Print edition : February 21, 2014

Relatives of "Meesai" Mathaiyan greeting his wife, Thangamma (left), after the Supreme Court verdict commuting his death sentence to life, in Kottamaduvu village in Salem district, Tamil Nadu. Photo: P. GOUTHAM

The verdict commuting the death sentence of four people convicted in the Palar bomb blast case brings cheer to a little village on the Tamil Nadu-Karnataka border.

“Like the death sentence is passed lawfully, the execution of the sentence must also be in consonance with the constitutional mandate and not in violation of the constitutional principles.”

-- Supreme Court Bench, on the inordinate delay in the execution of death sentences.

ON January 21, the bells at the Roman Catholic Church of Martelli village in Karnataka’s Chamarajnagar district tolled continuously. It was a joyful occasion for the people of Martelli as three fellow villagers escaped the noose following the Supreme Court’s commutation of their death sentence. The three, along with a person from a neighbouring village, were said to be close associates of the brigand Koose Munisamy Veerappan, whom the police claimed to have killed in an encounter on October 18, 2004, in a village near Dharmapuri in Tamil Nadu.

“At last our prayers have been answered,” said K. Don Bosco, an activist from Martelli, to Frontline over phone. He is one among the many who fought for the release of the condemned four.

The people distributed sweets and exchanged warm greetings. Three of the convicted persons —Moris Gownder Bilavendran (55), Anthoniappa Simon (50) and Joseph Gnanaprakasam (60)—belong to this village that sits close to the border of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, while the fourth, Kolandaiyappa Mathaiyan (Madiah) (64), lives in the Kottamaduvu hamlet in Salem district across the border.

All of them were accused in the Palar bomb blast case of April 9, 1993, in which 22 persons, including five policemen, two forest guards and informers, were killed after Veerappan trapped them with landmines in the dense forests on the Tamil Nadu-Karnataka border.

The apex court’s ruling, Bosco said, not only saved them from the noose but also gave a strong fillip to the campaign in Tamil Nadu against the death penalty. They have been in the Hindalga Central Prison in Belgaum, Karnataka, since July 14, 1993.

Bilavendran’s wife, Kamala Mary, 55, was 35 years old when the Karnataka personnel of the Joint Special Task Force (STF) that was formed by the two State governments to nab Veerappan picked up her agriculturist husband for “mere interrogation” in connection with the Palar bomb blast case. “Our children were in their teens then,” she said. Their daughter Selva Josephine Seline Mary said that the entire family had been through a harrowing time all these years. “My father’s family owned 32 acres of fertile land and why would we need to have any association with the brigand, which we knew very well was dangerous?” she said. Her father, she said, was innocent and had been framed. The four are Vanniyars, a Most Backward Community to which Veerappan also belonged.

“It was the most wonderful moment in my life,” said Thangamma, wife of Mathaiyan alias “Meesai” (moustache) Mathaiyan, of the verdict. Thangamma is perhaps the most unfortunate among the family members of the four condemned. Her elder son, Mathesh, was reportedly killed by the STF during a combing operation in the forests near Bannari when he was barely 18. The STF also killed Mathaiyan’s two brothers, Muniyan and Sundan Vellaiyan.

It had been a peaceful life for them until 1960 when Veerappan, a distant relative, came into their life. (The other three were not Veerappan’s relatives as claimed by certain sections of the media.) While Mathaiyan preferred to keep away from Veerappan, his two brothers were lured into his gang on the promise of huge money. That turned life upside down for Mathaiyan and his family, with the STF constantly hounding them. He never returned after he was picked up for interrogation.

It was left to Thangamma to carry on with the responsibility of taking care of the family. “My younger son, Paramasivam, and his sister, Selvi, were 10 and 12 when their father was imprisoned. He is yet to come back,” she said.

“I have been taking care of my entire family and those of my husband’s slain brothers,” she said. She sells wild gooseberries, a mini forest produce, in the Kolathur market to make ends meet.

Mathaiyan, today, is a sick man. He underwent angioplasty twice at a Bangalore hospital. As his health deteriorated, the Karnataka prison administration shifted him to the Bangalore Central Prison so that he could be given timely health care. “We want to lead a peaceful life during the twilight of our lives. We need him,” Thangamma said in a voice choked with emotion.

In fact, all the four who spent two decades in solitary confinement, suffer from various health problems. Simon was admitted to the Intensive Care Unit of a hospital in Mysore for severe diabetes and is on continuous medication.

Mani from Martelli village, a close relative of Bilavendran, also was an accused in the case, but he was released for want of evidence. He said the convicted four were leading peaceful lives supported by income from tilling their lands until the STF came into the picture. “They were picked up on allegations that they supplied groceries and vegetables to the fugitive in the forest. Later, they were implicated in the bomb blast case,” he said.

The family members of Bilavendran, Simon and Gnanaprakasam are “mentally and physically debilitated”. They are in penury today since they had to sell land and belongings to meet the legal expenses. “It was a tough time. But for the help of the team of lawyers, especially those in Karnataka, and rights activists on both sides of the border, we would have been doomed,” said Mary, Bilavendran’s daughter.

The case in court dealing with offences under the Terrorists and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA), said Bosco, was not effectively handled. “But we thank legal luminaries such as Ram Jethmalani, who appeared for the four in the Supreme Court without any fee, anti-death penalty campaigner-cum-lawyer Yug Mohit Chaudhry from Mumbai, who guided us legally all through the trials and tribulations, and the lawyer and activist Colin Gonsalves. We owe this to them,” Bosco said.

STF’s victims

But the fact remains that the innocent villagers living in the cluster of villages and hamlets abutting the forests on the Tamil Nadu-Karnataka border where Veerappan once operated had to bear the brunt of the STF’s fury. Many lost their lives and many others’ lives were caught between Veerappan, who threatened them to get essential commodities, and the STF, which harassed them to glean information about the brigand’s whereabouts.

Henry Tiphagne, executive director of the Madurai-based rights body People’s Watch, which fought against the rights violations perpetrated by the STF against innocent villagers in their hunt for Veerappan, said that 235 persons, many of them women, were booked under the provisions of the Indian Penal Code and TADA. “We did enormous work on the legal and political fronts in support of the victims,” he said.

“Among them, 51 were implicated in four cases, 34 in three cases, 79 in two cases and 70 in one case. Of the 235, 64 died and another 49 were listed as absconders. The rest faced trial and 111 of them were acquitted. Of the 10 who were convicted, four were sentenced to death,” he said. A collective of individuals and groups has also formed the “Campaign for the Relief and Rehabilitation of TADA detenues from M.M. Hills in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu” to “coordinate the voluminous work under one banner”.

With their despair turning into optimism, the families of the four convicts now long for their release from the Karnataka prison.