Vachathi is a name
that has a certain resonance as a place of infamy, but 20 years ago it was just
another tribal village in the hills of Tamil Nadu’s Dharmapuri district. No one
living in it was aware that its anonymity was about to end in the worst
Indeed, 20 years ago, Perumal, then 50, must have considered himself blessed by the gods. He was so popular that villagers thought of him as the oor gounder (village chieftain) even though his tenure had run its course. Two decades ago, he did not consider the Forest Department and the police as public enemies, a mistake that cost him heavily.
On June 20, 1992, 269 government officials, comprising 155 forest department officers, 108 policemen and six revenue officials reached Vachathi, which lies at the foot of the Sitheri hills. Perumal’s village, home to 2000 Malayalis or the hill people, a Scheduled Tribe, had little inkling of the horrors to unfold.
A man of upright posture and plain talk, he asks: “I was not a criminal. So why should I have run?”
It was close to 4 pm, the village drenched in a dusty golden yellow by a westering sun. The forest officials and police had been in the village for over an hour. They had set in motion the events that would form the premise of the Vachathi case.
The Forest Protection Squad, led by then Assistant Conservator of Forests T Singaravelu had conducted a raid in the morning to recover “smuggled sandalwood” buried in Vachathi’s fields, and had thrashed Chinnaperumal, a farmer working his field. They accused him of helping the smugglers by burying sandalwood in the bed of the Varattar river. Chinnaperumal said he was innocent, but he was subjected to brutal assault. A scuffle followed when the villagers questioned the Forest Protection Squad and one of the team members, Forester R Selvaraj, was injured. He was given first aid, and was taken to hospital in a bullock cart arranged by the villagers.
They kept yelling abuse, calling us sluts and whores. In between, they also mockingly asked us to show them the buried sandalwood. Then they raped each of us many times, and made us urinate in front of them. Some of them were children, 13 or 14, including my sister Manikyam. And after everything, they threw us back in the lorry and took us back to the banyan tree like cattle.
When the squad returned in the evening, most men of the village, knowing what lay in store for them, had already fled to the Sitheri hills. Those who had not, those who were working in the fields—mostly mango, turmeric and maize—and those who were returning home from nearby villages or pastures where they had gone to herd their goats, were dragged and assembled under the giant banyan tree that overlooks the shrine of Mariyamamman. The women and children were abused and beaten with sticks. The temple was vandalised, huts razed, cattle and goats butchered. They dined on the meat, and dumped the carcasses in the community wells. The officers then cut loose and threw whatever they could lay their hands on, bicycles, pump sets, vessels, and grinding stones into the wells.
Then, 18 women, many of them minors—the youngest 13—were dragged into a lorry. It stopped at a nearby, near-dry lake. Here the women were gangraped. Muthamma, Perumal’s niece, was one of them. Like the other battered women of Vachathi, the events of that day still play in her mind, like an endless loop tape.
“They kept yelling abuse, calling us sluts and whores. In between, they also mockingly asked us to show them the buried sandalwood. Then they raped each of us many times, and made us urinate in front of them. Some of them were children, 13 or 14, including my sister Manikyam. And after everything, they threw us back in the lorry and took us back to the banyan tree like cattle.”
Around 6 pm, 120 villagers, mostly women and children, were taken under custody to Harur forest office. Two hours earlier, Vachathi had been a bustling village. Now just a senile 80-year-old woman and two dogs remained.
More humiliation followed in the forest office. The women were made to stand in three lines. Those in the first two lines were given brooms and sticks to thrash Perumal, stripped to the waist. He had already been tortured. (Kuppam, Perumal’s wife, was in the third row, and therefore spared.) Some women said no, and paid with a severe beating.
“We had no choice but to beat up our beloved Oor Gounder,” says Manikyam. “Once he was on the floor, they asked us to abuse him and strip him of his trousers. We refused to do that, and told them to do anything to us. Then they beat us up again, and kept on asking us to abuse our Oor Gounder.”
Perumal, during his time as the village chieftain, had lodged a complaint against forest officials for abetting sandalwood smuggling, rampant in the Eighties and early Nineties. (The Sitheri hills were one of the richest sandalwood zones in south India during the period. But by the mid-Nineties sandalwood had disappeared; not even a stump remains now.) His complaint, according to Perumal, triggered the raid of June 20.
“When we were living in the forests,” says Perumal, “not a single sandalwood tree was cut. For us, sandalwood is a sacred tree. The villagers never thought of sandalwood as a money-making option. Things started going wrong only when the Forest Department started taking control of the forests.” The sandalwood mafia was run by a nexus of politicians and wealthy businessmen with the help of the Forest Deparment.
