No Dalit has faith in the police establishment... The southern clashes have been attempts of Dalit self-assertion and a reflection of their loss of faith.
Christodas Gandhi, Tamil Nadu implementation officer for the Atrocities Act227
Caste clashes in the southern state of Tamil Nadu have predominantly involved two communities: the Thevars (a backward caste) and the Pallars (or Dalits). As has been the case in other states, Dalits in Tamil Nadu have long suffered from exploitative economic relationships and have frequently been the victims of violence. However, changes since the early 1990s have altered the economic relationship between the Thevars and the Pallars and have changed the contours of the conflict. Having benefited from the states policy of reservations in education and from the income provided by relatives working abroad, the Pallars have become much less dependent on Thevar employment and have begun to assert themselves in the political arena. The Thevars have responded to this threat to their hegemony with violence. Dalits, too, have begun to fight back.
This chapter examines caste clashes in the states southern districts between July 1995 and December 1998. Unlike the conflict in the eastern state of Bihar, the violence is often spontaneous and not the result of organized armed movements. Much as in the state of Bihar, however, the police have colluded with the caste Hindus to preserve the status quo and keep Dalits from peacefully claiming their rights. The police, many of whom are Thevars themselves, have conducted raids on Dalit villages ostensibly to search for Dalit militants. During these raids, police have assaulted villagers and detained many under preventive detention laws. Women in particular have been targeted.
According to the Indian governments 1996-1997 annual report for the Ministry of Human Affairs, caste-related incidents in 1996 in the southern state of Tamil Nadu increased by 34 percent over previous years. Out of 282 reportedincidents, 238 took place between scheduled castes and other backward communities. The main caste groups involved were the Thevars, Naidars, and Vanniyas (all backward castes) and the Adi Dravidas and Pallars (both scheduled castes or Dalits).228 The number of incidents between Pallars and Thevars increased again dramatically at the height of caste clashes in the southern districts of Tamil Nadu from April 1997 to December 1998. The nexus between Thevars, the police, and district officials in the affected areas was repeatedly reflected in violent search and raid operations in Dalit villages, in the forced displacement of thousands of Dalit villagers, often with the aid of district officials, and in the disproportionate number of Dalits arrested under preventive detention statutes during the clashes. Abuses against Dalits continued following a police raid on the Dalits of Gundupatti village in February 1998 and violent clashes between Dalits and Thevars from October to December 1998. According to the state government, at least 251 people died in caste violence between August 1995 and October 1998.229
Clashes in the southern districts of Tamil Nadu have largely been attributed to increased Pallar economic and political autonomy and the backlash against it. Since the mid-1990s, the Pallars have begun to support a new political leadership, unaligned to mainstream political parties, and promoted by two movements: the Dalit Panthers of India (DPI) Tamil Nadu, and the Devendra Kula Vellalar Federation (DKVF) led by Dr. K. Krishnaswamy, a member of the Tamil Nadu legislative assembly.230 In 1998 the DKVF became a political party and named itself Puthiya Tamalingam. These political movements have provided an organized platform for growing resistance to the still prevalent norms of untouchability in the state. Dalits have demanded equal treatment in temple festivals, have refused to carry out ritually demeaning tasks, have demanded access to public water sources, and have claimed an equal share of public goods and village properties. Thevars have responded by clinging more resolutely to their caste status as a way of affirming their superiority.231 Government statistics from 1995 revealed thatThevars were the perpetrators in 91 percent of cases involving the coercive enforcement of untouchability practices.232
Context of Clashes
Between July 1995 and June 1996, clashes between Thevars and Pallars resulted in large-scale destruction of property, loss of life on both sides, and the arrest of many Dalit youths under preventive detention laws like the Tamil Nadu Goondas Act233 and the National Security Act, 1980.234 In most cases, the usually spontaneous clashes originated over issues of land, the holding of protests and rallies, the use of village resources, or any Dalit attempt to defy the caste-based order. Typically, both sides w
ere armed with stones or agricultural tools.
The cycle of violence began anew in late April 1997 when the government announced the creation of a new transport corporation in Virudhunagar district in the name of a Pallar community member (the Veeran Sundaralingam Transport Corporation, VSTC). Thevars opposed the proposal and, according to press reports, some were heard to remark, How do you expect us to travel in a bus named after a Dalit? It is a personal affront to our manhood.235 On May 1, 1997, VSTC was inaugurated; Thevars threw stones at the buses and refused to ride them.236
On May 2, Dalit leader Dr. Krishnaswamy was arrested and accused of sparking violence with his inflammatory speeches.237 Spontaneous protests erupted as news of his arrest spread through the region. Protesters staged several road blocks and, for the three days that Dr. Krishnaswamy remained in jail, police resorted to firing, lathi-charges238 and bursting tear gas shells to control agitatingDalits.239 Two Dalits were killed by police bullets. On May 7 three Thevars were killed by the police at Sivakasi in Virudhunagar district while protesting the arrest of two Thevar youths.240
In protest against police action on Thevars at Sivakasi, Thevars in Mansapuram village attempted to introduce coconut shells at tea stalls for Dalits to keep them from sharing tea tumblers used by caste Hindus. When Dalits resisted, Thevars torched and looted Dalit houses in Amachiyarpatti village. In Rengappanaikkanpatti Thevars vowed to make Dalits dig pits for the burial of bodies of dominant castes.241 The entire Dalit population of the village was later forcibly driven out, as Thevars set fire to their homes and fields.
In the months following the renaming of the transport corporation and Dr. Krishnaswamys arrest, the districts of Theni, Madurai, Virudhunagar, Tirunelveli, and Tuticorin witnessed periodic eruptions of violence and the forced displacement of thousands of Dalits from their homes. Police and district officials treated the situation as a law and order problem, and under the guise of seeking out Dalit militant activists, conducted search and raid operations exclusively on Dalit villages. They arrested and assaulted hundreds of men and women as they looted their homes and destroyed material possessions. As discussed below, women were the primary victims.
A June 1997 fact-finding mission by the Peoples Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), the countrys largest civil rights organization, concluded that in caste clashes in Madurai district, Dalits were the worst affected in terms of property loss and physical injuries sustained, like hand and leg fractures, due to violent attack[s] on them; that police had filed many false cases against Dalits; and that increased political consciousness amongst the Dalits... regarding their fundamental social, political and economic rights expressed in terms of demands for social equality [and] equitable distribution of resources played a major role in the attacks against them.242
Links between Thevars and state agents
The Thevars numerically outnumber other backward castes in the region. The Thevar Peravai (Thevar Front), the most active and organized of Thevar organizations, was until early 1998 led by retired Director General of Police (DGP) Pon Paramaguru. His successor, Dr. N. Sethuraman, was also the general secretary of Moovendar Munnetra Kazhagam, a political party launched by the All India Thevar Peravai in 1998.
During his tenure as DGP from 1972 to 1975, Paramaguru recruited many Thevars into the police force. J. Jayalalitha, leader of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam party (AIADMK), was considered a strong Thevar community supporter during her five-year tenure as chief minister of the state from 1991 to May 1996.243 Her support included extending influential political and police positions to members of the Thevar communityallowing them to further consolidate their power base.244 N. Sasikala, Jayalalithas aide and confidante and a Thevar community member, was also accused of astutely promoting her caste.245 Lawyers, human rights activists and the local press have noted that, as a result, a majority of the police force in the southern districts now hails from [the Thevar] caste and, often, have been unable to overcome their caste affiliations.246
According to Dr. Krishnaswamy, though atrocities against Dalits were institutionalised during the previous AIADMK regime, a 1996 shift in political power to the DMK party, led by M. Karunanidhi, did not result in a change in the behaviour of the police.247 Inspector General Vijay Kumar, former security officer under Jayalalithas administration, was accused by human rights activists of using the police force to engineer attacks on Dalit villages during the 1997 clashes. Activists have also charged that the district collector (local government official) of Virudhanagar district, Rajagopal, a Brahmin native of Thevar-dominated Enjar village, supported the Thevar community during the 1997 clashes: He committed all sorts of atrocities against Dalits, including lathi-charge and unnecessary shootings.248 Rajagopal was also accused of forcing Dalits to abandon their houses.249
In June 1997 the state government responded to police excesses during the clashes by transferring large numbers of officers out of sensitive districts, without meting out any additional punishment. Chief Minister Karunanidhi ordered the transfers after noting some disturbing trends in the functioning of the lower levels of police during the disturbances, particularly in the southern districts.250
In recent years the economic relationship between Thevars and Pallars (Dalits) has shifted notably. Like most Dalits in rural India, the Pallars traditionally were employed as agricultural laborers (on Thevar lands) and were paid less than minimum wage. In the early 1990s, Pallars began to enjoy minimal upward economic mobility, which reduced their dependency on Thevars. Pallars became able to own and farm their own lands or look elsewhere for employment.
