On June 20, 1992, in Vachathi – a village in Dharmapuri, Tamil Nadu – a team of 155 forest personnel, 108 policemen, and 6 revenue officials in the region entered the village. The majority of the population of the village were Dalits and tribals. This battalion of officials entered the village in the name of searching for Veerappan’s sandalwood stash and to gather information on his whereabouts. What followed was a “search operation” that involved a massive ransacking of the village, destruction of their houses and their means of livelihood, the gruesome assault of nearly a hundred villagers and the rape of 18 women.
The survivors waived their right to anonymity. In one share with the BBC, a survivor noted that she and the 17 other survivors had been taken in a police truck to the embankment of a lake, where they were raped repeatedly. They were then taken to the forest department and tortured all night, before being photographed in front of piles of sandalwood. These pictures were presented before the magistrate, who then remanded these women in jail. The officials who raped them threatened the women with dire consequences if they complained about the rapes to the magistrate – saying that the men in their families would be arrested without room to get out of prison, and the women were silenced. When the women returned to Vachathi, everything was destroyed and the village itself was deserted. Homes destroyed, livestock killed with their bodies dumped in their wells, and their water supply contaminated.
When the survivors lodged a complaint with the police station in Harur on August 22, 1992, the sub-inspector refused to register their case. The District Collector asked the Revenue Divisional Officer to visit Vachathi and conduct an inquiry on July 14, 1992 – but nothing happened until after a month passed. The “objective and independent” report that the Revenue Divisional Officer submitted brazenly claimed that “the alleged rape incident cannot be believed and the villages themselves damaged their houses to blame the forest officials and the police.”
The investigation had met a dead end. On July 30, 1992, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) filed a public interest litigation before the Madras High Court, demanding an investigation, but the case was rejected on the grounds that the “government officials would not have indulged in such conduct” and thus the matter was not fit to be taken up as a PIL. The CPI(M) did not give up, and filed a writ petition before the Supreme Court, which then transferred the matter to the High Court, insisting that the case be fast tracked. In November 1992, the High Court passed interim orders for the restoration of basic amenities in the village, and called on B Bhamati, the then Director of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Commission to visit Vachathi, investigate the matter, and submit a report in two weeks’ time.
Three years passed by because of the State Government’s delaying tactics, and the High Court ordered a CBI inquiry only in 1995 – which submitted a report a whole year later. The case was committed to the District and Sessions Court in Dharmapuri in 1996. Six years later, another writ petition was filed because nothing moved in the earlier case, and in 2002, compensation was awarded to the survivors, while the state was diected to appoint a CBI public prosecutor to conduct the case. The hearings were adjourned month on month because the accused wouldn’t show up. Nine years later, the High Court directed the lower court to expedite the trial – and twenty years later, the sentence had been passed.
The special court convicted 269 accused officials for their atrocities against the tribal population and the Dalit community in Vachati, and 17 officials for rape. By the time this decision arrived, 54 of the convicted officials had died by the time, and the remaining 215 were given jail sentences.
Image: The Hindu