P Srinivasan, a veteran village functionary who cremates the dead had, in an interview done few years ago, described the darkening early morning on December 26, 1968, when the bodies began arriving from Keezhvenmani, a non-descript village in Thanjavur district of Tamil Nadu.
The village functionary, called Vettiyan, who is nearing 60 now, still remembered the number: "There were 42 corpses in all, horribly burnt and mangled. The stench was awful,” Pointing towards the plot of land where they were cremated, he said “All of them were Dalits, burnt to death in a caste clash. I cremated them on these very grounds.”
Srinivasan, then 23-year-old, shared vivid details of that ‘Black Thursday’ in 1968, a day that has remained etched in his mind.
December 25, 2018, completes 50 years of that 'Black Thursday in 1968', which is remembered as the first massacre of Dalits in independent India. The Dalits were martyred while fighting for respectable wages under the leadership of the Communist Party. All of these landless peasants had started to organise themselves into a campaign for higher wages following the increase in agricultural production in the area.
The barbarity of the whole episode has been memorialised by many.
Mythili Sivaraman, a woman’s rights activist and a leader of All India Democratic Women’s Association, has written extensively to publicise the atrocities through her articles and essays. A collection of her writings about the incident has been published as a book named, Haunted by Fire.
One of the most gruesome aspects of the massacre of Dalits was the killing of children. Meena Kandasamy, a poet and author, says the carnage “exposes the cruelty of the caste system but also the cruelty of the state machine.”
From our memories of Gujarat genocide in 2002, we cannot forget the bodies of children who were lined up, arranged next to each other….All of them were burnt to death. In fact, it was not just that the children were locked up in a hut and burnt to death, but there is one episode which anybody in Keezhvenmani will tell you again and again -- how one of the mothers of a child in a desperate attempt to save the child threw the child outside, hoping that somebody will save the baby, somebody in the mob would have the humanity to save this child. But they basically chopped the baby into pieces and threw the baby back into the hut and set it on fire.
The martyrs of Keezhvenmani have not been forgotten. A memorial has been built there, where every year there is a large gathering of people under the red banner - remembering the dead and resolving to continue the struggle. With the re-emergence of the Dalit movement in the country, one witnesses programmes led by Ambedkarite organisations as well. The first memorial built in the TN village (1969) was inaugurated by Comrade Jyoti Basu, then deputy Chief Minister in the coalition government that governed West Bengal.
A look back at the bloody events and its aftermath tell us that - barring the Communists - everybody had failed the Dalits.
There was the police, which is supposed to guard the life and liberties of people, who were aiding the landlords leading the lynch mobs. Not only did they file flimsy cases but also watered down every testimony that provided enough escape routes for the accused to go scot free. The leader of the perpetrators was one Gopal Krishna Naidoo, an influential Congress leader in the area. The party was ruling at the Centre and many states then. C.N. Annadurai, the first Dravidian Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, visited the spot and said: “People should forget this as they forget a feverish nightmare or a flash of lightning”.
The long-drawn out trial in the courts was predictable.
Despite the fact that the perpetrators of the massacre, led by a leader of the Paddy Growers Association, had arrived there in vehicles, armed with weapons and inflammable material, and despite the fact that witnesses to the gory incident had divulged intricate details of the incident to the police and before the judiciary, all of them were finally acquitted by the courts. One of the specious pleas used by the courts still reverberates: They were all upper caste people and it sounds unbelievable that they would have gone walking to the village.
Today, as we remember the dead and once again resolve to (in the words of a revolutionary poet used in a different context) 'to move heaven and earth' to eliminate all sorts of exploitation and oppression, it is a very disturbing realisation that Keezhvenmani is not just the name of a village. It has become sort of a template which one sees here unfolding itself.
Keezhvenmani happened in 1968 but one can say that it repeated itself in Villupuram in 1978, it happened in Tsundur, Bathani Tola, Bathe, Kumher and is happening everywhere. Any cursory glance at the cases of mass crimes against Dalits tells us that the aftermath is no exception, rather it is the norm.
Take the case of Tsundur, Guntur, Andhra Pradesh, which had made headlines in 1991, when eight Dalits were lynched by a 400-strong armed mob of the upper caste Reddys, supposedly to teach the Dalits a lesson. The judgement of the special courts -- 'historic' in many ways -- stands overturned by the A.P High Court (2014) which acquitted all the accused involved in the case for 'want of evidence'.
Also, the massacre of Dalits in Kumher (Rajasthan) in1992, when upper caste people had assembled in a panchayat in Kuhmer town of Bharatpur and attacked Dalit localities. The attacks left 17 Dalits dead. The case which deals with the main Kumher massacre, is still being heard. Meanwhile, a counter-case filed by the dominant community against local Dalit youth has already been decided and they have to spend five years in jail.
A year before the Tsundur judgement, the Patna High Court acquitted nine out of 10 accused in the Miyapur massacre for 'lack of evidence,' overturning a lower court’s order. (July 2013) The Miyapur massacre was a major carnage in which the Ranvir Sena killed 32 people, mostly Dalits, supposedly to avenge an earlier Naxal attack in Senari village of Jehanabad. About 400-500 people had entered the village and began firing at the villagers on June 16, 2000.
The same year one witnessed the Patna High Court overturning another judgement by the lower court where 11 accused involved in the killings of 10 activists of CPI (ML) in November 1998 had been convicted.
One had witnessed similar reversals in the Bathani Tola massacre -- which involved 23 accused -- and Laxmanpur Bathe massacre, which saw 58 deaths. In all the above cases, the Ranveer Sena was said to be involved but it was allowed to go 'scot free'.
No doubt that the lower courts had convicted the accused -- which the High Court later reversed -- but a close reading of the cases would make it clear that loopholes were deliberately left which could facilitate the accused. For example, the police had pronounced Ranvir Sena supremo Brahmeshwar Singh “Mukhiya”, the prime accused, as an “absconder”. It is a different matter that this dangerous criminal was languishing in Ara jail since 2002.
It may be added here that when Nitish Kumar assumed charge as Bihar Chief Minister in 2004, one of the first things he did was to disband the Justice Amir Das Commission when it was nearly ready with its report. The Commission was appointed in the immediate aftermath of the Bathe massacre and had gone into great details about the political patronage that Ranvir Sena received from different mainstream political formations.
One can just go on and on talking about Kambalapalli in Karnataka or Khairlanji in Maharashtra or Thangarh killings in Gujarat.
Not some time ago, the Delhi High Court, while sentencing Sajjan Kumar in the 1984 killings of Sikhs, made a stinging observation regarding mass crimes and political patronage. “The criminals responsible for the mass crimes have enjoyed political patronage and managed to evade prosecution and punishment. Bringing such criminals to justice poses a serious challenge to our legal system,”
Underlining the fact that “neither crimes against humanity nor genocide is part of our domestic law of crime", it talked of addressing the loophole urgently. It also listed out incidents - killing of 2,733 Sikhs and nearly 3,359 all over the country (in 1984), mass killings in Punjab, Delhi and elsewhere during the country’s Partition There has been a familiar pattern of mass killings in Mumbai in 1993, in Gujarat in 2002, in Kandhamal, Odisha in 2008 and in Muzaffarnagar in UP in 2013 to name a few.”
Perhaps one just feels that the honourable courts should have also decided to include names of Keezhvenmani, Villupuram. Kumher, Bathani Tola, Tsundur etc as well to underline that the rot runs deep.
It is said that shadows of Keezhvenmani have continuously hovered around atrocities against Dalits and adivasis in post-Independent India.
The question arises, how long it this going to continue?