A researcher at the Madras Institute of Development Studies attributes increased Pallar prosperity to two factors:
The first is the policy of reservations, which has been more effectively implemented in this state, more than other states. Reservations in education frees Dalits from land-based occupation. The relationship between the landlord and the laborer has given way to urban-basedoccupations. The second reason is that many Dalits have been recruited by Gulf countries. They send their proceeds home, and their families are able to acquire land through this process. So feudal dependency has lessened.251
Marginal landowners themselves, Thevars have dealt with this new economic threat through caste mobilization:
The main backward classes in the state, the Thevars, are opposed to the Dalits. They themselves are not an advanced community. They are landlords but not in a big sense. They are not advanced in education, but still they employed Dalits as laborers. Because of the move away from production sectors, Thevars now can only assert their power through caste pride. So it takes on paper dominance. Before, caste was deployed through land.252
The Dalit communities, for their part, have realized the political potential of their somewhat better economic status by becoming more organized in their demands. This has affected state-wide patterns of violence and reactions by state agents. For the first time, the Pallars have begun to resist their traditional mistreatment: politically, by contesting elections, and physically, by responding to violence with violence.
Some Dalit activists have argued that their peoples armed response is necessary for self-preservation and economic survival. As Murugeswari, the first Dalit female president of the Kandamanur village council, Tamil Nadu, has stated:
While both parties have indulged in violence, there is an essential difference. Dalits are fighting for their rights and Thevars are fighting to retain their hegemony. It would be cruel to equate the fight for livelihood to the arson [sic] to retain power on the basis of birth.253
Thevars argue that the Dalits are merely self-interested and provoke the clashes themselves. In an interview with Human Rights Watch, Thevar leader Dr. N. Sethuraman claimed that the violence was being instigated by militant Dalitactivists: the clashes, he asserted, ensured the survival of Dalit organizations and their ability to attract funds from foreign donors.
Dalit-oriented NGOs are promoting hatred between the two communities. Foreign Christian organizations fund these Dalit organizations. Their intention is not to eradicate hatred but to perpetuate hatred so that their organization can survive. They induce violence, take photos and get money. They want the clash to continue so they can survive. It is a very negative attitude. I doubt whether their intentions are really Christian.254
Dr. N. Sethuraman led the Thevar procession through Desikapuram village minutes before the police surrounded the Dalit colony and conducted a violent search and raid operation. The incident is further described below.
According to Sethuraman, the practice of untouchability has been virtually eradicated in the state. But according to several human rights groups, government reports, and our own investigations, as of February 1998 untouchability was still practiced in various forms in most villages where Dalits were minorities. These forms include separate tea tumblers at tea shops and prohibitions on entering places of public worship or wearing shoes in the presence of upper castes.
Sethuraman also claimed that Thevar minorities are being chased out of their lands and homes, a practice that he termed reverse untouchability. He went on to add that the same has not happened to Dalits in a single village.255 But Human Rights Watch visited several southern district villages where Dalits had been pushed out of their homes by Thevars and, months later, were unable to return. We also visited several villages where social and economic boycotts against Dalits were still in effect and others where murders and large-scale displacement of Dalits had taken place.
In September 1996, the village of Melavalavu, in Madurai district, was declared a reserved constituency under Article 243D of the Indian constitution.0 The declaration signaled that the Melavalavu panchayat (village council), whichcovers eight villages with approximately 1,000 Dalit families,1 would have seats reserved for scheduled-caste candidates.2 In June 1997, a group murder of elected Dalits by neighboring Thevars signaled that constitutionally mandated shifts in legal power to scheduled castes would not be tolerated by caste Hindus displaced from their once secure elected positions.
Several observers have attributed the violence in the village and the resulting tensions to a shift in power relations brought on by the governments mandate of reservation of panchayat seats for Dalits. Dr. George Mathew of the New Delhi Institute of Social Sciences visited the area along with two other researchers soon after the murders. He published his conclusions in an article in The Hindu:
The murders of the Dalit leaders of Melavalavu Panchayat were clearly because untouchability was still ingrained in the social system. The economic conditions in the village were abysmal, but the power was concentrated in the hands of a privileged few. These people had hitherto enjoyed a hold over the common properties such as fish ponds, temple lands and forest produce and did not want to relinquish these privileges to the Panchayat Raj system run by the downtrodden... [T]he violence was basically a result of a shift in the power equations from the haves to the have nots.3
The article also noted that the leasing of the twenty-five fish ponds alone would fetch an income of Rs. 500,000 to Rs. 1,000,000 annually (US$12,500 to $25,000). The new panchayati raj system put control of such common propertiesin the hands of the panchayatthat is, in Dalit handssince the 1997 elections.4 In a separate article, Mathew referred to the killings as
a serious attack on the institution of panchayati raj, which has the potential of changing the powerful rural groups. The new panchayats are perceived by the traditional powerful groups as a threat. Melavalavu and similar villages are paying a price for not holding the panchayat elections regularly and strengthening the foundations of democracy.5
The case of Melavalavu provides an example of the interaction of social forces, efforts at reform, violent reaction, and impunity. The announcement of reservations in Melavalavu in 1996 led to a threat of economic sanctions by the majority caste Hindu community should any Dalit file for the position of panchayat president. The sanction would effectively leave Dalits without employment or access to economic and social services in villages in that area. As reported in the Bombay-based daily, Times of India, They were warned that they would lose their jobs as farmhands and not be allowed to graze cattle or draw water from wells located on patta [unutilized] land held by the dominant castes.6
The elections, scheduled for October 1996, were subsequently canceled, as all three Dalit nominees withdrew their candidacy for fear of sanctions against the entire scheduled-caste electorate. When polling finally did take place in February 1997, the election was suspended after several incidents of booth capturing.7 A thirty-five-year-old Dalit named Murugesan won the presidency in the third round of polling, which took place under heavy police protection and was boycotted by the dominant castes. He was, however, unable to perform his tasks as president:neighboring Thevars physically prevented him from entering his office space at the panchayat building.8
Several village residents told Human Rights Watch about violence against Dalit voters during the elections:
With police protection the election was held, but at the end of the day upper-caste people entered into the booth and threatened and stabbed one boy and beat both men and women and took away the ballot boxes and threw them into the well. Then again they declared elections after one week. In that one we elected Murugesan. There was heavy police protection. Still the Amblakars [Thevars] boycotted the elections. Then Murugesan was not able to go to the office. Only during the swearing-in ceremony did he go to the office because he had a police escort.9
Murugesans twenty-six-year-old widow, Manimegala, described the threats that her husband had received after winning the presidency:
After he was elected he received as many as ten threatening letters from Thevars. He kept them all in his office and showed them all to the [district] collector. Once he showed one to me. The letter said that one day or another we will definitely cut off your head, and they did. The police did not arrest the main culprits. I keep four children alone. The government gave me employment in the highways department. I put tar on the roads. I get Rs. 1,500 [US$37.50] per month, but it is not enough for four children. The government gave Rs. 150,000 [US$3,750] in compensation, but the collector deposited it in the bank.10
On the day of the attack, June 30, 1997, Murugesan was returning from a visit to the collectors office to inquire about compensation for houses burned in an earlier incident. Kumar, an eyewitness who barely survived the attack himself, boarded the bus and sat next to Murugesan. The assault, Kumar told Human Rights Watch, was led by a Thevar named Ramar. Ramar and Alagarsamy, the formerpanchayat president, gave explicit instructions to their gang of Thevars to kill all the Pariahs [Dalits].11
There were nearly forty of them. They were all Thevars. They stabbed Murugesan on the right side of his belly. It was a very long knife. From outside the bus Ramar instructed the Thevars to kill all the Pariahs. Among twelve, six were murdered on the spot. They pulled all six out of the bus and stabbed them on the road with bill hooks more than two feet long.12 I hid myself under the seat and later hid in the crowd. Five Thevars joined together, put Murugesan on the ground outside the bus, and chopped off his head, then threw it in a well half a kilometer away. I saw it happen, I was hiding in the crowd. Some grabbed his hands, others grabbed his head, and one cut his head with a bill hook. They deliberately took the head and poured the blood on other dead bodies.13
When the attackers noticed his presence, Kumar was chased into the fields and cut with a bill hook on the back of his neck, his right underarm, and his finger but ultimately managed to escape by fleeing into the plantation fields of a Dalit village.14
Family members of the six murder victims received Rs. 150,000 (US$3,750) in compensation from the state government under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.15 A total of twelve persons were arrested within a month of the incident.16 However, eyewitnesses haveclaimed that the ringleaders were not among them. Those arrested were charged under sections 341, 307, and 302 of the Indian Penal Code for wrongful restraint, attempted murder, and murder, respectively, and under Section 3(1)(10) of the Atrocities Act, the acts least serious offense, for name-calling or insulting a Dalit person in a public place.
