Last week, 59-year-old Nirmala Devi was found beheaded in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.
On the same day, Stephen Raj was beheaded near a bus stop in the same district. The week before, a man called Sankara Subramanium was found murdered and decapitated. Two days later, the severed head of another man, Mariappan, was found on Subramanium’s grave.
Following the shocking incidents, police made 450 arrests in a state-wide crackdown on what they called “antisocial elements” and “rowdies” in the region of more than 72 million people.
Investigators now assert that the four beheadings are connected to two warring “gangs” from two different castes in southern India: the Pandian and Pannaiyar.
“Caste affinity motivates them,” VR Srinivasan, the superintendent of police in Tamil Nadu’s district of Dindigul, told The Indian Express. “They all had a collective motive, of revenge,” another officer involved in the case told The Indian Express. “Nothing could have stopped them.”
In India, at least one incident of caste-based violence is recorded every hour.
A Kathir, a Dalit social activist who runs the NGO Evidence that monitors crimes against Dalits, said his organisation has documented at least 300 caste-based murders in 33 Tamil Nadu districts over the last five years. In the group’s survey of around 100 Dalit murders, they found that the suspects in half of the cases had not been arrested. The latest government report showed that crimes against Dalits across the country continue to rise, and yet the conviction rate remains very low.
The caste system in India has parallels to America’s racism problem. In the ancient social structure, people born in Dalit families are considered “untouchables” and subjected to structural and institutional exclusion, often through violent means. India outlawed caste-based discrimination in 1950, but the caste system still widely exists.
Unlike many Indian states where the caste divide is used for political gains, Tamil Nadu has historically had a strong anti-caste movement, said Kalpana Sathish, a human rights and anti-caste activist. Still, realities on the ground remain abysmal. Very often, the Indian police have been reported to have caste bias, too.
“When the Dalit people retaliate, violence is unleashed on them. Then murders are committed,” Sathish told VICE World News. “The state terms these incidents as ‘caste clash’ or ‘rowdyism.’ They will not address the root cause – the caste problem.”
The recent series of murders and decapitations highlights India’s deeply-rooted caste system, and how communities resort to violence when they feel justice eludes them.
The Pandians are Dalits while the Pannaiyars are from a dominant caste similar to Brahmins.
In their investigation, the police found that caste-based conflicts between the Pandians and Pannaiyars have so far claimed at least 12 lives. The latest victim, Nirmala Devi, was accused in the murder of C Pasupathy Pandian, who was a prominent Dalit leader.
“The beginning of these revenge killings by the Pandian was locally seen as a reaction to harassment meted out to Dalit labourers who worked under the Pannaiyar family, mainly over issues such as water scarcity and disputes over a salt pan,” a senior police official involved in the investigation told the media.
Last year, during the COVID-19 lockdown, Tamil Nadu recorded “new levels” of caste-based discrimination. Dalits were murdered, forced to eat faeces, lynched by mobs, and became targets of other forms of violence.
“Ideologically, our state stands for social justice” Sathish said. “But in reality, the caste system is so entrenched. There is a history of thousands of years of oppression.”
A Human Rights Watch report found that the pattern of clashes in Tamil Nadu is an attempt by the Dalit at self-assertion and a reflection of their loss of faith in the justice system.
Caste assertion is a phenomenon in many parts of India. For instance, some Dalits are reclaiming temple spaces where they used to be banned because they were considered “impure.” In 2017, a spate of attacks on Dalits by dominant-caste men over growing a moustache led to a social media movement.
Often, when caste-based killings are reported or documented, police officials would rather keep mum for fear of being questioned by the public, Kathir said.
“There are several motivations for such murders: land issues, harassment issues, untouchability and so on,” he added. “A lot of Dalit activists and political leaders are murdered, too. These are not personal clashes. These are clearly social issues.”
Various human rights reports have documented how the police often refuse to register complaints from Dalits, delay their arrival at a crime scene, or fail to arrest suspects from the dominant castes.
Sathish said caste retaliation is bound to happen if the system continues to discriminate against Dalits. “In practice, social justice remains a slogan for Dalits.”
Between 2016 and 2020, 300 SC/ST persons have been murdered in Tamil Nadu and only 13 convictions have taken place. Drawing from RTI data, Evidence, an NGO based in Madurai, released a report on September 14, on caste crimes in Tamil Nadu over the last five years (from January 2016 to December 2020). The organisation, run by the founder and executive director A Kathir, works to help secure Dalit and tribal rights.
