Chinnapillai as an eyewitness to the gruesome incident.

The petition drew attention to the “uncivilised intervention of a leader of Dalit political party” who pressured Samikannu to accept a huge amount of money offered by the accused. The petition urged the court to expedite the ongoing hearing in the case in the Cuddalore court.

But almost all witnesses, except Chinnapillai, have turned hostile in this case. One of the witnesses, M. Selvaraj, committed suicide. “We have to build a strong case against the interference of extraneous forces. We need to save the two innocent Dalits who have been charge-sheeted and get justice for the deaths of Murugesan and Kannagi,” said the activist Sukumaran.

The case is in an advanced stage before the Cuddalore court.

 

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