ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

A+| A| A-

When Public Servants Came Calling at Vachati

It is commendable that the Central Bureau of Investigation has been able to secure the convictions of 215 public servants for assault, including rape, of a community of 160 adivasis in Vachati village in Salem district of Tamil Nadu in June 1992. But it has not only taken close to two decades for the courts to deliver judgment, the atrocities themselves were reported only after three months. And had the Left not taken up the issue, the Madras High Court would not have handed the case to the CBI. Tragically, the perpetrators of other similar incidents in the same area and around the same time have gone unpunished.

FROM THE STATES

When Public Servants Came Calling at Vachati

V Krishna Ananth

A brief recall of the sequence of events on 20 June 1992 will be in order to see the judgment in perspective. It all began with a routine “raid” by 45 forest department officials in Vachati, a village with only 160 families in the foothills of the Sitheri range located in Tamil Nadu, not too far from

It is commendable that the Central Bureau of Investigation has been able to secure the convictions of 215 public servants for assault, including rape, of a community of 160 adivasis in Vachati village in Salem district of Tamil Nadu in June 1992. But it has not only taken close to two decades for the courts to deliver judgment, the atrocities themselves were reported only after three months. And had the Left not taken up the issue, the Madras High Court would not have handed the case to the CBI. Tragically, the perpetrators of other similar incidents in the same area and around the same time have gone unpunished.

V Krishna Ananth (krishnananth@gmail.com) is an advocate and currently a Fellow of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library.

O
n 29 September the sessions judge at Dharmapuri convicted as many as 215 public servants for a set of crimes that included rape. Among those convicted were high-ranking police and forest officers and also members of the revenue administration. The judgment, coming as it did at the end of a legal process that began in 1995, is indeed historic. It is one of those rare instances where all those accused of participating in a brutal attack have been found guilty. Of the 269 personnel accused in the case, 54 had died and thus escaped punishment. In other words, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) which had probed the atrocities committed through the night on 20 June 1992 did its job to establish the charges. Sessions judge S Kumaraguru could not have glossed over the material evidence.

Seventeen public servants (including five forest officers, two police inspectors, six sub-inspectors and two tehsildars) were found guilty of rape among other acts of illegal violence against the hapless Malayali adivasis (who are not a Malayalam-speaking community) in Vachati. In the scheme of things, as ordained in the Indian Penal Code (ipc) and the Code of Criminal Procedure, the sessions judge could have inflicted a more severe punishment than the 10 years of rigorous imprisonment that have been handed to 17 of the accused. Some of them are policemen whose duty it is to investigate such crimes and ensure that the guilty are punished. It is hence possible and even desirable that the higher judi ciary, to which the convicts are most likely to appeal, enhances the punishment. Section 376(2) of the ipc specifically deals with rape by a police officer and provides for imprisonment for not less than 10 years and for life as maximum punishment.

OCTOBER 15, 2011

the border with Karnataka. The raid was routine because Vachati, like many such villages, happened to be a place where sandalwood smuggled out of the forests was stacked temporarily. The fact was that the adivasis of Vachati too were engaged by big-time operators in the sandalwood trade and apart from being made to cut the wood and carry the logs from the forest, they were also engaged in stacking it on their lands before it transported to the towns. Like in all those instances of a tribal-smuggler nexus the Malayali tribes in Vachati earned only a pittance for their labour.

All the 160 families in Vachati depended on the public distribution system for their food and lived in small tenements. None of them had the money to send their children to the private residential schools like some of the others engaged in the illegal business of sandalwood. In other words, they were also forced into the illegal trade but denied of the wealth that is generated in such trade. The adivasis are not known for trading in sandalwood; if that were so, the forests in the region would not have had so many sandalwood trees even in 1992. The raiding party, according to reports, had found 55 tonnes of sandalwood buried in Vachati on 20 June. This was in addition to larger stocks being seized by the officers when they were being smuggled out in the months prior to the raid in Vachati. The plain and simple fact is that the kingpins in the sandalwood smuggling business in this region involved forces in the political domain who were neither poor nor from the adivasi community. K A Sengottian, the then Tamil Nadu minister for forests, should have been in the know of things. He was at the time the AIADMK’s strongman in Salem district. Incidentally, Sengottian remains the party’s strongman in the region even today and is currently minister for agriculture.

vol xlvi no 42

EPW
Economic & Political Weekly

FROM THE STATES

On that terrible day in 1992 the raiding party met with resistance from the village and one of them suffered head injuries and was hospitalised. A large posse of police, senior forest officials and officers from the revenue department soon reached Vachati. The sun had set by then and there were as many as 80 women constables in the posse that went to Vachati. The lawlessness began then and as many as 15 girls bore the brunt of the violence. The women constables seemed to have been taken along to the village only to show the world that the authorities followed the laid down law. The girls and many others (300 in all according to police records) were arrested during the night and lodged in the Salem Central Jail. The tenements were ransacked, and the wells contaminated with diesel oil and carcasses of the livestock. The men in uniform had done such things elsewhere and across the country both before and after Vachati.