“The officers were
making a lot of money and feared that my complaint might land them in trouble.
Due to its geographic peculiarities, Vachathi was a strategic point in the
route of the smugglers. And so they turned the tables and accused us of
involvement in sandalwood smuggling. Had we been smugglers, imagine how rich we
would have been. And if we had been that rich, would they have dared to act
Perumal doesn’t deny that the villagers cut trees, but insists that those involved were forced by the forest officials to work for them. “Only those living here can do all that work, and they were exploited for that. For a day’s work, they would be paid at best Rs 30.”
In the forest office, the torture continued late into the night: Many women were raped again. Kanakam, one of the 18 women who later lodged a complaint against the officials, says: “After making us beat up our Oor Gounder, they raped us again. We were asked to strip each other and were made again to urinate in front of the officials.”
The next day, the raiding party went back to the village, and said it recovered 40 tonnes of buried sandalwood. Huts and houses that had escaped their wrath the previous day, were looted again. Men like Ramaswami, who had fled to the hills the day before, watched the destruction of the village helplessly. “It is easy to say we were cowards. But what chance did we have of resisting them?”
After two months, the villagers were released from Salem Central Prison. The raiding party had slapped three Scheduled Timber Offences Report cases against 76 women and 15 men. On a complaint by Singaravelu, another case was filed under Sections 147 [rioting], 148, 332 (causing hurt to a public servant to deter him from doing his duty), 307 (attempt to murder), 325, 324, 323 (punishment for causing hurt) and 506 (criminal intimidation) of the Indian Penal Code, read with Section 25 (1)(a) of the Indian Arms Act against 14 villagers. All those implicated in the STOR cases were also remanded in this case.
They were released on bail on August 27, 1992.
Nineteen years later,
on September 29, 2011, Dharmapuri Principal District and Sessions Judge S
Kumaraguru convicted all the 215 surviving accused (54 were dead), in the
Vachathi case. The judge sentenced them to terms ranging from 1 to 10 years
Seventeen were convicted on charges of rape of (IPC Section 376) ‘‘adivasi” women. Their names are: Arunachalam, Arumugam, Rajagopal, Periyanayagam, Rajamanickam, Govindan, Rathinavelu, Pachiyappan, Vediyappan, Chidambaram, Perumal, Palani, M Perumal, Azhagiri, Madhaiyan, Kaliyappan and Janakiraman. They were sentenced to seven years rigorous imprisonment and a fine of Rs 2,000. The judge also ordered a compensation of Rs 15,000 each to the 18 rape victims from the fine amount after the appeal period ends. Of these 17, 12 also got 10 years RI for offences under Sections 3(2)(v) of the Schduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of atrocities) Act.
Among the guilty are four Indian Forest Service officers. The first accused, M Harikrishnan, former Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, got a three-year prison term under Section 201 of the IPC (causing disappearance of evidence or giving false information to screen the offender) and another three years of rigorous imprisonment, and fined ₹1,000 under Section 3(2)(1) of the SC/ST Act. Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forests P Muthaiyan was sentenced to a year under Section 342 of the IPC (wrongful confinement). The other two sentenced to jail are S Balaji, Chief Conservator of Forests, and L. Nathan, Conservator of Forests. The Madras High Court, on October 11 last year, ordered suspension of the sentence against Harikrishnan and Balaji.
The judge said the sentences would run concurrently. He also asked police to take the 17 into custody. They were taken to Salem Central Prison. The remaining accused were convicted for various other charges and were awarded imprisonment ranging from one to three years. Everyone from Vachathi was outside the court to hear the verdict. Though delayed, deliverance of justice would trigger frenzied celebrations.
The road to justice
was long and perilous. In July 1992, the Tamil Nadu Tribals Association heard
of the incident. A team comprising Basha John, president of the association, P
Shanmugam, general secretary, and M Annamalai, CPI(M) leader and twice MLA from
Harur constituency, visited the area on July 14. Those who had fled had
remained in the hills, traumatised and unable to muster the courage to come
down to the village.
Before they could even start a legal battle, the Tribals Association had to rehabilitate the villagers psychologically. That proved to be the greater of the challenges. According to Shanmugham, the villagers were so scarred that they refused to come down to the village. “They had nothing left in the village. Everything they had built and amassed had been destroyed. And they feared that if they came down they would be killed. The real difficulty was in persuading the villagers of the need to fight back. And also to convince them that they are not alone in the fight.”
