Trivananthapuram, September 30: It took a long time coming, but the people of Vachathi village in Tamil Nadu have finally got justice. On Thursday – more than 19 years after the tribals of the village in Krishnagiri district were raped by forest, police and revenue personnel -a sessions court pronounced all 269 guilty.
“Justice has been done at last,” S. Perumal, 70, who was the village chief then and was present at the court premises, said.
The village women – with tears rolling down their cheeks – sent up a prayer to their deity “Mariamman”, unconcerned at the incessant rain outside the court premises.
The predominant mood was that of relief, not jubilation – of justice being served at last. And it took time for the verdict to sink in. As many as 18 women are believed to have been raped in the action, while most of the villagers were tortured. As many as 34 of those who suffered ignominy at the hands of these personnel did not live to see the justice delivered.
“I hope, the high court does not remit or reduce the sentence for the guilty. All of them deserve to be in jail, especially those who dishonoured the women,” a rape victim said.
Pronouncing the verdict, Dharmapuri principal district and sessions judge S. Kumaraguru made it clear that the CBI had proved the charges against the accused beyond doubt. He found them guilty on various charges – including rape, torture, misuse of power, unlawful restraint and looting.
While pronouncing 17 personnel of the forest department guilty of rape, the judge held 12 of them guilty under the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act. They would serve 10 years for this offence while the others would serve seven years for rape. The quantum of punishment for the others ranged from one year to three years of imprisonment. As many as 54 of the accused died while the case went on.
On the fateful day – June 20, 1992 – a 600-strong contingent of personnel had trooped into the nondescript hamlet on the foothills of the Chitteri range near Harur, about 350 km from Chennai. Their mission: Seize the sandalwood being smuggled from the village lying in the lap of the sandalwood-rich hills.
Asking the women personnel to stay behind, some personnel herded the group of young women – 10 of them unmarried and one as young as 13 – to the dry riverbed on the pretext of recovering buried sandalwood. They were raped at the desolate spot.
After the rape and ransacking of the village, 95 men, 94 women and 28 children were taken to the forest office in Harur and detained for two days before being produced in court. While in Harur, the men suffered the ignominy of being ordered to disrobe their women, who were then raped. The women were also forced to thrash the village chief with brooms.
For months, Vachathi remained a ghost town. Not only the houses were ransacked and looted, wells were contaminated with diesel. And it took months for the villagers to return and lead a normal life. But the scars remained.
Interestingly, chief minister J. Jayalalithaa was in power when the incident took place. But for the tireless efforts of late CPM stalwart A. Nallasivan, the tribals would not have got their due.
He raised the issue in the Rajya Sabha and also moved the Supreme Court seeking a CBI probe into the issue. The case was returned to the Madras High Court which ordered a CBI probe in 1995.