Police in the dock

Print edition : March 30, 2002

The police have been charged, yet again, with perpetrating excesses against Dalits at Sankaralingapuram and Challichettipatti villages in Tamil Nadu's Thuthukudi district.

S. VISWANATHAN in Sankaralingapuram and Thuthukudi

THE Tamil Nadu police are in the dock once again for their brutal response to protest actions by the people, particularly the marginalised sections. Again, it is the Dalits who are the victims. The indictment of the police came this time from a six-member panel headed by Justice H. Suresh, former Judge of the Bombay High Court. The committee held a "public hearing" into charges of police excesses against Dalits at Sankaralingapuram and Challichettipatti villages in Thuthukudi district in November 2001. The "hearing" was arranged by a joint struggle committee.

A house that was targeted in Sankaralingapuram village.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Although the immediate provocation for the police action was the death of a constable while handling a road blockade agitation by Dalits of the two villages on November 16, 2001, the genesis of the trouble lay in the panchayat elections held a month earlier. In a swoop on the villages following the policeman's death, at least 180 persons, including a large number of women, children and even infants were arrested and allegedly beaten up. With virtually one-fifth of the Dalit population in police custody, the rest left the village fearing police repression.

This is not the first time that the police have been charged with committing excesses against people or mishandling "riotous situations" in the district. The police rampage on the all-Dalit village of Kodiyankulam on August 31, 1995 (Frontline, October 20, 1995) when caste-related violence was rocking the southern districts in the mid-1990s was the worst. The word Kodiyankulam, has since then virtually become a synonym for state terrorism, particularly against Dalits, in this part of the country. Although the Gomathinayagam Commission of Inquiry exonerated the police of charges of committing excesses, the then Director-General of Police V. Vaikunth himself described the police action as "mindless violence" and said that never in his 30-year career had he witnessed such a "totally inhuman act on the part of my own police". The Gomathinayagam Commission had to conclude the way it did "for want of evidence", as the Kodiyankulam victims boycotted the enquiry. Several incidents of custodial death and rape too do not speak well of the track record of the police.

SANKARALINGAPURAM, about 80 km from Thuthukudi (Tuticorin), and the nearby village Challichettipatti form part of Sankaralingapuram panchayat. Sankaralingapuram has about 220 families of Naidus, 200 of Paraiyars (a sect of Dalits), 30 of Sakkiliyars (also Dalits), 50 of Thevars, and at least 15 of the other castes. Sixty families of Chettiyars, 30 of Nadars and six of Paraiyars live in Challichettipatti. The Dalits here are mostly agricultural workers, who depend on the land-owning Naidus for their livelihood. A cotton spinning mill and a few fireworks units provide employment to people from both the villages.

Untouchability is still said to be practised in the villages. Dalits, for instance, are barred from using a tank at the centre of the village and denied access to streets where caste Hindus live. Yet, for decades, no major conflict arose between Naidus and Dalits. A substantial number of Dalits are Christians, and the village has a Roman Catholic church.

Household articles that were damaged or destroyed.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

The trouble arose when Dalits wanted to field their candidate in the election for the post of panchayat president in this general constituency, since those who held the post so far, they say, had done nothing for them. Caste Hindu groups could not tolerate this "challenge". So when O. Vijayan of Challichettipatti filed his nomination for the post as the first-ever Dalit candidate, against R. Balakrishnan, a Naidu, tension began to build up. It reached a crescendo on poll-eve and on the polling date, October 18. The alleged attack on Vijayan's brother-in-law Ponraj, and Raju, who vigorously campaigned for the Dalit nominee, on October 17, heightened the animosity. Both Ponraj and Raju had to be hospitalised and a complaint was lodged with the police. Dalit leaders' intervention and the arrest of Balakrishnan's sons in connection with the incident helped ease the situation.

However, the next day trouble burst out again: on polling day, while Balakrishnan could freely visit the polling booth in the Dalit area, Vijayan had to face hostile groups when he visited booths in the caste Hindu areas. Vijayan was said to have been attacked and there was pelting of stones, delaying the polling process. The police rushed and reportedly attacked Dalits in which Muthu, a Dalit, was seriously injured. However, when Chettiyar youths assaulted Dalits and the latter complained to the police, these were ignored. Balakrishnan won the election.

On November 15, when a caste Hindu youth complained against Ponraj, the police registered a case. When Dalits of Challichettipatti protested against the police bias, caste Hindu groups threw stones at Dalit women and damaged houses. A Dalit and his young son were assaulted. When Dalits complained, the police intervened only to arrest the Dalits. Around 300 Dalits then blocked traffic on the nearby Vilathikulam-Pudur road to protest the police discrimination. A team of policemen from Pudur arrived and resorted to a lathi-charge. When a constable beat a Dalit youth, some of the demonstrators came to his rescue. Murugan, a Special Branch constable, who alighted from a bus, joined the police. The Dalits are said to have retaliated by throwing stones. In the melee Murugan and another policeman were injured. Angry policemen chased the Dalit demonstrators into the village and over 150 Dalits were rounded up. The age of those arrested ranged from 30 days to 90 years.

Fearing further arrests and repression, a large number of people fled from the village. They were chased by the police, who meanwhile got information that Murugan had died while being taken to the hospital. A number of Dalits, including women and children, who managed to escape, had to spend nights in the fields and open grounds in heavy rain. They moved from place to place, but most of them landed up in police custody.