The RTI data comes from 35 of the 38 districts in the state, and the report says that 300 SC/ST persons have been murdered in the state. A majority of the cases—229—are in the courts where proceedings are ongoing or yet to even come before a judge after being filed, leaving 28 pending police investigations. The report also says that there have been 13 convictions and 30 acquittals over the five-year period.
The remaining five districts, namely Ariyalur, Chennai, Kanyakumari, Tiruppur and Mayiladuthurai, did not send data. In the case of Tirunelveli district, only data regarding Tirunelveli city was sent, the rural areas where the majority of caste crimes occur has not been sent, says Kathir, adding that both Ariyalur and Tiruppur refused while the others gave no reply. The report says that an estimate of the total number of murders if the five districts had also sent data, may increase to 340 to 350.
The data regarding the 300 murders, expose grim trends in low conviction rates and pending cases either in the courts or with the police. Thoothukudi district tops the list with the highest number of murders (29) followed by Madurai district (28) with nine of the murders having taken place in Madurai city alone.
Of the 29 cases in Thoothukudi, 22 are still pending in court and there have been four acquittals. In the case of Madurai district, 20 cases are still pending in court and four others have been acquittals. The conviction numbers in both districts stand at zero and three, respectively. Kallakuruchi has witnessed 24 murders all in the last two years with 19 of them still pending investigation and five cases yet to come before a judge.Further, there were 19 murders in Nagapattinam district and 17 in Coimbatore, the RTI data reveals. Going by all of the data received, an average of 5 to 6 caste murders of SC/ST persons happened every month from 2016 to 2020, the report says.
A higher number of SC/ST men are the murder victims says Kathir and the reasons range from disagreements over land, anti-caste activism, temple entry and inter-caste marriages.
Long delays, pending judgements and low conviction rates
The 2015 amendment to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, commonly called PoA Act, clearly state that the judgments in cases filed under the act must be given within two months of filing the chargesheet, yet judgment is pending in 86% of the cases from 2016 – 2020, the report says.
Speaking to TNM, Kathir says there are delays at each stage, from the filing of the FIR or the chargesheet to the actual pronouncement of the judgment. Often, in the case of convictions, the sentencing is under the Indian Penal Code (IPC) alone and not under PoA.
He also alleges that in the case of acquittals the state does not appeal the verdict on time and that the performance of public prosecutors nor that of the investigating police officer are up to par. Chargesheets are often too weak, he says, adding that there are delays also in the arrest of the accused once the FIR is filed and in the monetary compensation reaching the victim’s families.
“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 adds. “Threats to the family at the FIR stage, improper filing of the FIR, biased investigations, there are a hoard of problems.”
The report demands that the pending cases be closed expediently and that the accused be rightfully convicted in the next six months. It also says that by law, families of victims are entitled to monetary benefits, government jobs and agricultural land, but in most cases only the monetary benefits reach the families.
MADURAI: Stating that a 48-year-old resident of Melur named Nondisamy was allegedly killed by a caste Hindu on Tuesday owing to previous enmity, the Executive Director of the NGO, Evidence, A Kathir, sought Rs 25 lakh compensation and a government job for the affected family. S Nondisamy, who belonged to the SC community, was a cleanliness worker at Therkutheru panchayat.
Six months ago, Nondisamy allegedly complained against one A Pandiyarajan, a caste Hindu, for allegedly stealing cement blocks used for drainage repair works. About a week ago, Nondisamy reportedly warned Pandiarajan while he was caught mining sand, following which Pandiyarajan allegedly made casteist remarks and issued death threats to him.
“On Tuesday, when Nondisamy was chatting with his brother and friend, Pandiarajan overheard Nondisamy complaining to them about his death threats and assaulted him with a log. Nondisamy died en route to Melur government hospital,” added Kathir.
In the last five years, a total of 300 murders in incidents of various caste-related violence across Tamil Nadu have been registered under the provisions of The Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Act, 2015. A majority of the victims were Dalits.
Thoothukudi and Madurai top in the number of murders among the 33 districts for which statistics on murders of Dalits and tribal people were procured under the Right To Information (RTI) Act. Murders of tribal people were limited to a few districts where they resided. Five districts, including Tirunelveli, which is notorious for caste discrimination and caste-related violence, are yet to respond to the RTI requests.
