Rights group urges immediate investigation
August 7, 1999
According to activists in the region, the majority Dalit plantation workers of Manjolai Estate work in deplorable conditions, with no benefits, for less than the legal wage. Any attempt to legally and peacefully demand their rights has been met with the arbitrary arrest of protestors and brutal attacks on union leaders.

Human Rights Watch today condemned the latest in a string of brutal police attacks on the Dalit ("untouchable") community in Tamil Nadu, India. The international monitoring organization urged the state government of Tamil Nadu to take immediate steps to investigate and prosecute members of the police and administration responsible for the killing of seventeen Dalit tea plantation workers in Tirunelveli district on July 23.

The victims, including two women and one child, were among those protesting labor conditions. Members of the police and reserve forces charged them with canes and pelted them with bricks and stones. As they attempted to escape, the police chased victims into Thamiraparani river where they subequently drowned.

In a letter sent today to the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, Human Rights Watch said the state government should:

Take immediate steps to investigate and punish those responsible for the attack and provide full compensation to the victims' families.

Seek an immediate and fair resolution to the labor dispute that ensures workers their basic rights under national and international law.

Appoint an independent judicial body to investigate the role of the police and administration in recurring large-scale attacks on Dalit community members.

Enlist the assistance of the National Human Rights Commission in reviewing its procedures for deploying members of the reserve police during protests and in the aftermath of caste clashes.

The full text of the letter follows.

August 6, 1999

Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi
Chennai, Tamil Nadu
India

Dear Chief Minister Karunanidhi,

We write to express our deep concern about the brutal police action against Dalit plantation workers in Tirunelveli district on July 23 that resulted in the loss of seventeen lives. The victims, including two women and one child, were among those protesting labor conditions. Members of the police and reserve forces began charging them with their lathis and pelting them with bricks and stones. As they attempted to escape, the victims were followed by the police into Thamiraparani river and subsequently drowned. Several protestors, including political leaders, also suffered severe head injuries.

Human Rights Watch urges the government to take immediate steps to investigate and punish those responsible for the attack and provide full compensation to the victims' families. We also call on the government to seek an immediate and fair resolution to the labor dispute that ensures workers their basic rights under national and international law. Furthermore, with the help of India's National Human Rights Commission, the government should review its procedures for deploying members of the reserve police during protests and in the aftermath of caste clashes. The attack is the latest in a string of police attacks on Dalit protestors and villagers in the past several years.

According to activists in the region, the majority Dalit plantation workers of Manjolai Estate work in deplorable conditions, with no benefits, for less than the legal wage. Any attempt to legally and peacefully demand their rights has been met with the arbitrary arrest of protestors and brutal attacks on union leaders. As you are aware, the protestors had marched to the collectorate to demand an early resolution of wage-related disputes, as well as the release of 652 estate workers who were imprisoned following a prior demonstration before the collectorate on June 8.

According to press reports and eyewitness accounts, the march was entirely peaceful and the police attack, which lasted thirty-five minutes, was unprovoked. Several members of the media, and those attempting to rescue the protestors, were also attacked and severely injured. Among those killed were a two-year-old child and his mother who was demanding the release of her husband.

Human Rights Watch's own investigations have revealed a pattern of police brutality against Dalits during protests and during police raids on Dalit villages in the aftermath of caste clashes in Tamil Nadu's southern districts. The deployment of hundreds of members of the Swift Action Force, the Tamil Nadu Special Police, the Striking Force and the Armed Reserve Police during such attacks has also been documented. The attacks have often resulted in large-scale destruction of property, severe injuries, and the loss of many lives. In addition to the one-man commission of inquiry appointed to investigate the Tirunelveli incident, a separate and independent judicial body should be appointed to investigate the role of the police and administration in recurring large-scale attacks on Dalit community members.

We thank you for your prompt attention to this matter and look forward to learning more about what your government has done to prosecute those responsible for the attack and to prevent its future occurrence.

Sincerely,

Sidney R. Jones
Executive Director, Asia Division

cc.: Prime Minister A. B. Vajpayee
President K. R. Narayanan
Justice M. N. Venkatachaliah, National Human Rights Commission

For Further Information:
Smita Narula, New York (212) 216-1253
Mike Jendrzejczyk, Washington, D.C. (202) 612-4341