Sunday, October 9, 2011

Vachathi: Triumph of a courageous struggle


Nearly two decades after a tribal hamlet in Tamil Nadu, Vachathi, was attacked by police and State forest officials, under the guise of a crackdown on alleged sandalwood smuggling, last week a lower court convicted 215 government officials, including 17 held for rape. Subsequent cover-ups, in collusion with the State government, were exposed after the investigation was handed over to the CBI after a writ petition filed by the then CPI (M) State secretary, A. Nallasivan in the Madras High Court. R. VAIGAI documents the scale of atrocities and the role of the Left, both the CPI(M) and mass organisations like the AIDWA, in supporting the struggle of the people of Vachathi. This article first appeared in People's Democracy.

(Image Courtesy: The Hindu. Women from Vachathi protest in front of the Dharmapuri collectorate)

The recent judicial decision convicting 269 Government officials in Tamil Nadu on charges of violence against the tribals of Vachathi village has stunned the world. That the might of the uniformed men despite tacit support of the State can be met by the quiet resolve and united struggle of the tribals has sent a strong message that none howsoever high can take law into their hands and get away with impunity. The judgment also gains importance , coming as it does in the wake of increasing State supported violence against tribals in our country.

For nineteen long years, nearly 300 villagers in Vachathi, a tribal hamlet in Tamil Nadu have been reporting every month at the police station, Harur, Dharmapuri District facing false charges of criminal assault and attempt to murder and offences under the Indian Arms Act. The police alleged that they were abetting sandalwood smuggling and had assaulted police and forest officials when they carried out an operation to recover sandalwood. The villagers have had to face these false charges foisted against them by the police, while they have been victims of a brutal assault, rape and loot by the State officials.

On 29th September 2011, the District & Sessions Court, Dharmapuri, gave an emphatic verdict finding 269 accused (155 forest department officials, 109 police officials and 5 of the Revenue Department) guilty of having committed grave offences of rioting, criminal assault, rape and illegal confinement against the villagers. They have also been convicted of offences under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 and also for destruction of evidence. Four Conservators of Forests, an Additional Chief Conservator of Forests, a Tahsildar and a Deputy Superintendent of Police were among them. The nineteen year long struggle of the villagers of Vachathi ultimately stands vindicated though Justice has been delayed. The verdict is a milestone by all means. For the first time in the history of criminal jurisprudence in the world, all the accused who were public officials involved in mass violence sought to be protected by successive Governments in power, have been held guilty without exception. Not one of them was acquitted.

Vachathi is a tranquil village at the foot of Chitheri Hills in the western ghats in Tamil Nadu. Of a total population of 655, the Malayali schedule tribes are 643 in number. Only 190 persons are farmers holding land; the remaining work as agricultural labour in neighbouring villages. Apart from agriculture, which is the main activity in the village, the tribals live by collecting minor forest produce from the nearby reserve forests. Chitheri Hills are rich in sandalwood, which are illegally exploited. It is common knowledge that sandalwood smuggling goes on with political patronage and the complicity of the law enforcement machinery too.

On 20th June 1992, 269 forest, police and revenue officials of the Tamil Nadu Government descended on the Vachathi village alleging that sandalwood had been concealed near the village. According to the officials, 62.7 tons of sandalwood was recovered from the nearby river bed after several days. It is obvious that the villagers who have no machinery to fell and carry wood, could not have felled the sandalwood trees up in the hills and carted them down in such large quantities. However, what followed for 3 days from 20th June 1992 was barbaric and gross abuse of power by the State officials. They looted the village, damaged the houses, utensils, confiscated and butchered the cattle, assaulted and sexually abused the villagers. Sensing the raid, most of the men ran away into the forest. Women, who remained were sexually assaulted and 18 of them were raped. By the evening more than 90 women, 15 men including the “Oor Gounder”, the village Chief and 28 children were rounded up and taken to the Forest Ranger’s office and detained. Later 76 women and 15 men were remanded to the Central Jail in Salem. One of them, Indrani delivered a child while in the Jail. All of them were released after two months. Unable to bear the trauma, both mother and child died later.

The social bias of the raiding party was obvious from the abuses hurled at the villagers. Not stopping with the mere abuses, they indulged in perversions such as asking the “Oor Gounder” to strip the women, who were detained and then asking the naked women to beat him with brooms. Power supply and bus service to the village was cut off, the only provision shop was destroyed. The drinking water wells were made unusable by throwing diesel pump sets into them. All personal possessions including bicycles, water pumps ration cards and land documents were vandalized. The village was completely deserted and the entire population took refuge in the nearby forest.

