Thanikachalam was 60 years old when he was brutally murdered on the night of November 11, 2014. Last week, the Madras High Court transferred the probe into the activist's murder to the CB-CID.

Murdered 5 years ago TN activist Thanikachalam fought for water body till last breath
news Crime Saturday, August 03, 2019 - 14:50

"When majority of the people are in pursuit of self aggrandizement, very few dedicate their lives towards public cause. It is a cruel truth that these people in some cases get the punishment of death for seeking the truth."

– Justice Anand Venkatesan, Madras High Court, July 22, 2019

In these two sentences is encapsulated the life and death of Vellore-based social activist Thanikachalam. This pronouncement is part of an order delivered by the Madras High Court last week, transferring the probe into the activist's murder from the local police to the CB-CID. The court stated that it had no hesitation in concluding that the police has failed to effectively investigate the case and accused them of shielding the men involved.

Thanikachalam was 60 years old when he was brutally murdered on the night of November 11, 2014. And till his very last breath, on a dark deserted road in Vellore, he fought not for himself but for the betterment of his community. He gave up his life while saving a dying water body.

Who was Thanikachalam?

The eldest in a family of four brothers and two sisters, Thanikachalam always evoked awe amongst his siblings. Silent, strong and hard-working, his family says that anything he took up, he excelled at. A district topper from his local school in Pudur and the family's first graduate from AC Tech in Chennai, it seemed like Thanikachalam was heading towards a comfortable corporate life.

"But it was not enough for him, that he alone did well. He quit, came back home and decided to help the community," says his brother, Subramanian. Leaving behind several job opportunities and stable income, Thanikachalam returned to Vellore to take the path less trodden. One that would eventually lead to his death.

The fatal fight to save a water-body

For the most part, Thanikachalam involved himself in conducting tuition classes for underprivileged children in Pudur, where he lived. His classes were free unless students insisted on paying a fee. He would help residents resolve matters regarding their pensions and guided them towards lawyers for legal hassles.

"Being the only graduate for miles, residents of Pudur would come to my brother for guidance in filling forms or submitting documents. He even filed RTIs to help people fight cases," says Subramanian. "He taught students in his spare time and any money he made was spent buying books for children who couldn't afford them," he adds.

It was in 2008, that Thanikachalam met Ramesh, another educated man from the village who had taken up agriculture as a profession. With water proving to be a scarce commodity in and around the village, the two decided to work on environmental issues, specifically on reviving water bodies.

"The same year, we filed an RTI to understand where two channels, carrying water from the Sanangkuppam forest to Palur Eri and Thotalam Eri, had disappeared. We thought desilting the water channels could help revive the water bodies," says Ramesh. The duo believed that the eight-acre Palur Eri and 11-acre Thotala Eri could help meet the drinking water and agricultural needs of residents and livestock in at least five villages.

"But to our shock, we found that the channels, which were on survey no. 265 and 266 were completely encroached by men who owned land near in the area. They had covered the channels with soil and had their orchards of mango, sugarcane and even paddy there," he adds.

A total of five encroachers had illegally occupied the water channels – Perumalsamy, Venkatesan a former Village Administrative Officer; KM Venkatesan, Pichandi and Venkatesan Jayaraman. They used the fertile soil present there to deepen their own pockets.

In 2009, when the Block Development Officer ordered for the channels to be desilted as part of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme, the encroachers protested and blocked efforts to carry out work.

Following this, Thanikachalam petitioned the district administration to take action and clear the encroachments. But with no response from the officials, a legal battle that would stretch over 5 years began. However, little did the activists know that their efforts will be met with no support from the district administration, police or politicians.

The legal tussle

While the encroachers approached a local court for a stay on any effort to clear their orchards, Thanikachalam filed a case against them with proof of wrongdoing. He further filed a contempt petition, stating that no action was taken to follow the court's orders. In 2011, the then Collector of Vellore was directed to remove any encroachments on the channels after hearing out the encroachers.

But the landowners refused to cooperate. They had the support of local politicians and even the Panchayat leaders. They began agitating when the district administration arrived there and we could only watch helplessly," says Ramesh.

Following this, efforts to hold talks with farm owners failed and Thanikachalam took to constantly petitioning the Collector to take action, but to no avail. In 2013, the encroachers went to the high court to request a stay on the previous order but the activists followed it up with an argument that the landowners were giving wrong information to the court. The Collector was ordered once again to remove the encroachments.

