"We’ve been struggling so hard for around 30 years and have even begged for money to keep the case going. We want justice and only justice, nothing else," says Subiksha (name changed to protect identity), a woman who survived rape at Vachathi in Dharmapuri of Tamil Nadu told The Quint.
On 4 March, three decades after the brutal Vachathi rape and assault case, Justice P Velmurugan of the Madras High Court visited the village, where on 20 June 1992, 18 Tribal women were raped allegedly by Tamil Nadu government officials from the forest department, who had entered the village allegedly to hunt down sandalwood smuggled by dacoit Veerappan. Justice Velmurugan reserved the judgment on criminal appeals pending since 2011 against the conviction of 215 persons who were allegedly involved in the crime.
What happened at Vachathi? Did officers in positions of power who are supposed to protect the people abuse them? Why is the road to justice for the Vachathi rape and assault survivors still long?
The Quint spoke to one of the rape survivors, the petitioner who helped the survivors file the case against the violence, and activists to understand the truth behind this case.
Government Officials’ Alleged Abuse of Power
Three decades ago, on 20 June 1992, the people of a small Tribal village in the hills of Tamil Nadu’s Dharmapuri district started the day never imagining that their lives would change for the worst. Later this day, according to survivors, women were raped, men were assaulted, cattle were killed, water supplies contaminated, and village properties were damaged.
A team of 155 forest personnel, 108 policemen, and six revenue officials of the region allegedly entered the village under the pretext of a search operation to find dacoit Veerappan’s sandalwood – allegedly smuggled and hidden by Dalits and Adivasis in their village, Live Law reported. The battalion were also seeking other information on the notorious dealer's whereabouts.
Reopening Unhealed Wounds
Subiksha told The Quint that she and the 17 other women were chosen from the group of women present at the village, transported in a police truck, and were brutally raped and beaten repeatedly. They were later taken under custody by the forest department.
The women were silenced by the rapists, who threatened them with dire consequences if they complained about the incident to the magistrate, she alleged.
"On 22 August 1992, the sub-inspector at the Harur police station refused to register the case that we (survivors) urged to file. The officers blamed us, saying that the incident cannot be believed, and that we made false accusations and damaged our houses in order to paint a bad image of the forest officials and the police. Why would we do that when we are struggling for our own livelihood?" Subiksha alleged.
Soon, the assaulted villagers, along with the women who were sexually assaulted, were photographed as they were allegedly made to stand in front of piles of sandalwood. They were remanded on smuggling charges. After getting out on jail on bail, they hid in hilly areas for months together, hiding to prevent attack by the officials again, Subiksha alleged.
Survivors’ Three-Decades-Long Fight for Justice
Speaking to The Quint, petitioner P Shanmugam, former general secretary and present state vice president of the Tamil Nadu Tribals Association said that on 30 July 1992, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) filed a public interest litigation before the Madras High Court demanding an investigation.
To their dismay, the case was rejected and deemed unfit to be taken up as a PIL was filed on the grounds that the government officials would not have indulged in such conduct.
The CPI(M) however relentlessly followed to take legal steps against the officials who allegedly abused their power. They filed a writ petition before the Supreme Court which then transferred the matter to the High Court, insisting on speedy action.
"The state government, led by then Chief Minister J Jayalalitha, did everything in its power to delay justice in the case because the accused were government officials and the incident would have stained the reputation of Jayalalitha's governance. Their only motive was to cover up the incident and protect the criminals," Shanmugam said.
The High Court ordered a CBI inquiry only in February 1995, and the case was committed to the District and Sessions Court in Dharmapuri in 1996. However, seeing no progress in the case even after six years, another writ petition was filed, and in 2002, compensation of Rs.10,000 each was awarded to the rape survivors, while the state was directed to appoint a CBI public prosecutor to argue the case.
The CBI recommended the prosecution of 269 police and forest department officials for the offences including illegal detention, rape, assault, and concealment of evidence.
On 29 September 2011, around 19 years after the incident, Dharmapuri Principal District and Sessions Judge S Kumaraguru convicted 215 surviving accused in the Vachathi case. As many as 54 of the convicted officials had passed away during the course of the investigation.
The 215 were given jail sentences ranging from one year of simple imprisonment to ten years of rigorous incarceration. Of these, majority of the accused were subsequently released on bail pending trial, many retired, and others have received their service benefits.
The Accused Claim It’s an 'Unfair Punishment' for 'Doing Their Duty'
However, the accused officials filed an appeal with the Madras High Court and had a different story to tell.
K Selvaraj, the Divisional Forest Officer of Harur Range, has reportedly said that the villagers are habitual criminals who continue to be involved in smuggling forest goods.
Retired Principal Chief Conservator of Forests and the first accused in the case, Harikrishnan told The Times of India that locals in the village attacked and threatened the officials on duty, who seized as much as 60 tonnes of sandalwood from the village and handed it over to the government.
"It is unfortunate that all of us are being treated in this manner for doing our duty," Harikrishnan told The Times of India.
Will the Judgment Serve the Complainants?
Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd, a writer and Dalit rights activist, told The Quint, "While it is a good gesture that the Madras High Court judge is taking the effort to visit the village where the survivors are before giving his judgement, the most important question here is – why is there a 30 year wait for justice?
Shanmugam said, "Even the maximum term of punishment for these criminal atrocities committed by the officials is 10 years. The verdict was pronounced 12 years ago. We are still battling the case in court. It simply shows the reality that people in power can abuse those in powerless positions."
Meanwhile, Subiksha said she wants justice even if its delayed. "Even if justice is delayed, we want it to be served. Though all of us in the village who were assaulted and abused have lost half our lives, we want to ensure our children benefit from this. The emotional turmoil we went through as we were unable to provide for our family while living through this trauma has taken a huge toll on families. We want the government to provide work opportunities for our kids, as many of them didn't get access to education," she urged.