A contentious report

Print edition : December 11, 1999

A Commission of Inquiry that went into incidents of caste-related violence of two districts in Tamil Nadu in 1995 and a police outrage in a Dalit village, justifies the police firing and makes controversial recommendations for the abolition of " concessions" to socially deprived sections.

ON November 23, at the fag end of a session of the Tamil Nadu Assembly, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) Government headed by M. Karunanidhi tabled the report of a judicial inquiry commission that had been lying with the government for nearly four yea rs. The report of the Gomathinayagam Commission of Inquiry, which was appointed in September 1995 to go into incidents of caste-related violence in the two southern districts of Tirunelveli and Tuticorin in July and August 1995, was submitted to the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam Government headed by Jayalalitha in March 1996.

The Commission held that the police firing in three places in the districts was "fully justified" and that there was "no excess" in the police action at the all-Dalit Kodiyankulam village in Tuticorin district on August 31, 1995.

The report drew flak from political parties representing Dalits, who were the victims of the police outrage at Kodiyankulam (Frontline, October 20, 1995), and from the Communist Party of India, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Tamizhaga Rajiv Congress and the Dravidar Kazhagam.

Two of the five terms of reference of the Commission were of a general nature: to report on the circumstances that led to the incidents and to recommend preventive measures. Others were more specific: "to inquire into and report whether in the police act ion in Kodiyankulam village of Ottapidaram taluk on August 31, 1995 there was any excess on the part of the police and the district administration and, if so, to give details of excesses and identify the errant police and other officials"; to find out wh ether the incidents of police firing at Sivagiri on July 30, 1995, Singathakurichi on August 25, 1995 and Kodiyankulam on August 31 were justified; and to make recommendations on payment of compensation to the victims.

The principal item therefore related to the brutal attack on the Dalits of Kodiyankulam on August 31 by a 600-strong police force, which gave a new dimension to the caste-related clashes that had rocked the two districts for over a month. The clashes, be tween sections of Dalits and of people belonging to the predominant Thevar caste, were triggered by an altercation between a bus driver and a student at a village in Tirunelveli district in July 1995. Following the disfigurement of a statue of U. Muthura malinga Thevar, a nationalist and a leader revered by Thevars, the clash spread to the neighbouring Tuticorin district.

Eighteen persons, from among Thevars and Dalits, were killed and property worth lakhs of rupees was lost in the violence. In Tirunelveli district, where Thevars are larger in number and financially more sound, Dalits were the worst hit; in Tuticorin dist rict, Thevars, being a minority in a number of villages, suffered the most in terms of human life and property. In both the districts, however, Dalits suffered the most at the hands of the police (Frontline, December 1, 1995).

The police action at Kodiyankulam was ostensibly aimed to arrest certain suspects in a murder case and seize explosive materials and lethal weapons believed to have been in the possession of Dalits. Observers, however, said that the police suspected that the people of this relatively affluent all-Dalit village (some of whose relatives were employed in the Gulf countries) provided moral and material support to miscreants in the surrounding area. The purpose of the four-hour-long police operation, accordi ng to observers, was to destroy the economic base of the village. Several villagers told visiting mediapersons that they had been brutally attacked by the policemen. Media reports, backed by photographic evidence, spoke of extensive damage to houses and a government-run fair price shop, destruction of household articles such as television sets, sewing machines and bicycles, besides tractors and lorries. There were also charges that the raid party poured diesel and pesticides into the public well in orde r to render it unusable. (The High Court had, in response to a petition, directed the district administration to ensure supply of drinking water to the village.)

That Dalits had lost faith in the police and the district administration was clear from a writ petition that had been filed in the Madras High Court by the Devendra Kula Vellalar Federation (which later became a political party named Puthiya Thamizhagam) led by Dr. K. Krishnasamy. It sought an enquiry into the incidents by a Central agency and prayed for legal proceedings under the Indian Penal Code and the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act against the District Collect or, the Superintendent of Police and others responsible for the attack on Dalits. (On the orders of the High Court, the Central Bureau of Investigation is inquiring into the incident. P. Sampath, member, State Secretariat, of the CPI(M) and one of the pe tititoners seeking a CBI inquiry, told Frontline on December 4 that he would move the court again to get the inquiry expedited. Sampath was among the first political leaders to visit the affected village, as secretary of the district unit of the p arty.)

The Jayalalitha Government denied that police excesses had been committed at Kodiyankulam. Director-General of Police V. Vaikunth visited the village on September 5, 1995 and, on the basis of what he saw, sent a report to Chief Minister Jayalalitha.

