PUCL Bulletin, August 2001

Advocates in dalit murder case threathened
-- Advocates, Madras High Court, Chennai.

The trial in the '6 murders' case is nearing completion. There is tremendous tension in the area. Mr. Ratnam is singly responsible for ensuring that the trial could be concluded; but for his efforts the case would have been closed years back and the accused would have gone scot-free. We are coordinating the campaign to help ensure greater protection to Mr. Ratnam and others. Following appeal is being addressed to authorities listed below.

1. Dr. K.R. Narayanan, Hon'ble President of India, Rashtrapati Bhavan, New Delhi. 2. Dr. A.S. Anand, Hon'ble Chief Justice, Supreme Court of India, New Delhi. 3. Mr. J.S. Verma, Chairperson, National Human Rights Commission, Sardar Patel Bhavan, Parliament Street, New Delhi. 4. The Chairperson, National Commission for Scheduled Castes And Scheduled Tribes, New Delhi. 5. Mr. N.K. Jain, Hon'ble Chief Justice, Madras High Court, Chennai. 6. Ms. Jayalalithaa, Hon'ble Chief Minister, Government of Tamil Nadu, Fort St. George, Chennai 600 009. 7. Mr. Arun Jaitley, Hon'ble Law Minister, Government of India, New Delhi.

Sub: Threat to the life of Mr. P. Rathinam and Mr. V. Suresh, Advocates, Madras High Court and Mr. Karuppiah of Melavalavu for prosecuting criminal case against accused in beheading of Dalit President of Melavalavu Panchayat and murder of 5 others.

We are addressing this representation conveying our sense of shock and anguish at the reported threat of liquidation of Mr. P. Rathinam and Mr. V. Suresh, Advocates of Madras High Court for taking effective steps to ensure that the accused persons responsible for the beheading of Mr. Murugesan, Dalit Panchayat President of Melavalavu village in Madurai District and 5 others in 1997 stand trial and comply with legal process and the rule of law. The threat reportedly extends to the life of Mr. Karuppiah, brother of the deceased Panchayat President, Murugesan, and another brother Raja, for pursuing legal remedies through Mr. Rathinam and Mr. Suresh. Since the information comes from reliable and credible sources, we are seeking your immediate intervention to ensure that effective counter-steps are taken to provide security to the persons who face the threat of liquidation for daring to stand by their commitment to the rule of law and democratic process and asserting that guilty persons are brought to book and stand trial for their misdeeds.

The threat to Mr. Rathinam, Mr. V. Suresh, Advocates, and Mr. Karuppiah has arisen from their efforts to ensure that the trial in the murder of Murugesan and 5 others is concluded in a quick and fair manner. There are currently 41 accused persons belonging to the Kallar caste (a non-Dalit community in the southern districts of Tamil Nadu who have been largely responsible for many anti-Dalit attacks and riots resulting in numerous deaths and large scale damage to property) of Melavalavu and surrounding villages who stand accused for beheading Murugesan, on 30.6.1997 in broad daylight while traveling in a bus, and the murder of 5 other Dalits. The incident occurred as the Kallar community was incensed that Murugesan, a Dalit person, went against their dictates that he should not stand for election to the village Panchayat, which had just that year been reserved for Dalits.

The incident was a clearly pre-meditated and carefully planned out affair and took place when the public bus carrying Murugesan and others, was proceeding towards Melavalavu. The barbarity and vehemence of the caste feeling which actuated the gruesome murders can be gauged by the fact that the severed head was thrown into a nearby well. What is most distressing about the murders is that Mr. Murugesan had informed the police, about the threats to murder him and to make his murder an example to other Dalits in the area from daring to challenge their customary dominance.

The intelligence failure and lack of prompt action on the part of the police, despite prior information, only lent credence to a widely held opinion amongst many Dalits that it arose from a strong anti-Dalit bias which existed within the local police. That such an opinion was not without basis became clearer as the investigation proceeded in the case of the murder of the 6 Dalits of Melavalavu in a tardy and slow manner. It is very revealing that the main accused Ramar was arrested only on 22nd December, 2000, although his whereabouts was known to the local police authorities and despite information given to the police whenever he was sighted in or near Melavalavu. This accused Ramar is already involved in a double murder case of Dalits in Chennagarampatti a village near Melavalavu in 1992. He had jumped bail in that case and trial is yet to start.
Mr. P. Rathinam along with over 70 advocates, presented a petition to the then Chief Justice of the Madras High Court seeking the court's initiation of appropriate proceedings to cancel bail granted by the High Court to 30 accused. The Chief Justice ordered the petition to be taken on file as Suo Motu proceedings and which came to be numbered as Suo Motu Cr. l. M.P. 3151/1998. The matter finally came to be listed before a Division Bench consisting of Justices Mr. Choutha and Mr. Bhaktavatsalu. The Bench dismissed the petitions as not maintainable.

Mr. Rathinam thereafter took up the matter to the Supreme Court. He filed Cr l. Appeal No. 152/2000 against the order of the Division Bench. A bench consisting of Mr. Justice K.T. Thomas and Mr. Justice Mohapatra allowed the criminal appeal and remanded the matter back to the Madras High Court for hearing afresh and disposing according to law on merits. (See `R. Rathinam vs. State of Tamil Nadu', 2000 (2) SCC 319).

In view of the orders of the Hon'ble Supreme Court, Suo Motu Crl.M.P.No. 3151/98 was revived. In the meantime, Writ Petition W.P.No. 273/99 came to be filed in the name of Mr. Krishnan, first informant in the Melavalavu murders case, seeking transfer of the investigation by the CBI. Since Mr. Rathinam came to be informed that Mr. Krishnan had been won over by the accused, he filed an impleading petition challenging the prayer to transfer in the name of 2 other eye witnesses, Kanchivanam and Kumar. Ultimately the Writ Petition came to be dismissed on 15.12.99.