Over the days and months, the delegation won the trust of the villagers. The team then met the District Collector and submitted a memorandum. It sought the intervention of then (and now) chief minister Jayalalithaa. A Nallasivam, secretary of the state committee of the CPI(M) and Rajya Sabha member, submitted a memorandum to her on July 18 demanding a judicial inquiry and relief for the victims.
The government till then had been in denial. Then Forest Minister K A Sengottaiyan backed his department and accused the villagers of being habitual criminals and abetting the sandalwood mafia. He claimed that the forest officials had seized smuggled sandalwood worth ₹1.5 crore during the raid on Vachathi. Bizarrely, he even claimed that Vachathi was an inaccessible village situated at high altitude.
Meanwhile, B Bamathi,
Director for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, Government of India visited
the village for three days from August 6, 1992 and submitted a report.
It detailed the atrocities committed by 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. It prima facie confirmed that the tribals had been victimised and could not be called sandalwood brokers, on account of poverty.
The turning point came when the 18 women who were raped and abused, decided to file a complaint. On August 22, when they went to the Harur police station, the sub-inspector refused to register the case. Making matters worse was the report filed by the revenue divisional officer which stated that the allegations of rape couldn’t be believed. The officer’s report charged the villagers with deliberately damaging houses and the property to cook up a case against the Forest Department and the police.
By now the women had decided to fight till the end. Paranthayi, now a 50-year-old woman whom the women of Vachathi consider their voice, says: “The men had snubbed us by running away. But we decided to fight the legal battle. We know what it means to come out in the open as victims of rape. But the larger question of justice was more important to us.”
According to Shanmugham, had it not been for the women, the struggle for justice would have petered out much earlier.
“When the Tamil Nadu Tribals Association and the CPI (M) decided to take up the issue, we knew that without the village’s participation, the struggle would reach nowhere. And the women were at the forefront. They never lost belief despite repeated setbacks and severe hostility from the authorities. They were repeatedly threatened by police if they did not relent. But they didn’t relent.”
On their part, the village swore loyalty to the CPI (M). It has been a bastion of the party since 1992 with no other party having any significant presence. (In fact, such is the influence wielded by the party that most villagers speak about the incident only if it allows them to do so.)
A Nallasivam filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court seeking a probe and compensation for the victims, which was referred to the Madras High Court.
In September 1992, the High Court asked the state to provide immediate relief, restore drinking water and power supply, ration cards and to repair the houses. Fifteen new houses were constructed under a Government Group Housing Scheme. The scars would remain forever, but the village was starting to breathe again.
In 1995, the High Court rejected the stand of the Superintendent of Police that police could not register a case against its officers. The court held that police were duty-bound to register the complaint under Sec 154 Indian Penal Code. In a significant directive, it directed the Central Bureau of Investigation to investigate and file a report. The state government’s appeals to the Division Bench and the Supreme Court were rejected. The CBI investigation, led by DSP S Jagannathan, would run into head winds. When, for instance, an identification parade of 1,500 men was arranged inside Salem Central Prison, the procedure was repeatedly stalled by the local administration. The High Court intervened again and identification of the accused took place over several days under the direct supervision of the District Judge and the Inspector General of Police. Eventually, a chargesheet was filed on April 23, 1996
The tribals association filed another writ petition in the High Court in 2002 seeking constitution of a special court and interim relief. In 2007, the High Court rejected government objections that the victims could not be identified. Under the court’s orders, the victims ultimately received a total of ₹1.25 crore as interim relief. The accused placed several roadblocks for the Sessions Court in conducting the trial on the ground that the criminal case lodged against the villagers also should be tried together.
The High Court saw through this and separated the two cases and issued a direction for speedy disposal of the case against state officials. The was the journey that ended on September 29, 2011.
Though the Forest
Department concedes that its officials were involved in ransacking the village,
they dismiss allegations of rape as baseless, and accuse the CPI(M) of using
rape charges to gloss over the real issue, the villagers’ involvement in
sandalwood smuggling. In fact, K Selvaraj, the Divisional Forest Officer of
Harur range, says the villagers are habitual criminals who to this day continue
to be involved in smuggling forest goods.
“The CPI(M) is using these villagers to gain political mileage. Allegations of rape are the easiest means to achieve that. They have diverted attention from the real problem.” The direct consequence of the Vachathi incident, according to Selvaraj, is that forest officials have become reluctant to take hard decisions. “If the state does not protect us when we are carrying out our duty, how can we take the necessary steps required to prevent smuggling of forest goods?”
