PUCL Bulletin, 2000

Tamil Nadu &Pondy PUCL:


On receipt of information of alleged widespread police atrocities and terror unleashed on (primarily) the Malayalis (Scheduled Tribes) in some hamlets at 95 Perur Panchayat, Kengavalli Taluk, Salem District during the end of June 1999, the PUCL constituted a Fact-Finding Team to investigate the incidents. The Team consisted of:
Balamurugan, Advocate and Joint Secretary, PUCL - TN & Pondy, Bhavani; S. Gopal, Scientist and PUCL member, Kalpakkam, Chengalpet; C. R. Bijoy, Social Activist and PUCL member, Coimbatore; V.P Gunasekharan, Social Activist, Bhavani; P. Damayanthi, Advocate, Rasipuram; Baladandayutham, Social Activist, Bhavani; Thumbal Jayaraman, Social Activist, Thumbal; Venku, Social Activist, Salem; Mayan, Business, Salem; Rameswaran, Teacher, Athur; Kannan, Advocate, Chennai; Thankappalam, Social Activist, Athur; Palanimuthu, Agriculturist, Thumbal; Muthuswamy, Government Employee, Athur.

The hamlets of Chinnakarattur, Periyakarattur, Naripadi and Nanankarai are located on the Koodamalai - Nanankarai Road in that order, with Nanankarai being the farthest village, 8 kms away from Koodamalai. Falling within 95 Perur Panchayat of Kengavalli Taluk in Salem District, these villages are inhabited by Malayalis who are Scheduled Tribes. With a population of about 2,000, which includes a few non-tribals, the people recall that as early as 1957, Kamaraj, the most famous Congress leader of Tamilnadu, had visited the hamlets declaring the place as Gandhigramam. The people are small and marginal peasants owning between 1-4 acres of dry land with about 15-20 percent being landless, rearing goats and cows to supplement their meager income. There are 5 tractors, owned by the non-tribals, who live in the area outside the Adivasi hamlets in 95 Perur Kattukottai, as well as some cycles and handful of two wheelers.

Located at the foothills of Pachamalai Hills, the area was part of Koodamalai Panchayat, becoming a separate Panchayat 2 years ago under the name 95 Perur. There are nearly 100 students who have completed high school with a handful of graduates. The closest high school, health service, and other basic facilities are available only at Koodamalai. The Koodamalai-Nanankarai Road is a kutcha road, which has to cross two forest streams, namely Suvetha and Kallar.

The people of these villages, who have to take an arduous trek ranging from 8 kms to 3 kms, have been demanding a bus service from Koodamalai to Nanankarai. Besides, the bus service would also benefit the villages of Mayampadi, Kodunkal, Vancharai, Odaikattuputhur, and other villages of Pachamalai whose travel would be reduced from 75 kms to 25 kms. Due to lack of any response by the government for their numerous petitions, the people began to launch an agitation for the bus service about 3 years ago. They had organised a rally, wearing only a loincloth in front of the Collectorate at Salem. They had also carried out a road blockade agitation at Koodamalai. Their demands included converting the kutcha road into a pucca road, a bridge over Suvetha, which is a small forest river and regular bus service. The promises by politicians and bureaucrats continued to remain unfulfilled. Disillusioned, the people declared the boycott of 1998 parliamentary elections. The election boycott was total. The area falls under the SC reserved constituency of Rasipuram, which was won by Saroja of AIDMK. Quite significantly, the people, keeping out the political parties, led the agitation for the road and bus service. For this reason, the local party leaders at Koodamalai are angry. Despite it becoming a separate Panchayat, the area continued to be grossly neglected.

Frustrated, the people issued notice stating that if the bus service were not commenced by 23.06.99 the people would be forced to resort to a road blockade at Koodamalai on 28.06.99. Strangely enough, the Athur RDO, Lakshmanan, stated that he was not aware of the road roko till the previous day though the FIR crime no.287/99 states clearly that notice of road blockade was given to the Collector and the transport authorities. In order to avoid the lame excuse that the road is not motorable, the people, on their own initiative, spent money and laboured for days together leveling the kutcha road. The Fact-Finding Team visited all the affected villages and found the road to be motorable.