It was at this time that the local witnessess, especially eye witnesses reported that they were being both cajoled and threatened from giving evidence in the trial against the accused persons. In view of this, Mr. Rathinam filed a petition before the High Court, Crl.M.P.No. 126/2000 seeking transfer of the trial from Special Court, Madurai to Chennai. Since Suo Motu Crl.M.P.No. 3151/98 had been revived by then and posted before the Division Bench, the transfer petition also came to be listed before the Division Bench. After hearing elaborate arguments from both counsels for the victims and witnesses represented by Mr. Rathinam as also counsel for all the accused, the Division Bench on 14.12.2000 ordered transfer of the case from Special Court, Madurai to Special Court, Salem and directed that the trial should conclude before 30.4.2001. (This later came to be extended up to 30.6.2001).

Apart from the above, Mr. Rathinam, on behalf of the victims, filed two petitions before the Madras High Court seeking appointment of Special Public Prosecutor u/Rule 4 of the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocity) Rules, 1995 to conduct the trial in the Melavalavu murders. First, in January, 2000 Crl.O.P.No. 620/2000 was filed which was dismissed by the High Court with the direction to the petitioners to approach the authorities for such appointment. However since no appointment was being made by the State authorities, another set of petitions, Crl.O.P.No. 24410/2000 and 24411/2000 was filed by Mr. Rathinam along with his colleagues. As a result of these petitions a senior lawyer from Erode, Mr. Thirumalairajan, came to be appointed as Special Public Prosecutor for the Melavalavu case. The above petitions therefore came to be closed and dismissed.

Trial in the Melavalavu case commenced on 2.4.2001. At that time Mr. Rathinam filed a petition before the trial court seeking attachment of the properties of the accused as contemplated by the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. This was not entertained by the trial court. Therefore a petition seeking the same orders came to be filed in the Madras High Court by Mr. Rathinam. The petition Crl.O.P.No. 6831/2001, was dismissed by the vacation court of the High Court on 8.5.01. On the same day, another petition, Crl.O.P.No. 6830/2001, seeking transfer of the case from the court of the Special Judge, Salem to Erode was also dismissed.

From the above it is very clear that Mr. Rathinam has been playing an instrumental role in ensuring that the Dalit victims of Melavalavu were able to access the law and ensure that the legal process was not subverted. It is not an untruth to say that but for his efforts, the trial would not have progressed to the extent it has now, where the trial is about to conclude. Mr. Rathinam's role has been critical not just in ensuring that legal remedies were pursued in the higher courts, including the Supreme Court. We know that Mr. Rathinam has been attending all the days of the trial extending necessary moral support to the witnesses.

You will appreciate that it can be extremely intimidating and frightening for members of the Dalit community to come out openly and boldly to identify members of the upper castes as the persons who inflicted such horrendous violence to their close relations and family members. For Dalits whose lives have until recently been characterized by the demand from the upper castes of submissiveness, subservience and servitude it is a great struggle to surmount the climate of fear and threat that has always enveloped their lives. It is in this background that we will have to appreciate the role of Mr. Rathinam in providing moral and legal support to the victims of the Melavalavu massacre and ensuring that justice is finally done to them.

It is precisely for this role played by Mr. Rathinam that he now faces the threat of extermination. But for his Herculean efforts, the case would have been given a silent and forgotten burial.

In his efforts Mr. Rathinam has been constantly assisted by Mr. V. Suresh, a young Dalit lawyer from Chennagarampatti, a neighbouring village of Melavalavu. It will be pertinent to bring to your attention that on 13.11.1991, Mr. Suresh, then a youth who had completed his school final examinations, was attacked by some Kallars, members of the above referred Ramar group, for assisting Dalits farmers of Chennagarampatti to take some temple lands on lease which customarily were enjoyed by members of the Kallar community. It is noteworthy that the trial in this case is still to begin. Worse, although an offence u/s 307 IPC has been registered, offences under the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 are yet to be invoked in the case.

Apart from Mr. Rathinam and Mr. V. Suresh, Advocates, Mr. Karuppiah, brother of deceased Murugesan and Raja, two of the 6 murdered Dalits, has also been playing an important role constantly interacting with Mr. Rathinam and Mr. Suresh, and following up on all legal proceedings. Operating under extremely oppressive social conditions in his native village particularly after the criminal proceedings started, he has shown exemplary courage in pursuing legal remedies. His thirst for justice has been a moving force to the lawyers.

Although a very simple person, he has shown by his doggedness and perseverance, deep rooted sense of humility and commitment to rule of law that justice will have to triumph even if its is at the cost of his own life.
The threat to the lives of Mr. P. Rathinam and Mr. V. Suresh, Advocates and Mr. Karuppiah are a challenge to all those who believe in the grandeur of the concept of rule of law. It is also a test to all those who believe in democracy and democratic values.

We are very confident that you will not allow the open threat extended to the lives of Mr. Rathinam, Mr. V. Suresh and Mr. Karuppiah to be carried out. At the extremely critical juncture that our country is poised in, we need more of such selfless persons who are able to live by what they believe in and be an example for the rest of the citizens of the country. They are also a standing symbol of the values embedded in our constitution - of the principle of fairness, equality and justice - and a reminder that if these values have to ultimately triumph it can only be if all concerned citizens join hands.

We pray that you intervene immediately and ensure that adequate protection is provided to safeguard the life and person of Mr. Rathinam and Mr. V. Suresh, Advocates, and Mr. Karuppiah, brother of deceased Murugesan of Melavalavu.

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