In September this year, Madurai-based anti-caste NGO Evidence released a grim five-year report on the number of caste murders and convictions in Tamil Nadu. From January 2016 to December 2020, there were 300 murders of people from Schedule Caste and Scheduled Tribe communities. The total number of convictions for these murders stood at an abysmal 13. In 30 cases, the accused have been acquitted. The remaining 257 cases are stagnating at various stages, either with the courts or with the police. In a series of articles, TNM will be following up on some of these cases that have hit roadblocks or in which the accused have been acquitted, speaking to surviving families and/or lawyers to highlight how so many who have lost family members to caste murders are yet to receive justice.
The first in this series is the murder of 34-year-old Muthazhagu, who was hacked to death over four years ago for his grassroots anti-caste activism. He was attacked near his home in Madurai districtâs Vadapazhanji on June 28, 2017. The accused used an aruvaal (sickle) and knives. He bled to death from these wounds. Those accused in his murder are all out on bail. And the trial? Itâs yet to begin.
âThey killed my husband because he fearlessly came forward for his community, no matter what the issue was. If I have to put it simply, they thought as long as heâs around, heâll ask questions. If we kill him, the rest of them will also go quiet,â says his wife Arulmozhi.
A well-known activist figure in the area, Muthazhagu lived in Vadapazhanjiâs Ambedkar Colony with his wife and two sons, who were then studying in Class 6 and 7. At the time of his murder, he was a district-level co-organiser of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK). He had helped several intercaste couples get married, Arulmozhi tells TNM. She also describes how Muthazhgu was a community leader, repeatedly at the frontlines in order to tackle issues faced by the people of Ambedkar Colony.
âIf youngsters in our colony faced caste-based harassment heâd encourage them to file FIRs under the Protection of Civil Rights (PCR) or Prevention of Atrocities Against SC/STs (PoA) Acts. Usually, they [the Pira Malai Kallars] would try to come to a settlement in the police station itself without a case getting filed. My husband wouldnât allow this. When a TASMAC liquor store in our neighbourhood opened a bar illegally, he stood with the women fighting to shut it down,â she adds.
Shekar, a young man, was one such person that Muthazhgu helped. âHeâs our neighbour. He was beaten up by them. My husband wouldnât let it pass with just a settlement in the station. He was the one who ensured that a case was filed. Normally, at the station some sort of âpeace talkâ will happen and Dalits would end up withdrawing their complaint. He [Muthazhagu] wouldnât let such things happen. This would have been among the other issues that infuriated them [the accused]. Like I said, he kept getting in their way.In 2013, he had helped a woman from a dominant caste and her now husband, who is Dalit, get married. The couple, facing opposition from her family, had approached Muthazhagu for help. Muthazhagu faced casteist abuse and threats from the womanâs family for a year then, says a press statement released by Evidence after his death.
He and Arulmozhi are themselves an intercaste couple. Muthazhagu had supported many such couples until he was attacked and killed. The 12 accused are from the Pira Malai Kallar caste, a Kallar sub-caste that falls within the Thevar cluster or the so-called âMukkulathorâ. They are the caste group from whom Dalit people in the area face repeated antagonism.
In her witness statement, Arulmozhi records that on the night of the murder, she returned home to find that Muthazhagu had left somewhere in a hurry. This was around 9.00 pm, she says. She tried calling his mobile phone twice, but there was no answer. A relative who lived nearby told her that he had gone westwards while speaking on his phone, writes Arulmozhi, so she walked in the same direction. When she rang him a fourth time, it said the number was out of the network area.
At that moment she heard a neighbour raise an alarm ahead. She, her father-in-law and others ran in the direction of the shouts to find Muthazhagu lying dead in a pool of blood. He had stab injuries on his right temple, right ear, chest, left hip and more. They also noted abrasions on his left elbow and knee.
The field where Muthazhagu was found murdered
âThey [the Pira Malai Kallars in the area] calculated that if he was no longer around, there would be no one else to come forward and ask questions. Their calculation has turned out correct. In these last five years, whatever happens, no one has taken a stand like he did,â says Arulmozhi.