At the public hearing held on March 16 and 17 at Thuthukudi.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

What followed was large-scale destruction of property in the deserted Dalit colony. Houses were damaged and ransacked. Almirahs, fans, mixies, grinders, television sets, tape-recorders, cassettes, bicycles, sewing machines, cooking vessels, wooden furniture, steel cots and bedding were damaged. Dalits who returned after a few weeks complained of property loss amounting to nearly Rs.45 lakhs. Even certificates and mark-sheets of students, employment exchange registration cards, land pattas and other important documents lay strewn. Gold jewellery and silverware were also missing, the locals complained.

Four months after the incident, the Dalit houses in the villages bear tell-tale marks of the rampage. The police continue to patrol and insist that every visitor record his name and address at the entry point. Schoolchildren seem to be the worst hit.

There are two versions about the November 16 incidents. The police blame a group, which, they said, was infuriated by the killing of Murugan, who belonged to this caste. The police say a case was filed against 19 persons from this group and they were sentenced to "imprisonment till the rising of the court" and a fine of Rs.3,000 each. However, Dalits refuse to believe this and blame the police. Old women who could not run away from the village, and a youth who managed to hide assert that it was the police who ransacked the houses. Lending support to this version is the fact that the rampage falls into a pattern that has generally been seen in similar atrocities involving policemen elsewhere: destruction of not only articles of daily use (cooking vessels, rice, kerosene and so on), but also sources of livelihood (agricultural implements, sewing machines, land pattas, education-related certificates and so on). At least 150 houses were damaged. The names of almost all those arrested, including old men and women, and students figured in the list of the accused, who were charged with the murder of Murugan. Of the arrested, eight school-going children were released on bail on January 1, 2002, 64 women and 15 children on January 23 and 43 men on January 28.

For more than a fortnight, the police did not allow anybody inside the Dalit colony. Attempts of political parties and civil rights groups to visit the areas failed. "This action of the police was anti-democratic," observed P. Sampath, member, State Secretariat of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Sampath had visited the village on December 5. "This has not happened even at Kodiyankulam," he said. Had the police handled the road blockade agitation tactfully, much of what had happened could have been avoided, he said. R. Krishnan, former MLA and convener, Human Rights Monitoring Committee, Tirunelveli said the denial of permission to visit the place was part of a "cover-up exercise" by the police. Advocate P. Ganapathisubramanian, who defended the victims in the Kodiyankulam case, said that the naming of old people and children in such large numbers as accused in a murder case was unheard of.

THE panel included R. Ratnaswami, former member, State Human Rights Commission, Dr. N. Markandan, former Vice-Chancellor of Gandhigram Rural Institute-Deemed University, V. Karuppan, former IAS official, Mythili Sivaraman, All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA) national vice-president and D. Ravikumar, president of the People's Union of Civil Liberties. In its public hearings at Thuthukudi on March 16 and 17, 38 witnesses chosen from among 110 persons who had filed affidavits, gave evidence. Henri Tiphagne, Director, People's Watch-Tamil Nadu, who was one of the organisers of the hearing, explained the modalities of the hearing. Expressing happiness at the people's response, Mythili Sivaraman said that such "people's courts" were emerging in many parts of the country.

Among those who deposed were Vijayan's wife, Pechiyammal, Subburaj, who witnessed the raid on the village, the Bishop of the Tuticorin Diocese, Rt. Rev. Peter Fernando, Communist Party of India MLA S. Rajendran, and a leader of the Naidu community, Rangaramanujam. Several women, including Pechiyammal, broke down when they narrated the police torture and said that the police used abusive language while beating them. The Bishop said he was denied entry to the affected part of the village. Later when he visited the village to console the victims, he was horrified by what he saw. Rangaramanujam said that his community desired to live in peace with Dalits and sought an "impartial" inquiry.

On March 17, two members of the panel, Markandan and Ravikumar, visited Sankaralingapuram. In its interim prima facie findings, the panel found several charges of human rights violations to be true. The panel wanted "a proper, impartial investigation" into the murder of Murugan. It said that the arrest of a large number of Dalits and the manner in which they were arrested "can never find justification under any human rights law". They arrested men, women and children at random. They mercilessly beat them and tortured them. They indulged in all sorts of violence against Dalits," the panel observed. It pointed out that several women had deposed that they were "almost stripped" of their clothes at the police station and that children were denied food. "Suffice it to say that the police were so brutal in their attack and arrest of these Dalits, men, women and children, that their over-zealousness in their desire to teach a lesson for the Dalits exceeded all limits of decency," the panel said.

The panel found that the Dalits had suffered huge losses that warranted payment of adequate compensation. It was shocked to see that although two First Information Reports showed that Dalit houses were attacked by "upper caste" people, the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act had not been invoked. It said that evidence suggested that the police had repeatedly visited the village after the Dalit occupants had fled. The panel, therefore, called for an enquiry by a sitting High Court Judge. The panel observed that the police had behaved in a way that clearly indicated a bias against the Dalits. There was evidence, the panel said, that the police had used abusive language and casteist expressions. "All these police personnel have become liable for prosecution under the S.C./S.T. Act," it said. In view of the large-scale violation of laws relating to women, the panel suggested that the State Commission for Women hold a sitting at Sankaralingapuram. The panel hopes to release its final report within three weeks.

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