For most officials, the stigma of being rapists makes Harur an unpopular job destination. Dismissing the claims of rape as baseless in a blog post titled “True Incident of Vachathi Raid,” an anonymous forest official who prefers to call himself a Dedicated Forest Officer, argues:
“The allegation of
rape is not true. 1. The Revenue Divisional Officer Dharmapuri under the
direction of the Collector has conducted a detailed enquiry regarding this
alleged incident and sent an elaborate report to the Collector on 10-08-92 and
the gist of his report (is) as follows:
“He has stated that rape matter came to notice only after 15 days of the incident. During his enquiry first they told 3 ladies and then 15 and then 23 were raped. He also stated that during recovery of sandalwood 15 lady constables were with the party and search had not taken place in night time. There is no chance of rape in the presence of lady constables. Rape matter was projected by anti-social elements to divert the attention from sandalwood smuggling.
2. Barathi Welfare Narpani Mandram Nambipatty, under the President ship of Murugesan with nine other members have visited the Vachathi village on 21-07-92 and conducted a detailed enquiry, which revealed that rape incident had not at all taken place as alleged in news papers. They have passed a resolution and submitted to the Collector and to other agencies.
3. President, Secretary and 8 others of the Nehru Yuva Kendra, Harur have conducted a detailed enquiry on 03-08-92, with the villagers of Vachathi and others living near by about the rape incident. No one came forward to say anything about rape to anyone of their members spread all over the village. They have also stated that sandalwood smugglers are behind the villagers and twisted the entire issue of sandalwood theft in to sensational issue of rape to escape from the clutches of forest department. The President had requested to trace out all sandalwood culprits and take action.
4. A representation alleging rape by forest officers was submitted by the villagers to the All India Democratic Women’s Association and it was referred to the Director of Welfare of SC/ST, Chennai for enquiry. The Director visited the village some time in August 1992 and conducted discreet enquiry and sent reply to the All India Democratic Women’s Association in the following words. “Considering the fact that almost one and half months has passed. When the allegation of rape was brought in to the notice it is not possible to come to any certain conclusion on the alleged rapes of Vachathi tribal women by forest officials.”
5. Raid was conducted on 20-06-92. But rape complaint was lodged to the police department on 22-08-92. They have lodged complaint after a delay of 61 days. The abnormal delay in reporting the sensational matter has to be viewed seriously. In the FIR they have mentioned that the rape had taken place in the Forest Range office, Harur. Subsequently they have changed the place of rape to Vachathi lake area which is 17 km from the first scene of occurrence.
6. There were no reports of rape against women of the Vachathi village for several weeks following the seizure of sandalwood. Some of the women who later alleged that offences against them had taken place were remanded to judicial custody for theft of sandal wood a day after the raid. They did not then complain of rape to the Magistrate concerned and to jail authorities.”
G R Swaminathan, a senior lawyer at the Madurai bench of the High Court of Madras, and a member of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties who visited the village on a fact-finding mission soon after the incident, too thinks that the judgment is a “gross miscarriage of justice” and says he does not remember a single villager testifying to rape. He further states that the villagers had at the time estimated the raiding party to be of 50 members and that to therefore punish all the 269 accused was unacceptable.
To all such allegations that the charges of rape are cooked up, Paranthayi retorts with fury and despair. “Every time they come up with these allegations, it is as if we are being raped again and again.”
Though the court ruled
in their favour, the villagers don’t feel the fight is over yet. “The village
is yet to move on,” says Perumal. “It takes only one day to destroy a village,
but rebuilding it takes many generations.”
The sentiment is shared by P Dillibabu, twice-elected CPI(M) MLA from Harur. “For 20 years, everything in the village was based around the case. It is about time other things like development were given top priority. It is not going to be easy, especially with governments, irrespective of political party, choosing to ignore the problems of the tribal population of the state.”
Most villagers still work the fields. Some go to Kerala and find temporary jobs as construction labourers. The temple of Mariyamman has been reconstructed, and in the evenings people assemble under the banyan tree and discuss their future, dreaming occasionally of a permanent departure from their past. Young men who had dreamt of bigger things 20 years ago sometimes ponder how different life would have been if June 20, 1992, was erased from their personal histories. They want better infrastructure, a hospital being the immediate priority.
As for the women, the custom of marrying from the extended family, they say, made it somewhat easier to continue with normal life.
“It was impossible for us to get married with someone from outside the village. Not that we did not have dreams,” says Kokila, one of the rape victims. Their lives, she says, have been an unending extension of the events of that fateful day. “Ever since that day, we have been going to police stations and courts every month. Maybe it’s a little bit easier for the men to move on, but the women live with that violence every day.”
