As holes emerge in 'suicide' story, family of dalit youth hopes truth will emerge

The police insist the 2013 death of the Dalit man at the epicentre of upper caste violence over his engagement to a Vanniyar woman in Tamil Nadu was a suicide. But the evidence does not support this claim.
As holes emerge in 'suicide' story, family of dalit youth hopes truth will emerge
As holes emerge in 'suicide' story, family of dalit youth hopes truth will emerge
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By Sowmya Sivakumar

Chennai: Less than four years ago, all of Tamil Nadu keenly followed the travails of Ilavarasan and Divya, a Dalit-Vanniyar love story that ended in Ilavarasan’s death under murky circumstances along a railway track in Dharmapuri in July 2013.

Before his death, in violence instigated by local Pattali Makkal Katchi leaders and the Vanniyar Sangham, 326 Dalit homes in three Dalit settlements of Dharmapuri district were torched. A caste war was waged for months in northern Tamil Nadu. Three years later, in November 2016, the Madras high court ordered a CB-CID probe into Ilavarasan’s death. The CB-CID is to submit its compliance report on the case to the court on Friday, February 17.

Key question

Was E. Ilavarasan, the Dalit youth from Natham Colony, Dharmapuri district, really hit at 1.20 pm on July 4, 2013, by the Coimbatore–Kurla Express (train no.11014) that passed the spot where he was found dead, next to the railway track, 3 km before Dharmapuri railway station? This is the key question on which the entire case turns. Asra Garg, who was the superintendent of police of Dharmapuri at the time, claimed that Ilavarasan’s wrist watch – recovered from the scene – had got stuck at 1.20, the very instant the train passed the spot (1.20 pm). Garg conjectured that it was the impact of the train hitting Ilavarasan that stopped the watch. This ‘fact’, in turn, has been used to ‘prove’ that the young man committed suicide by jumping in front of the train.

However, there were no eyewitness accounts, no accident reported by the engine driver, nor any admitted evidence of a run-over such as blood or tissue found on the train.

In a YouTube video uploaded by one “Ratish.G” – taken on the day Ilavarasan died, and uploaded on July 7, 2013 – there is a close-up of the dial of the wrist watch. The video was shot on the day of his death. The police and onlookers are at the scene. What the close-up of the watch reveals may hold the key to challenging the time on the watch as a crucial piece of evidence presented by the police.

The video at 1:46 clearly shows Ilavarasan’s watch in a white transparent plastic bag lying on the culvert a few feet from the track, adjacent to which his body was found. The time on the watch, discernible to the naked eye, is not 1.20, from any angle. Even if the needles of the watch are not sharply visible, the angle between the two needles at the position of 1.20 cannot be what is seen in this video. It certainly calls for a close, forensic re-examination of the original high-resolution footage of the video.

It’s all about time

The time is crucial because a copy of the train signal register of arrival and departure timings at Dharmapuri railway station on July 4, 2013, obtained by this writer through a Right to Information application from the South Western Railways office, shows that the 11014 Coimbatore–Kurla Express arrived at Dharmapuri junction, 3km past the spot where Ilavarasan was found dead, at 1:25 pm. A 1.20 pm death on the tracks is consistent with the station log but if the young man died before or after the train was already at the station, the suicide theory falls apart.

Is the watch showing 1:20, as the police have claimed? Credit: Screenshot from video uploaded by Rathish G/YouTube

Moreover, the watch and the time it had allegedly stopped at was not shown to Ilavarasan’s parents, Elango and Krishnaveni, on the day of his death. “The watch was lying there in a bag on the culvert, next to the half-eaten banana. But it was only when I went to collect Ilavarasan’s Pulsar bike from the station, more than a month after the incident, that they told me about the time on it,” said Elango, over the phone. “The police even hazarded a guess that he must have removed his watch and kept it there before jumping in front of the train. Why would a man who’s supposedly decided to commit suicide bother to remove his watch?” asks Elango incredulously.

Even if he did so, this only further counters the police’s conjecture and presentation of the watch as ‘crucial evidence’, for it means the watch was not on Ilavarasan’s body when he was supposedly hit by the train, and hence could not have got stuck at the time of impact in the first place.