The Incidents
On 27th evening at 6 p.m. a bus was sent by the transport authorities for a trial and test run. The people of the 4 villages were thrilled and celebrated the event by distributing sweets, garlanding the bus and others who accompanied the bus including Athur DSP Sundaresan. Poojaas were conducted. But the jubilation turned to disappointment when the people realized that this was a test run and was not a guarantee that the bus service would indeed be started. At 7 p.m. a discussion was held at the Taluk office between the representatives of the people who included the Panchayat President P.Rajarathnam of Naripadi and RDO Lakshmanan, Tehsildar Pannerselvam, etc. The RDO requested for 3 days time (3 days to 1 week according to RDO) to start the bus service and so to withdraw the road blockade. According to the RDO, the Panchayat President Rajarathnam agreed and gave an undertaking for withdrawal of the agitation. This could not be verified with Rajarathnam, as he was not available. As the deadline provided by the people, i.e., 23.06.99, had passed and the discussion on 27.06.99 also was futile as they got only a request for further time, they decided to stick to their decision of carrying out the road blockade on 28.06.99.

A large number of people had traveled through the night arriving some distance away from the Koodamalai stop. They halted there for the day to dawn. Around 3.30 or 4 a.m., the police swooped down on the unsuspecting people and arrested them. There was no resistance from the people. In all 81 people were taken under preventive custody of which 14 were women (one Kavitha had a one and a half year old baby with her). By dawn, more people arrived from all the four hamlets. Except for the very old, sick or debilitated people and some to take care of the village and the cattle, an overwhelming majority of the people had come to the Koodamalai stop to participate. The estimated number of people who participated is around 800. This included about 50 children.

The agitators commenced their road blockade with the children in the front rows followed by women and finally the men. At around 9 a.m. RDO Lakshmanan, Tehsildar Pannerselvam, and VAO arrived and began talks with the people. The officials again asked for 3 days time for commencing the bus service. The people insisted that they had given enough time, waited enough and refused to believe the genuineness of the official's words. They insisted that they would withdraw only after the bus service was started. They also demanded the release of the 81 people who were taken under preventive custody some hours earlier. The talks were held in a very peaceful and cordial atmosphere. This was corroborated by the RDO, the people interviewed in all the 4 hamlets as well as by the former Koodamalai DMK Secretary G.P Subramaniam, Sittrarasu of CPM, etc. There were about 30 policemen and women under the charge of DSP Sundaresan. The discussions went on till about 11.30 a.m. The RDO kept appealing to the people to disburse asking for time for starting the bus service. He also assured that those 81 arrested would be let out on bail in due course as per procedure. He also warned that if the people continued with the road blockade, they would have to be arrested as per law. The RDO told the Fact-Finding Team that there were clear and strict instructions from the government that under no circumstances road blockade should be permitted and if resorted to, they were to be severely dealt with. The agitating people replied that they would prefer to be arrested.

The children were separated from the agitators by women police and taken aside. At about 11.45 a.m., the police requested all people who were not participating to step aside. The police surrounded the agitators in preparation to take them into custody. While all these were taking place, the RDO was continuing to request people to disburse. Meanwhile, the women police had grabbed 2 women by the hair, dragged and hauled them into the van. The other women followed. It is alleged by the people that as the RDO terminated his discussion and as the people were getting ready to get arrested, the RDO gave a signal with his hand. Pandemonium broke out immediately when the police, on allegedly seeing the signal given by the RDO, smashed their batons on the heads of the people and an unprovoked lathicharge followed. The people ran helter skelter. Three men fell unconscious with blood profusely streaming from their head. Provoked by this unexpected assault by the police, these peaceful agitators who were being chased and beaten up began to retaliate with stone throwing. The police and the administrative officials had clearly not expected this retaliation. They had expected the people to get beaten, injured, or run away. The police and the officials, including the RDO and Tehsildar, ran away and took shelter in near by shops and lanes. In the process, 12 policemen are reported to have been stoned and what was left, the vehicles numbering 8 in which the police and the officials had come including the vans and 2 TSTC buses to take those getting arrested, had their windshield broken in the stone throwing.

The Koodamalai bus stop is a small junction lined on both sides with petty shops, hotels and other traders. There were a large number of people of Koodamalai who were present during the time. It is noteworthy that the retaliation by the agitators did not turn riotous. The shops or other onlookers were not attacked or targeted. After the police and the administrative officials ran away, the agitators peacefully retreated back to their villages.

