A crackdown in Tamil Nadu

Print edition : December 20, 2002

As the police crack down on naxalites in Dharmapuri district of Tamil Nadu, human rights activists question their claims about an "encounter death" in the course of the operation.

In Madurai, the police search the residence of Reena Joy Mary, one of the suspected naxalites arrested in Dharmapuri.-K. GANESAN

THE crackdown by the Tamil Nadu police on the outlawed naxalite groups in the Uthangarai forests of Dharmapuri district has turned controversial following the death of a Radical Youth League (RYL) functionary, Siva alias Parthiban, in an "encounter" on November 24. The police claimed that five of their men were injured in the operation. During the combing operations that continued for a week after the encounter, they arrested 25 persons, including five women (three of them were sisters).

Human rights activists have raised questions about the police claim that Siva was killed in an "encounter" with the naxalites. The questions stem from the fact that Siva was a key witness in a case relating to the death of K. Ravinder in an "encounter" between the police and the naxalites nearly three years ago at Perungattupallam village in Dharmapuri district.

In a related development, noted Telugu writer Varavara Rao told presspersons at Shimoga that the People's War (P.W.) had informed the Madras High Court that seven naxalites, who were said to be absconding after the Uthangarai "encounter", were actually in police custody. The P.W. has requested the High Court to treat its representation as a habeas corpus petition.

The crackdown came hours before a group of about 40 persons drawn from across the State assembled in a mangrove forest between Chinnakanakkampatti and Noothuppatti near Uthangarai for arms training. The police said that when a team led by Naxalites Special Wing Police inspector Eganathan stormed the camp and asked the naxalites to surrender they hurled hand grenades at the police and that Eganathan was wounded in the leg. Siva, they said, was injured in an exchange of fire that followed and was taken to a hospital in Utthangarai where he died. Siva is described as the state secretary of the RYL. According to the police, six persons were injured and many of the naxalites had run away. The police continued their combing operations in the adjoining forests and arrested 19 more persons in the next three days. Duraisingavelu of Chennai, described as the "chief" of the P.W. in Tamil Nadu, was among those arrested. He is said to have been involved in a bank robbery in Madurai in 1988 and absconding. The police also seized weapons and explosives, the P.W.'s pamphlets in Telugu and Rs.58,855 in cash.

The police said the combing operation would continue till the other members of the group were arrested. Reports quoting police sources said that the police action had pre-empted an attack by the extremists on a milk processing unit owned by the relatives of Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N.Chandrababu Naidu near Uthangarai.

THE hunt for naxalites has been launched in the context of the sudden spurt in extremist activities in Dharmapuri and Villupuram districts recently. Hardly a week before the Uthangarai incident, a high tension power transmission tower (linking the Neyveli Lignite Corporation to the southern regional grid) at Thoppayankulam village in Villupuram district was damaged in a bomb explosion. A relatively new extremist organisation, the Cauvery Retrieval Force, has claimed responsibility for the blast and the police have launched an investigation. The bomb explosion is believed to be in pursuance of a demand raised by Tamil chauvinist groups for the release of the Cauvery waters from Karnataka.

On May 8, the chairman of the Thalli panchayat union in Dharmapuri district, Venkatesh (37), was killed in broad daylight, allegedly by persons belonging to naxalite groups the Maoist Communist Centre (MCC) and the Tamil Nadu Liberation Army (TNLA). Ten persons were arrested by the police and two are absconding.

Dharmapuri district (population: 2.43 million) in the north-western part of Tamil Nadu has been one of the principal centres of naxalite activities for well over two decades. Generally two reasons are cited for the growth of extremism in this area. The Centre for Monitoring India's Economy's (CMIE) Relative Index of Development for the district is 79, against the State's 135. And the second reason is its geographical location. The district has long stretches of thick forests and hills on its borders with Andhra Pradesh, the hub of naxalite activities in southern India, and Karnataka.

The backwardness of the region could have been a contributory factor in the early years of the movement when young, trained cadre with dreams of revolutionary transformation of society were attracted to it. Although a majority of the local people were frightened by the naxalites' ruthless implementations of their "theory of annihilation (of class enemies)", a section of them supported the extremists. In fact, one of the founder-leaders of the Naxalbari movement, Charu Mazumdar, visited the district in the 1970s and addressed large gatherings. Later the leaders of the People's War Group (now People's War) of Andhra Pradesh, such as Kondapalli Seetharamaiah and Gaddar, also visited the area.

However, with the death of two leaders of the movement, Appu and Balan, in the late 1970s it lost momentum. Facing a financial crunch, the members of some of these groups indulged in bank robbery and dacoity - which gradually alienated the movement from the people. Persistent police action against them following the ban on the movement further weakened the groups.

The backwardness of the region is no longer a satisfactory explanation for their continued presence. The strategic location of the district seems to be a more compelling factor in naxalite groups choosing the region for their operations. The movement, some observers say, is not entirely in the control of leaders inspired by ultra-left ideals as it was in its early years. It is now a motley crowd of persons with conflicting views and divergent interests, working at cross purposes. Anti-social elements are also said to have entered the ranks of some of these groups. Some of them are close to the fugitive sandalwood smuggler Veerappan and some others proclaim their loyalty to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Organisations such as the RYL, the Tamil Liberation Army, the Tamil Nadu Viduthalai Padai and the Tamil Pasarai figure in the report (1997) of the Justice M.C. Jain Commission, which went into the Rajiv Gandhi assassination, as supporters of the LTTE. Persons belonging to some of these groups are allegedly involved in extortion and robbery in nearby villages. They often hold "kangaroo courts" to settle local disputes. The people in these villages, often caught in the crossfire between the extremists and the police, fear both.

CHALLENGING the police claim that Siva died in an "encounter" with the police, People's Watch - Tamil Nadu executive director Henri Tiphagne demanded a judicial inquiry into the entire episode. His demand was based on the fact that Siva was the only eyewitness to a "similar so-called encounter death" of Ravinder. Siva, who was also with Ravinder, was detained under the National Security Act (NSA). However, the Madras High Court quashed the orders detaining him under the NSA. A writ petition, filed by Ravinder's wife, Nirmala, seeking an enquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigation into his death is pending before the High Court. (Acting on her earlier petition, the court had ordered a second postmortem on the body of Ravinder. The second postmortem done in Chennai as directed by the High Court revealed that there were nine injuries in the body as against only two mentioned in the first report.)

Tiphagne wondered why Siva was singled out and shot dead among a group of more than 25 persons. In fact, the police had arrested 22 persons without causing any injuries to them. He said that the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) had given guidelines regarding "encounter" deaths and the Tamil Nadu government should direct the police to strictly follow the guidelines.

(The NHRC has laid down, among other things, that the police stations should record the information about the deaths in encounters in an appropriate register and that "the information as recorded shall be regarded as sufficient to suspect the commission of a cognisable offence" and "immediate steps should be taken to investigate the facts and circumstances leading to the death to ascertain whether any offence was committed and by whom." According to the guidelines, in cases ending in conviction, if police officers are prosecuted on the basis of the results of the investigation, the question of granting compensation to the dependents of the deceased may be considered.)

Communist Party of India (Marxist) State Secretariat member K. Balakrishnan said such police claims of "encounter deaths" had always raised suspicion. "The policemen are not above law and investigations should be done in accordance with the law," he said.

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