In September this year, Madurai-based anti-caste NGO Evidence released a grim five-year report on the number of caste murders and convictions in Tamil Nadu. From January 2016 to December 2020, there were 300 murders of people from Schedule Caste and Scheduled Tribe communities. The total number of convictions for these murders stood at an abysmal 13. In 30 cases, the accused have been acquitted. The remaining 257 cases are stagnating at various stages, either with the courts or with the police. In a series of articles, TNM will be following up on some of these cases that have hit roadblocks or in which the accused have been acquitted, speaking to surviving families and/or lawyers to highlight how so many are yet to receive justice.
The first in this series is the murder of 34-year-old Muthazhagu, who was hacked to death over four years ago for his grassroots anti-caste activism. He was attacked near his home in Madurai district’s Vadapazhanji on June 28, 2017. The accused used an aruvaal (sickle) and knives. He bled to death from these wounds. Those accused in his murder are all out on bail. And the trial? It’s yet to begin.
“They killed my husband because he fearlessly came forward for his community, no matter what the issue was. If I have to put it simply, they thought as long as he’s around, he’ll ask questions. If we kill him, the rest of them will also go quiet,” says his wife Arulmozhi.
A well-known activist figure in the area, Muthazhagu lived in Vadapazhanji’s Ambedkar Colony with his wife and two sons, who were then studying in Class 6 and 7. At the time of his murder, he was a district-level co-organiser of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK). He had helped several intercaste couples get married, Arulmozhi tells TNM.
“If youngsters in our colony faced caste-based harassment he’d encourage them to file FIRs under the Protection of Civil Rights (PCR) or Prevention of Atrocities Against SC/STs (PoA) Acts. Usually, the oppressor caste would try to come to a settlement in the police station itself without a case getting filed. My husband wouldn’t allow this. When a TASMAC liquor store in our neighbourhood opened a bar illegally, he stood with the women fighting to shut it down,” she adds.
In 2013, he had helped a woman from a dominant caste and her now husband, who is Dalit, get married. The couple, facing opposition from her family, had approached Muthazhagu for help. Muthazhagu faced casteist abuse and threats from the woman’s family for a year then, says a press statement released by Evidence after his death.
He and Arulmozhi are themselves an intercaste couple. Muthazhagu had supported many such couples until he was attacked and killed. The 12 accused are from the Pira Malai Kallar caste, a Kallar sub-caste that falls within the Thevar cluster or the so-called ‘Mukkulathor’. They are the caste group from whom Dalit people in the area face repeated antagonism.
In her witness statement, Arulmozhi records that on the night of the murder, she returned home to find that Muthazhagu had left somewhere in a hurry. This was around 9.00 pm, she says. She tried calling his mobile phone twice, but there was no answer. A relative who lived nearby told her that he had gone westwards while speaking on his phone, writes Arulmozhi, so she walked in the same direction. When she rang him a fourth time, it said the number was out of the network area.
At that moment she heard a neighbour raise an alarm ahead. She, her father-in-law and others ran in the direction of the shouts to find Muthazhagu lying dead in a pool of blood. He had stab injuries on his right temple, right ear, chest, left hip and more. They also noted abrasions on his left elbow and knee.
The field where Muthazhagu was found murdered
“They [the Pira Malai Kallars in the area] calculated that if he was no longer around, there would be no one else to come forward and ask questions. Their calculation has turned out correct. In these last five years, whatever happens, no one has taken a stand like he did,” says Arulmozhi.
Kathir, founder and executive director of the NGO Evidence, calls Muthazhagu “a straightforward, honest young man”. He adds, “He wanted to bring about change. He was a true grassroots activist and Dalit human rights defender. Many people in politics can be bought, but not him. Even in the case of the TASMAC illegal bar, which was owned by a person from the Pira Malai Kallar community, they offered money to silence him, but he wouldn’t be swayed.”
Evidence has been supporting the family since the murder, documenting the case and arranging for legal help.
Arulmozhi, Muthazhagu’s wife, with A Kathir founder and executive director of Evidence
Police delay, courts delay even more
The PoA Act clearly states that in the case of murder of Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe persons, a chargesheet should be filed within 60 days of the incident. In Muthazhagu’s case, the chargesheet was only filed on May 3, 2018, nine months later than it should have been.
After the bail hearing of the accused, the case has not progressed. Seven of the accused were granted bail, the remaining five absconded and later got anticipatory bail. The trial itself remains pending in front of the SC/ST special court in Madurai. Arulmozhi says that a date has been given next month, but she is waiting to see what will happen.
Justice delayed is routine with caste crimes
The roadblocks in the Muthazhagu case are not unusual. The criminal justice system routinely works to the disfavour of SC/ST communities. It begins right from the FIR stage. Often FIRs are not filed under PoA, despite the law mandating that they should be when the perpatrator is not SC/ST. This dilutes the case at the beginning. A report by the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR) says that 32.5% of crimes against SC people in India from 2009-2018 were not registered under PoA. In Muthazhagu’s case too, the FIR, of which TNM has a copy, was filed only under section 302 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) (punishment for murder).
The delayed chargesheet in the Muthazhagu case is also not unusual. Again, with reference to the NCDHR report, chargesheets for 476 PoA cases in 2016 and 454 PoA cases in 2017 in Tamil Nadu were filed only after the mandated 60 days had lapsed.
As Kathir had told TNM earlier, there are delays at each stage, from the filing of the FIR and the chargesheet to the actual pronouncement of judgment. Often, in the case of convictions, the sentencing is under IPC alone and not under PoA. Kathir had added that “throughout the investigative process there are missteps, for example, according to the PoA Act the district collector is obligated to do a spot visit, but that does not happen in most of the cases.” He further said, “Threats to the family at the FIR stage, improper filing of the FIR, biased investigations, there are a hoard of problems.” He had also alleged that the performance of the investigating police officer to the public prosecutor is not up to par.
Justifiable reasons for investigative or judicial delays appear scant.
Speaking to TNM for this report, Kathir says, “For example, when questions are asked as to why there is a delay in the charge sheet, they [the police] will say we are conducting further investigations. According to the PoA, it is possible to give the verdict in three months after the chargesheet is filed. Fast-tracking these cases is a demand that Evidence has repeatedly put forth.”
“We need more investigative officers (IOs) who focus on PoA cases without having to look at regular cases filed under IPC,” Kathir also says. “Anyway,” he adds, “the IO for PoA cases is the Deputy superintendent of Police (DSP). To my knowledge, there are more than 300 DSPs in Tamil Nadu. The average number PoA cases in the state are 1,200 annually. That’s only 3 to 4 PoA cases per DSP each year. What then is the reason for such long investigative delays? Why are they not able to conduct quality investigations?”