The younger generation is keen on moving away from the village and finding a home elsewhere. Choosing to embrace education as the tool for liberation, they centre their life on clearing PSC and UPSC exams and finding a way out of Vachathi. Flex boards of young men who have found government jobs are common in the village. But as Kumar, a 22-year old graduate working with the Tamil Nadu police as a constable, would testify, the events of June 20 will forever follow people from Vachathi. During the interview for SI selection, he was asked to explain his position on the Vachathi case: Did he consider the police guilty? Kumar, who says he trembles in fear every time he has to wield a lathi, could only reply: “I don’t remember, Sir.”
(The names of rape victims have been changed)
THE ONLY PARTY
The most significant political consequence of the Vachathi case has been the rise of the CPI(M) in the village. Almost non-existent in Vachathi before 1992, the CPI(M) now has political monopoly in the village. From 1992, no other party has won from the constituency of Harur in the State Assembly elections.
According to the villagers, their rehabilitation would never have taken place had it not been for the presence of CPI(M). “No one else came to the hills. They convinced us that we have to fight back. If they had not come, we would have died there in the hills,” says Ramaswami. The women are even more vociferous in their support of the party. “Who was there for us?” asks Paranthayi. “Even our men had run away. Who would have fought our cases? Who would have brought us justice? We will remain loyal to the party till we die.” In practical terms, the loyalty Paranthayi refers to translates into a steadfast adherence to the norms laid down by the party. Hardly anyone in the village speaks up about the case unless they (or the enquirer) have the party’s authorisation.
Unfortunately, though not entirely unexpectedly, the modus operandi of the party in the village has been to carry out its operations without giving agency to the tribals and the rape victims. It is a case exemplified by Mayilamma, one of the rape victims who stood against the CPI(M). She still considers herself a CPI(M) worker, but thinks that the people now running the show are betraying the party. “Yes, it’s true that it was the party who helped us to rebuild our lives. They fought our cases too. Back then, we had more involvement. Our voices were heard. But later, the party started giving orders which we were meant to obey. We were always treated as victims with no voice of our own. Otherwise why are there no leaders from the women of this village?”
According to Mayilamma, she was asked initially by the party to stand as their candidate. But she alleges that the party, bribed by the family of the present panchayat president, later abandoned her. She had to spend around ₹ 10 lakhs for the elections, for which her family had to mortgage her land. Vachathi is a panchayat reserved for women, but the women are usually dummy candidates with their husbands wielding the power. According to Subrahmanyan, Mayilamma’s husband, he had to spend two hundred rupees per vote. “That is the usual practice here. Maybe the CPI(M) might have paid the voters more.”
Now, Mayilamma lives as an outcast in the village with the villagers accusing her of being a traitor. “How can she,” asks Paranthayi, “even think of standing against the party? Who is running the case for her?”Mayilamma, though, perceives Paranthayi’s retorts as threats. She wonders if she will now be denied justice just because she stood against the CPI(M).
Vachathi: A timeline
June 20, 1992
A team of 155 forest department officers, 108 policemen and six revenue officials raids the village of Vachathi for recovering the ‘buried sandalwood’ in the village. The village is vandalised and eighteen women are raped.
June 21, 1992
The raiding party claims they recovered 40 tonnes of buried sandalwood from the village.
July 14, 1992
A team comprising Basha John, president of the Tribals Association; P Shanmugam, general secretary; and M. Annamalai, CPI(M) leader, visits the area.
July 18, 1992
A Nallasivam, secretary of the State committee of the CPI(M) and Rajya Sabha member, submits a memorandum to the then Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa on July 18, demanding a judicial inquiry and seeking immediate relief for the victims.
August 22, 1992
Eighteen women lodge a complaint of rape against the raiding party at the Harur police station. The Sub Inspector refuses to charge the case.
The High Court orders a CBI investigation.
April 23, 1996
CBI files a charge sheet holding all 269 members of the raiding party as accused.
The Tamil Nadu Tribals Association files another writ petition in the High Court seeking constitution of a Special Court and for payment of interim relief.
The High Court rejects the objections raised by the government that the victims could not be identified. Under Court’s orders, the victims ultimately receive a total of ₹1.25 crore as interim relief.
September 29, 2012
Dharmapuri Principal District and Sessions Judge S Kumaraguru convicts all the 215 surviving accused persons (54 of the accused had already died), who were involved in the Vachathi case. The judge imposed sentences ranging from 1 to 10 years of rigorous imprisonment.