Kumar claimed that the police had an eyewitness and victim sign papers saying that one of the accused, named Sedhu, was innocent.17 Human Rights Watch spoke to that witness, a forty-five-year-old agricultural laborer, who told us the following:
The police told me to sign papers saying who the real culprit was, so I signed it. I signed a plain piece of paper. Mellur DSP [Deputy Superintendent of Police] Subramanium came here in a jeep and called for me and asked me why I put my signature on a white paper. Someone got Rs. 50,000 [US$1,250] for it, he said, did you get your share? I said I got nothing from him. You must have gotten Rs. 25,000 [US$625] at least, he said. I don't know what happened with the paper.18
A two-member team from the State Human Rights Commission visited the village in early August, five weeks after the killings. Hundreds of women testified to incidents of theft, the burning of Dalit houses, and stone-throwing at night. They also complained of their inability to go to work in the fields, of a lack of police protection, and that most of the men had fled the village out of fear.19 Karupaia, Murugesans older brother, organized a march on August 8, 1997 to protest the lack of action on the part of the police. Participants estimated the number of marchers at 3,000, both men and women. They named the principal culprits as Ramar, Alagarsami, Poniah, Baskarar, Andichami, Markandan, Duraipandian, Chandran, Selvam, Alagu, Vadivelu, Karanthamalai, Ranganathan, Chakarmurti, Chockanathar, Sedhu, Rajendran, and Jothi.
When we approached the taluk [village block] office, the superintendent of police (SP) and other officials were there. From above the building, a red-colored cloth was thrown down. We were in two rows. Acountry bomb fell in the gap and exploded.20 Everyone scattered. There are iron pieces from the bomb inside Karuppans leg. Tirumavalavan, the leader of the Dalit Panthers of India who led the procession, was the intended target.21
Tirumavalavan proceeded to inform the SP that the people who threw the bomb had descended from the building and were getting away. Many pointed them out, but the police refused to arrest them. The marchers then started throwing stones. The SP ordered a lathi-charge on the procession, and many of the protesters were severely injured. The police arrested a total of thirty-six protesters and charged them under the Indian Explosives Act and under Indian Penal Code sections 147, 148, 323 and 436 for rioting, rioting with a deadly weapon, voluntarily causing hurt, and mischief by explosive substance.22 They also arrested a member of DPI and held him responsible for setting off the bomb. Tirumavalavan expressed outrage at the polices failure to arrest the main accused Ramar in the Melavalavu incident, while simultaneously nabbing a DPI member and holding him responsible for the blast.23
On August 9, 1997, the thirty-six people arrested were sent to Madurai jail. They were held for forty-five days. Released on bail, they were required to check in twice a day at the Trichitown police station, over 125 kilometers from the village. At the time of Human Rights Watchs visit, the conditions had been modified to reporting once a day at nearby Mellur police station. According to Karupaia, the arrests were retaliatory:
The police put false cases against us because we organized a procession. They wanted to teach us a lesson. The Section 436 charge [mischief by explosive substance] is still pending. One shop was burned but we did not do it. One hundred Thevars came behind us in the procession and set fire to a shop on the main road.24
Human Rights Watch spoke to a forty-year-old resident of Melavalavu who was arrested during the lathi-charge:
I was in jail for forty-five days. My son was also arrested. After the arrest the police said that we looted the shops and set fire to them, but we never did any of those things. In the jail it is a routine practice to ask what cases you came in for, and then they give you blows with their lathis. It is an admission beat. I was injured in the head and taken to the jail hospital. I was beaten two times with the lathi.25
The leader of DPI and Dr. Krishnaswamy have both charged that the National Security Act as well as the [Tamil Nadu] Goondas Act were being grossly misused against the Dalits by the state government and that several Dalits had been kept in preventive custody for many days.26 In the months following the murders, concerned groups demanding appropriate action by the police organized several protests and marches. On July 10, 1997, members of the Social Action Movement, a grassroots NGO, demonstrated in front of the Madurai collectorates office in order to highlight the plight of the villagers in the aftermath of the murders.27 On July 23, 1997, DPI marched to demand the release of all Dalits arrested under the National Security Act in connection with the murders.28
By the end of September 1997, more than forty people had been charged in the Melavalavu murders case, while eleven had been formally accused but remained at large.29 On November 24, 1997, DPI members marched again to urge the government to arrest those absconding in the murders and to demand a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI)30 inquiry into the case.31
Members of the Thevar Peravai, who organized a protest on October 28, 1997, also demanded a CBI inquiry. The then-vice president, Dr. N. Sethuraman,claimed that innocent people had been arrested.32 When Human Rights Watch spoke to Dr. Sethuraman, now president of Thevar Peravai, about the incident, he claimed it had no basis in caste conflict:
This is not a fight between Dalits and Thevars. Theres a lot of proof. It was a personal quarrel between the milk society president, a forward-caste member, and Murugesan, the Dalit president. But they have sorted it out now, and the new president can now perform his duties without any problem. The chief minister says that is a quarrel between Thevars and Dalits, but it is not. We have asked for a CBI inquiry to bring these things out.33
When Human Rights Watch visited the village in February 1998, the bodies of the six murdered men were still buried in shallow graves in the village center as a tribute befitting martyrs.34 The new Dalit panchayat president was again unable to perform his duties, and Thevarsin a concerted campaign to punish Dalitshad ceased to employ Dalits as laborers on their lands. The Thevars also encouraged others to refrain from awarding farm work to Dalits. Many Dalit students were also afraid to go to school for fear of further reprisal.35
Human Rights Watch spoke to the new panchayat president, Raja, who was six months into his term. He claimed that the threats from Thevars had continued and that the police protection he received was inconsistent and insufficient to ward off another attack. Five Dalit women, elected members of the panchayat, had also been unable to perform their duties.