Kathir, founder and executive director of the NGO Evidence, calls Muthazhagu âa straightforward, honest young manâ. He adds, âHe wanted to bring about change. He was a true grassroots activist and Dalit human rights defender. Many people in politics can be bought, but not him. Even in the case of the TASMAC illegal bar, which was owned by a person from the Pira Malai Kallar community, they offered money to silence him, but he wouldnât be swayed.â
Evidence has been supporting the family since the murder, documenting the case and arranging for legal help.
Arulmozhi, Muthazhagu's wife, with A Kathir founder and executive director of Evidence
Police delay, courts delay even more
The PoA Act clearly states that in the case of murder of Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe persons, a chargesheet should be filed within 60 days of the incident. In Muthazhaguâs case, the chargesheet was only filed on May 3, 2018, nine months later than it should have been.
After the bail hearing of the accused, the case has not progressed. Seven of the accused were granted bail, the remaining five absconded and later got anticipatory bail. The trial itself remains pending in front of the SC/ST special court in Madurai. Arulmozhi says that a date has been given next month, but she is waiting to see what will happen. Ironically, the special courts for hearing PoA cases were set up for the express purpose of delivering speedy trials. Additionally, these special courts that were set up under provisions of the PoA Act are âas far as possible ensure cases are disposed of within a period of two months.â
Justice delayed is routine with caste crimes
The roadblocks in the Muthazhagu case are not unusual. The criminal justice system routinely works to the disfavour of SC/ST communities. It begins right from the FIR stage. Often FIRs are not filed under PoA, despite the law mandating that they should be when the perpetrator is not SC/ST. This dilutes the case at the beginning. A report by the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR) says that 32.5% of crimes against Scheduled Caste people in India from 2009-2018 were not registered under PoA. In Muthazhaguâs case too, the FIR, of which TNM has a copy, was filed only under section 302 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) (punishment for murder).
The delayed chargesheet in the Muthazhagu case is also not unusual. With reference to the same NCDHR report, chargesheets for 476 PoA cases in 2016 and 454 PoA cases in 2017 in Tamil Nadu were filed only after the mandated 60 days had lapsed.
From 2009 to 2018, the pendency rate in courts of PoA casesâmeaning that the trial is yet to beginâpertaining to Scheduled Castes alone averaged 88.5% in India, if again one is to refer to the NCDHR report. This is the stage at which Muthazhguâs case too has come to a standstill.
As Kathir had told TNM earlier and is evident from the above figures, there are delays at each stage, from the filing of the FIR and the chargesheet to the actual pronouncement of judgment. Often, in the case of convictions, the sentencing is under IPC alone and not under PoA. Kathir had added that âthroughout the investigative process there are missteps, for example, according to the PoA Act the district collector is obligated to do a spot visit, but that does not happen in most of the cases.â He further said, âThreats to the family at the FIR stage, improper filing of the FIR, biased investigations, there are a hoard of problems.â He had also alleged that the performance of the investigating police officer to the public prosecutor is not up to par.
Justifiable reasons for investigative or judicial delays appear scant.
Speaking to TNM for this report, Kathir says, âFor example, when questions are asked as to why there is a delay in the charge sheet, they [the police] will say âwe are conducting further investigationsâ or âwe are finding more witnesses.â According to the PoA, it is possible to give the verdict in two months after the chargesheet is filed. Fast-tracking these cases is a demand that Evidence has repeatedly put forth.â
âWe need more investigative officers (IOs) who focus on PoA cases without having to look at regular cases filed under IPC,â Kathir also says. âAnyway,â he adds, âthe IO for PoA cases is the Deputy superintendent of Police (DSP). To my knowledge, there are more than 300 DSPs in Tamil Nadu. The average number PoA cases in the state are 1,200 annually. Thatâs only 3 to 4 PoA cases per DSP each year. What then is the reason for such long investigative delays? Why are they not able to conduct quality investigations?â
All image courtesy: Evidence