Tamil Nadu: Blanket of Silence Over Caste-Based Atrocities During COVID-19 Lockdown

Despite a study recording at least 81 cases of atrocities against Dalits and tribals during the COVID-19 lockdown in Tamil Nadu, no one is talking about this violence.

Chennai: The strict lockdown imposed to control the spread of COVID-19 failed to bring a halt to casteist atrocities against Dalits and tribals in Tamil Nadu, a recent study has shown. The study, released on July 13 by former Madras high court judge Hariparanthaman, was conducted by the Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front (TNUEF), which is affiliated to the Communist Party of India (Marxist), between March 25 and early July 2020.

The front recorded 81 incidents of caste-based atrocities. Of these 41 were cases of assault, 14 murders, five cases each of rape and attacks on couples who married outside their caste, four deaths of Dalit manual scavengers, three cases each of humiliation of Dalit panchayat presidents and discrimination against Dalit government servants, two cases each of honour killings and desecration of statues of the father of the Indian constitution, Dr B.R. Ambedkar, and one incident each of discrimination in school and bonded labour. In addition, in once instance, Dalits were prevented from burying their dead in a common graveyard; a Dalit graveyard was also desecrated.

The brutal Sathankulam custodial murders during the lockdown, of father and son Jayaraj and Bennix, who hail from a community considered backward in the context of long-standing inter-caste rivalry in their native Thoothukudi district, received sustained attention in mainstream and social media. While it is commendable that the media furore helped ensure that the alleged perpetrators were arrested in Sathankulam, the same intensity of coverage is alarmingly absent in these 81 atrocity cases. Just a few of the cases were reported in the regional media, albeit as small news items getting the same amount of space as a weather report. There was no movement to demand justice in these cases.

Also read: Justice for Jayaraj and Bennix Means Ending a Culture of Impunity

Daily threat of violence against Dalits and tribals

This despite the fact that caste-based atrocities take place every hour across India. At least two Dalits are assaulted every hour, and every day, three Dalit women are raped, two Dalits are murdered and two Dalit homes are torched on average. Over 200 million Dalits, who comprise nearly 17% of India’s population, face the threat of such violence daily.

Four Dalits died of suffocation while cleaning a septic tank, in the same Thoothukudi district where the custodial deaths occurred. On July 2, 2020, one Somasundaram from Chekarakudi village hired Ikkiraja, Bala, Pandi and Dinesh, all manual scavengers, to clean the septic tank in his house. They all died due to suffocation from fumes. All four were aged below 30; Ikkiraja was a minor, aged 17. The deaths of Dalits while cleaning sewers and septic tanks have become common in India, with over a hundred dying of asphyxia in 2019 alone, despite the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 forbidding the employment of any person for manual scavenging. Not a single perpetrator was punished under this Act, as of late 2018.

Though manual scavenging has been prohibited, many sanitation workers continue to die while cleaning sewers and septic tanks. Photo: Dalberg Advisors

Even the older Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) [SC/ST (PoA)] Act, 1989 classifies caste-based crimes as non-bailable and requires the immediate arrest of offenders. A vast gulf remains between crime and conviction rates. The latter was an alarmingly low 16.3% in 2017-18, according to data provided by the Ministry of Home Affairs, which reflects the continuing silence on caste-based crimes in India. This dangerous silence allows upper caste perpetrators a sense of impunity to kill, attack and rape the backward castes.

Even where cases do reach the courts, justice is seldom done. The Madras high court recently acquitted the alleged mastermind behind the murder of a Dalit man who had married the former’s daughter. Kausalya, who hailed from the dominant Thevar community, had married Shankar, a Dalit youth from Udumalpet in Tirupur district in 2015. On March 13, 2016, the couple was brutally attacked in Udumalpet by a gang of goons, in broad daylight in a busy area near the bus stand.

The state was left shocked at the gory caste-based honour killing, which had been captured on CCTV cameras. Kausalya survived, despite severe injuries; Shankar died on the spot. Of the 11 accused, six – including Kausalya’s father Chinnasamy – were sentenced to death by a lower court. On appeal, the Madras high court acquitted Chinnasamy and modified the others’ death sentence to life, in a judgment handed down amidst the COVID-19 lockdown. The lower court had already released Kausalya’s mother, uncle and brother in 2017. Now, with Chinnasamy’s release, the entire family has escaped the law.

While the high court judgment was hailed by many, in fact, it was only the goons who hacked Shankar to death who were punished while the masterminds were let off.

Sankar and Kausalya.

What message does the high court’s order send

What message does the acquittal of Kausalya’s father convey? Honour killing, threats and attacks on couples who practice exogamy (marrying outside the community) are now on the increase. Two cases of parents from dominant castes killing couples who have intermarried and five incidents of attacks by relatives on such couples have occurred in Tamil Nadu during the lockdown.

Be it honour killing, practising untouchability or forcing manual scavenging, such instances of caste violence fail to adequately stir the common conscience, which otherwise vocally reacts on social media to economic, political, cultural or environmental issues that are important to the upper castes. Casteism is not considered a threat to the nation’s security. There are few images of protestors holding placards against caste violence and seeking justice for victims.

Punishing offenders was not the only intent of the Rajiv Gandhi government when it enacted the SC/ST (PoA) Act in 1989. The primary idea of the law was to prevent atrocities, where the existing Protection of Civil Rights Act and other provisions of the Indian Penal Code had failed to protect people of SC/ST communities from caste-based brutalities. Caste atrocities needed a separate articulation and provision, given the inhumane humiliations, discriminations, oppressions, attacks and human rights violations faced specifically by Dalits and tribals. These crimes were also conceived differently by the common people. This bare truth forced the government of the day to use the term ‘atrocity’ to indicate crimes against SC/STs while framing the Act. Three decades on, the number of cases pending under the SC/ST (PoA) Act is high and the acquittal rate even higher. Over two lakh cases of caste atrocities are awaiting disposal by the judiciary. Most cases have dragged on for more than 10 years.

