Justice for Vachathi

Print edition : November 04, 2011

It has been a long and difficult road to justice for the tribal residents of this village in Tamil Nadu's Dharmapuri district.

in Vachathi

The injustice done to the tribal people of India is a shameful chapter in our country's history. The tribals were called rakshas' (demons), asuras', and what not. They were slaughtered in large numbers, and the survivors and their descendants were degraded, humiliated, and all kinds of atrocities inflicted on them for centuries. They were deprived of their lands, and pushed into forests and hills where they eke out a miserable existence of poverty, illiteracy, disease, etc. And now efforts are being made by some people to deprive them even of their forest and hill land where they are living, and the forest produce on which they survive.

Justice Markadey Katju and Justice Gyan Sudha Misra in the Supreme Court judgment of January 5, 2011, in Kailas and Others versus State of Maharashtra.

VACHATHI, a remote village in the foothills of Sitheri mountain in Dharmapuri district of Tamil Nadu, about 350 kilometres from Chennai, hit national headlines weeks after a team of personnel belonging to the Forest, Police and Revenue Departments launched a savage attack on the village's Malayalee Scheduled Tribe population on the pretext of busting a sandalwood smuggling racket, on June 20, 1992. (Vachathi's shame, Frontline, August 28, 1992).

For the residents of Vachathi, who suffered beatings, rape, molestation and other kinds of humiliation and had their homes and livelihoods destroyed in that attack, it has been a long and difficult road to justice. (Incidentally, one of the 18 rape victims of that attack has been fielded as a candidate in the village panchayat election in October.) But on September 29, there were crackers and processions and offerings to the gods at local temples as the designated trial court sentenced all the 215 surviving persons of the 269 accused in the case. Among the accused are 126 forest personnel, 84 police personnel and five revenue personnel. The jail terms for various offences range from one year to 10 years of rigorous imprisonment.

Seventeen persons, all of them belonging to the Forest Department, have been convicted of rape under Section 376 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and sentenced to seven years of rigorous imprisonment, with a fine of Rs.2,000 each. Under Section 357 (1) (b) of the Criminal Procedure Code (payment of compensation for any loss or injury), the 18 rape victims are entitled to a compensation of Rs.15,000 each from the fine after the time limit set for appeal is over. Twelve of these 17 persons have also been sentenced to rigorous imprisonment for 10 years under Section 3 (2) (v) of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. The remaining 198 accused have been convicted under different Sections of the IPC and the SC and ST (PA) Act and sentenced to jail terms ranging from one year to three years, besides being slapped with fines.

Among those found guilty by Principal District and Sessions Judge S. Kumaraguru are four Indian Forest Service (IFS) officers. Of them, the first accused, M. Harikrishnan, former Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, has been awarded a three-year prison term under Section 201 of the IPC (causing disappearance of evidence or giving false information to screen the offender) and another three years of rigorous imprisonment, and fined Rs.1,000 under Section 3 (2) (1) of the SC and ST (PA) Act. Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forests P. Muthaiyan has been sentenced for a year under Section 342 of the IPC (wrongful confinement). The other two IFS officers sentenced to jail are S. Balaji, Chief Conservator of Forests, and L. Nathan, Conservator of Forests. The Madras High Court, on October 11, ordered suspension of the sentence against Harikrishnan and Balaji. However, it asked them to appear before the trial court once in three months.

The residents of Vachathi were waiting outside the court when the verdict came. They thanked the leaders and activists of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Tamil Nadu Tribals Association and the lawyers who had stood by them through the long legal battle.

It is poetic justice that the judgment has come at a time when the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam is in power. It was the ruling party in 1992, too, and the administration then did its best to protect its officials involved in the case. P. Shanmugam, general secretary of the Tamil Nadu Tribals Association, pointed to the fact that the present government was maintaining a stoic silence on the verdict.

The government of the time had claimed that no atrocities had been committed against the tribal population of the village. But the charge sheet and reports filed by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), which probed the case, and the report of the then Director of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Commission and ex-officio Commissioner for SC/ST, B. Bhamathi, ripped through the claim. These reports corroborated the versions given by the residents of Vachathi.

