TW: Mentions of physical assault
On August 9, as the country was preparing for the ‘Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav’, Chinnadurai, a 17-year-old Dalit student with an exceptional academic record, was forced to take a life-altering decision at the Nanguneri railway station in Tamil Nadu. He could either quit school, leave his home, and make a run for safety by boarding the waiting train to Chennai. Or, he could listen to his cousin who was at the station to stop him from quitting. Going back to school would mean facing the wrath of his jealous Savarna schoolmates who were baying for his blood. Yet, the young boy decided to stay back. That very night, he had to face the consequences of that enormous decision.
Around 10 pm, Chinnadurai’s neighbour Duraipandian (42) heard screams from his house and rushed out to find the boy writhing on the street in a pool of blood. Duraipandian and another person hauled Chinnadurai onto a two-wheeler and rushed him to the Nanguneri Government Hospital (GH). Meanwhile, Chinnadurai’s relative Krishnan (53) became disoriented by the gory sight and retreated into his house in utter shock. A little while later, he died of a heart attack. He too was taken to the hospital on a two-wheeler, where the doctors declared him brought dead.
“Chinnadurai was whipped like a cow, but with a sickle,” is how Durai recalls the brutal attack on the Dalit student by his schoolmates from the Concordia Higher Secondary School in Nanguneri. The attackers belong to the electorally and socially powerful Maravar caste, a sub-group within the Thevar community that is classified as Backward Class in Tamil Nadu.
Chinnadurai could have died on the spot had his neighbours not managed to source a motorbike. Autorickshaw drivers refuse to enter Perundheru, the part of Nanguneri town where Chinnadurai lives. It is a strip of houses along a narrow crooked street at the very edge of town inhabited by Dalits from the so-called untouchable Paraiyar caste. It’s segregated from the bustling central business district where so-called touchable Savarnas such as Chinnadurai’s attackers live. Outcaste neighbourhoods such as Perundheru are called ‘cheri’ in Tamil and shunned by caste Hindus.
House of Chinnadurai where the attack took place, with blood stains still visible on the steps.
It was here that the vicious attack took place. Seven teenage boys entered Chinnadurai’s house and attacked him, his 13-year-old sister, and his mother. There are growing suspicions that the minors were instigated by their elders to commit the crime, knowing they would get away lightly because of their juvenile status under Indian law.
When TNM visited Nanguneri, it was close to a week since the attack and Chinnadurai is recuperating at the Tirunelveli Medical College Super Speciality Hospital after a plastic surgery on his arm; but the fear among the residents is palpable. In Perundheru, several people refused to talk and closed their doors, fearing backlash from the Thevars.
Anbazhagan, a Dalit community leader, says that Chinnadurai is very good at studies. “He was studying in class 12 and staying in the hostel of Concordia school. His sister studies in the same school as a day scholar in class 7. Irked by the fact that Chinnadurai was good at studies, the Maravar caste boys kept harassing him. They have been torturing him in multiple ways and he decided he did not want to go to school. He came home and stayed back for 10 days, following which his teachers started questioning his absence,” Anbazhagan says.
Chinnadurai is raised by his single mother Ambikapathi, who works as a cook and does other odd jobs. Ambikapathi says that her son was very secretive about the harassment he was facing and she discovered it only much later, when he started asking her to shift him to another school.
“Initially he asked me to get his Transfer Certificate (TC) so that he can enrol in some other school. When we were asked to come to his school by the principal and teacher to explain his absence, he kept insisting on getting the TC. It’s only when we pushed him to give a reason that he started to talk about the harassment.
"My son was harassed for three years because he studied well. To put him in his place, the other boys made him run errands for them. They wanted my son to be enslaved to them. They would make him perform for their entertainment and often asked him to buy alcohol," she says.
Ambikapathi would have none of it and immediately filed a complaint with the school authorities before returning home. Chinnadurai stayed back in the hostel that day, she says, but soon went back to insisting that he wanted to quit.
“On August 9, he had decided to leave by an evening train and we were waiting at the railway station when my sister’s son came there. He insisted that Chinnadurai complete his studies and brought us back,” Ambikapathi says.
“Around 6 pm that day, a woman and a man came to our house. They asked if I was Ambika and if my son’s name was Chinnadurai. They then asked me why we complained to the school, saying we should have spoken to them directly. Then at 7 pm, some young boys came and asked the same questions. I told them that I send my child to school for studying and not for them to harass him. Those boys threatened us and went away,” she says.
