There are places in the world known only because of the events that catapult them to recognition; their names become a metonym for the atrocities or tragedies that occurred there. This is what happened to Vachathi. Deep in Tamil Nadu’s Dharmapuri district, fringing the expanse of semi-evergreen forests in the Kalrayan Hills of the Eastern Ghats, the hamlet of Vachathi was as unremarkable as any other until the summer of 1992. The dacoit Veerappan, scourge of South India’s woodlands, was nearing the apex of his powers; the following year, the state government would deploy its Border Security Force to carry out his arrest. It would be over a decade before he would finally be killed. But in the thirty years during which he evaded capture, the pursuit of the dreaded brigand fuelled tensions in the relationship between the Tamil Nadu and Karnataka governments, involved at least two high profile kidnappings and numerous murders – and resulted also in much collateral damage of less immediately conspicuous proportions. Among these was Vachathi.
Vachathi borders the Sathyamangalam forest and was, and remains, fertile with various kinds of produce – mango, pearl millet and turmeric for example, but also a certain highly coveted tree: sandalwood. Except in Kerala, the fragrant and lucrative timber is largely controlled through state licensing in the South; it is an offence to possess more than 20kg of the commodity. Veerappan was its most successful, and more reviled, poacher. It was while investigating a sandalwood smuggling racket possibly associated with Veerappan that a team of forest officials and police officers raided the village on the evening of June 20, 1992.
Daylight still brightened the vicinity at that hour. Its inhabitants were still out in the orchards, gathering fruit, or working in the pastures. Vachathi’s population, mostly consisting of tribals, numbered around 2,000 at this time. Most of the men had yet to return from their work, which took them further afield – or, as some accounts put it, they had escaped as they heard the vehicles approaching. When the jeeps arrived, carrying a battalion of 269 police officers, forest authorities and revenue officials, whoever remained – women, children, the elderly and the unwell – were rounded up.
Accosted, dragged by the hair or coerced by brute force if they put up any resistance, they were made to congregate under the immense banyan tree, the traditional locus of the village’s activities. The allegations against its residents were that they had participated in a racket, hiding chopped bundles of sandalwood in their agricultural fields: 60 tonnes of the same were seized and handed over to the government after the operation. Thirty women and ten men were made to lead the way to the buried sandalwood. Female constables, though present on duty, did not accompany them.
Meanwhile, those assembled in the shade of the banyan were routinely thrashed. A small shrine to the goddess Mariamman, also situated under the tree, was vandalized. These were the least of the brutalities that would take place in the course of the events known now as “the Vachathi case”. As night fell, over a hundred people were held under police custody and taken away. The rest fled into the Sitheri hills, where they stayed for months, traumatised.
Some of the women taken under custody were first taken to a nearby lake and raped, made to urinate in view of their attackers and subjected to abusive language. The ordeal was repeated at the Forest Rangers Office in Harur, the taluk headquarters. Through the long night that followed, the eighteen women who later came forward as victims were each exposed to the cruelty of multiple assailants. The youngest of the women was 13 years old at the time.
Among the four men taken under custody that night was Vachathi’s village chieftain, Perumal. Police personnel had a singular punishment in mind for him at the Forest Rangers Office. The ninety women also apprehended there were made to assemble into three rows. They watched as the officers stripped him to the waist and tortured him. When he collapsed, the first two rows of women were given broom sticks. They were told to beat the chieftain – if they did not, they in turn were hit with lathis. They refused to strip him of his trousers, as instructed to, but they could not refuse to beat him or watch him being beaten.
It was nearly two months before the detained were released. Many had been held at the Salem Central Prison; a total of 133 villagers were incarcerated, including twenty-eight children. What they came upon on their return to Vachathi was a scene of utter desecration.
The village had been looted of everything of value within the first two days of the operation, but it had also been rendered inhabitable. Most of the houses were razed. The livestock had been killed, mostly to be used as meat, and the village well had been used as a dump for the remains. Chicken heads, goat skin, bones and other inedible parts of the carcasses filled and contaminated its water.
Other wells were filled with equipment and daily instruments: grinding stones, bicycles, utensils and engines were found discarded. Grains that had been kept in storage had been mixed with glass.
An old woman and two dogs were all that remained. Every other living being was still in hiding in the hills, in fear of a second attack. Behind the shelter of shrubbery and rocks, they had managed to survive in the most primitive of ways. Some women, pregnant at the time of the raid on the village, had even given birth under these conditions.
Wrecked in mind and body, punished as a collective for the criminal endeavours of a few in their midst, the former residents of the village of Vachathi, now the survivors of the Vachathi incident, took a long time to trust the help extended to them by NGOs and different government bodies. They continued to live as foragers for a time, finally choosing to accept the assistance of former MLA, M. Annamalai, who promised their protection. It would be three years before an FIR, spearheaded by the district’s CPI (M) representatives, was filed. A CBI probe into the incident was begun in 1995.
It was not until September 29 2011 – almost two decades after Vachathi and its inhabitants were pillaged and violated – that justice, at least in its legal form, was served. The case had moved from courts in Coimbatore and Krishnagiri to the Dharmapuri sessions court, which finally lay down its verdict.
That 34 of the victims, among hundreds, had died over the course of the investigation and trial is not in itself strange: the villagers had been left impoverished, and among the sufferers were the elderly and the ailing. More surreally, perhaps, no less than 53 of the 269 of the accused – all of them government employees able-bodied enough to perform the brutalities committed on the night of June 20 1992 – had died in the interim years. Only 216 remain to serve the punishments decided by the Dharmapuri sessions court: 10 years of rigorous imprisonment under the SC/ST act for atrocities against tribals (specifically, torture, unlawful restraint, abuse of office and looting). Seventeen officials found guilty of rape were sentenced to seven years of rigorous imprisonment.
For the people of Vachathi, however, who have begun to properly rebuild their lives only in the last few years, it is unclear whether the verdict, in effect, is more than a symbolic victory. The time they have spent waiting for justice is longer than the sentences that have been served to their persecutors. The financial compensation awarded is meagre: only 15,000 rupees each have been given to the rape victims, while the loss of livelihood, destruction of property and mental trauma among the populace at large has gone unconsidered. The SC/ST Commission, which in 1997 offered 1.25 crores in compensation to 500 villagers, had provided more by way of monetary assistance than the court.
At present, the case may be appealed in the High Court of Madras. Meanwhile, the village of Vachathi continues to slowly pick up the pieces: its people rebuild their lives in the shadow of the horrific incident which its name has come to stand for. They have reconstructed its 250 houses and gained access to a secondary school. The great banyan beneath which they were tortured still stands, its Mariamman shrine restored.
An edited version appeared in today’s The Sunday Guardian.