For the last five days, over 100 policemen have been deployed to guard the residents of a Dalit hamlet in Villupuram district's Anathur village. Madhavan colony consists of three streets, and 150 families live here. The riot control team's vehicles, tempos and police jeeps are parked imposingly near the entrance to the colony, and officers in khaki are spread across the two kilometre square area.
But this bandobast has done little to alleviate the fear of the residents, who point out that no policeman came to their rescue on Wednesday, when a mob of over 100 men from the Vanniyar community in the village unleashed violence upon them. The Vanniyars were angry that a young Dalit man and a Vanniyar woman had left the village together after secretly getting married.
"I heard the danger before I saw it,‚ÄĚ says 18-year-old Divya, whose house is located on the first street in the colony. On February 27, Divya was babysitting her two nieces as their parents had gone out to the fields for work. Her hands shake as she recalls hearing women scream on the main road.
‚ÄúI immediately took the children in. But just as I was closing the door to the house, five men who entered the street saw me," she says, recalling the horror, "They rushed to the door and broke it open. They then began to slap me and hit me with the papaya branch in their hand. When I was pushed to the ground, the children began to cry and scream. They picked up the four-year-old girl and threw her against the wall, and threw the other child into the open sewer outside the house," she says, her voice breaking as she points to the fresh wound on the face of her niece standing beside her.
(Divya's injured niece Avantika)
Divya says that the men kept verbally abusing her the entire time, using casteist slurs, ‚ÄúThey constantly repeated ‚Äď How dare a Dalit man marry our Vanniyar woman?"
This question echoed across the Dalit hamlet that day as at least 20 houses and three vehicles were damaged. The Vanniyar mob, the Dalits allege, even tried to burn down a few of the houses.
The second son who eloped
Fifty five-year-old Kalaiamma sits on the road to her home, taking shelter from the blazing sun under a thatched roof. For the second time in a decade, her family has become the centre of discussion over escalated caste tensions in the village. Other villagers sit around her in a cluster, murmuring about the attacks, and Kalaiamma says their apprehension is understandable.
"Nine years back, when my first son Moorthi ran away with a Vanniyar girl, the whole issue was resolved through dialogue by the then Panchayat leader," she says, "But in the case of my second son, things have gotten out of hand."
(55-year-old Kalaiamma outside her residence in Madhavan colony)
Her second son is 25-year-old Thirumoorthi, who was accused by the family of 24-year-old Jayapradha, a Vanniyar woman, of abducting her. The family approached the police, whose initial investigations revealed that the couple had gotten married at a Registrar's office on January 7, and were living in their respective homes fearing that their families would react adversely.
On February 21 however, Thirumoorthi and Jayapradha decided to make a run for it. Jaya‚Äôs parents had found out that she was involved with a Dalit man, and began to look for a groom for her. They even sent her to Bengaluru to keep her away from the village. When she returned to the village to attend the final rites of a relative, the couple eloped.
Thirumoorthi's friends tell TNM that the two have been together since they were in Class 7.
"They were always very close but claimed to be friends till they finished school. They were both very good students as well, and while Jayapradha always came first in class, Thiru would come second or third," says his friend Kandhan, "But when they both joined the Cuddalore Government Arts college, everyone knew about the relationship. They always sat together even in the bus."
For the first four days after they ran away, members of the Vanniyar community constantly asked Kalaiamma where her son was.
‚ÄúI really had no idea where he was, I didn't even know that he was in love. After this attack, even if he comes back to this village, these Vanniyars will kill him," says the worried mother, "They are completely infuriated by the fact that two men from the same family have gotten away with this. They will definitely try to get rid of him.‚ÄĚ
Her elder son Moorthi, who rushed to the village on the insistence of the police, says that he has hardly been to his own home since his wedding nine years ago. Settled in Chennai now with his wife and children, he says, "I have always been aware that my presence will create trouble for not just my family, but for everyone else here as well. If I even had an inkling that my brother was planning to marry a Vanniyar girl, I would have put an end to it myself. Why should other Dalit families suffer for our choices? Their houses have been damaged and their lives put at risk because of us."
But 65-year-old Kalian, a daily wage worker seated under the roof with Kalaiamma, consoles Moorthy.
Only an excuse to display caste hatred?
"Don't blame yourself. These caste tensions have existed for decades and they just needed a reason to attack us," Kalian says. He reminds the group of attacks on the same colony by Vanniyar men in 1987. The community had been demanding reservation in education and employment in the state during Chief Minister MG Ramachandran's rule. And while agitations against the ruling party were underway, the protesters took to setting the houses of Dalit communities on fire to show their anger against the government.
