Social issues

A casteist crime beyond doubt

Print edition : October 22, 2021

Samikannu and Chinnapillai, parents of Murugesan, who was killed in 2003. Photo: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

P. Rathinam, senior advocate. Photo: by special arrangement

G. Sugumaran, secretary, Federation for People’s Rights, Puducherry. Photo: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

The Cuddalore Special Court judge invokes the doctrine of the rarest of rare cases to pronounce the death sentence on Accused No.2 in the 2003 ‘honour killing’ case to “serve as a warning to those who practice casteist superiority and hatred in society”.

AFTER a protracted legal battle, justice has been rendered in the Murugesan-Kannagi double murder case. The inter-caste couple—S. Murugesan, a Dalit, and D. Kannagi, who belonged to the most backward Vanniyar caste—were murderd in their village near Vridachalam town in Cuddalore district in Tamil Nadu in the intervening night of July 7 and 8, 2003.

The District Judge S. Uthamaraj of the Special Court for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, in Cuddalore district, in his verdict on September 24, sentenced D. Maruthupandian, Kannagi’s elder brother and Accused No.2, to death. The sentence, the judge said, would however be kept in abeyance until mandatory confirmation was obtained from the Madras High Court.

The judge awarded multiple life sentences to the other accused, including C. Duraisamy, Kannagi’s father and Accused No.1, besides handing out varying durations of imprisonment under various Sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and provisions of the S.C./S.T. Act. These sentences should run concurrently, the order said.

Two Station Officers attached to the Vridachalam Police Station, who had investigated the case initially, were sentenced to life for negligence of duty and complicity in the crime. Sub Inpector K.P. Tamilmaran, since suspended, and Inspector M. Sellamuthu, since retired, were named as Accused No.14 and No.15 and charged under Sections 217 and 218 of the IPC and Section 4 of the S.C./S.T. Act. They were also slapped with an additional charge under Section 3(2)(1) of the S.C./S.T. Act.

The judge acquitted two Dalits, Ayyasamy (Accused No.4) and P. Gunasekaran (Accused No.9), both relatives of Murugesan, of all the charges, noting that the prosecution had failed to prove their involvement in the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. Of the 15 accused, 13, including the two Dalits, were charged under Sections 120B, 302, 147, 347, 364 of the IPC. The provisions of 3(1)(X) and 3(2)(5) of the S.C./S.T. Act were invoked against non-Dalits.

The case was investigated by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). In his 201-page judgment in Tamil, the judge described the crime as “heinous, brutal and against humanity”. He said the “punishment will serve as a warning to those who practice casteist superiority and hatred in society”.
Also read: RTI data point to high incidence of caste-based violence in Tamil Nadu

Murugesan and Kannagi of Puthukkooraippettai, Cuddalore district, fell in love when they were studying in Annamalai University at Chidambaram town in the same district. They secretly got married and registered their marriage on May 5, 2003, in Cuddalore. Murugesan was a graduate in chemical engineering while Kannagi was a commerce graduate. When the news about their marriage became known, Kannagi’s family became furious.

They apprehended the two on July 7, 2003, and forced them to drink poison in the early hours of July 8, 2003, near the village temple. Their bodies were burnt at two separate places. In fact, the murder of Murugesan and Kannagi was the first such case in Tamil Nadu to be called “honour killing”, although many such incidents had taken place in the past.

Sloppy investigation

The primary reason for the delayed justice in the case was the sloppy and biased investigation by the Vridachalam police. The police arrested four Vanniyars, including the father and brother of the girl, and four Dalits: Murugesan’s father Samikannu, his uncle Ayyasamy and two others.

When justice for the deceased appeared bleak, an effective intervention by a tiny group of activists and lawyers, led by P. Rathinam, senior advocate, and G. Sugumaran, social activist and secretary of the Federation for People’s Rights, Puducherry, under the aegis of the Tamil Nadu Ambedkar Legal Services Movement, saved the case from crumbling.