Recapitulation

A Forest Department team conducted a raid in the area surrounding Vachathi village on the morning of June 20, 1992. Just as the Forest Protection Squad led by the then Assistant Conservator of Forests, T. Singaravelu, was in the process of recovering smuggled sandalwood buried in the riverbed of Varattar, it noticed Chinnaperumal, a farmer, working in his field. He pleaded ignorance when the team questioned him about the buried sandalwood. One of the team members, Forester R. Selvaraj, started thrashing him. Responding to the alarm raised by Chinnaperumal, other villagers came to his rescue. A scuffle followed, and Selvaraj was injured. The villagers gave him first aid and arranged a bullock cart to take him to hospital.

In the afternoon, a contingent of 300 forest and police personnel, including 80 women constables, along with a few Revenue Department officials, ransacked the village. Some residents fled to the hills, but the others were attacked with sticks and apprehended by the combined party of police and Forest Department personnel in the presence of the revenue officials. Residents said that men in uniform broke open locked houses and went on a looting spree. The community television set was damaged. Pumpsets and bicycles were dumped into community wells, which rendered the water unfit for human consumption, local residents said.

Victims of the 1992 violence at Vachathi and their relatives with P. Dillibabu, CPI(M) MLA representing the Harur constituency, in front of the party's office in Dharmapuri on September 29, when the verdict was announced.-N. BASHKARAN

According to activists of the Tamil Nadu Tribals Association, in the evening, the raiding party herded the villagers under a banyan tree. The forest officials took 18 young girls towards the dry riverbed on the pretext of seeking their help to load the seized sandalwood into a truck. Neither the women police personnel nor the elderly women from the village were allowed to accompany them. All the 18 girls were molested and raped and some of them were gang-raped. Afterwards, they were forced to load the sandalwood.

A total of 217 villagers, including 94 women and 28 children, were taken to the Forest Range Office in Harur, 16 km away from Vachathi village. All of them were illegally detained there through the night without being provided police guard. Another barbaric attack was launched there. The arrested women were subjected to the humiliation of stripping each other. They were also forced to beat the village head (Oor Gounder), Perumal, with brooms. The women who refused to do so were caned by the forest personnel. Only on the next day were they remanded in judicial custody.

On June 21, 1992, the combined party returned to Vachathi and resumed recovery of the smuggled sandalwood. Though it claimed that 40 tonnes of sandalwood was unearthed, no one from the village was arrested on that day. Once again, its members went about ransacking the houses, taking away valuables and goats, and mixing glass pieces with foodgrain, village residents said.

The raiding party also foisted three Scheduled Timber Offences Report (STOR) cases against 76 women and 15 men. On receipt of a complaint from Singaravelu, another case was filed under Sections 147, 148, 332, 307, 325, 324, 323 and 506 of the IPC, read with Section 25 (1) (a) of the Indian Arms Act against 14 villagers. All the persons implicated in the three STOR cases were also remanded in this police case. The remand was extended periodically and they were released on bail only after August 27, 1992. The High Court has now stayed the proceedings in the case and a criminal original petition has been filed praying for quashing the charge sheet, G. Chamki Raj, State vice-president of the All India Lawyers Union, recalled.

Fearing further attacks, the tribal population of the village hid in the Sitheri hills for weeks together. However, news started trickling down, and the Tamil Nadu Tribals Association heard of the raids in the first week of July. A team including Basha John, president of the association; Shanmugam, general secretary; and M. Annamalai, CPI(M) leader and twice MLA from Harur constituency, visited the area on July 14, 1992. They had to make a huge effort to gain the confidence of the petrified tribal population, but in the end they were able to persuade them to return home and assure them that they were not alone.

On the basis of what the villagers narrated, the team submitted a memorandum to the District Collector on the same day. A. Nallasivan, secretary of the State committee of the CPI(M) and Rajya Sabha member, submitted a memorandum to Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa on July 18, seeking her intervention.

