14-year-old Latha's* face was smashed beyond recognition. She lay unconscious in a state of partial undress, her pants missing, at her home in Vellamputhur village of Villupuram district. Though there were bloodstains around her fragile frame, Latha survived. Her eight-year-old brother, who lay next to her, his eyes staring at the ceiling unseeingly, did not make it. But the horror didn't end there.
Next to the brother's corpse lay her mother, unmoving, her face similarly damaged. The 45-year-old widow was barely breathing.
This is the scene that the Arakandanallur police witnessed on Thursday morning when they were alerted of a brutal crime in a Dalit settlement. The bloody scene was discovered by villagers after someone went to enquire the family's whereabouts when they failed to come fetch water at 6.30 am. And since then, neighbours and activists allege, massive efforts are being made to play down the brutal crime against the Dalit family.
"The teenage girl was found in a state of partial undress and has been raped. In fact, doctors at the JIPMER Hospital at Puducherry, where she was taken, had to put two stiches on her uterus to stop the bleeding. They have been attacked with a large chatti (stone vessel) mercilessly," says Pandian, the Director of Social Awareness Society for Youth (SASY), who was part of the fact-finding team sent to the village.
"This particular village has only 65 Dalit families. Next to it is the village of Sevallur, which is dominated by a large number of Vanniyar families. Cases of violence against Dalits, especially their women, are on the rise here, but they have been too afraid to complain," he adds.
The hospital failed to independently respond to queries on the matter. When TNM contacted the police, they denied that it was a case of sexual assault or even a caste crime.
"It is true that the girl did not have a bottom on and it could have been an attempt to molest her, but we don’t have medical reports to confirm this. We have filed an FIR for murder," says Inspector Jayavel, who is investigating the case. "We think that somebody from the same area could be responsible for this. Members of the upper caste have no motive to commit this crime.”
The fact-finding team constituted by SASY, however, alleges that the family had an ongoing dispute over a property in the area with some members of the upper caste community.
“They had given 14 cents of land in return for 4 cents of land and cash, but they never received the full amount," says Pandian. "The matter was even taken to the civil court. Last month, a huge fight had erupted between both parties over the issue. The police are purposely trying to subdue this issue before the Prime Minister's arrival in the state."
Even the Villupuram Collector, L Subramanian, cited Prime Minister Narendra Modi's impending arrival in Puducherry, which is an hour away from the district, as a reason for his lack of involvement in the case.
"We have been having continuous meetings because of the PM's visit. But I have told the station to thoroughly investigate the matter," says the Collector.
Meanwhile, contrasting claims emerge with regard to the status of the victims. While the police say their condition is improving, activists allege that the mother is in critical condition while the daughter continues to suffer from excessive bleeding.