Vachathi Case Verdict Proves Sustained Struggle Ensures Justice
A public meeting was held in Aroor, Tamil Nadu, on October 18, to celebrate the Madras High Court verdict in the Vachathi case.
Chennai: The involvement of multiple organisations using many forms of resistance ensured a victorious verdict for the Vachathi tribal people in Tamil Nadu. The enormity of the struggle becomes more important considering that the perpetrators of violence were bureaucrats aided by the then-ruling party AIADMK.
In the name of recovering smuggled sandalwood, 269 forest and revenue officials and cops entered Vachathi village, in Dharmapuri district’s Sitheri Hoothills, on June 20-22, 1992, and ransacked houses.
The hamlet housed 186 families of the Malayali Scheduled Tribe community other than 12 families. Small-scale farming and cattle grazing were their primary occupations.
After 31 years, Justice P Velmurugan of the Madras High Court (HC) dismissed all the appeals on September 29 and upheld the punishment imposed on the government servants by the Dharmapuri Sessions Court in 2011.
Besides the 54 people who died, the Sessions Court convicted 215 government servants (four IAS officers, 126 forest department personnel, 84 cops and five revenue department officials) of which 17 were convicted of rape.
Following the HC verdict, the lawyers who fought the case and tribal rights activists held celebratory meetings.
The struggle for justice for Vachathi people was waged on many fronts. The case was fought in court, elected representatives raised the issue in Parliament and the Assembly, activists held protests, rallies and agitations grabbing media attention, and fraternal organisations provided financial support.
“We used all forms of protest for the Vachathi case. It became a people’s movement. That is the reason for the victory,” P Shanmugam, former secretary of the Tamil Nadu Tribal Association, instrumental in bringing the case to light, said at the victory celebration seminar organised by the All Inda Lawyers Union (AILU) in Chennai on October 20.
“It was not a fight against a few individuals but against the entire government machinery,” he added.
The CITU transport workers union raised more than Rs 30,000 in July 1992 to immediately help the victims. Mills in Tiruppur and other parts of the state sent sarees and blankets. The Vachathi people had run out of food, clothing and everyday utensils. They were not left with even tumblers to drink water. The government officials had dilapidated their houses and contaminated the wells.
The immediate relief ensured hope for the oppressed people, and they rallied behind the red flag of the TNTA to fight for justice.
“Without the united struggle of the affected people, the judicial fight would not have been possible,” said advocate G Chamkira, majorly involved in the groundwork for the case, said at the seminar.
But the TNTA struggled to get the investigation rolling in the case and people from many organisations had to step in.
Shanmugan said, “The Aroor Police Station refused to file an FIR against the perpetrators. The then-ruling party AIADMK stood by the offenders and the state government refused to order an investigation.”
Meanwhile, the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) approached the national SC/ST Commission and demanded its intervention. Director B Bhamathi immediately visited Vachathi and submitted a strong report.
Armed with the report, CPI(M) member of Parliament A Nallasivan filed a writ petition in the HC on September 20, 1992, seeking a thorough inquiry into the brutality.
Three years later, Justice Abdul Hadi ordered the case to be shifted to the CBI although the affected people made no such plea.
Nallasivan simultaneously raised the issue in Parliament, which helped the victims, who were falsely arrested, to be released in batches.
Shanmugam said, “We would not have been able to pursue the case without the financial help of insurance and bank workers’ unions.”
Ironically, no FIR has been filed against the atrocities. But a fake FIR was filed against the victims on the day of the violence.
The consistency of the victims’ narrative ensured justice. The memorandum submitted by late AIDWA leader Mythili Sivaraman to the SC/ST Commission contained the same information as in its report and that of the CBI.
“The errorless work of the lawyers ensured the case was pursued and the accused were acquitted,” said Dilli Babu, ex-MLA of Dharmapuri.
“This verdict is against all bureaucrats and elites who hold the stigma that tribals are thieves and cheats, and they can be mistreated,” he added.
All the 129 accused approached the HC yet they were convicted.
JUSTICE IS POSSIBLE
Getting a verdict against the bureaucrats is a significant victory and creates trust in the judiciary.
“The verdict is inspirational in these times. Through the united struggle, we raised questions and ensured a strong verdict,” said Tamil Nadu AILU secretary Shiva Kumar.
“Even 30 years after the Vachathi brutality, we see the ruling class continuing to spew violence on people: state-sponsored violence in Manipur and shooting against its people in Sterlite,” he added.
he verdict reiterates the necessity for an autonomous judiciary independent of political pressure. Only that will ensure democratic verdicts,” he further said.
Advocate G Chamkiraj said, “It took three months for a commission to form after the Nirbhaya incident in Delhi. Here, it took 31 years to ensure justice for 18 tribal women.”
She added, “Another important lesson the Vachathi case teaches is that courts are not for everyone. If poor, deprived and marginalised people want justice, it has to be fought out. There was even tampering in the test identification of the accused. So, pressure had to be mounted to follow protocol.”
The people of Vachathi fought consistently for 30 years because they had nothing to lose and were supported by AILU, AIDWA, TNTA and the CPI(M).
“The Vachthi case gives the confidence that we must bravely fight for justice and it assures that justice is possible even if criminals are powerful,” Shanmugam said at a victory rally in Aroor on October 18.
THEY MADE IT POSSIBLE
An entire machinery was instrumental in this verdict with the case passing through many Judges in the Sessions Court, HC and Supreme Court.
District Judge S Kumaraguru gave a historic verdict on September 29, 2011. “It is the first case in the world in which so many government officials were convicted at once,” said Shanmugam.
Several people played a crucial part in ensuring justice. AILU leader Hardev Sigh filed a writ petition in the SC to transfer the case to the HC.
At victory celebration public rally in Aroor on October 18, state CPI(M) secretary and then-Cuddalore district secretary K Balakrishnan said, “Advocates NGR Prasad, R Vaigai, K Elango, Chamkiraj and K Subburam fought the case without taking any money. They stood for a humanitarian cause.”
The Salem Prison warden Lalithabai helped the Vachathi women arrested on false cases days after the gruesome incident. She provided medical help to the assaulted women and was deposed as a witness in the case.
DOCUMENTING THE STRUGGLE
“Other than the AIADMK and BJP, most political parties and movements welcomed the HC verdict. But they did not acknowledge the role of CPI(M) or the TNTA,” said Shanmugan stating the importance of archiving the meticulous work of communists.
“If the Jai Bhim movie was not released, Parvathy’s fight for justice and the role and KB’s intervention would have gone unnoticed,” he said.
TNTA is working on a book with details of the 31-year-long struggle.
Film actor and cultural activist Rohini announced that she will make a film based on the Vachathi atrocity with the help of the Tamil Nadu Progressive Writers’ and Artists’ Association.
TNTA leaders have urged chief minister MK Stalin to implement the HC verdict immediately. The association has also petitioned the court to order the state to provide government jobs, housing, a primary healthcare centre, proper roads, a primary school and a crematorium to the affected people.
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