By Saradha V
At a time when every development from the US Presidential elections to Prime Minister Modi's tweets are received instantly, it took almost a week for Theni’s tribal women, who were allegedly sexually tortured by forest personnel, to catch the media's attention.
In the afternoon of July 16, women and men of Paliyar community from Kadamalaigundu, a hilly hamlet in Theni district, were returning in an auto from the Suruli hills after collecting small forest produce. The six women and a 13-year-old girl, all from the same family, were asked to get out of the auto at Surulipatti kootu salai by the forest personnel, on the pretext of regular checks. They were then allegedly asked to strip, while the 13-year-old was allegedly taken away separately by the forest personnel and sexually assaulted.
The men who accompanied the women were also allegedly stripped. The forest personnel allegedly took away the mobile phone one of them had and also Rs 2000 that they carried. Left stranded on the middle of the road with no money and no communication, the tribal men and women had to walk for more than 12 hours to travel 40 km before they reached their homes.
The outraged men of Kadumalaigundu village, later reportedly attacked some forest personnel. While six men have been remanded for charges of attacking the forest personnel, no action has been taken so far on the complaint given by the tribal women.
Mariammal the mother-in-law of one of the women and the grandmother of the 13-year-old said, “My son, nephews, daughter-in-law and granddaughter had walked all the way from Surulipatti to our home. My son and nephews went to the forest office to meet the personnel there. There, they were beaten black and blue and taken to the prison from there.”
Six men including the husbands of five affected women have been remanded in Madurai Central Prison. There are 25 paliyar families in Kadamalaigundu village. They reside in houses built under Indira Awas Yojana. Since the houses were not granted in the names of the beneficiaries but in the name of the Collector, the victims have not been able to apply for bail.
According to the 2011 Census, Tribals constitute 1.1% of the state's population and Theni district has a large concentration of them who live on the foothills of Western Ghats. The Tribals, who live a life closely linked and dependent on nature, collect the small forest produce to earn their livelihood.
The Forests Rights Act 2006 allows tribal people to gather small forest produce as it is not going to disturb the ecology of the forests. The tribals of Kadugumalai were reportedly carrying honey, kizhangu, etc which are definitely small forest produce. It is to be noted that the forest personnel who conducted the checks have not produced any forest item as confiscated from the tribals.
The Paliyar community does not engage in farming activities. They gather the small forest produce and sell them in the local market to earn their livelihood. They are spread out across Theni, Kodaikanal and Virudhunagar in Tamil Nadu. Kadamalaigundu, Bodi, and Periyakulam are the major Paliyar hamlets in Theni district.
Meanwhile, the issue was raised in the Assembly on Wednesday by DMK MLA Austin but Forest Minister Seenivasan denied the sexual assault allegations by forest personnel. The forest personnel had conducted their checks on having received information that anteater (erumbu thinni) was smuggled out of the forest. The inquiry conducted by the Revenue Divisional Officer also confirms that there was no sexual assault on the tribal women, the minister said. He also stated that a forest officer attacked by the tribals has been hospitalised.
U Vasuki, Vice President of AIDWA, who had visited the place and spoken to victims about the incident said, “If it was a routine check, ask the forest personnel to produce what they confiscated from them. Did the officers find anything other than the forest produce? It is a 'takenforgranted' attitude by the forest personnel that lead to such atrocities.” She said that the forest personnel believe there is no one to support these people Calling it “wilful negligence” on the part of the police for failing to action under the Prevention of Atrocities to SC/ST Act, Vasuki accused them of not filing an FIR despite receiving a complaint from the tribals. “Since a 13-year-old is assaulted, the POSCO Act should also be invoked. The victims told me that the Revenue Divisional Officer threatened them into giving false statements about the incident,” she said.
Dilli Babu, former MLA had submitted a petition to the Chairman of National ST Commission at Delhi seeking a fair inquiry and immediate action against the errant officers. On receiving the petition from Dilli Babu, the Chairman of National ST Commission, Ravi Thakur has sent notices to Theni District Collector and Superintendent of Police urging them to punish the offenders.
The incident has similarities with the famous Vachathi case in 1992. 215 forest personnel and other government employees were convicted 19 years later, for ransacking a tribal village, taking the men and women into illegal police custody and sexually assaulting tribal women.
Dilli Babu says, “When the Vachathi issue was raised in the Assembly, the then Forest Minister Senkottaiyan rubbished the allegations. But all of the accused were then convicted after a long struggle. Similarly, this case will also see the light.”