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Print edition : Jul 19, 2019 T+T-
The victim, M. Ashok.

The victim, M. Ashok.

Activists and villagers at the site where Ashok was murdered.

Activists and villagers at the site where Ashok was murdered.

A young Dalit functionary of the DYFI is slain for his work against caste-based atrocities in his village.

M. Ashok , a young functionary of the Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI) was brutally murdered by members of a caste Hindu group in Karaiyiruppu village near Tirunelveli in southern Tamil Nadu on June 12. The 26-year-old Dalit was the treasurer of the Tirunelveli district unit of the DYFI.

Ashok was working as a labourer in a tyre manufacturing unit located in the industrial estate of the State Industries Promotion Corporation of Tamil Nadu (SIPCOT) at Gangaikondan village, some 15 kilometres from Karaiyiruppu. On the night of June 12, when he was leaving for the night shift, a gang of Maravas, a backward-caste group, hacked him to death. His body was found on the railway track near the village.

The caste animosity between Dalits, the majority of them agricultural labourers, and the landholding Maravas, who are socially and economically privileged in the region, was the major factor behind the murder. The two caste groups remain polarised on caste lines, leading to frequent flare-ups in the village. Ashok was in the forefront of the fight against caste atrocities, which irked the caste Hindus. Residents also allege that members of the Marava community have been harassing and abusing Dalits, especially women, whenever they use the path that goes through the Marava colony.

A group of young Dalits, led by Ashok, had started confronting them on various caste-based issues. After the day of the murder, a huge gathering of relatives, activists, villagers and cadres of the DYFI and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) launched a series of protests in Tirunelveli town and Karaiyiruppu village, condemning the murder. They laid siege to the Tirunelveli Government Medical College and Hospital where Ashok’s body was kept for post-mortem for more than five hours. They also refused to accept the body.

The same evening, the villagers, led by the CPI(M)’s Tamil Nadu State secretary, K. Balakrishnan, blocked the Tirunelveli-Madurai highway near the place where Ashok was murdered. After more than five hours of talks with officials on their charter of demands, the blockade was lifted.

The district administration conceded the protesters’ demands, which included the arrest of the accused under the Goondas Act and the provisions of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. They also wanted the State government to pay Rs.50 lakh compensation to Ashok’s family, a government job for a member of the family and a pucca road from the village Dalit settlement to the highway. They insisted that Karaiyiruppu should be declared atrocities-prone. The State government handed over the first instalment of compensation, Rs.4.12 lakh, to the victim’s family.

The murder, according to activists, could have been the fallout of a scuffle between Ashok and one of the accused a month back. Ashok and his mother Aavudaiyammal (50) were transporting a bundle of grass in a two-wheeler when it accidentally brushed against a group of Marava youths in the village. This led to a quarrel in which a youth assaulted Ashok’s mother. Police Commissioner N. Baskaran told the media that cases were registered against both since Ashok had assaulted the person in retaliation. Both were arrested and released on conditional bail, said a senior police officer.

Murugan Kanna of Nava Bodhu Cultural Centre, a rights activist in Tirunelveli and Ashok’s mentor since his early days of social activism, told Frontline that Ashok had never been caste-centric. “In fact, he worked for social amity in the village and was a socially responsible person. Following the scuffle with the youth, Ashok asked the police to register the case under the S.C./S.T. Act. But the Thatchanallur Police registered the cases under the Indian Penal Code (IPC). Had the police registered the cases under the S.C./S.T. Act, Ashok’s murder could have been averted,” he said. He pointed out that the situation had become “dangerous and volatile” for field activists working against caste-based atrocities.

S. Murugan (55), Ashok’s father who is an agricultural labourer, in his complaint preferred at the Thatchanallur police station, recorded that Ashok was subjected to constant harassment by Marava youths of Karaiyiruppu for his proactive role against social inequalities. In a statement he said: “In fact, we told him to be careful. At 10:15 p.m. on June 12, a few of his friends and I escorted him to the main road, from where he was to take the company bus. He was a few steps ahead of us when a gang led by Ramachandra Thevar, his son Subramaniyan, his grandson Petchi Raja, and three sons of Pool Thevar started attacking him. When we tried to save him, the gang attempted to attack us. He was killed before my eyes.” Meanwhile, the police arrested the prime suspects S. Petchi Raja (19), S. Muthupandi (27), Murugan (55), Balu (48), Mookkan (45) and Ganesan (43) in connection with the murder. The accused were booked under Sections 147 (rioting), 148 (with deadly weapons), 294 (b) (obscene language), 120 (b) (criminal conspiracy), 341, 506 (2) (criminal intimidation) and 302 (murder) of the IPC. Besides, they were charged under Sections 3(1)(r), 3(1)(s), 3(2) (va), 5 (a) of the S.C./S.T. Act, 2015.

The body of Ashok was laid to rest on June 14. Many, including the DYFI’s national president, Mohamed Riyas, paid homage. A State-wide protest was organised on June 15. The DYFI’s central executive in a statement on his murder claimed that Ashok was murdered for organising Dalits in the village and urging them to resist caste-based atrocities.

Expressing shock and dismay over the murder, A. Kadir of the Madurai-based human rights organisation Evidence told Frontline that Ashok was murdered for his anti-caste activities. “He was actively engaged in the fight against caste-based atrocities. Besides, he worked for the welfare of all poor and downtrodden people in his village,” he said. Kadir pointed out that, on an average, 20 activists and others who work among the common people were killed every year in Tamil Nadu. He said 12 activists were killed in 2016, nine in 2017 and seven in 2018. Five persons have been killed so far in 2019. “They were murdered over issues such as inter-caste marriage, fight against untouchability, illicit liquor, eve-teasing, land rights, usury lending, sand mining and temple entry,” he said.

Not an isolated incident

Ashok’s murder is not an isolated incident for the DYFI and for its parent body the CPI(M) and other progressive forces that are fighting for social justice. The Tamil Nadu State unit of the CPI(M) has suffered many such casualties. K. Rathinasamy (38) CPI(M) village president of Iduvai in Tiruppur district, was murdered in 2002 near his house for “helping Dalits, opposing Hindus and removing encroachments”. A note left by the murderers claimed that they belonged to the “Anti-Communist Front”.

A powerful syndicate of moneylenders brutally murdered Velusamy, a CPI(M) branch secretary of Pallipalayam unit in Namakkal district, on March 10, 2010. Others killed at various times include Eechampalayam Panneerselvam, Seeranpalayam Palanichamy and Asher Mill Palanichamy. In April 1997, the Madurai City Corporation councillor Leelavathi of the CPI(M) was murdered in the city when she exposed a racket involving water distribution. In Cuddalore, two party members, Anand and Kumar, were murdered because they were against the sale of illicit arrack.