A severe blow was dealt to the SC/ST (PoA) Act by a Supreme Court verdict of 2018, which diluted some stringent provisions including cancelling automatic arrest and introducing anticipatory bail for accused. It also insisted on a preliminary enquiry and approval from senior police officials before a First Information Report could be lodged under the Act. The judgment seemed to express greater concern about possible misuse of the Act by SC/STs, than about obtaining convictions of accused. After a nationwide furore, the Government of India enacted the SC/ST (PoA) Amendment Act, 2018 to nullify the dilutions by the verdict. The Supreme Court recalled its 2018 verdict in October 2019, and, in February, 2020, the apex court upheld the constitutional validity of the amendment. However, the message of the earlier dilution still resonates.

Also Read: Supreme Court: SC/ST Amendment Act Constitutionally Valid, No Preliminary Enquiry for FIR

The SC/ST (PoA) Amendment Act has adequate provisions which, if used judiciously by law enforcement, will go a long way in reducing caste-based atrocities, which are preventable if administrations make sincere attempts. If the recommendations in Sections 3 (punishments for offences of atrocities) and 13 (penalty for non-compliance of special court order) in particular had been executed with genuine conviction, the number of atrocities ought to be decreasing instead of increasing.

Powers of vigilance and monitoring committees

The law had also recommended that the government identify atrocity-prone areas and that district magistrates form District Vigilance and Monitoring Committees (DVMC), to be peopled by elected members of state legislative assemblies, Members of Parliament, the superintendent of the police (SP), three Group A/gazetted officers of the state government who belong to SC/ST groups, not more than five non-official members from SC/ST groups, and not more than three members from non-SC/ST groups who are associated with non-governmental organisations.

The committees are supposed to convene at least once in three months, mainly to review the implementation of provisions of the Act and conduct peace meetings between relevant communities. Apart from this, they have the power to seize weapons and cancel arms licenses of dominant caste members in an identified area, and also grant arms licenses to SC/STs if needed. The Act also proposed that higher rank police officers in atrocity-prone districts, particularly the SP who heads the police in a district, should be appointed from SC/ST communities. Since all 32 districts of Tamil Nadu are atrocity-prone, all the state’s SPs should technically be from SC/ST communities.

Policemen stand guard ahead of a protest, after at least 13 people were killed when police fired on protesters seeking closure of plant on environmental grounds in town of Thoothukudi in southern state of Tamil Nadu, in Chennai, India, May 24, 2018. Credits: REUTERS/P.Ravikumar

Representative image of police in Tamil Nadu. Photo: Reuters/P.Ravikumar

The law has provided a framework for a periodic monitoring system at the district, state and national levels. Besides the quarterly review meetings by the DVMCs, there ought to be monthly reports from district magistrates and half-yearly reviews by a 25-member State Vigilance and Monitoring Committee (SVMC), which is presided over by the chief minister. Every quarter, the performance of the Special Public Prosecutor appointed to appear on behalf of victims is also supposed to be reviewed by the Director of Public Prosecutions, with annual reports sent to the central government by March 31. But can the reader recall any occasion where a state or the central government announced the release of a report on the outcome of a DVMC or SVMC meeting?

Also read: Across Tamil Nadu, Caste Violence Has Increased During the Lockdown, Say Activists

The 81 cases of caste-based atrocities during the lockdown in Tamil Nadu recorded by the study have been dealt with only as common crimes. The DVMCs and SVMC have not responded to even a single crime. Fingers have often been pointed at police for manipulation while registering FIRs, destruction of evidence and disappearance of witnesses, but the members of DVMCs and SVMCs are not questioned, despite the law making them accountable for atrocities committed in their district or state.

On April 19, 2011, in the case of Arumuga Servai vs State of Tamil Nadu, a Supreme Court bench that comprised Judges Markandey Katju and Gyan Sudha Misra, issued a significant judgment, writing:

“We direct the administrative and police officials to take strong measures to prevent such atrocious acts. If any such incidents happen, apart from instituting criminal proceedings against those responsible for such atrocities, the State Government is directed to immediately suspend the District Magistrate/Collector and SSP/SPs of the district as well as other officials concerned and charge sheet them and proceed against them departmentally if they do not (1) prevent the incident if it has not already occurred but they have knowledge of it in advance, or (2) if it has occurred they do not promptly apprehend the culprits and others involved and institute criminal proceedings against them, as in our opinion they will be deemed to be directly or indirectly accountable in this connection.”

Despite tough laws and such stringent judgments, governments remain indifferent. If the Tamil Nadu state government cared to let the law work, for instance, the district magistrates/collectors and SSP/SPs would be suspended and inquiries would be in place. Yet, what is legislated for, remains a dream. The bitter truth is that the law-makers are the lawbreakers, who act with a sense of impunity, and the media and larger society fails to hold them to account.

A few days after releasing the report, the TNUEF petitioned the Tamil Nadu chief minister, demanding that DVMCs monitor the legal actions taken by the police on every case of caste-based atrocity during the lockdown. The TNUEF also urged the CM to convene a meeting of the SVMC, since he is the chairperson of the committee. But, no action has materialised to date.

It has been recorded that the COVID-19 lockdowns which began in January across the globe have contributed to the longest period of human quiet since the start of modern seismology. In India, we set new records of human quiet every day, as our silence against horrific levels of caste-based violence continues. The lockdown that made humans quiet now threatens to throw a permanent blanket of silence over at least 81 recorded instances of violence against Tamil Nadu’s oppressed castes.

Jeya Rani is a Chennai-based journalist.