It was a an open-and-shut case. Between 2003 and 2021, many bizarre incidents took place to derail and disturb due process. But the activists pursued the issue relentlessly for 17 years, giving no room for any manipulation. In fact, Samikannu, who was named in the first charge sheet as one of the accused, moved the Madras High Court for a CBI investigation, which put the case back on track towards justice.

As the investigation progressed, the case was shifted to various courts. The police filed the first charge sheet before the Vridachalam Judicial Magistrate Court. It was later transferred to the Chief Judicial Magistrate Court in Chengleput, before it was finally committed to the Special Court for S.C./S.T. Act, in Cuddalore.

The legal battle began with the police registering the complaint on July 17, 2003, although the crime was alleged to have been committed in the wee hours of July 7/ 8, 2003. A petition by Samikannu before the Madras High Court exposed the dark side of the investigation agency in the case. The High Court on April 22, 2004, called the act of murder, “barbaric” and handed over the investigation to the CBI. It noted that a detailed perusal of the happenings in the case demanded the invocation of the relevant provisions of the S.C./S.T. Act.
Also read: Trial court awards death sentence in 2003 'honour killing' case

The CBI carried out a detailed investigation. It built the case through witnesses, exposed the role of the two officers of the Vridachalam Police Station, and pruned the list of accused by deleting some and adding a few names before filing a detailed additional charge sheet invoking fresh provisions under the S.C./S.T. Act. The CBI’s 690-page final charge sheet was committed to the Court of Sessions in Cuddalore on March 15, 2010. The charges were taken up by the Cuddalore Principal District Sessions on July 14, 2017; since the provisions under the S.C./S.T. Act were invoked, it committed the case to the Special Court for S.C./S.T. Atrocities Act in Cuddalore on December 15, 2020. The case saw a steady progress from then and culminated in justice.

Witnesses held the key

The twin murders took place in full view of the residents of the village. The casteist gang made no bones about its criminal intent. Eyewitnesses divulged this crucial piece of information in the court although there was no recorded evidence. The prosecution had to rely on witnesses’ narration of the incident and material evidence such as the bottle of poison and two stainless steel tumblers that were used to commit the crime. The prosecution and the victims’ lawyers established the conspiracy theory to prove the crime beyond any doubt. The statements of witnesses synced with one another to establish the criminal motive of the accused beyond any reasonable doubt.

The case stood on the depositions of prosecution witnesses such as Tamilarasi, one of Murugesan’s sisters, and their mother, Chinnapillai, who pleaded with the perpetrators of the crime minutes before the incident not to kill Murugesan. Both identified the prime accused by name after graphically recalling the incident. Tamilrasi identified and named the culprits who administered poison to Murugesan.

Although several witnesses had turned hostile, Tamilrasai, Chinnapillai, Samikannu, Velmurugan and Palanivelu, Murugesan’s younger brother, had remained firm and consistent in their despositions. Samikannu’s lawyer Rathinam told Frontline that “each and every time, we had to fight against a lethargic and insensitive bureaucratic system to keep the case live and going”.

He said: “When the CBI appointed a junior officer as its investigation officer, we resisted the move and insisted on appointing an experienced officer. Besides, we had to counter a series of petitions filed by the powerful accused at every stage of the case before the higher judiciary offering sundry reasons mainly to delay the proceedings. We had to file a separate petition to extricate Samikannu from the list of the accused and to make the investigating agency include the appropriate provisions of the S.C./S.T. Atrocities Act against the accused.”

Punishment for policemen

According to Sugumaran, a significant aspect of the case was the CBI holding the two policemen as accused, for negligence of duty and complicity in the crime. “This is perhaps the first case in Tamil Nadu in which a court has slapped life sentences on police personnel for sloppy handling of a case. It will serve as a warning to those who defy and discard law in favour of casteist and powerful lobbies for pecuniary benefits,” he said.