The office is in the caste Hindu area. I am not allowed in the office. So we have to hold meetings in our TV room here; it is a makeshift office. They are still threatening us. They are watching and following me. Five Dalit women are members of the panchayat. If the elected Dalit women go there, the upper caste would do some harm. If the womeninsist on going into the office, they will hit them. There is one police guard for me. He has a gun, but he puts it inside his bag. He only gives protection when I go to the taluk [village block] office. But any other time he doesn't give protection. He has joined the police of the other camp. Everything is paralyzed.36
Raja also explained the villages dire economic situation:
We got regular employment in their fields. Some Dalits have land, but most are landless laborers. Women received Rs. 12 [US$0.30] for six hours of work from the morning until the afternoon. Men received Rs. 25 [US$0.63] for six hours of work, but they do harder work using bigger instruments. The period after the elections they did not invite us for field work. Now the women work fifteen kilometers away, and most of the men went to Kerala [a neighboring state] and send money back.37
Thirty-four-year-old Gandhi also spoke of the difficulties faced by female agricultural laborers: Prior to the elections I worked in this village. Now I go nearby to work on anyone's land... If you go near the landlords houses and they are in a drunken mood, they misbehave with us, and we want to avoid that.38
The February 1998 national parliamentary elections brought a new wave of violence to the village: Thevars allegedly beat Dalit women in poll booths when the women went to cast their vote.39 As of July 1998, Raja had still not received funds normally allocated to panchayat presidents for village developmentleading human rights activists to believe that the local administration had yet to legitimize his presidency.40 As of February 1999, the forty people arrested for the murders were out on bail, and no one had been prosecuted. Ramar, the person identified by eyewitnesses as the ringleader of the attack, was still at large.
Displacement of Dalit Villagers
In villages where Dalits constitute a minority, caste clashes have led to large-scale displacements of Dalit communities. The displacement often follows an attack by neighboring caste Hindu villagers in which Dalits are assaulted and their houses are burned. In some cases, beyond ignoring repeated calls for protection, police have directly aided in the displacement. Dalit fields are then taken over by the majority caste Hindu communities while displaced villagers languish in makeshift homes on government property for months. Aside from distributing nominal amounts in compensation or promising construction of new houses, the local administration does little to ensure that the Dalits are able to return to their homes and fields, or to prosecute those responsible for the attacks. Two examples of displacement are described below.
The village of Mangapuram, part of Rajapalayam in Virudhunagar district, once housed 3,000 Thevar and 250 Pallar (Dalit) families. On March 7, 1996, upon returning from a conference organized by Dr. Krishnaswamy, several Pallars were assaulted by Thevars in this village. Following the attack, 150 Pallar houses were set on fire; a Pallar resident of the village was thrown into the fire and burned alive. Soon after the incident the Pallars rebuilt their houses and continued to reside in the village. Tensions in the village increased in May 1997 with the renaming of the transport corporation.41 Escalating tensions led the Pallars to request police protection in early May 1997. Several police officers were deployed in the area as a result. On May 12, 1997, in renewed violence, Pallars destroyed several Thevar houses; ten were promptly arrested. Thevars retaliated on May 15 by throwing petrol bombs into the Pallar residential area.42
On June 9, 1997, Pallar villagers asked the district collector to provide them with adequate protection against future Thevar attacks. The collector was unsympathetic. On June 10, the deputy superintendent of police, a Thevar, attempted to force Pallars out of the village. On the same day, hundreds of Thevar villagers attacked the Pallars and set their houses on fire. As most of their houses had burned to the ground, the Pallars took refuge in nearby villages.43
In February 1998 Human Rights Watch visited the area where displaced Pallar families had taken shelter and where they remained eight months after the incident. An area just over three acres in size, literally adjacent to Mangapuram village, housed more than 350 people in 200 poorly constructed huts. An adjoining area housed over 200 people in seventy huts. Families with over four members, many with small children, were made to live in huts approximately thirty-five square feet in size. The small spheres of public space were used for cattle and makeshift latrines. Most families were left without a source of income, and there was little word from the government about returning them to their village. No action was taken against the Thevars responsible for the attacks or against police officials complicit in allowing the displacement to occur. Many villagers still bore scars, which they attributed to lathi attacks by police officers who took part in the displacement.
Before 1997 the village of Rengappanaikkanpatti, situated in Virudhunagar district, was a minority-Pallar, majority-Thevar village. The Thevars comprised nearly 400 families. Among the thirty Pallar families who lived there at the time, many owned agricultural lands and brick houses, a clear indication of their relative prosperity and reportedly a motivation for the attack. On June 13, 1996, when Dr. Krishnaswamy visited the village, Thevars threw stones at his vehicle and five days later disconnected street lights and threw bombs into the Pallar settlement. When the incident was reported to the sub-inspector of the Rajakularaman police station, he refused to register the complaint.44
On May 12, 1997, the Thevars of Rengappanaikkanpatti, together with Thevars from a nearby village, set fire to Pallar houses. The fire also destroyed farm lands, coconut groves, and motor pumps. After the attack, which lasted four hours, Pallars took refuge in the neighboring village of Sholapuram and asked the government to provide them with housing facilities.45 Human Rights Watch spoke to members of a family of eleven who were still residing on government property in Sholapuram village nine months after the attack. Dharmalingam, the seventy-five-year-old head of the family, stated:
Nearly twenty houses were burned down. We were an easy target because we were a minority in the village. Only three houses were spared. Our house is still there; its very strong. They stole the motor pump set and motor oil from the garden... We cannot go back to our house, they will beat us. We have our own field, four acres in all. But we wont go to the house. We had six rooms, a kitchen and a common room. Now look at us.46
At the time of the interviews, the family lived in a community hall that earlier had sheltered thirty Pallar families for the village. Valliamai, Dharmalingams sixty-five-year-old wife, lamented, We had such a big house but see our fate now. One of my grandsons is handicapped. The government had to give him a new wheelchair; even that they damaged.47 Although the government gave the family Rs. 10,000 (US$250) in compensation, the amount covered very little of what they had lost. Dharmalingam registered a complaint with the police, but they did not take any action. The sub-inspector of the police station, a member of the Thevar community and the same officer who refused to register earlier complaints by Pallars against Thevars, instead filed a case against Dharmalingam, charging him with setting fire to the houses himself in order to bring false charges against others. Dharmalingam was held at the police station for four days.
At the time of our visit to the site, the family was building a house using their own funds; only people who lost thatch houses were given new ones. The others were told to return to the village. But how can we go back? Dharmalingam asked. His nineteen-year-old grandson, Dharmaraj, believed that the Thevars were threatened by the prosperity of their Dalit neighbors and were trying to take Pallar lands for themselves:
Thevars had no lands. All thirty Dalit families had lands. In all houses one or two people from Dalit houses went to government postings [jobs]. They were jealous... We live on fertile lands. We had government postings so they were jealous. Most of us did not use reservations. We got it on our own merit.48
Displaced Pallar families have also been unable to cultivate the lands they left behind. As Dharmaraj explained, After the rainy season we put paddy [rice] on the fields; but they are damaging our fields and dont let us go there. We put paddy again, but again they damaged it. They scold us whenever we go. They let loose their own cattle in the field. There is no police protection at all.49 Despite the numerous attacks on Pallars in this area, the police have continually failed to heed calls for protection. If there were police protection, Dharmalingam argued, they would be able to go back to their house and their land. Instead, he said: Whenever the police come to the village, they go to the Thevar area. The Thevars gave them chicken and other good meals. The sub-inspector belongs to the Thevar community, and most others also belong to that community.50
Police Raids in the Southern Districts
In the aftermath of clashes in the southern districts, and under the guise of seeking out firearms and militant activists, police forces numbering in the hundreds conducted raids in Dalit villages. The pattern of the raids consisted of arbitrary arrests and assaults on Dalit men and women and often included looting and destruction of property. In some cases, police removed their badge numbers so villagers would not be able to identify and file cases against them.51 Studies conducted by the Tamil Nadu Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in various southern district villages concluded that attacks on these villages were motivated by a desire to cripple Dalits economically by targeting obvious symbols of their newfound wealth. In an interview with Human Rights Watch, R. Balakrishnan, director of the commission, described the results of one such study:
I have done a study in Kodiyankulum and found that the theme of that attack was economy. Fans, TV sets, and blenders were broken. All signs of wealth earned from the Gulf were destroyed. They said they would break the economy and put them [Pallars] ten years back.52
The pattern of these police attacks was established with the raid on Kodiyankulum village in 1995.