The RTI queries seeking details on murders of Dalit and tribal people from January 2016 to December 2020 were sent in two dispatches to all district police chiefs, besides other officials concerned, by the Madurai-based non-governmental organisation (NGO) Evidence. A detailed analysis of the data exposes the prevalence of casteism in these districts.
On an average, three to six murders a day were committed in the State during the period of study. Thoothukudi had the maximum number of murders with 29, followed by Madurai (28), Kallakurichi (24; recently carved out from Villupuram), Villupuram (13), Nagapattinam (19) and Coimbatore (17). Tiruvarur, Tiruvallur and Ranipet recorded two each while Tirupathur and Dharmapuri registered one each.
The study exposed the weak prosecution in cases relating to cases of caste-based discrimination. Of the total 300 murder cases, the accused were convicted in a mere 13, while in 30 cases the accused were acquitted. While 28 cases are still under investigation, the rest 229 are pending before the courts. A. Kadir, executive director of Evidence, told Frontline that 86 per cent of cases were pending before the courts for five years and more.
Kadir was of the view that such sensitive cases should not be delayed. The State government, he said, should have established adequate special courts to hear the cases registered under the S.C./S.T. Act. “Unfortunately, the districts have only 50 per cent of the special courts and hence the delay in all these cases is inevitable,” Kadir pointed out. He said sufficient number of special courts must be formed to speed up the pending cases.
He thanked Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.K. Stalin for reorganising the State-level Vigilance Committee under the provisions of the S.C./S.T. Act to monitor the welfare of people belonging to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes and to redress their grievances. Both State and district level committees are required to meet twice a year and discuss issues confronting members of these oppressed caste groups. Unfortunately, the State committee was convened just thrice in the last three decades. “The Chief Minister has promised to activate the high level committee,” he said.
He also said that though the conviction ratio under the S.C./S.T. Act was low, what pained the activists most was the equally low conviction ratio in cases of heinous crimes such as murders. “The Chief Minister should intervene and establish more number of special courts across the State to ensure speedy justice to the wronged. Pending cases must be expedited and the culprits should be brought before the courts,” he said.
Activists demanded that the State must, as per the provisions of the S.C./S.T. Act, compensate families of all the Dalit victims with jobs and land.
MADURAI: An RTI-based data collection carried out since January by the executive director of the NGO ‘Evidence’, A Kathir, revealed that 300 people from SC/ST communities were killed in caste murders across 33 districts of TN from 2016 to 2020.
Pointing out that according to the data, on an average, 5-6 caste-based killings occur in the State every month, he said among the 33 districts that shared the data, Thoothukudi tops the list with 29 murders, followed by Madurai with 28, and Kallakurichi with 24.
“While 13 cases have been registered during the five year period in Villupuram, 24 cases of murders on caste lines were registered in 15 months alone, from January 2020 to March 2021 in Kallakurichi district that was bifurcated from Villupuram district nearly two years ago. It is an alarming trend in the Villupuram-Kallakurichi belt,” he explained.
Recording a conviction rate of 4.3 per cent, the accused in only 13 of the 300 registered cases have been convicted, while 28 cases are pending investigation and a whopping 229 cases are pending trial at court.
Even 32 years after the SC and ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 was enacted, not all districts have separate court buildings to hear cases on atrocities against SCs/STs. This leads to prolonged pendency of cases, Kathir said.
In the 30 years until December 2020, the State Vigilance Monitoring Committee, that is to meet twice a year, has met only three times, he added. Stating the committee was recently formed by the DMK government with 63 members, he urged it to take steps to expedite investigations and grant relief to victims’ families.
Kallakurichi Collector PN Sridhar said the issue would be discussed at the new district’s first vigilance monitoring committee meeting that is to be held this week. Commenting on the low conviction rate in SC/ST murders, activist Henri Tiphagne said, “Effective and speedy prosecution holds the key. Seeking more time during the trial and the delay only leads to witness tampering and out-of-court settlements. Provisions for the protection of witness and victim are built within the Act itself, but are not practised. Only if all provisions are put into use can the conviction rate be improved.”
Re-postmortem of Dalit priest
The Madurai Bench of the Madras HC has ordered a re-postmortem of the body of a Dalit priest from Pudukkottai. He was found hanging from a tree last month, after allegedly being killed by Caste Hindus