According to the RDO, the demands of the people were "200 percent genuine" and that he had patiently discussed the problem with them and requested for 3 days to 1-week time. The leaders, which included P.Rajarathnam (Panchayat President of 95 Perur of Naripadi), P. Krishnan (headman, Naripadi), Rajamani (headman, Periyakarattur), K. Pichamani (headman, Chinnakarattur) and Pappu (headman, Nanankarai) were generally favourable to this but seemed to be reluctant to accept the withdrawal of the agitation. According to him, when the women were being taken into custody, the atmosphere all of a sudden changed and there was stone throwing resulting in injuries to policemen and damage to vehicles. He was of the opinion that the Malayalis were innocent and that they were led astray. He also assured that he would persuade the DSP to release all (14 women of the 81 taken into preventive custody on 28.06.99 were out on conditional bail on 08.07.99) and ensure bail and subsequent withdrawal of the cases. Regarding the bus service, he was appreciative of the people for their patience as well as their anger. Moreover, the test drive on the road was conducted and the Collector and transport authorities will hopefully ensure that the bus service is started. He also averred to the way the administration functions and the delays. When he was sure that the bus service would be started in 3 days to 1 week, the question remains as to why the bus service had not started even on 09.07.99 when the Fact-Finding Team met him, i.e., even after 12 days. The RDO then indicated that he was a small person in the system and this fell within the purview of the Collector.

The version of the RDO was that the agitators turned violent suddenly attacking the police and other officials. Not anticipating this, they had to run away and take shelter. The RDO was firm that there was no lathi charge prior to the attack of the people. The agitators interviewed as well as the general public at Koodamalai refuted this. On being questioned about the head injuries sustained by the agitators, the RDO felt that it could have been by the stones thrown by the agitators on the police, which hit their own people. The RDO insisted that there were some non-tribals amongst them who were controlling them who began the attack on the police. He, however, refused to provide any further information on these alleged intruders. The Fact-Finding Team could not find any evidence of this story.

On 28th about 2.30 or 3 p.m., the people of the villages saw about 20 police vans coming along the Koodamalai - Nanankarai road. SP Rajendran reportedly led this. Apprehending the worst, the people in all the villages locked up their houses wherever possible and ran into the forests as fast as they could. The very elderly, the sick, the just delivered, and pregnant were left behind. Some of them could see what was happening. The police raided the villages, which continued kill the next day.

The police went from house to house smashing the wooden doors, which were locked. A large number of doors could be seen to have come off the hinges. The doors of the houses belonging to Pitchamuthu and Perumal, for example, in Chinnakarattur were found smashed. The lock of the door of the house of Arumugham was broken and a sack of rice was strewn on the floor. The dish antenna of Sankaran too in Periyakarattur was smashed. Machendran of Naripadi was married on 24.06.99. The left over groceries, sugar, eatables, 1 sack of rice, chilies, etc, from the marriage were dumped on the floor after breaking open the house and kerosene poured. 5 kg of salted dry meat was stolen. The electricity meter for the street light - a government property - was found smashed besides another 5 house electricity meters. The household vessels of Manickam and Ramaswamy were smashed out of shape. Pitchaikkaran's door, 5 tiles, bulbs, stereo box, tape recorder and radio too were not spared. The Panchayat President's household electricity meter, glass panes and bulbs were also smashed. A number of cycles, for instance, that of Palaniswamy of Chinnakarattur were damaged. 2 motorcycles, both in Naripadi were also damaged. The Hero Puch (TN 07 9283) belonging to T. Doraiswamy, the postman in Naripadi, besides his cycle, was damaged. Similarly, a Hero Honda (TCS 8073) of Talagownder of the same village was also damaged. This wanton destruction, (a few examples are only stated in this report) was spread out.

Two tractors belonging to Venkatachala Gownder and Marappa Gownder in 95 Perur Kattukottai (non-tribals) were seized. Whatever implements the police could get hold of, as for example crow bars, sickles, knives, iron rods, wooden clubs, etc., were also seized. The people allege that these are taken to "prove" that the people were armed and these were used in the clash with the Police on 28.06.99 and hence, there were premeditated plans to attack the police.