Since 1980 the Dalits of Kodiyankulum village, in Tuticorin district, have benefited from the flow of funds from family members employed in Dubai, Kuwait, and the United States.53 On August 31, 1995, a 600-member police force attacked the all-Dalit village in the presence of the superintendent of police and the district collector54 and destroyed property worth hundreds of thousands of rupees.55 In what appeared to be a premeditated attack, police destroyed consumer durables such as televisions, fans, tape-recorders, sewing machines, bicycles, agricultural implements, tractors and lorries, and also demolished food grain storages. They made a bonfire of clothes and burned the passports and testimonials56 of educated Dalit youth. The village post office was targeted,57 and police allegedly poisoned the only village well.58 A village elder claimed that all through the operation, the policemen were showering abuse on us and made derogatory references to our caste, which only showed their deep-rooted prejudice.59 District collector Paneerselvam, accused of leading the raid, was subsequently transferred to Madras.60
The stated purpose of the raid was to capture Dalits allegedly involved in the murder of three Thevars in a nearby village two days earlier.61 Many suspect that it was the relative affluence of the Dalits that attracted the attention of the uniformed men. The idea, it appears, was to destroy their economic base, because the police feel the Kodiyankulum Dalits provide moral and material support to the miscreants in surrounding areas.62
Similar raids have taken place during the southern district clashes. Punduthai, a forty-five-year-old Pallar widow of Thevar-dominated Vanaltaiparam village, was stripped of all her valuables. At the time of the caste riots, They entered the house and took all house things, dresses and everything. We kept quiet. We didnt say anything. If we said something we would get beaten or they would set fire to the house. Since the riots, Punduthai and her two children have relocated to a Pallar-dominant village.63 Two other clash-related raids are described below.
On February 26, 1998, in the village of Gundupatti, Dindigul district, some one hundred policemen and thirty policewomen, along with four truckloads of unidentified men thought to be affiliated with the ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) party, attacked Dalits and bonded laborers residing in two villages in Kookal Panchayat, a remote area of the Kodaikanal hills. Attackers reportedly looted and destroyed property and assaulted residents, including women, children and elderly persons. Kerosene was poured into stored food grains and grocery items. The attackers, including police personnel, reportedly urinated in cooking vessels. According to a local human rights organization, women were kicked and beaten, their clothing was torn, and police forced sticks and iron pipes into their mouths. The police attack, whose victims were predominantly women, was apparently in retaliation for a decision made by residents of the Kookal Panchayat to boycott the national parliamentary elections.64
After conducting its own investigation into the incident, the National Commission for Women, a government agency, issued an enquiry report on theGundupatti case. The report concluded that the police took sides with a political faction, that the criminal force used against women was unwarranted, and that the actions of the police ha[d] not advanced beyond the colonial concept of power and the subjects.65
The police had a field day breaking open houses, pulling out people, beating them up and even violating their modesty, using criminal force on women and girls, pulling out their mangla sutras [marriage necklaces], abusing them with filthy language. They allegedly dragged women and arrested sixteen of them along with nine men. One womans baby was thrown while they were starting off with their truck. The whole village made many entreaties to the police and then alone the child was allowed to be taken by the mother. In this state of terror and panic, one of the young pregnant women had a miscarriage on the road itself.66
The twenty-five men and women were then beaten in the police station and sent to jail after being taken before a magistrate. They remained in prison for nearly a month. The Peoples Watch activist who initially brought this case to the attention of the National Commission for Women was later charged with dacoity.67 In early September 1998 the One Man Commission of Enquiry appointed by the government of Tamil Nadu submitted its report on police excess to the states chief minister. The report suggested compensation to the victims.
The same pattern of destruction was apparent during a raid on Desikapuram village in Virudhunagar district in June 1997. The arrest of Dalit leader Dr. Krishnaswamy on May 2, 1997 led to a staged roadblock by the village population, composed entirely of Pallars. On May 22 protesters were confronted by some 1,000 police officers, many of whom then proceeded to enter the village and search the houses. According to a Peoples Watch report, The police had entered the village in the name of search, damaged the houses and looted the jewels, money,watches and whatever they could pick up.68 The next morning, some officers entered the village and demanded a total of Rs. 15,000 (US$375) from residents. On June 22, Thevar Peravai leader Dr. Sethuraman led a procession of eighteen cars, nineteen vans and several trucks through the affected areas. Two jeeps followed by a busload of police were also part of the procession. When the procession passed through Desikapuram, both sides started throwing stones at one another. The fighting escalated as Thevars began throwing sickles and setting fire to haystacks while Pallars damaged the Thevar vans with stones.69
Around 3:00 p.m. the police raided the village. Many villagers, including a total of nineteen women, were arrested during the raid: fifteen women were held for fifteen days and four for twenty-nine. Many of the men and women suffered fractured arms and legs as a result of the attack. In February 1998 Human Rights Watch spoke to villagers about their confrontations with the police. Muniamal, a forty-year-old agricultural laborer and mother of four, spoke to Human Rights Watch about the manner in which the police entered the village and the villagers homes:
They made a circle and surrounded the entire village. There were nearly a thousand or more. They entered the village. We locked our doors. They broke down the doors of my neighbors house, where I was at the time. Nearly ten police entered my house. They broke the trunk that contained all our valuables. They took all the dresses and threw them out. My daughters gold earrings, anklets of silver, my husbands watch, a chain and a ring, and a total of four pounds of gold. I went to my house and saw all the damage. The tube lights were damaged as was the fan.70
The police then arrested Muniamal in her house and demanded that she leave her four-year-old son behind. She refused, so they took her son as well. They used vulgar words, caste names like podivadi and pallachi [caste name for prostitute]_ Using a lathi they hit me on my thigh, shoulder, and on my back. I had big bruises.71 Muniamal spent the night at the Rajapalayam North police station. She was given only ointment for her wounds, and not permitted to see adoctor. The next morning both men and women were taken by bus to the Rajapalayam government hospital. Although the men were treated for fractures, the women did not receive any treatment. The women were then taken to the Siviputur magistrate court, and the men were taken to Madurai central jail. They were charged collectively under the Tamil Nadu Public Properties (Prevention of) Destruction Act, 1992, and under Indian Penal Code sections 147 (rioting), 148 (rioting with a deadly weapon), 324 (causing hurt with dangerous weapons), and 307 (attempted murder). The public property charge was allegedly for setting fire to a Thevar van earlier in the day. Several eyewitnesses reported, however, that the police themselves had set the van on fire:
They blamed us for the van. We all saw that the police did it. I spent fifteen days in jail with my son. The one night we spent at the police station they gave no food, only water. They used vulgar words and beat me again with a lathi. They also beat us in the bus from the hospital to the magistrate, and then from the magistrate to the jail. The men went to Madurai central jail and the women to Nillakoti jail, which is far away. In the bus they threatened us, saying, Do not tell anyone the police beat you. If you tell anyone, the Nillakoti jail will not accept you and you will have to go to Trichi jail, which is very far away. So I was afraid and said nothing.72
Thirty-year-old Irulayee was also sent to jail with one of her three children:73
When they arrested me they grabbed me by my hair and dragged me out of the house. I have scars on my forearms and knees from the lathi beatings. Three police beat me and used vulgar caste language. I was beaten in my home, at the police station, and on the bus. I spent fifteen days in jail with my two-year-old daughter.74
In the same village, a twenty-five-year-old agricultural laborer described how the police took her daughters earrings, three rings, and Rs. 300 [US$7.50] after breaking down her door.75 She, too, was arrested:
I had to leave my children, a four-year-old girl who is still breast-feeding, and my eight-year-old boy. To get us on and off the bus to the police station, they shoved their lathis into our stomachs and backs. I was in jail for thirty-one days, sixteen days extra because of a technical mistake.76
An eighteen-year-old student named Muniamal, one of the few literate residents of the village, was punished for questioning the police as they were arresting women:
