Targeting Dalits

Published : Oct 07, 2011 00:00 IST

The police action against Dalits in Paramakudi leaves indelible scars on the psyche of the oppressed people all over Tamil Nadu.

in Paramakudi

The Tamil Nadu Police, in its modern avatar, reflects a glorious tradition of over a century and a half. It was the only force to embark on State-sponsored modernisation in the early 1990s which was pioneered by me during my first tenure as Chief Minister from 1991 to 1996. Seizing the opportunity, the Tamil Nadu Police transformed itself into a mature and modern force with a humane face and unique approach to people and problems....

J. Jayalalithaa, Chief Minister, Tamil Nadu

WHEN Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa, who also holds the portfolios of Police and Home, made this announcement proudly in the Budget session of the State Assembly on August 24, little would she have imagined that within 20 days her government was to face the embarrassment of ordering a judicial probe into a police firing at Paramakudi town in Ramanathapuram district. Six Dalits were killed and several others were injured in the incident. The government suffered further humiliation when the National Commission for Scheduled Castes sought detailed reports from the Collector and the Superintendent of Police of Ramanathapuram on the incident.

The Chief Minister initially appeared reluctant to order a judicial inquiry into the incident and announced a probe by the district revenue officer (DRO). However, she relented after K. Balabharathi, deputy leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in the legislature, pointed out that the DRO, being subordinate to the Collector and the Superintendent of Police, would find it difficult to conduct an inquiry. Ruling out a judicial probe by a sitting judge, Jayalalithaa agreed to set up an inquiry commission headed by a retired judge of the High Court.

The police action against Dalits who had gathered at Paramakudi on September 11 to pay homage to their icon Immanuel Sekaran has left indelible scars in the minds of the oppressed people all over the State. Sekaran was brutally murdered by a group of caste Hindus 54 years ago in the same town.

In another incident on September 11, two persons sustained bullet injuries when the police opened fire on agitating activists of the Tamizhaga Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam (TMMK) at Chintamani on the outskirts of Madurai.

In Paramakudi, the police swung into action when a group of Dalits staged a road-roko at Five Point Junction on the Madurai-Rameswaram highway, demanding the immediate release of TMMK leader John Pandian, who was arrested in Tuticorin district. Pandian was on his way to Paramakudi to pay homage to Sekaran.

A large number of people on their way to Sekaran's memorial and back were stranded in the town because of stone-throwing, setting of fire to vehicles and throwing of petrol bombs by a group of miscreants. Things went from bad to worse as the police resorted to a lathi-charge and later opened several rounds of fire. According to local residents, gunshots were heard from 12-40 p.m. to 5-15 p.m. People who ran for their lives and those who were injured in the lathi-charge were taken into custody. Some of the policemen were also injured and several vehicles were damaged in the incident.

In view of Sekaran's memorial day, according to official sources, around 4,000 police personnel, including officers, were deployed at different sensitive villages and hamlets in the district. But in Paramakudi, the police were not deployed in adequate strength at the time of the incident, informed sources said.

The victims of the police firing are R. Ganesan (65) of Pallavarayanendal, T. Panneerselvam (50) of Veerambal, P. Jayapal (20) of Manjur, S. Vellaichamy (65) of Paramakudi, Theerthakani (25) of Keezhakodumalur and Muthukumar (26) of Sadayaneri. Almost all of them were farm workers or labourers in the unorganised sector.

Among the Dalits who were undergoing treatment for multiple injuries sustained in the police lathi-charge were I. Israel and M. Thanikodi of S. Kavanur, G. Senthil of Ammankoil, K. Vellaichamy of N. Pethanendal, S. Chandran of Pambur and K. Pandi of Ponnaiyapuram. Pandi, a 60-year-old construction worker, said a group of lathi-wielding policemen beat him up when he was bathing at a place close to the scene of protests. He has fractures in his left arm and left leg.

Vellaichamy, a 70-year-old retired headmaster of a primary school, said he had been visiting Paramakudi for the past 20 years to pay his respects at the memorial of Sekaran. He recalled that the police had never before used such brute force during Sekaran's death anniversary. Even after taking them to the police station, the injured persons were humiliated, he alleged.

