Print edition : December 30, 2011

Reports of the rape of four Irular women, coming soon after the verdict in the Vachathi case, send shock waves through Tamil Nadu.

in T. Mandapam

A VIEW OF Irular huts at T. Mandapam village in Villupuram district.-C. VENKATACHALAPATHY

A PAIR of huts perched high on a rock surrounded by gigantic boulders, bottlegourd creepers crowning their roofs thatched with palm leaves, a pool of crystal clear water on the rocky terrain, a partly dilapidated but majestic stone-pillared mantap standing close by, and a temple in the vicinity housing idols of Madurai Veeran and a few other folk deities. The secluded place in T. Mandapam village on the banks of the legendary river Pennai in Tirukkoilur taluk of Villupuram district in Tamil Nadu has an incredible beauty.

Strangers to this remote place will find it hard to believe that beneath its picturesque appearance and serenity lies a story of police brutality unleashed against four young women of the Irular Scheduled Tribe and their hapless kin who have been living there for several years. Two sisters and the wives of two of their brothers told Frontline that they were forcibly taken away from their home in a van and subjected to sexual assault including rape by policemen on the night of November 22. Their mother and older male members of the family were away at the local police station, where they had been asked to report. Six of their relatives were subsequently detained in prison in connection with a case foisted on them by the policemen, they said.

The incident, which has sent shock waves across the State, comes within two months of the landmark judgment in the 19-year-old Vachathi case, in which all the 269 accused, including personnel of the Forest, Police and Revenue Departments of the Tamil Nadu government were convicted of rape, torture, destruction of evidence and wrongful confinement (Justice for Vachathi, Frontline, November 4). The atrocities were committed against the Malayalee tribes of Vachathi village in Dharmapuri district in June 1992. The incident also reminded the State of the gang rape, allegedly perpetrated by policemen, of a 17-year-old Irular girl at Athiyur village in Villupuram district in 1993.

As news of the T. Mandapam incident emerged three days after it happened, thanks to the intervention of the Pazhangudi Irular Pathukaappu Sangam (PIPS, or Association for the Protection of the Irular Tribe), demands for action against the guilty policemen and rehabilitation of the victims were raised by some political parties, tribal people's associations and human rights organisations. Protest demonstrations were held in different parts of the State.

One of the victims lodged a police complaint on November 26. The police registered cases under Sections 323 (voluntarily causing hurt), 363 (kidnapping) and 427 (causing damage to currency notes) of the Indian Penal Code and Section 376 (rape) of the IPC read with Section 3(1) (xii) of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act against certain unidentified policemen. Under the High Court's direction, the victims underwent tests at the government medical college hospital in Villupuram.

A public interest petition was filed in the Madras High Court on November 28, seeking a direction to the State government to hand over the case to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) since the State government is indifferent to the sensibilities of Scheduled Tribes. The petition, filed by P. Pugalenthi, director of the Chennai-based Prisoners' Rights Forum, sought the court's direction for criminal proceedings against the erring police personnel. The very arrest of the women after sunset would amount to a gross misconduct on the part of the police personnel, the petition said, pleading for an interim direction to the government to suspend all the guilty policemen immediately. As the rape victims were members of a Scheduled Tribe, the crime attracts Sections 3(1) (xii) and (2) (vii) of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, it said.

During the hearing on the petition, the Public Prosecutor pleaded that unless the charges could be proved during the investigation and a charge sheet was filed, the guilty policemen could not be arrested. In response, the First Bench of the High Court, which is hearing the case, observed on December 7: We fail to understand the submission. If a lady goes to a police station complaining about sexual harassment or rape by any named person, the police officer will not hesitate to arrest the person immediately. If that be so, why should law made applicable to the common man not be applied to the police officers?

The court also said: Needless to say that the payment of compensation will not restore the chastity of the women, who have been allegedly raped. The state has to take action in accordance with law against those persons, who have allegedly committed rape on those lady victims.

Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa announced on November 29 that she had ordered the suspension of five policemen: Inspector Srinivasan, Special Sub Inspector Ramanathan, head constable Dhanasekar and constables Karthikeyan and Baktavatsalam. Preliminary investigations revealed that the policemen had detained some Irular women in a vehicle during night time, she said. Pointing out that a probe by the Tirukkoilur judicial magistrate was under way, she made it clear that stern action would be taken against the police personnel if they were found guilty. She also announced a solatium of Rs.5 lakh each to the victims from the Chief Minister's Public Relief Fund.

Night of terror

The victims shuddered to recall the incidents of the black Tuesday. Enquiries revealed that the two sisters who were raped lived with their parents and three of their brothers in one of the two huts on a rock around 1.5 km from T. Mandapam village. The family eked out a living by collecting sand from the streets where goldsmiths work and retrieving gold fragments by running the sand through a sieve. When the incident occurred, two other sons of the family, who usually worked at brick kilns at Ulundurpet in Villupuram district and Panapakkam on the outskirts of Chennai, were visiting with their wives, one of whom was pregnant. They were there because work at the kilns was suspended because of the monsoon. Two other male relatives were also staying with them.

PRABHA KALVIMANI, COORDINATOR of Pazhangudi Irular Pathukaappu Sangam.-

According to the complaint, around 3 p.m. on November 22, three policemen came to the hut and took away one of the visiting brothers in connection with a theft. They told the women that his father should come to the police station when he returned from work. Accordingly, the detained man's parents and elder brother went to the police station with two other relatives that evening, leaving only women and young boys at home. After they were gone, eight policemen ransacked the house around 8 p.m. and allegedly helped themselves to the family's savings. Four of them then packed the two girls and the two daughters-in-law of the family in a van along with three younger sons and two relatives and drove away. The other four policemen stayed back. The girls were taken to a eucalyptus grove far away from the village.