According to witnesses, the two police officers, Tamilmaran, belonging to the Thevar caste, and Sellamuthu, a Vettuva Gounder, even saw the burning remains of the victims on July 8, 2003, when they visited the crime spot. “They were to be blamed for all the mess created in the case, which the judge of the Special Court also accepted,” said Sugumaran. Their flawed and fabricated investigation, which the judge termed a “preposterous tale of imagination” was responsible for the near collapse of the case.
Also read: Dalits break caste barriers in historical temple entry in Tamil Nadu

The judge noted that the police personnel’s insidious role was exposed when they registered cases against four Dalits, including Samikannu, on charges of murder for the sake of “retaining the pride of the Vanniyar caste”, as cited in the first charge sheet. They, the Special Court judge observed, did not bother to invoke the provisions of the S.C./S.T. Act, despite the fact that Murugesan was a Dalit. When Chinnapillai rushed to the police station to seek their intervention, the police abused her.

The judge pointed out that although the first information report (FIR) and the subsequent charge sheet were faulty, the fact of the crime could not be denied. Ironically, the police filed the first complaint only on July 17, 2003, following a report about the crime in the Tamil weekly Nakkeeran, which was followed by the surrender of the main accused before the Village Administrative Officer.

Judge Uthamaraj observed that the police had named four persons (Duraisamy, Marudupandian, Rangasamy and Anbalagan) from the Vanniyar caste and four Dalits (Elayaperumal, since deceased, Kannadasan, Ayyasamy and Samikannu) as accused in the charge sheet. The FIR claimed that Vanniyars, including the father and brother of Kannagi, had claimed that they forced her to consume poison since she “destroyed the family pride” by eloping with a Dalit. The Dalits, it claimed, were arrested for allegedly killing Murugesan, as he “polluted the pride of Vanniyars”.

Rathinam said the case would have been lost if Samikannu had not filed a petition in the Madras High Court seeking a direction to register the case under the provisions of the S.C./S.T. Act and to institute a CBI probe.

“The CBI filed an additional case report before the Chengleput Chief Judicial Magistrate Court and later a charge sheet, which included the two police officers as accused, on October 14, 2005. It added 3 (2)(1) of the S.C./S.T. Act against the two officers under which sections the judge awarded them life sentences,” he said.

Judge’s observations

The judge said: “If one integrates all statements of witnesses, both prosecution and defence, though many had turned hostile, and link the available evidences, the theory of conspiracy behind the murders would emerge. ‘The Doctrine of Last Seen Theory’ has been established in this particular case.”

He said: “When both the deceased were last seen in the custody of the accused, the onus fell only on the accused to prove how they had died. The witnesses and evidence had proved that the couple, before they were murdered, was in the custody of the accused. They were murdered after poison was forcefully administered to them before scores of eyewitnesses and their bodies were burnt at two different places before 7 a.m. on July 8, 2003.”

He reasoned that the charges against Ayyasamy and Gunasekaran could not be convincingly proved. The charges were that relatives of Murugesan had colluded with the killers. The judge found it to be incongruous and against human nature. He pointed out that the statements of Murugesan’s mother Chinnapillai, sister Tamiarasi and a few others who were witnesses to the crime were not hostile to the accused Dalits.

The judge drew attention to the apex court ruing in the Lata Singh case, which said: “There is nothing ‘honourable’ in ‘honour’ killings, and they are nothing but barbaric and brutal murders by bigoted, persons with feudal minds. In our opinion honour killings, for whatever reason, come within the category of rarest of rare cases deserving death punishment. It is time to stamp out these barbaric, feudal practices which are a slur on our nation. All persons who are planning to perpetrate ‘honour’ killings should know that the gallows await them.”
Also read: Caste-based humiliation in Tamil Nadu village

In the present case too, Judge Uttamaraj said, the accused “were fearless, remorseless and acted in an impudent manner to instil fear in the minds of others who were witnesses to the crime. Hence, I treat the case as the rarest of rare. On the basis of the heinous nature of the crime and the vicious role of the accused, I deliver my judgment in the case.”

He asked the government to monetarily compensate the families of Murugesan and other wronged Dalits under the S.C./S.T. Act. He also instructed the authorities to distribute the amount collected as fines from the two police officers to the families of Samikannu, Kannadasan and Elayaerumal, for the agonies they were made to undergo.

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