Facing heat from the court for lack of action, the district administration then attempted to clear encroachments between September 2 and 4, 2014. But once again, officials had to back down after resistance from the encroachers, alleges Ramesh. However, the court had allegedly been informed that the encroachments were removed.

"The encroachers filled the land that was cleared again. In addition, they also deepened the main channel by about 5 feet so that no water could ever enter into the branch channels, even if they were opened up at a later time. I was witness to this operation but was helpless, considering the political and monetary clout of the encroachers, who were enjoying the fruits of farming on the vast acreage of common, public land," says Ramesh.

The whole time, Thanikachalam who was spearheading these efforts, was constantly receiving threats from the encroachers, says his family. But he did not pay heed to them and instead prepared to file yet another contempt petition in the high court.

The murder

On November 11, 2014, the activist was returning to his residence from Madhanur at 10 pm. He had spent the evening sending his lawyer the documents to file the contempt petition.

"I was the last person who spoke to him, at around 9.30 pm," says Ramesh. "He told me that work was completed for the case but I failed to ask him an important question. I never confirmed whether he reached home," he adds, his voice breaking.

That night, just 1.5 kilometres from Madhanur, Thanikachalam, who was travelling on a cycle, was beaten with iron rods and strangled to death.

Thanikachalam found dead

"I got a call at 3.30 am and his family informed me about the murder," says Ramesh. Over the next week, Ramesh and Subramanian were called to the police station to give their statements.

The persons named by them in their complaint, as possible suspects in the case, were –  KM Venkatesan s/o Munisamy; A. Perumalsamy s/o Appadurai; Pichandi s/o Duraisamy; Jayakumar s/o Duraisamy; Loganathan @ Venkatesan s/o Jayaraman; Pandu (Panchayat President) s/o Gundan, and  Govindaraj s/o Kuppan.

This list included encroachers, as well as their associates.

However, on November 15, much to their shock, Thanikachalam's colleague and family found that the police had only arrested Loganathan based on a confession he had given.

"It was a complete eyewash," says Ramesh, angrily. "Even when we were giving the complaint, the police kept telling us to name just one person. They claimed that we will not get justice if we name all the seven. They were clearly already siding with the accused," he alleges.

According to Subramanian, Logananthan was merely a henchman for the encroachers who allegedly planned the crime.

"In 2015, we then went to Madras High Court, demanding that the case be transferred to the CB-CID," says Subramanian. "My brother's death is not only a loss for our family, but our entire village is also struggling without him," he adds.

Court backs activists

In the high court, arguing for the victim's family, was human rights advocate V Suresh.

"Amongst the important points we raised to prove inadequate investigation, was the fact that the victim's post-mortem revealed he was strangulated," the advocate tells TNM. "However, in his confession statement, Loganathan claimed he had beaten Thankikachalam to death.”

Moreover, call records from the day of the murder proved that all seven of the accused were constantly in touch.

"It is very clear from the records that the respondent police had focused upon only one accused person, who is already a history sheeter, and conveniently filed a final report by showing him as the accused person," said Justice Anand Venkatesan. "The names of all the encroachers against whom the deceased was fighting and upon whom, the needle of suspicion was pointing, have all been dropped from the final report. In short, this is one of the most slipshod investigation conducted by the respondent police," he added.

"When the case was finally transferred to the CB-CID, I couldn't stop crying," says Ramesh. "Even now, when I travel past the site of his murder, I feel the memories of his disfigured body and unrecognisable bloody face flood my mind. I ask him every day, why he has left me alone to fight this battle," he adds.

For Thanikachalam's brother Subramanian, this battle will not end till justice prevails.

"Till he died, it was my brother who fought for what is right but now the entire community will take his efforts further," he says. "We won't rest till he gets justice, " he adds.

But aren't they afraid of similar repercussions? Even the Madras High Court judge had noted," These social activists know the lurking danger waiting for them and in spite of the same, proceed to fight for the truth at the cost of their lives. The story of the deceased, in the present case, is one more chapter in the list of activists, who have died in a similar fashion."

It is Ramesh who unfalteringly answers this question.

"I am afraid every day," he admits, as he continues to fight the encroachment case. "But if we let fear dictate our actions, there will be no one to do what is right."

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