Sengottian went on record to defend the police action and described reports of the atrocities as baseless. It may be noted that the first ever news report on the events appeared as late as in August 1992 though Vachati was no remote corner, just 70 kilometres from Salem town and connected by motorable roads. But as is the case with adivasis in many other parts, the Malayali tribals of Vachati too were outside the “mainstream”. The story came out only after the CPI(M) leaders in the state took it up. The first report, written by a student activist, on Vachati appeared in Frontline magazine (15-18 August 1992, Volume 9, Number 17). The state government did not care to investigate and nothing happened until the Madras High Court ordered the CBI to probe the case. That was as late as 1995.

Other Atrocities

It may be added here that by then the sandalwood trail had taken another dimension. The state governments of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka had set up a Joint Special Task Force (JSTF) to nab one man called Veerappan. And since April 1993, when the JSTF was born, inhabitants in the villages across the forests in Dharmapuri, Sathyamangalam and M M Hills experienced all that the Malayalis of Vachati did. As many as 121 persons from the villages all over the region were detained under TADA for more than seven years, until the Supreme Court found all but four of the 121 not guilty of the charges. They all languished in the Mysore central jail after having suffered torture at the hands of the JSTF personnel for days on end. An enquiry by the justice Sadashiva panel in 2002, set up by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), concluded that the police personnel were guilty and that a number of the villagers had been killed in fake encounters.

The Sadashiva panel had submitted its report to the NHRC on 3 December 2003, after holding 10 sittings in the course of which it recorded evidence from 192 victims and 28 officers of the JSTF. Officers of the rank of inspector general of police from both Tamil Nadu and Karnataka were present throughout the sittings of the panel and cross-examined all victims who deposed before the panel. Despite this, all that has happened in the name of justice is that some of the victims have been paid compensation. The police officers in the JSTF were rewarded with outof-turn promotions and housing plots in Chennai city by the Tamil Nadu government. That was after Veerappan was killed on 18 October 2004. A number of them had been indicted by the Sadashiva panel for crimes similar to those in the Vachati case.

The Vachati outrage too would have gone unheard but for the Madras High Court ordering that the investigation be done by the CBI, three years after the incident. Until that time, the police had not only shielded the guilty in this case but had also made trumped-up charges against the victims. The 15 girls who were subjected to rape by the police and forest officers were, in fact, held in Salem jail for several days. The CBI charge sheet was filed around the same time when there was a change of government in Tamil Nadu, in May 1996. And the verdict on 29 September, holding all the 269 officers guilty of a number of crimes and convicting the 215 who are alive was based on the case made out by the CBI.

Itlookscurioustoheara top brass who made actualprintsonnational life,orwhostayed presentordriftingalong theheightofhelm.Such brass’s utterance has an auto-valueofanauto-biographicalblend.For thepeopleonfloor,the higharchesofthe politicalfraternityand bureaucracywiththeir businessesaretoodim toperceive,andappear as the characters of not less than fairy tales. It is not nice when one forgets the value of those trodden feet which havedust of times, places and climes. An auto-biography is verilynotthefactoflife,ratheritstoresthefactsofwisdom, actionsandsolutions.Thefilesofreminiscencesofbygone importanttimesmakeaninterestingreadingproviding anecdotespertainingtotheeventsandpeopleofnational importanceduringtheearlyyearsofourIndependence. Hencewehavesomenakedglareofthosepseudo-activities whichhelpedeclipsetheverygerminationofournational politicalattitude. Through, we see the agitating facts garneredinitiallytonationalsecurity,secessionism, terrorism,Indo-Pakrelations,lowstandardsofpubliclife, constitutional matters and so on. The memoirs and views ofaveteranwhospentin serviceofthe nation fromdifferenttopperchinArmy,bureaucracyand diplomacy, counts much.
ISBN: 978-81-212-1093-5, 210pp., 2011, Rs. 650
GYAN BOOKS PVT. LTD. GYAN GYAN KUNJ, 23 MAIN ANSARI ROAD, DARYA GANJ, NEW DELHI- 110002 PHONES: 23282060, 23261060 FAX: 91-11-23285914 E-mail: books@gyanbooks.com Distributed by: www.gyanbooks.com Muslims of India Balraj Puri 978-81-Rs. Honeybees of Solomon Justice K.T. Thomas 978-81-212-0966-8, 300pp., 2008, Rs. 540 Wall at Wagah: India-Pakistan Relations Kuldip Nayar 978-81-212-0829-7, 350pp., 2003, Rs. 540 Manu Gandhi and Ambedkar: Policy and Other Essays Madhu Limaye 978-81-212-0487-9, 188pp., 2003, Rs. 350 An Anthology of Dalit Literature Mulk Raj Anand 978-81-212-0419-4, 178pp., 1992, Rs. 360 Sublime Footprint V.R. Krishna Iyer 978-81-212-0951-X, 246pp., 2007, Rs. 540 Ranade's Economic Writings Bipan Chandra 978-81-212-0328-7, 270pp., 2004, Rs. 450 212-0952-8, 260pp., 2007, 540

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
OCTOBER 15, 2011 vol xlvi no 42

To read the full text Login

Get instant access

New 3 Month Subscription
to Digital Archives at

₹826for India

$50for overseas users

Comments

(-) Hide

EPW looks forward to your comments. Please note that comments are moderated as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear. A comment, if suitable, may be selected for publication in the Letters pages of EPW.

Back to Top