Telltale signs

Even after a week, there were telltale signs of the violence charred remains of vehicles, glass pieces and stones that lay strewn on the streets, and damaged hoardings. Schools and business establishments in and around Paramakudi remained closed, as were the roads. Bus services in the southern districts of the State were affected.

Though officials claimed that the situation had started returning to normal in Ramanathapuram and some other pockets in the southern districts, it appeared to be far from the truth. Interactions with Dalits in different villages and towns in the southern districts revealed that beneath the calm there was simmering anger at the attempts to suppress the rising Dalit assertion. They were upset at the way their plan to pay homage to their respected leader was scuttled.

In many villages, the residents, particularly Dalits, are in the grip of fear as the police have registered a case against 1,000 unidentified persons. The police have registered cases under Sections 307 (attempt to murder), 324 (voluntarily causing hurt by dangerous weapons or means), 435 (mischief by fire or explosive substance with intent to cause damage), 427 (mischief causing damage), 147 (rioting), 148 (rioting, armed with deadly weapon) and 149 (unlawful assembly) of the Indian Penal Code and under Section 174 of the Code of Criminal Procedure.

Don't be carried away by the officials' claim that the situation has started returning to normal. Our problems are far from over. We have to take care of the children and the aged, as the menfolk have fled the habitations in and around Paramakudi fearing arrest, said a woman, echoing the sentiment in the Dalit colonies.

The day coincides with the death anniversary of the national revolutionary poet Subramanya Bharathi, who envisioned the emancipation of the oppressed masses, particularly Dalits. It was while returning home after addressing meetings to pay tributes to the poet that Sekaran was murdered by an armed gang in 1957.

On the previous day, September 10, Sekaran, a Congress sympathiser and Dalit leader, had participated in peace talks to end the violence that had broken out in the wake of a by-election to the Mudukulathur Assembly seat vacated by U. Muthuramalinga Thevar, All India Forward Bloc (AIFB) leader and acclaimed leader of the Mukkulathor community. The alleged kidnapping of nine Dalits close on the heels of AIFB candidate Sasivarna Thevar's victory in the by-election resulted in riots involving the two communities, claiming the lives of 42 Dalits. Objecting to Sekaran's participation in the talks on an equal footing with him, Muthuramalinga Thevar reportedly expressed reluctance to sign the peace agreement.

For the past two decades, Dalits have been observing Sekaran's death anniversary as guru puja at his tomb in Paramakudi just as Thevars do on the anniversary of Muthuramalinga Thevar at Pasumpon on October 30. Dalits from several villages and towns in the southern districts visit Paramakudi every year.

The number of participants has steadily increased in the past five years. Dalit organisations have been demanding that Sekaran's anniversary be declared a government celebration as has been done in the case of Thevar Jayanthi, but the government has not paid heed.

Pre-emptive action'

This time, police action pre-empted the participation of a large number of Dalits who had started pouring in from different districts to take part in the guru puja, said V. Kasinathadurai, secretary of the Tamil Nadu Federation of Loadmen Associations. Only some leaders of political parties, residents of Sekaran's native village, Sellur in Ramanathapuram district, and a few Dalit activists were able to pay homage at the memorial, he pointed out.

P. Chandrabose, general secretary of Tyagi Immanuel Peravai, said his organisation had been performing the guru puja since 1988, but this was the first time the police had used excessive force. In the past, Dalits who came to Paramakudi to pay homage to Sekaran have been attacked by some persons belonging to the Mukkulathor community while they passed through certain villages. Chandrabose said that only some oppressive-minded persons who did not tolerate Dalit assertion resorted to such crimes and that he would not blame any particular community for such attacks as right-thinking people and those who wanted to uphold human values and civil rights were spread over all communities.

Paramakudi has witnessed police firings earlier. In 1991, three persons including two Dalits were killed, and in 1998, a Dalit girl died.

Attitude towards Dalits

As has been pointed out by some civil rights organisations, the incident raises many questions not only about the handling of the situation but also about the attitude of the state towards Dalits. The events have also brought to the fore various issues relating to the plight of Dalits, who form a sizable percentage of the population in southern Tamil Nadu and the composite Ramanathapuram district (comprising present-day Ramanathapuram, Sivaganga and Virudhunagar districts) in particular. The issues are many: growing awareness among Dalit youth, deteriorating living conditions owing to dwindling livelihoods, industrial backwardness of the region, conflict between them and the oppressor communities who come in the way of their empowerment including in grass-roots level governance, calculated attempts by vested interests to keep the area as a hotbed of communal tension, and the reported partisan attitude of the police at the time of caste conflicts.