But the government denied that any atrocities had been committed. Forest Minister K.A. Sengottaiyan, in a strongly worded statement in the press on July 21, claimed that the forest officials had seized smuggled sandalwood worth Rs.1.5 crore during the raid in Vachathi. He accused the villagers of unleashing violence against government personnel. As many as 300 families residing in the village were involved in sandalwood smuggling throughout the year and earned Rs.500 a day, he said, alleging that Nallasivan's statements were immature and baseless. Claiming that the Chief Minister was creating history by curbing sandalwood smuggling, he said, the Vachathi episode was only a step towards achieving the goal.

He also made a sarcastic remark against Nallasivan, saying that the elderly leader would not have climbed the Sitheri hills to reach the inaccessible village situated in high altitude. The comment attracted ridicule since Vachathi is in the foothills of Sitheri.

According to Shanmugam, the Minister visited Harur, which is hardly 16 km from Vachathi, a couple of days after the attack. Though a representation had been made by a local activist of the ruling party, he did not bother to visit the village and console the victims.

When the rape victims lodged a complaint with the Harur police station on August 22, the sub-inspector refused to register a case. Though the District Collector on July 26 asked the Revenue Divisional Officer (RDO) to visit the village and conduct an inquiry, he went there only a month later. The objective and independent report submitted by him on August 10 claimed that the alleged rape incident cannot be believed and that the villagers themselves damaged their houses, in order to put the blame on the forest and police officials.

The unhelpful attitude of the government made the residents of Vachathi seek legal recourse, recalls Chamki Raj. The CPI(M) set the ball rolling by filing a public interest petition before the Public Interest Litigation (PIL) cell of the Madras High Court on July 30. But it was rejected by the cell on the grounds that government officials would not have indulged in such acts and hence the case was not fit for being taken up as a PIL. Nallasivan filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court on September 3. The apex court passed an order four days later transferring the writ petition to the High Court, stating that it should be heard as early as possible.

This banyan tree at Vachathi was a mute witness to some of the horrors unleashed on the village in 1992.-N. BASHKARAN

The modified writ petition came before the High Court, praying for a mandamus to the government to hold an inquiry into the happenings commencing from June 20, 1992, and the consequent suffering undergone by the villagers of Vachathi. It also prayed that upon considering the inquiry report, appropriate penal action be taken against the delinquent personnel and the victims be compensated. The petition also sought a probe into the wider question of smuggling in sandalwood in that area so as to eliminate the nexus between the culprits, politicians and officials of the administration.

On November 4, the High Court passed interim orders to restore basic amenities to the village and asked the Director of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Commission to visit Vachathi and submit a report within two weeks. The court also suggested that the Collector should ensure that the residents were provided with basic amenities.

As the case was not heard on a daily basis and the government authorities adopted dilatory tactics by filing counters on every occasion denying the brutal attack, it took three years for the High Court to order a CBI inquiry into the complaints of rape of 18 women, looting of properties and illegal detention of 90 women and 28 children at the forest range office at Harur. The court flayed the Revenue Divisional Officer for the manner in which he conducted the probe and arrived at his conclusions, Chamki Raj said. Justice Abdul Hadi said in the order on February 24, 1995: All these features will easily lead to the conclusion that the police is trying to burke or evade investigation of the alleged offences set out in the above said complaint of 18 women [who were raped]. This is very much to be condemned. Taking all this into consideration, I feel that this is a fit case, where the Central Bureau of Investigation should step in and do investigation and do the needful in accordance with law.

The State government, which had been delaying the legal process, did not lose much time to file a writ appeal against the single-judge Bench order directing a CBI inquiry into the incidents. The government argued that the CBI had no great advantage over the local police in investigating cases such as murders and riots. Investigation by the Central agency could be conducted only if there were special reasons, it argued. Rejecting the government's plea to set aside the order and for an interim stay of its operation, the Division Bench said on March 23, 1995: On the facts and circumstances of the case and having regard to the State government's stand [that no such incidents took place], it would be fit and necessary to entrust the matter to an agency which would be unconnected with State and State police.

The government moved the Supreme Court to stall this order of the Division Bench. However, the apex court dismissed its special leave petition in this regard on March 24, 1995.

