The sessions judge at Dharmapuri on September 29, 2011, convicted as many as 215 public servants for a set of crimes that included rape. Among them were high ranking police and forest officers and also those from the revenue administration. The conviction, coming as it did at the end of a legal process that began in 1995, is indeed historic. It is one of the few instances where all those accused of having participated in a brutal attack on innocent people were convicted. Of the 269 personnel accused in the case, 54 had died and thus escaped punishment. In other words, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) that began probing into the acts of atrocities committed through the night on June 20, 1992, did its job to establish the charge. Sessions Judge S. Kumaraguru could not have glossed over the material evidence.
Seventeen public servants (including five forest officers, two police inspectors, six sub-inspectors and two tehshildars) were found guilty of rape among other acts of illegal violence against the hapless malayali tribes in Vachati. In the scheme of things, as ordained in our penal code and the Code of Criminal Procedure, the sessions judge could have inflicted a more severe punishment than the 10 years Rigourous Imprisonment that has been handed over to 17 of the accused. Some of them are in fact, vested with the duty to investigate such crimes and ensure that the guilty are punished. This, after all, is the role of the police. And it is hence possible and even desirable that the higher judiciary, where the convicts are most likely to appeal, enhances the punishment. Section 376(2) of the Indian Penal Code, after all, specifically deals with rape by a police officer and provides for imprisonment for life. The code lays down imprisonment for not less than 10 years; and for life as punishment.
A brief recall of the sequence of events on June 20, 1992 will be in order to see the judgment in perspective. It all began with a routine `raid’ by a band of 45 forest department officials in Vachati, a village with only 160 families in the foothills of the Sitheri range located in Tamil Nadu and not too far from Karnataka. The raid was routine because Vachati, like many such villages, happened to be a hub for stacking sandalwood smuggled out of the forests. The fact is that the hapless tribals of Vachati too were engaged, by big time operators, in the sandalwood trade and apart from cutting the wood and carrying the logs from the forest, they were also engaged in stacking them in their lands before the precious wood was transported to the towns and elsewhere. It is also a fact that like in all those instances of a tribal-smuggler nexus, the malayali tribes in Vachati too earned only a pittance.
All those 160 families depended on the public distribution system for their food requirements and lived in small tenements with tiled roof and thatches. None of them had the money to send their children to the private residential schools like some others in the illegal business of sandalwood business do. In other words, they were also forced into the illegal trade by the bent and the beautiful but denied of the wealth. The point is that the adivasis are not known for trading in sandalwood; if that were so, the forests in the region would not have had so many of them even in 1992. The raiding party, according to reports, had found 55 tonnes of sandalwood, buried under the sands in Vachati, on June 20, 1992. This was in addition to larger stocks being seized by the officers while they were smuggled out in the few months prior to the raid in Vachati. The plain and simple fact is that kingpin in the sandalwood smuggling business in this region involved someone there in the political domain who was neither a tribal nor poor. K.A.Sengottian, the then minister for forests was indeed in the know of things. He was the AIADMK’s strongman in the Salem district then. Incidentally, he remains the party’s strongman in the region even now and Minister for Agriculture.
On June 20, 1992, the raiding party met with resistance from the village and one of them suffered head injuries and was hospitalized. A large posse of police, senior forest officials and officers from the revenue department soon reached Vachati. The sun had set by then and there were as many as 80 women constables in the large posse of police that went to Vachati. The lawlessness began then and as many as 15 girls, all unmarried, bore the brunt of it all. The women constables were there but the officers seemed to have taken them to the village only to show the world that they followed the law as laid down. These girls and many others (300 in all according to police records) were arrested during the night and lodged in the Salem Central Jail subsequently. The tenements were ransacked, the wells contaminated with diesel oil and carcasses of the live-stock. The men in uniforms had done such things elsewhere and across the country both before and after Vachati on June 20, 1992.
And it is a fact that Sengotian, the then Minister for Forests, went on record to defend the police action and describing reports of the atrocities as baseless. It may be noted that the first ever news-report in the June 20, 1992 atrocities appeared as late as in August 1992. Vachati, after all, was not as remote from the mainland; a mere 70 kilometres from Salem town and connected by motor able roads. But then, like it is the case with the adivasis in many other parts, the 160 odd malayali tribals in Vachati too were outside the `mainstream’. The story came out after the CPI(M) leaders in the State took it up. And the first report, written by a student activist, on the Vachati appeared in The Frontline magazine. The State Government did not care to investigate and nothing happened until the Madras High Court ordered the CBI to investigate the case. That was as late as in 1995.
It may be added here that the sandalwood trail had taken another dimension by this time. The State Governments of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka had set up a Joint Special Task Force (JSTF) to nab one man called Veerapan. And since April 1993, when the JSTF was born, inhabitants in the villages across the forests in Dharmapuri, Sathyamangalam and MM Hills would experience all that the hapless malayalis of Vachati did. As many as 121 persons from the villages all over the region were detained under TADA for more than seven years and until the Supreme Court found all but four of the 121 guilty of the charges. They all languished in the Mysore Central jail after having suffered torture in the hands of the JSTF personnel for days on end. An enquiry by the Justice Sadashiva Panel set up by the National Human Rights Commission concluded that the police personnel were guilty and that a number of the villagers were killed in encounters that were fake.
The Justice Sadashiva panel had submitted its report to the NHRC on December 3, 2003, after holding 10 sittings in the course of which it recorded evidence from 192 victims and 28 officers of the JSTF. Officers of the rank of Inspector General of Police from both Tamil Nadu and Karnataka were present throughout the sittings of the panel and the officers had cross-examined all victims who deposed before the panel. Despite this, all that has happened in the name of justice is that some of the victims have been paid compensation. The police officers in the JSTF were rewarded with out-of-turn promotions and housing plots in Chennai city by the Tamil Nadu Government. That was after Veerappan was killed on October 18, 2004. A number of them, in fact, were indicted by the Justice Sadashiva panel for crimes similar to those in the Vachati case.
The Vachati outrage too would have gone unheard of but for the Madras High Court ordering that the investigation be done by the CBI. That was in 1995 and over three years after the incident. Until that time, the police had not only shielded the guilty in this case and instead trumped up charges against the victims. All the 15 girls who were subjected to rape by the police and forest officers were, in fact, held in the Salem jail for several days after June 20, 1992. It may be stressed, in this context, that K.A.Senkottian, now the Agriculture Minister, was the Minister for Forests at that time. The CBI chargesheet, in which 269 public servants were listed as accused, was filed around the same time when there was a change of Government in Tamil Nadu, in May 1996. And the verdict on September 29, 2011, holding all the 269 officers guilty of a number of crimes and convicting all the 215 who are alive (of the 269 found guilty), was based on the case made out by the CBI.