When their parents and other relatives came back home from the police station, the waiting policemen pounced on them and thrashed them with sticks before taking them to the Tirukkoilur police station, where the men were detained. The only woman in the group, the accused person's mother, was driven away in the van to Sandaipet, close to Tirukkoilur town. Shortly afterwards, her two daughters and daughters-in-law, who had been arrested from their home, were brought to Sandaipet. Accompanied by four policemen, they were asked to join their mother and taken again to the eucalyptus grove, one of the victims later alleged in her complaint.

According to the complaint, the policemen asked the girls to get down and led them to the grove past midnight. The girls were taken to separate places and raped. One of the victims was pregnant. She said she was molested, while the others were gagged and raped, one of them by three policemen. The girls were kept in custody for the rest of the night. Around 5 a.m., the policemen dropped them at the village. Around noon a police team allegedly came back to their hut and smashed utensils.

With a local lawyer playing the Good Samaritan, the four young women and their mother were able to contact some activists of the PIPS in Villupuram, who helped them to lodge the complaint on November 26, one of the victims said. Meanwhile, the victims' father and five others were arrested in theft cases and lodged in the central prison in Cuddalore. Among them were the two sons who had come visiting. All the victims said they would be able to identify the men who assaulted them.

Background

Irulars, one of the six primitive tribes, form a tiny minority in Tamil Nadu, numbering about 100,000 in a population of 7.21 crore. The literacy rate among Irulars is around 34 per cent against the State's literacy rate of 80.33 per cent. The British ethnographer Edgar Thurston's historic work Castes and Tribes of Southern India, published in 1909, says that the Irulars of composite South Arcot, comprising Villupuram and Cuddalore districts, are chiefly found about the Gingee hills, talk a corrupt Tamil, are very dark skinned, have very curly hair, never shave their heads, and never wear turbans or sandals. They dwell in scattered huts never more than two or three in one place which are little, round, thatched hovels with a low doorway through which one can just crawl, built among the fields. They are perhaps the poorest and most miserable community in the district. Only one or two of them own any land, and that is only dry land. A century later, not much has changed for them. The coordinator of PIPS, Prabha Kalvimani, also known as P. Kalyani, said around 60 per cent of the Irulars in the northern districts led a semi-nomadic life and worked in brick kilns and rice mills as bonded labourers as they found it difficult to repay the loans taken from the owners. Some of them work as cane cutters.

Irular people getting slapped with theft cases has been a regular feature for several years, he said, adding that the issue hit the headlines in 1993 after Athiyur' Vijaya was gang-raped after her father, P. Masi, was arrested. The case generated an awareness among the Irulars that they needed to rally under the banner of an association to defend their rights. However, Irulars continued to be booked in theft cases, tortured by the police, and sent to jail. They were booked under Sections 379 (theft) of the IPC on charges relating to theft of copper power cables and pumpsets belonging to farmers, and breaking of temple hundis, Prabha Kalvimani said.

KUTTI REVATHI, POET and film-maker. She is currently working on a documentary, "We are Irulars".-JOTHI RAMALINGAM

Irulars in the northern districts have repeatedly held demonstrations and petitioned officials such as the Home Secretary, the Director General of Police and District Collectors to seek redress. This year, between August 22 and September 10, three cases of police torture were reported in Tirukkovilur, Sithalingamadam and Moolasamudram in Villupuram, Kalyani alleged.

Poet and documentary film-maker Kutti Revathi said Irulars were frequently targeted by the police as they had no one to speak for them. She said her current project, a social documentary titled We are Irulars, aimed at highlighting two important issues: non-issuance of community certificates to Irular students, which was an obstacle in the path of their educational pursuit and employment, and the prevalence of large-scale bonded labour in rice mills and brick kilns.

Drastic changes in their living conditions occurred after the enactment of the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. Irulars, living on the dry plains, had an amazing snake-catching skill. Over generations, they had developed a traditional knowledge system of ethno-medicine as they were badly in need of it while dealing with poisonous reptiles. At one stage, they were exploited by some Western traders, who purchased snake skins. Earlier, they were treated as friends of farmers as they used snakes to catch farm rats to prevent crop loss. Over the past four decades, however, there was a process of alienation as Irulars started losing their livelihoods and became labourers or manual workers, Kutti Revathi said. As bonded labourers, they faced varied forms of torture and humiliation, including sexual, physical and psychological abuse at their workplaces.

The vast majority of the tribe gave up snake-catching long ago. However, the possession of snake-catching sticks and pots used for trapping farm rats are necessary preconditions for the acquisition of community certificates. Attempts by activists and experts to form cooperatives for Irulars, through which snake venom could be extracted even while preserving the reptiles, did not take off, she pointed out. Kutti Revathi, who had captured on camera one of the two Irular festivals, Iruli Kumbam, said even while fighting for their constitutional rights, efforts must be made to preserve their cultural traits.

P. Shanmugam, president of the Tamil Nadu Tribals Association, N. Nanjappan, president of the Tamil Nadu Tribal People's Association, and Kalyani have accused the police of attempting to hush up the case. Demanding action under the S.Cs and S.Ts (PA) Act, they have criticised the police for allegedly detaining the victims at the office of the Superintendent of Police for over 18 hours. Nanjappan and Kalyani have demanded a probe by the CBI and early identification parade, while Shanmugam has said that the case should be handed over to the Crime Branch-Crime Investigation Department of the State Police.

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