It was Sunday, so I was home from school. On the street a twenty-year-old girl named Ladha was arrested. I saw it happen and asked my neighbor why they were arresting women. The police shouted, Karuvachi, which means black girl. I said, Dont call me that. He started using more vulgar words. He said, What a bold pallachi [prostitute]! I pleaded with him not to arrest me. I said, I have to go to school tomorrow sir. They used the same vulgar words. Why are you pallachis studying? He then tied my hair to another girls hair, Guruammal, shes fifteen. Then they started beating us on our backs with their lathis. I begged them to leave and not arrest us. My headmaster, Karnakaraj of the government higher secondary school, asked the police to release me. Still I was taken to the police station. Again I was beaten. They pulled off half my sari.77
Munusu, a twenty-five-year-old agricultural laborer who owned small amounts of land in the area, explained that he was looted twice, once by the Thevars earlier in the day and again by the police in the afternoon:
All people behind the [Thevar] procession came into the village. They damaged the houses, set fire, and looted the properties. The police were also there. Then at 11:00 a.m. they left. Then around 3:00 p.m. the police alone came... They surrounded the village and entered into the houses. They damaged the radios, fans, televisions, and took gold chains and other valuables.78
Munusu was also beaten and arrested by the police. He spoke to Human Rights Watch about his ill-treatment in custody:
I ran into my house and locked the doors and entrance. Nearly ten people were in my house. They pulled us all out and beat us with lathis. I sustained a fracture in my right leg. They put us in a police van and took us to Rajapalayam North police station. We stayed overnight. We got no food between 6:00 p.m. and 8:00 a.m. We were also beaten at the police station. Because my injury was serious, they did not beat us overnight, but then started again in the morning. Then they took five of us to the hospital. We did not get proper treatment. Then we were taken to court at 11:00 a.m. I couldnt walk, so I stayed in the vehicle. The magistrate had to come out to the van; everyone was covered with blood. I said, We didnt do anything, and still the police beat us.79
Upon recording their statement, the magistrate remanded them to Madurai central jail at 3:00 p.m. They were not able to eat the food brought by their relatives until the morning after. Munusu described what he termed an admission beat upon entering jail:
I waited in front of the jail gate from 3:00 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. The Madurai jail police were told that we indulged in violence and that we were from the Pallar community, so they beat us too. It was an admission beat. The police took two at a time into the latrine and beat us again with their lathis. They put everyone in jail except us five. Wewere taken to the hospital. We became unconscious from the beating. I had blood clots in my right leg.80
Munusu remained in the accident ward for six days and then in the hospitals jail ward for nine. After spending three further days in the central jail, he was released on bail with the help of a human rights organization. He required care in the Virudhunagar government hospital for the next two months. The district collector awarded him Rs. 15,000 (US$375) as relief, but no action was taken against the police.81
Fifty-year-old Kaddar Karai also recounted his experience in custody, which left him permanently disabled:
They took us in a van to the police station. While I was getting down from the van they beat me on my right leg and arm with the back of their guns. There is now a metal plate with eight bolts in my leg. They also fractured bones on the right side of my forearm. I fell down immediately, and they carried me to the police station. My leg was completely broken.82
Human Rights Watch viewed an x-ray of Kaddar Karais shattered leg and the bolts that were keeping it in place. Despite the severity of his injures, he was kept at the police station overnight.
I received no medicine and no water. I kept bleeding. In the morning I went to Rajapalayam hospital. They gave me a simple bandage but no treatment. The police took me to court. I stayed in the van. We were then sent to central jail. That night I was taken to the government hospital along with four others.83
Kaddar Karai remained in the hospital for seventy days. He is no longer able to walk or move from his cot without assistance. He received Rs. 15,000 (US$375) from the collector, but no action was taken against the police.84
In an interview with Human Rights Watch, Dr. N. Sethuraman, leader of the Thevar procession that instigated the attack, claimed that Desikapuram is a center for militant activity.
These Dalit islands are used for anti-social activities like manufacturing bombs and militant training for unemployed youngsters. They hide culprits so the police cannot enter. If police want to enter they have to do it in the thousands. The police are not practicing tactical methods. They are brutal but not clever.85
The polices behavior during the raids was not indicative of a systematic search for armed activists. Rather, the attacks and assaults were characterized by large-scale destruction of property, leading many NGOs and government officials to believe that attacks by the Thevar-dominated police were motivated by personal caste affiliations.86 As of December 1998 no action had been taken to prosecute the police responsible for these attacks.
Violence Against Dalit Women During the Southern District Clashes
Sexual oppression is intimately connected to land oppression. By keeping lower-caste women sexually subjugated, the upper castes control the men.
Father Manuel Alphonse, All India Catholic University Federation (AICUF)87
As Dalit men migrate to cities in search of jobs, women are left to work as agricultural laborers in rural areas. Women bear the brunt of attacks because they are stuck in these feudal arrangements.88 As a result of escalating caste clashes, attacks on Dalit women, by state and private actors, have also escalated.
Violence by private actors
On January 25, 1998, the Dalit colony of Veludavur village in Villapuram district was attacked by members of seven caste Hindu villages. The attack was allegedly perpetrated by the Vanniya caste and instigated by the Naidars (both backward castes). Tensions began with a government auction of common properties in the village, such as ponds and tamarind trees; the Dalits were demanding their right to participate. The same evening, Vanniyas entered and destroyed 400 Dalit huts. Many of the young Dalit men were in Andhra Pradesh at the time, cultivating sugarcane. Only women, children and the elderly were left in the village, and the women were particularly targeted. A social worker in the village claimed that there were sexual attempts on many women, but they dont
want to talk about it. Many are unmarried or their husbands are away. They fear the consequences if these things are revealed.89 Over 700 families were displaced as a result of the attack. They took shelter in neighboring villages.90
Burnad Fatima of the Tamil Nadu Womens Forum (TNWF) explained the number of cases TNWF had come across in which women were targets of caste clashes:
Any time any caste riots take place, there is immediate action against women and immediate raping. During last years riots, a forty-year-old woman was gang raped. A seventy-year-old was dragged out of her house and stripped. In Anchipet a handicapped girl was thrown from her wheelchair which was then damaged. Innocent women are butchered, raped, and killed even though they are not directly responsible for any of the riots.91
TNWF and Peoples Watch members went on to describe another attack during the southern district clashes, and the lack of press attention to such cases:
In Nammakal [district] a girl was gang raped, murdered, and then butchered. She belonged to the scavengers community.92 The men belonged to the weaving community. They cut off her hand and leg and shaved her head. They then cut her head and put a stick into her private parts and then hung her head with the stick. Why are they driven to this extent? Because for them Dalits are nothing. They give more respect to their animals... The papers are censored, they dont name the community, and they dont report the figures.93
A representative of the Rural Center for Womens Development in Tirunelveli district spoke to Human Rights Watch of instances of rape by landlords, other upper castes, and the police, who always support the landlords... [W]omen never say anything because they are afraid and need employment. Also society would blame them. Even their husband would separate from them. I see it daily.94
Punduthai, a forty-five-year-old widow and mother of two, told Human Rights Watch that she had to leave her village to protect herself and her daughter from sexual abuse by Thevar men during the clashes.
In the village, the Thevars entered the house and had sexual intercourse with the Dalit women. They used force and committed rape. My husband died, so if I had stayed then the same things would happen to me. My daughter is also a mature girl. She is twenty years old. I was also worried about my daughter. I cant arrange her marriage. I left all the lands. This is the regular lot of the dominated persons. If there are any riots then all of them jointly rape; they gang rape. I hid in the hills at the time of the riots. We were afraid of these things, so we left.95
In November 1997 a twenty-two-year-old Dalit woman spoke up against the debt bondage of her husband and his family (Thevars are the dominant moneylenders and Dalits their primary borrowers).96 As a result she was brutally beaten and sexually abused by a Vanniya landlord:
Her husband and father-in-law did not go to work for two days. The landlord came and asked why. He threatened and insulted her, and she said, We are not living here under your mercy. The landlord went wild. He started beating her, he tore her blouse to pieces, touched her breast, hit her in the vagina and rolled her on the ground. There was no one to stop him.97
Due to disinterest, ignorance of proper procedure, or their own caste biases, the police failed to register or properly investigate many cases of attacks against women during the clashes. Only with pressure from organized womens and human rights groups has the issue been placed before national commissions. The recommendations of these commissions, however, are not binding under statutory law.