In Anathur, the population ratio of Dalit to Vanniyars is skewed. While there are 1,500 Vanniyar families, the count of Dalit families is merely 600. And these numbers, anti caste activists believe, made the Dalit group easy targets then and now.
(Dalit families in Anathur village)
"We were displaced for months then for no fault of ours, and we couldn't fight back," says Kalian, "Now, the Vanniyars are unable to handle economic advancements in our community and don't even like the fact that we walk with slippers and go on bikes as we pass through their roads to the main road. Didn't you see what exactly they did to our houses?"
‚ÄėThey wanted to put us in our place‚Äô
Twenty nine-year-old Adilakshmi, whose house is located at the entrance on the colony, was amongst the first people to see the mob coming. She is Thirumoorthi's relative and knew exactly why the group was heading towards the colony. Armed with iron rods and thick branches of papaya trees, over 100 men were marching, hurling abuses at her.
"It was around 10 am, and my husband was at work. I took my two children and ran from the house, to save our lives," she says, "The men then proceeded to trash every item of value in our house."
In a quick tour of their newly constructed home, she shows us the damaged refrigerator, the spot where the TV that was destroyed sat, and the gas connection that was pulled out to set fire to the house. Glass panes were shattered, the shards still on the floor, and the electricity supply to the house cut off. The damage to over 20 houses in the area is very similar.
(Adilakshmi points out to damage to property in her house)
In 30-year-old Tamil Kudimagan's house, the mob even took away cash. Two bikes and an autorickshaw were also damaged.
"One of them even poured petrol on the bike to set it on fire but another man stopped him," says Tamil, who is Thirumoorthi's friend, "They broke all the newly laid tiles in our home too. This is their way of putting us in our place. They think we don't deserve these things."
While Tamil and Adilakshmi were at least aware of why they were being attacked, several others whose belongings were damaged claim that they were clueless about the couple eloping.
(Autorickshaw vandalised outside Tamil's residence)
The mob has now threatened to rape the women of the village and beat up children if they cross paths. And with the only way out to the main road being through the Vanniyar settlement, residents have been unable to go to work and children to school, for close to a week now.
"We don't understand why we were not given any protection," says 29-year-old Sathya, a resident of the colony, "Everything in my house is broken. And even after this happened, not even a single district authority has come to visit us. The Collector has not bothered to come here."
And this alleged lack of attention to the issue, TNM learns, stems from the police's attempts to blatantly downplay the attack.
Where were the cops?
Last year, in Dharmapuri, in a similar case of elopement, the district police deployed over 600 officials in the area to prevent any kind of clashes. This successfully prevented any violence from breaking out in the area. In Villupuram however, sources in the police and resident say that not more than two policemen were present near the Dalit colony when the attacks happened.
"We believe that around 50-60 young men were involved in the attack, and about three houses were damaged," says DSP Mahesh, who is investigating the case. His claims are contrary to eyewitnesses, who say more than 100 men were part of the mob.
"No children were injured. The mob mostly had young boys from the Vanniyar community," he claims.
Attempts by the DSP to play down the number comes despite the FIR naming 35 accused and categorising 50 others as unknown. Of them, only six have been arrested so far. When asked where the others are, the police claim they are all absconding.
"It was just an act of emotion, like an outburst," the DSP justifies. "They are young men. And couldn't stand the fact that the same family had done this twice now," he says.
(District police stationed near Dalit colony)
But investigations on ground by the NGO Social Awareness Society for Youth (SASY) show that the attacks were premeditated. A WhatsApp message circulated in groups in the village calls for a meeting at a local temple on the morning of February 27. The message in Tamil was sent at 7.58 pm on February 26 to an alumni group of the village's school students and it read, ‚ÄúAll people of Anathur will come together. We will act against other castes that keep their hand on girl from our community (Vanniyar). Tomorrow (27-02-2019) morning at 9 am, we will assemble at a public meeting in Draupadi Amman Temple. All youngsters and people come together. Leave all the work that you have and come. Don't think this is for another family, think it is for yours and come.‚ÄĚ
"We have enough reason to believe that right after this meeting was held, these men came to the village and attacked people here," says Lalitha, who is heading SASY's fact finding team in the village. And if the police were really on the lookout, it is clear that they could have stopped the attack, say villagers.
"Further, the main accused in the case is a DMK member named Chandrakumar and a BJP leader named Raja. They are both relatives of the girl's family. They have both not been apprehended yet," adds Lalitha.
Couple returns, peace doesn't
A day after TNM visited the village, the couple came back and told the police that they married out of free will and wanted protection from the girl's family. They then went back to Chennai. While tensions are de-escalating, the people in the Dalit hamlet are aware that their fight is far from over.
"The police are not acting swiftly to punish the culprits," says Lalitha, "If they let them off like this, I can't imagine what horrors will befall these villagers the next time."