More than 100 coconuts were plucked and stolen by the police. In Nanankarai, the tender coconuts were consumed and the rest carried away. In Naripadi, Chandra reported that her 2 chickens, a sack full of salt (from her petty shop) were amongst the stolen goods. Stealing of chicken was a common phenomenon in all the hamlets. Around 20 chickens were stolen from Nanankarai. In Periyakarattur, the police took time to cook about 10 chickens and ate them. More than 40 hens were reported stolen altogether. At Naripadi, Ponnammal said that her 6 kgs of chilies were taken away. The police also looted the transponders of the dish antennas that were smashed at Chinnakarattur and Periyakarattur. In Nanankarai, household vessels were found dumped inside the well. The gauge wheel costing Rs.8,000 of Venkatachala Gownder (whose tractor was confiscated) was dumped in his well at 95 Perur Kattukottai.

All these destruction and looting by the police is clearly indicative of also hitting at the meager possessions of the people and hence, at the very root of their economy. As the people hid in the forest and began returning for the most part after 4 days, their cattle had remained untended and so had wandered away. The people were still in the search to retrieve them. There were many who were still to return from the forests even on the tenth day after the police swooped down on the villages. Some had reportedly gone to other villages and even far away ones for fear of the police. The people of Nanankarai, the farthest village, were still in a state of shock when the Fact-Finding Team visited. Vijaya w/o Muthu was abused in filthy language and threatened. Alliamma w/o Dhanapal had delivered a child just four days before the police came. She too was abused and threatened. She was so fear stricken that she took her baby and ran away into the safety of the forest refusing to come back to the village. Her experience had shattered her so much that she took ill. Her old mother fears now for her life.

When the Fact-Finding Team confronted the RDO with the information of widespread destruction and looting in all the villages, he replied that this was the first time he was hearing anything about this. He alleged that neither the Yercaud MLA nor any other political leaders, the administrative officials had reported this to him. In addition, the RDO maintains that the people from the villages also did not prefer any complaints even though he had personally visited Chinnakarattur on 03.07.99 to "restore normalcy". The Malai Malar of that day (0.07.99) in fact had carried a photograph of the smashed antenna at Chinnakarattur. There was, for example, a protest meeting of CPI (M) at Koodamalai on 05.07.99 condemning the lathi charge, destruction and widespread atrocities by the police. So it is inconceivable that the RDO was not aware of the incidents of police violence.

It is also alleged that a Junior Engineer of the Electricity Board Office at Koodamalai was contacted by RDO Lakshmanan on 28.06.99 and ordered to cut off electric supply to the area. The Junior Engineer is reported to have refused to carry out the order. However, the Fact-Finding team could not verify this.

In these police raids, 58 people were arrested of which the overwhelming majority (44) was women. They were accused of attempt to murder, rioting etc, under sections 147, 148, 341, 324, 307 etc. In all 139 were arrested. According to the RDO, the raid and arrests were stopped after the intervention of Yercaud DMK MLA Perumal who had visited the villages.

Findings of the Fact-Finding Team
1. The demands on which the people agitated were for a basic and essential service, which the governments had continued to deny. The methods adopted by the affected villagers were democratic and peaceful.
2. The police lathi charge on 28.06.99 was totally unprovoked and unjustified.
3. The police had unleashed a reign of terrors, destroying household items, damaging property and indulged in looting.
4. The authorities had taken cognizance of the violation of laws and atrocities perpetrated on the Adivasis by the Police force.

PUCL - Tamilnadu & Pondicherry demands:
1. Immediate action against RDO Lakshamanan, SP Rajendran and DSP Sundaresan and others under SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act, 1989.
2. Provision of interim relief to the affected people.
3. Institution of a Commission of Enquiry on the unprovoked lathicharge, destruction and looting by the police.
4. Unconditional release of the arrested and immediate withdrawal of all cases against the people.
5. Sanction of bus service and road laying from Koodamalai to Nanankarai and a bridge over Suvetha river.

Names and signatures of the members of the Fact-finding Team:

Balamurugan; S. Gopal; C. R. Bijoy; V.P Gunasekharan; P. Damayanthi; Baladandayutham; Thumbal Jayaraman; Venku; Mayan; Rameswaran; Kannan; Thankappalam; Palanaimuthu; Muthuswamy

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