CHENNAI: Ella pugazhum makkalukke,” signed off Vincent Raj alias Evidence Kathir after accepting the Council of Europe’s prestigious Raoul Wellenberg Award last week. This is the sentiment that has driven Vincent and his organisation to persist in the fight for human rights, particularly Dalit rights, for over 25 years now. After thousands of cases, many a difficult success, and plenty of threats to personal safety, it is this very purpose that has brought home the award that was meant to honour extraordinary human achievement, courage, and success against all odds.
“Looking back, a quarter of a century has gone by in helping victims of human rights violations, sharing their pain, standing by them at the police station or hospital, protecting them, taking up their court case on their behalf, and parallelly doing skill training and such. It has been a rich experience — in a tragic way,” he recounts. Today, Evidence is recognised as the go-to organisation for Dalits and others in need. It has built a name of repute across the country, even inviting praise from the likes of Rahul Gandhi. But all this, as it always does, had a humble beginning back home.
From personal experiences
A Dalit born and raised in the contentious belly of Madurai, Vincent has been subjected to atrocities himself. But to think that an activist is made from the one big deed of injustice that has been done to him is a false notion and a rather dramatic one, he suggests.
“Our interests and concerns, the impact of several incidents over a period of time, the need to do something for the people around us — all this brings out the ‘activist’ in us. But there were many things in my life that affected me. In 1984, a cousin of mine was gang-raped and the panchayat charged the accused with just a fine of Rs 80; we were not allowed to file a case. In class 11, my teacher asked which community I belonged to and I felt so uncomfortable to give that answer. We belong to the Parayar community; enga thaatha saavuku ellam molam adipaaru. Growing up watching all this, and the way my parents raised me, I wanted to do something for society. Though I entered the field as an environmental activist, I immediately moved to human rights,” he narrates. This was all the way back in 1995. It would be ten more years before Evidence is registered as an organisation. And there’s been no dearth of work since.
A scheduled caste (SC) person faced crime every 10 minutes in India in 2020, cumulating to a total of 50,291 cases registered that year, an increase of 9.4 per cent from the previous year, data from the National Crime Records Bureau says. Vincent’s work has allowed a small percentage of this number to find justice. Over the years, he’s been directly involved in seeking justice for over 3,000 cases of human rights violations and helped rescue/rehabilitate over 25,000 people.
Educating the masses
Kollimalai of Thiruvanduthurai village near Mannarkudi of Thiruvarur district counts himself as one such beneficiary. The 45-year-old brick kiln worker was returning home from work, when he was subjected to torture and humiliation by three upper-caste men. He was made to eat human waste and the three men urinated on him. When the cops eventually arrested the men, they were only charged for the crime of using casteist slurs. It was with the involvement of Evidence and Vincent that the case had any movement.
“No one here knew that the case had to be filed under SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. The police were of no help either. A team of ten showed up from Evidence, they created awareness and brought out the issue. Kathir sir gave me confidence when I was on the verge of suicide. He promised to win the case for me and encouraged me to not back down from the fight. It’s because of him that I continue to live with dignity here,” shares Kollimalai. Not only were the three men convicted, but Vincent also made sure that Kollimalai received the compensation due to him.
In the case of the late S Nagamuthu of T Kallupatti village in Periyakulam, Theni, the battle has raged on for 10 years now. And it’s still far more progress than the family had ever hoped to achieve. When the young Dalit priest of a local temple complained of discrimination and harassment by caste Hindus of the village, the police failed to even register a case. There was a lot of pressure to withdraw the case, and many threats too. It was when Nagamuthu reached out to Evidence that they could even begin the process of seeking justice. Nagamuthu died by suicide in December 2012; now, his family has been keeping up the fight on his behalf.
“En magan thadam theriyama poitan. He directed me to Kathir and because of him, we were able to go all the way to the High Court. If not for him, people in power would have destroyed our family by now. Instead, the entire state knows about the case of an SC boy now,” points out Subburaj, Nagamuthu’s father, breaking down as he recalls the horrors of the past decade.
Attacks amid activism
Evidence has played an integral role in the Shankar-Kousalya case as well. An effort to investigate the death of a Tamil tribal girl in Kerala led to the rescue of 1,000 girls who had gone there for domestic jobs (thanks to the effort of other organisations who stepped in as well). He rescued 58 families (non-Dalits) from the clutches of bonded labour. Through all this, Vincent himself has been subjected to threats and physical attacks. After the rescue of the bonded labourers, he was bound up and beaten up; with kerosene thrown on him, that was the night he believed he wouldn’t make it.
Many a times, he’s had to move his wife and son to safety, keep them out of harm’s way; stay out of town for months together. All in the effort to keep the work going; even as the work seems as much a constant as it ever was. What keeps him going still? The sense of having served an entire generation of a family while rescuing one man/woman, the change inspired by his help, the sense of self-sufficiency it inspires in the community. Kollimalai has done his part to help his fellow Dalits in trouble. Mukkaiah Thevar no longer bears the caste surname. And so on.
But, naturally, there’s plenty left to do. “An activist has three roles — improve the conditions of the oppressed community, bring about change within the dominant community acting as oppressors, and bring policy level changes in institutions. We work towards these changes, and they are happening. When George Floyd was killed, White people came to the streets to apologise. In India or Tamil Nadu, is there any history of the dominant castes asking for forgiveness for the atrocities committed in the name of caste? When that day comes, we can say that democracy has begun to sprout,” he surmises.
While Vincent labels himself an atheist, he finds great inspiration in the works of Jesus. As long as we don’t use the garb of religion, everything the man did was advocate for human rights, points out Vincent. He also views Mary as a feminist, who braved the conditions to have a child out of wedlock and raised him to do all he could for the people around him.