Anbazhagan says, “These boys had waited that day for all of us to go back into our houses. We were outside till 9.30 pm and then went in for dinner. Around 10 pm, some boys came and knocked on Ambika’s door. As they said they were schoolmates of Chinnadurai, Ambika opened the door. As soon as the door was opened, the boys went inside and started attacking Chinnadurai with a sickle. There were injuries all over his body. You know how they whiplash a cow at times? They attacked him like that, but with a sickle.”
“They attacked my children in front of my eyes. They were hurling casteist abuses even as they attacked us. They called me a ‘prostitute’, and said that we were the dogs who worked in their houses, cleaning the waste they left. They kicked me and I fainted. My daughter, who tried to protect her brother, was also assaulted, and she too fainted,” Ambika says.
Upon hearing the screams of the family, the neighbours started coming out. Duraipandian was among the first to rush to help. Ambika says that those from the nearest GH, as well as the autos, refused to come to their street as it housed those from the Dalit community.
The neighbours rushed Chinnadurai to Nanguneri GH on a two-wheeler, followed by his mother and sister. Chinnadurai was later shifted to Tirunelveli as he had sustained deep injuries.
While this brutal attack shook the conscience of the state and the public, it has left the residents of Perundheru scarred. “My daughter is in school. We have to send her to tuition classes located outside this area. After this incident, she is so scared, she says she doesn’t want to go to tuition classes. She is scared that her father has to go pick her up alone and they will have to return alone. See how big an impact it has caused on the minds of young children?” asks a resident of Perundheru who preferred to remain anonymous.
“Children are not going to study. They are scared to go to the bus stand. They are even scared to be in their own house fearing that someone will attack us. They cannot study with this fear,” she adds.
Another resident, who is a teacher in a school, says that the attack has made them realise how much caste fanaticism was ingrained in the children who attacked their schoolmate. “It is not enough to write ‘Untouchability is a crime. Untouchability is a sin’ in school textbooks, it should also be taught to students. Each day, they should be taught what the meaning of untouchability is. This attack is an outcome of children not being aware of what untouchability is,” she says.
Stating that many people question the need for providing welfare schemes to those from the Scheduled Castes, she says that it is for the upliftment of their community. “They have been treated as slaves for years, they were not allowed to study. Now, when the government thinks of giving them education by providing scholarships, a majority of people don’t like this at all,” she notes.
The residents also state that they are being constantly harassed by the dominant caste residents. One Dalit resident says that they are not allowed to stand at the front of the queue in ration shops. If they do, they are asked to go back. When Dalit children win in any competition or sports, they too are being threatened, the residents say. “They also provide us loans and in return, take away our documents such as ration card, ATM card, and coolly start using them,” the residents add.
“All this while we were like slaves to them. But we will not be that way hereafter. I don’t want what happened to my son and daughter to happen to anybody else,” says Ambika.
Anbazhagan says that they are living in fear for their lives. “The government is extending support. They are taking care of Chinnadurai’s treatment in the hospital. The CM and Thirumavalavan [Lok Sabha MP and Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) leader] are talking with us directly. Many officers and leaders came to meet us. Despite these measures, if casteist attitudes prevail, we cannot live here,” he says.
On August 12, Tamil Nadu Finance and Human Resources Management Minister Thangam Thennarasu along with Assembly Speaker M Appavu and Nanguneri MLA Ruby Manoharan (Congress) visited the Tirunelveli hospital. During their visit, Chief Minister MK Stalin spoke with the family through Minister Thennarasu. Stalin promised them that the government would stand by the victims, offer better treatment, and ensure that their education is uninterrupted. Tamil Nadu School Education Minister Anbil Mahesh Poyyamozhi also announced that the government would bear the higher education expenses of the siblings. “I will enrol them in a better institution. As the Minister of School Education, it is my responsibility,” he had said.
Meanwhile, Tamil Nadu Health Minister Ma Subramanian while visiting the hospital directed a team of specialised doctors from Stanley Medical College, Chennai to travel to Tirunelveli to perform a surgery on Chinnadurai’s arm. The surgery was completed on August 15 and the boy is recovering under the supervision of the hospital.
The seven accused have been arrested and an investigation is underway by the Nanguneri police.
(The names of the accused have been withheld as The Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015 mandates that details of children in conflict with the law should not be disclosed).