There are many questions with no convincing answers regarding the watch and the hypothesis of synchronised timings. Ilavarasan was right-handed, and wore his watch on his left wrist. It was his left forearm which was badly damaged, according to the post mortem reports. His body was lying face-down, close and all along the culvert, with no space between the culvert and him, his left arm trapped under the weight of his body.

Among the questions that beg answers are: If Ilavarasan did not remove the watch from this arm before dying, who did, and why was it then placed in a bag and left at the spot where it was recovered from? If this was done after his death, how was it taken off his wrist even before removing the body was authorised? If the watch was not found on his body in the first place, then where was it found, by whom, and in what condition? Were there photographs of his watch taken at the spot, before it was touched? Was the watch finger-printed? Why was the watch not provided to the post-mortem team? This point is specifically mentioned by doctors in reports in possession of this writer.

Oddly, the police superinentent announced the synchronisation of time on the watch with the train’s timing as clinching evidence a good one month after the incident, perhaps, it is alleged, after ascertaining when the train passed by.  This point was raised by Elango in his petition (WP No. 21150 of 2013) in the Madras high court through lawyer S. Rajinikanth, “Further, the 5th respondent (SP, Dharmapuri) belatedly claimed after a month that a watch of the deceased was found near the scene of occurrence and he has not explained as to how it was recovered after one month…. and there is no date mentioned on the watch and he has not explained under what mechanism the watch was struck.” To these questions, there was no response in the SP’s 21-page counter-affidavit.

Anyone could have set the watch at 1.20 once the train timing was known. The video and the questions pick gaping holes in the supposed match in the watch and train timings, on which the SP’s suicide theory of jumping before the train almost entirely hinges.

Other inconsistencies

That is not all. Ilavarsan is said to have spoken with three close friends over the phone from near the railway track, close to the alleged time of death – Manoj Kumar (in Chennai), Karthik (in Chittoor), and Arivalagan (his cousin, in Dharmapuri).

According to his parents, someone else called him that morning, whose identity is still a mystery.

Though Ilavarasan’s phone was set on a mode where all conversations were automatically recorded, the police seem to have retrieved only the audio recordings of the two short conversations with Arivalagan. There are no recordings of the calls with Manoj and Karthik, with whom he spoke around the same time, for longer. The absence of recordings assumes significance because the two friends, in their verbal statements made to the police, apparently said that Ilavarasan sounded upset about Divya’s separation from him, that he was drinking along the track, and planned to commit suicide that day. There are no recordings to substantiate this claim.

Manoj Kumar, a childhood friend of Ilavarasan, could not be contacted. His own inter-OBC caste love marriage with a Vanniyar girl from the area around the time riots broke out in Dharmapuri in 2012 (when Divya’s father allegedly committed suicide) prompted them to leave the place quietly, and settle in Chennai, with his parents refusing to divulge his whereabouts to anyone out of fear. Ilavarasan’s close college friend Karthik, who had arranged Ilavarasan’s and Divya’s elopement and marriage in Chittoor, was also unreachable over the phone. However, when Elango had earlier spoken to him regarding his alleged statement to the police, Karthik had denied hearing Ilavarasan say he would commit suicide. “Ilavarasan did not tell me that he was going to commit suicide that day. In fact, he said he was coming here (to Chittoor) and I invited him over,” Elango claimed Karthik told him.

Ilavarasan’s family believes the police version of what Manoj Kumar and Karthik recounted is not reliable.

“Ilavarasan’s phone had an auto-call recording feature, I know, because I got him that phone on an offer,” said Arivalagan. “It records all calls, incoming and outgoing. If my conversations, in which Ilavarasan said he’s on his way, minutes before his body was discovered, got recorded, then so must have theirs. “When recently called by the CB-CID for verification, I asked them this question – ‘how come you have only my recordings and not Manoj’s or Karthik’s?’ They had no answer,” he said.

All eyes will now be on the CB-CID, which is due to submit its compliance report on the case to the Madras high court on February 17.

This piece was originally published on The Wire and has been republished with permission. 

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