A three-member team of Ministers sent by Jayalalitha met with hostility at Kodiyankulam. The Government ordered payment of about Rs.17 lakhs as relief assistance to the victims and appointed P. Gomathinayagam, a retired District Judge, as the one-man Com mission of Inquiry.

THE Commission submitted its report to the Government on March 12, 1996. Dalits of Kodiyankulam and other villages boycotted the inquiry since the Devendra Kula Vellalar Federation had moved the High Court seeking a CBI inquiry.

The Commission examined 26 witnesses from the government, mostly police officials, including the Superintendent of Police, and 133 public witnesses. (Curiously, it did not summon Vaikunth to depose.) With Dalits boycotting the Commission, most of the pub lic witnesses belonged to the other caste involved in the incidents, Thevars.

On the Kodiyankulam incident, the Commission observed, "There is not an iota of evidence to conclude that there was police excess." It, however, said that the police action "did not happen in the manner as told by the police and other officials." The Com mission agreed with advocate P. Ganapathy Subramanian, who represented the Communist Party of India before it, that there were incongruities and discrepancies in the police version of the "combing operations". The Commission referred to the lack of any e xplanation from the police regarding two missing shells and said "this also throws some doubt" about the police operation. It took note of the failure of the police to produce the register showing the movement of police vehicles, which could have thrown light on the duration of the operation.

The Commission did not believe that the purpose of the combing operations was to break the economic base of the affluent Dalits of Kodiyankulam. It said: "Much was said about their affluence but there is no material to support this."

According to the Commission, the copy of the complaint lodged with the Maniyachi police station by a resident of Kodiyankulam on behalf of the residents, "the one important piece of evidence", speaks only of damage to houses, not to household articles. T he Commission said that during "local inspection" of Kodiyankulam some houses were found to be damaged. "There is practically no explanation for this and at the same time there is not a shred of evidence to conclude that the police were responsible for t he damage to some houses at Kodiyankulam," the Commission said.

The Commission visited the affected villages. At Kodiyankulam he could see only one house and the well and had to cut short his visit when the people told him that they were boycotting the Commission.

Dalit victims of the police action in Kodiyankulam village in August 1995. The Gomathinayagam Commission of Inquiry has concluded that there was no "police excess".-

The Commission concluded that the police firing at Kodiyankulam and in the other two places was "fully justified".

Stating that the genesis of the trouble (an incident at Veerasigamani village on July 15, 1995, when some students took a bus driver's scolding "for obstructing the free movement of the bus" as an insult) was "non-communal", the Commission observed that the incidents that followed could not be described as "communal clashes".

The Government took on record the Commission's finding that the term "communal clash" was a misnomer when used with reference to the incidents, and accepted the recommendations with regard to the other terms of reference. (Interestingly, the DMK had in 1 995 criticised the police action in Kodiyankulam and even used it as a campaign issue in the 1996 Assembly elections.)

In its report accompanying the findings, the Government said that it had decided to examine the specific recommendations made by the Commission to ensure public peace and prevent the recurrence of such incidents. The recommendations included a total ban on the erection of statues in public places and plans to eradicate illiteracy.

THE Puthiya Thamizhagam, the Viduthalai Siruthaigal, the two Communist parties and the Dravidar Kazhagam have taken strong objection to, among other things, the Commission's recommendation that "all concessions to any community, whatsoever, may be abolis hed forthwith". CPI(M) State secretary N. Sankariah said that any such move would do great harm to the people belonging to the Scheduled Castes and the Backward Classes. The Government should, in fact, implement the reservation policy with earnestness an d clear the backlog.

Both Sankariah and Krishnasamy felt that the Assembly ought to have been provided an opportunity to discuss the report. Krishnasamy said that Dalits could not be expected to give up their hard-won claims to the concessions guaranteed by the Constitution. Viduthalai Siruthaigal president R. Thirumavalavan said that such recommendations only betrayed a lack of understanding of the social dynamics and the history of the evolution of the concept of social justice.

CPI State secretary R. Nallakannu, who rejected the report outright, wondered why the Commission, which had held that the incidents were not caste-related, thought it necessary to suggest steps to avert caste-related clashes. Krishnasamy said that a gove rnment note accompanying the report contained the names of 126 persons belonging to Kodiyankulam and the amount of compensation paid to each on account of loss of property. If the police had not caused damage to their property, who else did it, he asked. "It is an all-Dalit village and people from no other caste lived there. So, the question remains," Krishnasamy said.

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