Police torture of women/custodial violence
In addition to attacks by members of the upper castes, women are attacked by the police, security forces, and private militias or armies hired by Thevars.98 Human Rights Watch spoke to many government officials, activists, and villagers in the Tamil Nadu region about police torture and custodial violence against women. C. V. Shankar, director for the Adi Dravida Tribal Welfare Department, of the state government of Tamil Nadu, explained:
We found that women are put in front in both communities and act as a buffer. This has resulted in police action against women. They are taken far away from their homes. Unless they were directly involved in violence, they should not be arrested. In some cases we felt that the arrests could have been avoided.99
H. Hanumanthappa, then-chairman of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, added:
Once the police start raiding, the menfolk run away. Then they [police] make women the victims. The procedure they adopt is to take the child or wife so that the men come back. They feel that they are the masters of the situation. It has resulted in mass rapes.100
The police practice of taking family members as hostages in order to force their relatives to turn themselves in is a common occurrence in Tamil Nadu and other parts of the country.101 Specific incidents of hostage-taking and custodial violence against women are described below.
Guruswamy Guruammal, a twenty-six-year-old agricultural laborer, suffered a miscarriage as a result of brutal beatings during a police raid on December 2, 1997. She is a resident of Chilaumbotti village of the southern district of Theni andearns Rs. 20 a day (US$0.50). The raid had preceded a planned visited by Dr. Krishanaswamy; posters had been distributed to announce his arrival. On December 2, one such poster was burned by Thevars in the district which led to a Pallar protest and road block. Police raided the village in response to the protests and assaulted many Dalits with their lathis.
At 9:00 a.m. the police lathi-charged the villagers. Superintendent of Police Rajesh Das called me a pallachi, which is a caste name for prostitute. He then opened his pant zip. Sub-Inspector Arivanandam, who is from same community as me, was also there. Rajesh Das said, Please stand, do not go, and other police scolded me. At 11:00 a.m. the sub-collector came. I told the collector that the superintendent of police had opened his zip and used a vulgar word. I also told him that they had broken my silver pot. The sub-collector said, You go, I will deal with him. Das was angry that I had pointed him out.102
The police, numbering in the hundreds, returned early the next morning and again lathi-charged the village.
They broke all the doors and arrested all the men in the village. Arivanandam and Rajesh Das said, Where is Guruammals house? My husband hid under the cot. My mother was with me at the time. I was in my night clothes. The police started calling me a prostitute. I replied, Your wife is a prostitute. They beat me. I was four months pregnant at the time. He pulled me naked on the road for one hundred feet. I got injuries on my legs. There were two elderly witnesses, a woman and my grandfather. The police also beat the woman when she asked them to stop dragging me. She is sixty years old; her hand was fractured. There were two men police and two lady police. They brought me to the police van and took me to the office of the Theni superintendent of police. Fifty-three men had been arrested. One of them took off his lungi [wrap-around cloth] and gave it to me to cover myself. He was only wearing shorts after that.103
Guruammal begged the police at the station to help her. She explained that she was pregnant and in need of medical attention. In response, they called her names and mocked her for making such bold statements the day before. Eventually, Guruammal was transferred to the Trichi jail hospital, where she remained for twenty-five days. After ten days, she had a miscarriage. At the time of the interview, and as a result of being dragged and beaten by the police fists and guns, Guruammal was still visibly scarred on her neck, arms, legs, and abdomen.
She claimed that the police told her to testify that the raid on her village was in search of the illicit brewing of arrack (illicit liquor):
They said if you accept the fact that the raid was for arrack, then you will be released. They said, If you dont say arrack, we will file charges against you. So these are the cases that were filed against me and the fifty-three men.104
Although Guruammal was attacked as punishment for speaking up against the police, many other women are punished for alleged crimes committed by their male relatives. Activists from Peoples Watch and the Tamil Nadu Womens Forum explained the tactics employed by the police:
The police enter houses and attack the women even though they should never search when the women are alone. The police are arresting women if either the husband or son is absconding. They take them into custody and rape them. Three years ago, in a slum nearby, a forty-three-year-old woman lost her husband. Her son was involved in a murder case. She was arrested along with her daughter and daughter-in-law. They were taken to the police station where the police raped the mother in front of the other women. They then brought her home and burned her in her hut.105
The activists also described a new tactic employed by the police of removing womens clothes and beating them from their knees to their shoulders, because they know that women will not show others these parts.106
At a Madras conference on womens rights, held on April 28 and 29, 1995, dozens of Dalit and tribal women publicly came forward to testify about their experiences of custodial rape at the hands of Tamil Nadu police. The conference was sponsored by the Tamil Nadu Womens Forum and Asia Pacific Forum for Women, Law and Development. In many of the statements, women claimed that the police were searching for their male relatives when they first came upon them. Pursuant to Section 160 of the Criminal Procedure Code, police conducting investigations are prohibited from questioning female witnesses at any place other than their residence. Women are often unaware of these laws, and their ignorance is exploited by the police. As she stated at the womens rights conference, Rangammal of Orathanadu village came into contact with the police when her husband was repeatedly arrested for selling arrack. One night, the police came to her house and forcibly took her to the police station.
They said I should not be going home at that time and dragged me into the room, and three of them raped me repeatedly. I lost consciousness. In the morning they allowed me to go with a warning that I should not reveal anything. Due to fear I remained silent.107
Vijaya from Coimbatore was approached by the police late in the night:
When I demanded to know where I was being taken, the police answered that I was providing food for [my brother] Vellaiyan... Since Vellaiyan was related to us the police caught hold [of] us like that... Later, one after another, five of them raped me repeatedly. I was unable to bear the pain since I was also a small girl... [T]he policemen said that I was pretending pain and I would even bear with another ten persons.108
The police had also taken Vijayas parents into custody. The police said if I promised not to reveal anything to anyone, they would release my parents, and I agreed to it.109 Together with her aunt and mother, Vijaya arrived at the Anathapuram police station the next day.
The Sub-Inspector on duty was Krishnamoorthy. He said at least the Pondicherry police had raped and left [me] alive, if he telephoned the Dharmapuri police [they] would rape me and throw me [in] the canal... When we pleaded that we were uneducated and without any jobs, mostly engaged in manual works and needed justice, the Sub-Inspector threatened that he would have us beaten up if we further spoke. We had no other alternative but to return to the village.110
With the help of civil liberties groups, Vijaya approached the police again. After some days, she added, women police took me to a doctor. They explained to the doctor that I was of low character, a prostitute, that I was spreading rumours to prevent the arrest of my brothers, etc. They then advised the doctor not to take my case serious[ly].111 Vijayas family was soon approached by the police and offered Rs. 150,000 (US$3,750) to drop the case. She did not accept the money. The police charged Vijayas father with theft and took him into custody for ten days. He claimed that he was tortured, while the police claimed that Vijaya was threatening the police with a false case of rape so that her father would be released. Because none of the villagers were willing to step forward as witnesses, Vijaya was unable to pursue her case.112
In the village of Muthaandikuppam, South Arcot district, a husband filed a complaint against his wife, Vasantha, after a misunderstanding between the couple. On the night of March 21, 1994, Vasantha was forced to spend the night in the police station under the pretext that there were no women police available to escort her home. She was gang raped by four constables and a sub-inspector of the same police station and [then] murdered. They attempted to dispose [of] the body but could not succeed. They spread a rumour that Vasantha committed suicide by hanging from the fan at the police rest room in the police station.113 Community members, civil liberties groups, and political parties demanded appropriate, severesanctions against the perpetrators. The Tamil Nadu government responded by temporarily suspending the constables involved.114
On February 21, 1995, twenty-year-old Poonkothai witnessed the rape and murder of her forty-eight-year-old mother by police who were searching for her brother. The incident took place around 7:00 a.m. when police arrived at Poonkothais house looking for her brother Murthy: They blamed my mother [for] hiding the whereabouts of my brother, who is suspected in a murder of a person found dead_ near his house. Despite her mothers repeated denials, the police took both of them, along with Poonkothais one-and-a-half-year-old daughter, to the Vannarapettai police station.
