TN woman’s alleged murder brought to light as parents defy katta panchayat

Selvarani’s parents alleged they were pressured into silence by the mukhiyasthar and ‘oor Ambalam’ and other villagers, who lost no time in getting rid of her body without their consent, thus destroying evidence.
Selvarani's family members wearings masks stand together after handing over a complaint to the police
Selvarani's family members wearings masks stand together after handing over a complaint to the police
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Selvarani, the 22-year old daughter of wage workers Lakshmi and Balusamy, was found by her parents ‘hanging’ from a five-foot tall usilai tree, on the morning of April 8, 2021 in the dense forest area of Kakkayanpatti village, near Ayyalur town in Dindigul. Her parents had searched a full day and two nights for their daughter who had gone missing from their home on the night of April 6, the day Assembly elections were held in Tamil Nadu. “I broke down inconsolably, finding her body with wounds around her neck and stomach. Her feet were touching the ground,” said her mother. 

That morning, villagers gathered around the spot where Selvarani was found. Led by the village Mukhiyasthar (head) ‘oor Ambalam’ Perumal, Pujari Chinnakalai and others including the relatives of Balaji, a resident of the village who was reportedly in a relationship with Selvarani, clandestinely cremated her body deep in forest, stated a written complaint handed over by her parents to the Superintendent of Police and Collector of Dindigul on April 26.

“Selvarani was four months pregnant. But Balaji had no intention of marrying her. He had already married thrice and ‘divorced’ at the village itself, in front of the katta panchayat. On the night of April 6, when we were having dinner, my daughter got a phone call and left the house. We suspect it was Balaji who called her out,” the parents alleged. While her parents were searching for her, one of the villagers alleged he saw Balaji take Selvarani on the motorbike at 11pm on April 6, the complaint stated. 

The complaint alleged that after killing her, Balaji, with the help of his friends and family, took her body to ‘kundangal’ (the spot where she was found) on the night of April 7 and using a rope from the farm of another villager, Manjan, hung her from that tree. 

Selvarani’s parents alleged they were pressured into silence by the mukhiyasthar and ‘oor Ambalam’ (the name given to the katta panchayat among the Ambalakarar community) members, Balaji’s relatives, and other villagers, who lost no time in getting rid of her body without their consent, thus destroying evidence.

“On April 8, as soon as we found her, Balaji’s relatives and the mukhiyasthars took her away and burnt her. When we said we wanted to contact the police, they compelled us not to do so, saying we should not go beyond the decision taken by them at the ‘ambala-kal’,” Lakshmi said. 

‘Ambala-kal’ refers to a stone at Kakkayanpatti, where villagers customarily swear to secrecy, any decision sanctioned by the katta panchayat, reveals an exposé of the incident by journalist Pradeep Kumar in the Tamil magazine Nettrikan, dated May 7.

Selvarani’s family, like a majority of those in Kakkayanpatti, belongs to the Ambalakarar caste, classified as Most Backward Class (MBC) in Tamil Nadu. Balaji’s family too belongs to the same caste. The Netrikkan report also exposes how the age-old tradition of ‘oor Ambalam’ works in villages like Kakkayanpatti. “Couples can get married or divorced by paying an amount to this panchayat. Whenever any mysterious deaths or so-called suicides happen, the oor Ambalam takes a decision before the ambala-kal and cremates the body in the forest land, without informing the police or allowing any post-mortem. Anyone who ‘breaks the promise’ is excommunicated,” the report says. 

And this is not a one-off instance. “There are about 100-150 villages in this area, where predominantly Ambalakarar live, and each village has one ‘oor Ambalam.’ Many young girls especially are victims of their diktats. It is common knowledge that they function with open collusion of the local police, who are bribed regularly to look the other way. We have made many representations and protested against these illegal, undemocratic forces, but the authorities have not taken any action till date. We demand that an independent fact-finding team comprising government and non-government representatives, political and social activists be constituted immediately,” demanded K Palanisamy, Dindigul district committee member, CPI (ML).  

It must be noted that a Madras High Court order dated July 5, 2005 directed the Tamil Nadu government and, in turn, the Collectors and SPs of all districts to take strict action, immediately filing an FIR on any complaint received regarding katta panchayats in their jurisdictions and instituting criminal prosecution against those involved . 

“In our opinion, Kattapanchayatdars are nothing but mafia and hooligans, and katta panchayat is simply taking the law into one's own hands by some goondas, who unlawfully claim to represent the village....katta panchayats could not flourish in the first place without the collusion of the police and other authorities, or by their turning a blind eye to these unlawful activities,” the court said.

It also directed the Chief Secretary, Home Secretary and Director General of Police, Tamil Nadu “to take strong disciplinary action against the administrative and police officials who collude with the kattapanchayatdars…and who do not register and prosecute criminal cases against these hooligans.”

A month later, an FIR is filed

A few weeks after the incident, Selvarani’s grieving mother could not keep silent anymore. She, her husband and close relatives decided to break the katta panchayat’s diktat and met the SP and Collector of Dindigul on April 26 with a written complaint demanding an investigation of their daughter’s alleged gruesome murder. “This is the first time that anyone from our village is defying the katta panchayat and going to the police,” Balusamy, Selvarani’s father, said. 

An FIR on Selvarani’s death was registered at the nearest police station at Vadamadurai, a full one month after the incident, under Section 174 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) Act to inquire and report on suspicious deaths.  

“The allegations made in the FIR point to serious misdeeds on the part of the mukhiyasthars. They should also be arrayed as accused in the case, as they played a role in covering up of the occurrence and the evidence – in legal terms called, ‘causing disappearance of evidence’ – which is of serious nature,” said advocate S Sathia Chandran, of the Madras High Court, giving his opinion. 

Other members of the family alleged they are also under immense pressure to not speak up. “I was away when they found the body but by the time I reached, by 9-9.30 am, they had finished cremating her. They told us we should not go beyond what the katta panchayat had decided, else they would ex-communicate us. They are harassing me even now,” alleged C Azhagaraja, brother-in-law of Selvarani.

“The village administrative officer (VAO) of Ayyalur came to our village that day around 12 noon or later, for an inquiry. But the village mukhiyasthars and others told him the same thing – that Selvarani had an unbearable stomach pain and decided to hang herself. We do not know if the VAO filed any report after that,” he added. 

It is the duty of the VAO to report instances of unnatural death to the police, but given that the FIR was filed only upon Selvarani’s parents’ complaint, it is evident that this was probably not done.

No arrests made, but victim’s family living in fear

“We did not receive any complaint about katta panchayat,” said Ravali Priya, SP, Dindigul told TNM, “The investigation on this case is going on, we have taken a DNA test, statements are being recorded…no arrests have been made so far.”

When asked what the police or administration had done to help the parents and Selvarani’s siblings, who are now staying elsewhere out of fear of backlash from their village, the SP said the parents could give another complaint if that was the case, and the police would help them.   

But Lakshmi alleged that the local police are repeatedly harassing them to come to the police station at a time when the COVID-19 lockdown is in force. “We have already gone there 4-5 times…they ask us the same questions over and over again,” she said. 

Sathia Chandran said, “It is, undoubtedly, a dastardly crime committed on a young girl. Everything depends upon the police doing the investigation on the right lines and the prosecution building the case honestly.”

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