The State government faced another embarrassment on July 15, 1995, when an inquiry commission headed by the then Additional District Sessions Judge, Bhanumathi, indicted the personnel of the Special Task Force (constituted to catch Veerappan, the brigand) for the rape of two tribal women and torture of seven others in Chinnampathi village in Coimbatore district.

As the government realised that a CBI probe was imminent, all sorts of problems were created to delay the trial in the sessions court. Owing to non-cooperation on the part of the accused, the test identification parade was put off four times. An attempt by the accused to scuttle the identification parade was foiled by the High Court. The CBI led by DSP S. Jagannathan won the acclaim of one and all for the tremendous work he did to bring out the truth.

The CBI, which did its job meticulously, submitted its report to the Madras High Court on April 25, 1996. A charge sheet was filed before the Chief Judicial Magistrate in Coimbatore two days earlier against 269 forest, police and revenue officials for various offences, including rape. Of them, four were IFS officers. A total of 244 accused were remanded in custody. They were charged under Sections including 143, 147, 149, 323, 427, 201 and 203 of the IPC and different Sections of the SC and ST (PA) Act. The case was committed to the District and Sessions Court, Dharmapuri, at Krishnagiri on October 10, 1996.

As there had not been much headway in the case for nearly six years, a writ petition was filed on January 30, 2002, seeking the appointment of a special court under Section 14 of the SC and ST (PA) Act, and appointment of a special public prosecutor under Section 15 of the same Act. It was only after this that the High Court directed the State government, on June 27, 2002, to appoint the CBI public prosecutor, K. Jayabalan, as special prosecutor to conduct the case in the designated court in Krishnagiri, Chamki Raj said.

The hearing of the case was adjourned several times as some of the accused would not turn up before the court. On many occasions, the court pulled up Forest Department personnel for their recurrent absence. A new hall was constructed in the court complex in view of the large number of accused. The High Court had to be moved again in April 2002, when disbursement of the compensation to the victims as per the SC and ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Rules, 1995, was sought. But part of the actual compensation prescribed by the Rules was paid only in July 2007.

Having failed in all their attempts to get off the hook, seven of the accused filed a revision petition in the High Court seeking to arraign as accused the then RDO, Superintendent of Police and Collector in the Vachathi case. But the court, on June 24, rejected the plea as unwarranted. Pointing out that the trial was almost over, the court held that it was nothing but a delaying tactic to protract the proceedings. The High Court directed the lower court to expedite the trial. It also imposed costs of Rs.10,000 on each of the seven accused.

A major issue that has escaped everyone's attention is the reference made to the nexus between the politically influential sandalwood smugglers and the officials who are bent on shifting the blame to innocent villagers. The issue was highlighted in the prayer of the writ petition filed by Nallasivan, and it found a mention in the CBI investigation report and the report submitted by Bhamathi, then Director of the SC and ST Commission, in August 1992.

Bhamathi pointed out that more than two-thirds of the population in Vachathi were landless farmhands and they collected minor forest produce and firewood from the forests. It may be true that some Vachathi villagers were involved in the sandalwood smuggling, but even they were used by master operators. The villagers were only a conduit for the smuggling and they were exploited by the powerful operators. Unless the master operators are brought to book, there is no point in punishing the villagers alone for the illegal trade, she said in her report.

The CBI's report exposed the nexus between certain personnel of the Forest Department and the smugglers. Pointing out that Vachathi, owing to its strategic location, had been the starting point for transportation of sandalwood procured illegally from the Sitheri hill range, the report said, It appears some of the field staff of the Forest Department were hand in glove with notorious smugglers and their agents in Vachathi and nearby villages.

In fact, investigation has revealed that there was a chit/token system in vogue to ensure smooth operation of illegal felling, transportation, concealment in riverbeds, patta lands and nallahs for some time, before loading and ferrying the sandalwood to final destinations. It added: Going by the living standards and the economic status of the tribals of Vachathi village as a whole, it does not seem that they are the main smugglers themselves. Official records and discreet information collected during investigation reveal that the villagers are doing only insignificant peripheral jobs. There was also some discontentment in the matter of sharing of spoils by some of the corrupt elements in the [Forest] Department.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor
×