For the past few days since her rehabilitation orders came through, Mary has not been sleeping. Her 3-year-old son along with seven other men are languishing in jail for a crime that they did not commit. Mary and the others are part of a community of women and children who have been rescued by Peopleâ€™s Watch from the alleged torture and police brutality committed by the Kanyakumari police for over 60 days.
Mary and her friend and neighbour, Panimalar, cannot fathom why they have been unfairly targeted. They collapse into sobs. Over 20 charges have been slapped on 16 men, women and children for allegedly stealing jewellery from gold shops across Kanyakumari. 7 of the men and one child still languish in jail.
â€śHow did they catch us? We were coached by the police to point out which chain we stole and from which shop, where we pickpocketed from and they set up a bunch of jewellery owners to show that they recoginise us,â€ť says Panimalar. They were soon taken into custody and thatâ€™s when the brutality began.
The Kuravas, a community with a 2.5 lakh strength to which Mary and the others belong, were historically termed dacoits and thieves and side-lined especially in the British era. Since then, they have performed daily wage jobs and led simple lives in towns, particularly across Kanyakumari. But the Kuravas and other tribal communities have been bearing the brunt of police prejudice for a while now.
â€śThe crux of this is that they have been wrongfully detained and tortured,â€ť says Henri Tiphagne, the Head of Madurai based NGO Peopleâ€™s Watch which is now handling their case. â€śThe roots run deeper. Obviously this is a clear case of pressure from the higher-ups of the police department. Itâ€™s easy to target a downtrodden community simply by the history they come from," he says.
The history of cops and their run-ins with tribes is rather exhaustive. The 1871 Criminal Tribes Act was enforced in the northern part of British India first. Under the Act, 150 notified castes of "hereditary criminals" within the Hindu system were to be kept under police surveillance. More castes were added to the list through the years? The branding of these communities as "criminal" was not based on the notion of heredity but rather as a community profession passed on from one generation to the next. The crimes covered included counterfeiting of coins and currency, murder, theft, robbery, dacoity and house-breaking - exactly the charges that the 16 accused have been slapped with in Kanyakumari.
The first documented arrest in recent times dates back to 2002 which reported the harassment of a large tribal (Kurava) family in the backward Dharmapuri district of Tamil Nadu. This, among many other arrests, highlights the high-handed and inhuman attitude of the police towards these sections but also exposes the gaps in the criminal justice system. Indiscriminate detention, arrests without warrant, taking photographs and fingerprints of people belonging to de-notified tribes and custodial torture of the people continue in different parts of the country - and it's easy for the police to get a leg up in terms of a promotion and respect, and make a quick buck. Four decades after the repeal of the Criminal Tribes Act, 1871, which branded people belonging to 160 communities across the country as â€śborn criminalsâ€ť, the mindset remains."Kurava crimes" is even in a section of the police training syllabus.
When asked who could narrate the ordeal, the group pointed to a 12-year-old boy, Shekhar. Limping, his tonsured head hanging down his chest, he comes towards us. â€śWhen we were in the dark room, they broke my motherâ€™s thaali and told me that they would shave my head because my father is good as gone,â€ť he says, with no inflection of sadness or grief in his voice, sounding almost robotic. The 63 days of torture have left many wondering what they could do to move on with their lives. The husbands of many of the women are still under custody.
Shekharâ€™s eyes have turned vacant since the day of his release. â€śI saw men putting their hands down my motherâ€™s blouse, ripping her saree off. I saw my father suspended from the ceiling as he coughed blood between screams,â€ť he says, revealing his swollen leg and pushing his shirt up to show the scars. As he speaks, he is suddenly interrupted by a staff member at Peopleâ€™s Watch who instructs the group to crouch and speak in hushed tones. A police aide has arrived, asking if he could see Mary and her nephew. She begins to shiver. â€śIf they ask for me, they will put me and my nephew in jail,â€ť she says, crying into her pallu as she thinks about her 3-year-old son who is behind bars.
As for the police, the Superintendent has denied that the incident ever happened. After pressure from the press and the State Human Rights Commission demanding a probe, Henri says much has been done to subdue the matter. He hopes that the public hearings will help Peopleâ€™s Watch make their case for the Kuravas.