We were beaten up severely and were tortured with abusive words and brutal attacks... One of the senior personnel ordered the others to use the Punjab method to elicit facts from my mother. They stripped my mother in front of me and took her inside_ I repeatedly heard my mother groaning and pleading them not to torture her_ With tears she was telling me that four men gang raped her and tortured her by inserting the lathi in the vagina and beat[ing] her in her private parts.115
The police later brought her mother home, stuffed a piece of cloth in her mouth, poured petrol over her, and set her on fire. They left the scene soon thereafter. A neighbor intervened and took the mother to the hospital, where she later died. When Poonkothais husband approached the police station to file a case, the police registered the death as a suicide. After many NGO protests, the police filed a First Information Report (FIR). Poonkothais two neighbors, whose sons were also police suspects, and her two sisters-in-law were also taken into custody for several days and similarly tortured. One sister-in-law had just delivered a child.116
A report produced by the womens conference stated: The drama usually played by police is just this. They come in search of the offenders and finding them absconding, whisk away the womenfolk to the police station and outrage theirmodesty.117 The conference also concluded that atrocities committed on women by the police were increasing.118
From October to December 1998, violent confrontations in the districts of Ramanathapuram, Pudukkottai, Perambalur, and Cuddalore signaled that caste clashes had not only continued but had spread to once-peaceful districts. In Ramanathapuram district, Thevars responded to a state-wide Dalit conference by organizing a rally on October 4, 1998. That afternoon, streams of lorries carrying Thevar youths were seen heading toward Ramanathapuram. On the way, several vehicles stopped at roadside villages and Thevars entered Dalit and Muslim hamlets throwing petrol bombs and ransacking houses. Two women were killed. Thevar youths claimed that they were provoked, allegedly by Dalits placing barriers on the road. As news of the attacks spread, Dalits retaliated. Despite all the violence, Koottamaipputhe Thevar coalition sponsoring the rallywas allowed to hold it. Among its demands: the repeal of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.119
Dalits and journalists throughout the affected areas have blamed the police and district administration for their failure to effectively respond to increasing tensions in the district arising from publicity for the conference. According to Frontline, a bi-monthly news magazine, The police presence was minimal and vehicles were not being checked for weapons. This was in contrast to the intensive searches carried out by the police when Puthiya Tamalingam [a Dalit organization] held its rally on September 11.120
The situation remained volatile in the district for days afterwards. Police were given shoot-on-sight orders for arsonists, while a large contingent of the striking police force was rushed in.121 Both sides also alleged harassment and torture by the police conducting raids under the pretext of searching for criminals and weapons.122 According to Peoples Watch, the death toll on both sides reached fifteen.
On October 7, 1998, three days after the incident, state Governor Fathima Beevi called for an overhauling of the police system to prevent police excess. The director general of the Bureau of Police Research and Development urged implementation of the National Police Commission recommendations, while the chairperson of the State Human Rights Commission recommended that police personnel should be made to undergo human rights awareness training every six months.123 None of these recommendations had been implemented as of February 1999.
Just over a month after the violence in Ramanathapuram, caste tensions erupted in Thirunallur village in nearby Pudukkottai district. On November 19, 1998, three Dalit youths were stripped, tied to a tree, and beaten through the night. According to a press report, their heads were tonsured, and they were also made to roll around the village temple in the presence of a large gathering which included their kith and kin. The next morning they were asked to leave the village.124 The attack was part of a judgment handed down by twelve members of the all-caste Hindu local village council: the young men were being punished for marrying non-Dalit Hindu girls. Tensions remained high in the village for weeks following the beatings. Not until a month later were the culprits charged and the victims givenpart of their compensation, under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.125
On December 1, 1998, in a massive operation reminiscent of the 1995 police raid on Kodiyankulum village, 300 armed policemen entered the Dalit colony at Ogalur village in Perambalur district. Under the pretext of rounding up anti-social elements, police reportedly entered over 1,000 homes and, using lathis and iron rods, attacked the residents. After causing extensive damage to their homes and property, police arrested sixty-nine Dalits. Among them were thirty-four women, some with babies in their arms and a few who were pregnant. The reported background to the attack was a dispute between the Dalits and the caste Hindus over a piece of temple land and the attempted sexual assault of a Dalit woman by a caste Hindu man in the village; the man accompanied the police during their attack. As of January 1999, the Dalit laborers were still unable to work in the caste Hindu fields and their children were unable to go to school.126
Another incident, reported by the news magazine Frontline, took place on December 16, 1998. In Puliyur village, Cuddalore district, a mob of caste Hindus (Vanniyas) numbering about 300 raided a Dalit settlement and attacked its residents with sticks and iron rods. Approximately 500 houses were ransacked and thirteen Dalits seriously injured. The day before the attack, a Dalit funeral procession was stopped as it passed a Vanniya house. In the melee that followed, the caste-Hindu resident was reportedly assaulted by a Dalit, who, it is said, had been slapped a day earlier for smoking in the presence of the caste-Hindu resident. In this case, smoking was a luxury to which the Dalits were not entitled in the presence of a caste Hindu.127
Tamil Nadu Government-Appointed Commissions
State governments in India share a common history of appointing judicial commissions of inquiry to quell public outcries against police excesses during large-scale communal and caste clashes. Although these commissions do serve a political function, their findings, if and when released to the public, are frequently in favor of the state.128 The Tamil Nadu experience is no exception to this rule.
As of December 1998 the state was one of five to have established a state human rights commission (SHRC). The commissions investigations into human rights abuses by the police and caste Hindus are, however, blocked if the state first appoints its own judicial commission of inquiry. Like the National Human Rights Commission, state human rights commissions are denied jurisdiction over an investigation if the matter is pending before any commission duly constituted under any law for the time-being [sic] in force.129 The state government of Tamil Nadu has exploited this provision by appointing its own commissions of inquiry before state human rights commission investigations get underway. States have little control over the investigations of statutory (human rights) commissions. Conversely, government-appointed commissions almost invariably find in favor of the state and the police. Those findings that go against the state are rarely implemented or made public.
A Tamil Nadu government official explained that judicial commissions findings do not become public unless the government tables it with the legislature; findings that are against the state are often not tabled... By appointing its own commissions, the state government does not permit the State Human Rights Commission to do the investigation. It literally ties its hands.130 The appointment of judicial commissions has become almost routine following caste clashes. The Justice Mohan Commission, for example, was appointed by the state government in July 1997 to look into recurring caste clashes and suggest measures to prevent them, but only after the state government knew that the State Human Rights Commission was on the job.131 The Justice Mohan Commission submitted its report in September 1998. In October 1998, Chief Minister Karunanidhi announced that not all the recommendations could be accepted.132
In another large-scale clash in Coimbatore in November 1997, Muslims shops and houses were burned down by Hindus, reportedly with support from the police. Before the SHRC could take up the investigation, the state appointed the JusticeGokulakrishnan Commission, and [a]gain their hands were tied. During the southern district clashes of April to December 1997, police opened fire in two villages and attacked Dalit women in a third. Three commissions headed by three district judges were immediately appointed.133 The director of Peoples Watch contends that it has been the history of Dalit people that every commission of inquiry has gone against their interests. Another activist added that the retired judges who are appointed always toe the line of the government.134
Given proper resources, state human rights commissions stand to play an important role in the protection of human rights. Because their investigations enjoy greater independence from the state than judicial commission investigations, the statutes under which they are formed need to be amended to ensure that judicial commissions cannot be appointed as a means of undermining their powers. Moreover, the mandates of human rights commissions themselves need to be strengthened to ensure that their recommendations are binding and their findings are made public.