The atrocity would never have been brought to light, but for the report of Comrade P. Shanmugam, Secretary and other Members of the Tamil Nadu Tribals Association, who happened to visit a nearby area for a meeting three weeks later on 14.7.1992. Based on his report, late Comrade A. Nallasivam, the then Secretary of the Tamil Nadu State Committee, Communist Party of India (Marxist) wrote to the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu on 18.7.1992 demanding a judicial inquiry and seeking immediate relief for the victims. Thereafter, it has been a long struggle for justice. The Government turned a blind eye to the incident by completely denying the occurrence. The District Collector, the Police administration and the State Government continued to shield the culprits and took no action. The representatives of the All India Democratic Women’s Association also submitted a fact finding report. Ms. B. Bamathi, Director for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, Government of India learnt of the incident and submitted an enquiry report after visiting the village for 3 days from 6th August, 1992. The report confirmed the excesses committed by the officials and stated that the District Collector, Superintendent of Police and the Revenue Divisional Officer had not even visited the village, despite having received representations. The report noted that many women and men were still in jail and called for a thorough probe. The report prima facie confirmed that the tribals had been victimized and that they cannot by any means be called sandalwood brokers, considering their poor economic status.

A public interest writ petition filed in the Madras High Court by the Tribals Association was not taken up initially. Com. A. Nallasivam then filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court seeking a probe and compensation for the victims, which then referred it to the Madras High Court in September 1992. The High Court asked the Government to provide immediate relief to restore drinking water facilities, power supply, ration cards and to repair the houses, which was done. Fifteen new houses under a Government Group Housing Scheme was also provided later.

Even after the High Court took note of the violations and ordered interim relief, the police did not take cognizance of the crime. In 1995, the High Court rejected the stand of the Superintendent of Police that the Police could not register a case against its officers and the villagers had to move an Executive Magistrate. Shocked by the prima facie evidence of excesses,the Court held that the Police was duty-bound to register the complaint under Sec. 154 Criminal Penal Code. In view of the obvious bias of the State Police and the insensitivity of the State, the Court directed the CBI to investigate and file a report. The State Government’s appeals to the Division Bench and the Supreme Court failed. The villagers faced more hostilities. They were threatened repeatedly by the accused officials to hamper the investigation. In view of the large number of accused, an identification parade of 1,500 men was arranged inside the Salem Central Jail. The victims had to travel upto Salem and the local administration stalled the process repeatedly. The Investigating Officer of the CBI was taken by surprise on the cancellation of the scheduled identification parade without notice to him. The High Court was moved by Com. Nallasivam again seeking protection to the victims and conduct of the identification process under the supervision of the District Judge. Upon Court’s intervention, the identification of accused took place over several days under the direct supervision of the District Judge and the Inspector General of Police from Chennai, who camped at Salem. The accused wielded their influence within the Government and their financial resources to file several cases to stall the investigation and trial.

A charge sheet was filed only on 23.4.1996, but the trial was hampered. Despite serious violations of rights of the tribals, the State Government, regardless of the political party in power, neither notified a Special Court to try the offences under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Protection of Atrocities) Act, 1989 nor did it grant them interim payments and reparation of damages mandated by the said Act. Had the governments of the day been more responsive, the road to justice may not have been so long.

Com. Shanmugam representing the Tribals Association filed another writ petition in the High Court in 2002 seeking constitution of a Special Court and for payment of interim relief. In 2007, the High Court rejected the Government’s frivolous objections that the victims could not be identified or that their claims were false. The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Protection of Atrocities) Rules, 1995 mandates that as soon as a case is registered, interim payment on prescribed rates have to be given to the victims. Under Court’s orders, the victims ultimately received a total of Rs. 1.25 crore as interim relief. The accused were preventing the Sessions Court from conducting the trial on the ground that the false criminal case lodged against the villagers also should be tried together. The High Court thwarted the attempt and directed segregation of the two cases and speedy disposal of the case against the State officials.

The meticulous investigation and prosecution by the CBI deserves commendation. The judgment of the trial Court is laudable and has made judicial history. The case also is an instance of public interest litigation being used as a powerful tool to overcome injustice. The interim orders to provide witness protection, to conduct a massive identification parade of 1500 persons in Central Jail premises and to provide interim relief under the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Protection of Atrocities) Act are all momentous precedents. The struggle of the Vachathi people is marked by grit, courage and their tenacity to have patiently waited for justice without resorting to violent means in any manner. After having suffered extreme violence, they also had to face a stiff legal battle as the State Government engaged the Advocate General and the Additional Solicitor General to oppose their plea at every stage. Behind their victory today is the continuous support provided by the Marxist Party. The meticulous care shown by our Comrades to help document their losses, marshal evidence to withstand hostile cross examination by a battery of lawyers of the accused and the deep concern to provide the necessary moral and political support to every victim stands deeply appreciated. All the villagers are now members of the Tamil Nadu Tribals Association.

Since 1992, only candidates standing with the Marxist Party’s alliance have won from the constituency. In 2006 and in 2011, Com. Dilli Babu, CPI(M) has been elected as M.L.A. from the Harur Constituency. The High School building in Vachathi built through the assistance of Com. Dilli Babu, M.L.A. under the Legislator’s Fund Scheme stands testimony to the party’s commitment to social justice.
R. VAIGAI is the President of the Womens' Legal Aid Cell of the All India Democratic Womens' Association. Tamil Nadu.

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