Jayalalithaa's remark in the Assembly on September 12 that the Paramakudi episode was the culmination of a chain of events triggered by a defamatory graffiti against Pasumpon Muthuramalinga Thevar written on a wall at Mandalamanickam village by miscreants and the subsequent murder of T. Palanikumar, a higher secondary school student of Pacheri Dalit hamlet on September 9, drew flak from the Left and other opposition parties.

P. Sampath, leader of the Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front (TNUEF), said no fair-minded person would accept the Chief Minister's explanation on the murder of the Dalit student. Her statement in the Assembly amounted to diverting the focus from the real issues, he said. He also accused her of attempting to justify the atrocious action of the police.

TNUEF secretary K. Samuel Raj, after visiting Pacheri, flayed Jayalalithaa's remarks. Expressing anguish over her view that the attack on Dalits in Paramakudi was the culmination of a chain of events, he said the Chief Minister must have made this observation keeping in mind her party's prospects in the ensuing local body elections. He called for the immediate lifting of prohibitory orders in the district under Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure so as to allow leaders of political parties, civil rights groups and the media to interact with the residents of Dalit colonies with a view to instilling confidence in them.

There are few takers for the theory that the police firing was made in self-defence and to protect public property. Some civil rights groups are of the view that the police did not follow the guidelines of the National Human Rights Commission or those in the Police Manual to handle tense situations.

Latha Priyakumar, member, National Commission for Scheduled Castes, shortly after visiting Paramakudi and Ramanathapuram on September 15, described the deaths as very unfortunate. The mishandling of the issue had claimed innocent lives, she said. The preventive measures taken by the officials had not created an atmosphere conducive to peaceful observance of the death anniversary of Immanuel Sekaran, she said.

The police had not used the public address system to warn the protesters, she said. Moreover, she said, the people had stated that most of the victims of police firing were shot above the waist. The police should have cleared the protesters by other means instead of taking the extreme step of opening fire for burning government vehicles. No one can bring the victims back to life, but vehicles can be bought, she said. According to Sampath, the police had always let loose violence on Dalits whenever they raised their voice to assert their legitimate rights. He recalled the attacks on Dalits at Nalumoolaikinaru and Kodiyankulam in Tuticorin district, the drowning of 17 estate workers of Manjolai when they were chased by the police, atrocities committed against the oppressed community of Kangiyanur in Villupuram district while attempting to enter a temple for worship, and the beating up of women, the aged and children at Uthapuram in Madurai district.

Dr K. Krishnasamy, founder-president of the Dalit-dominated party Puthiya Tamizhagam, said the firing incident revealed the anti-Dalit psyche entrenched in the Police Department and a well-planned conspiracy to scuttle the smooth conduct of Immanuel Sekaran's death anniversary function. He urged the Chief Minister not to tolerate police excesses committed on the pretext of maintaining law and order. He also called for immediate steps to suspend the police officers responsible for the firing incident.

The Madurai unit of the People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) condemned the police firing at Paramakudi and Madurai. Its vice-president and coordinator, R. Murali, said, [W]e are of the view that the police should have handled the situation very carefully and sensibly. This incident shows how the police have not been trained well to face this kind of a situation. It seems that the police started indiscriminately firing after heavily lathi-charging the people at Paramakudi. At this situation, the police officials who gave permission to fire should explain on what authority they fired. Similarly, in Madurai, the shooting by a police officer using his revolver is obviously a violation of law.

Henry Tiphagne, executive director of People's Watch, referring to the preliminary report of its fact-finding team, said there were clear cases of brutal police torture of some selected Dalit activists.... Most of the [bullet] injuries have been above the waist. He called for a re-post-mortem of all the bodies of the victims in the presence of family members, their authorised representatives or human rights defenders.

He also called upon the Chief Minister to be sensitive to rumours making the rounds in the southern districts of Tamil Nadu that the police violence has been singularly engineered from quarters close to her with or without her knowledge.

The issue found its echo in the Assembly as legislators belonging to the opposition parties raised it in different forms, including a calling attention motion. Members of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Communist Party of India, Puthiya Tamizhagam and the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) staged a walkout in the Assembly on September 14 protesting against the denial of permission to raise the issues relating to the police firing. However, they made their viewpoints on the issue public through the media.

A. Soundararajan, leader of the CPI(M) in the Assembly, stated categorically that the probe would be meaningless if the police personnel involved in the firing and those policemen responsible for the riots were not suspended. He was of the view that the violence in Paramakudi betrayed intelligence failure. Had the police acted in a mature and fair manner, the untoward incidents could have been averted, he said.

He also pointed out that Dalits were at the receiving end whenever riots broke out. The violence also exposed the emptiness of the claim that TMMK leader John Pandian was arrested only to prevent untoward incidents.

Referring to the government's decision to provide Rs.1 lakh each to the next of kin of the victims, Soundararajan said the amount was inadequate as the kin of victims of attacks by wild animals were given a solatium of Rs.3 lakh. Echoing similar sentiments, CPI leader M. Arumugam demanded that the police should be asked to stop foisting cases on Dalits and conducting searches in their colonies.

G. Ramakrishnan, secretary of the State committee of the CPI(M), said the party would stage protest demonstrations all over the State on September 17 seeking action against the police officers who were responsible for opening fire on the Dalits. Veteran CPI leader R. Nallakannu said the party's activists would observe a dawn-to-dusk fast on September 20 at all district headquarters, protesting against the police excesses at Paramakudi and Madurai.

On September 15, a fact-finding team of the CPI(M), comprising legislators and functionaries, visited the villages and consoled the family members of the victims. The feedback obtained from the people in different villages clearly showed that the violence in and around Paramakudi had been triggered not by clashes between two caste groups but by the police, said A. Soundararajan, the leader of the team.

The team also called for immediate action to implement Justice Mohan Commission's recommendations to increase employment avenues in the backward region. Unemployment has been one of the major reasons for the recurring unrest in the southern districts.

The Bharatiya Janata Party and the PMK have also sent their fact-finding teams to Paramakudi. In a statement on September 12, Lok Janshakti Party leader Ram Vilas Paswan asked the State government to register a case against the police personnel responsible for opening fire on the Dalits. He also called for a compensation of Rs.20 lakh each to be given to the families of the victims.

The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the erstwhile ruling party in the State, trod a cautious course on the sensitive issue. Apparently, the party cannot afford to antagonise the Mukkulathor community whose support it badly needs in the local body elections, observers point out. However, party treasurer and former Deputy Chief Minister M.K. Stalin visited the affected areas in Ramanathapuram district on September 15 and distributed Rs.1 lakh each to the families of the victims of police firing.

After visiting the Dalits undergoing treatment at the Government Rajaji Hospital in Madurai on September 14, John Pandian said the police firing was aimed at suppressing Dalit assertion. The atrocities unleashed against these oppressed masses should not happen to any other community, he said, appealing to all sections of society to come together and strive for communal harmony. Disagreeing with the Chief Minister's view that the chain of events began with the graffiti in Mandalamanickam village and the subsequent murder of the Dalit student, he said she was misled by some government officials.

He demanded a probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation into the incidents at Paramakudi, Rs.10 lakh as solatium to the kin of the victims of police firing, and legal action against the erring police officers. A public interest petition has been filed before the Madras High Court Bench in Madurai seeking a probe by the CBI into the police firing.

The government has claimed that the violence was triggered by John Pandian's plans to visit Ramanathapuram district to pay homage at Sekaran's memorial in Paramakudi and to console the parents of Palanikumar in Pacheri village. It may be true that John Pandian had plans to strengthen his base in the district. But both the communist parties are of the view that the whole episode could have been averted had the police taken a wiser decision to allow him to pay homage at the memorial.

The communist parties feel that the government should take steps to ensure that there is no recurrence of the caste clashes witnessed in south Tamil Nadu in the 1990s.

The government has announced that the inquiry commission will be headed by K. Sampath, a retired judge of the High Court. The commission will go into the factors and circumstances that led to the police firing and the subsequent law and order problem. It will also ascertain whether the force used was warranted by the circumstances, whether all the prescribed formalities were observed before resorting to firing, and whether there were excesses on the part of the police. The commission has been asked to submit its findings and recommendations in two months.

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