Updated: September 25, 2021 10:00:13 am
Two days after a 70-year-old woman, accused in the murder of Dalit leader C Pasupathy Pandian in 2012, was hacked to death in Dindigul, near Madurai, was beheaded, and her head placed outside Pandian’s house as an ‘offering’, three of eight men suspected to have killed her were arrested on Friday.
The woman killed on Wednesday — P Nirmala Devi — was the fifth victim since Pandian’s murder nine years ago. All five murders are suspected to be result of a rivalry between the gangs of Pandian and Subash Pannaiyar that began nearly three decades ago, with the murder of an elderly relative of Pannaiyar in January 1993.
Pannaiyar believed Pandian was behind that killing, and allegedly retaliated, sparking off a series of revenge killings by both sides which has claimed at least 12 lives, including Nirmala Devi’s, since 1993, according to police. Pannaiyar was among the 18 people accused of Pandian’s murder in 2012 — the case is still at trial stage in a Dindigul court.
On Wednesday’s murder, a senior police officer in Chennai who is monitoring the case said the accused escaped after placing Nirmala Devi’s head at the gate of Pandian’s house but met with an accident soon after. “Preliminary investigation reveals at least eight people were directly involved in Devi’s murder. Three of them were arrested on Friday… others will be nabbed soon,” the officer said.
Following the accident, the suspects quickly arranged another getaway vehicle, the officer said.
On the decades-long rivalry between the gangs, the Chennai police officer said the first victim was Sivasubramaniyam, an elderly person in Pannaiyar’s family. Then studying in Salem, Pannaiyar returned to his village to join a relative, Venkatesa Pannaiyar, to allegedly avenge the murder. Sivasubramaniyam was Venkatesa’s uncle.
According to police, Subash and Venkatesa led a counter-attack within three months — while Pandian had a narrow escape, he lost a close aide, Pon Essaki, in the April 1993 attack.
Pandian’s gang struck back within three months, allegedly killing Venkatesa’s grandfather, Asuvathy Pannaiyar, according to police.
“Pandian, a powerful local Dalit leader, was main accused in that case,” a senior officer who has served in Dindigul said. “The beginning of these revenge killings by Pandian was locally seen as a reaction to harassment meted out to Dalit labourers who worked under the Pannaiyar family, mainly over issues such as water scarcity and disputes over a salt pan in Tiruchendur.”
Thereafter, the officer said, there have been “at least 12 murders, including Nirmala Devi’s.”
In 2003, Venkatesa was shot by police in Chennai. The gang’s power cut down, Subash Pannaiyar subsequently joined All-India Nadar Protection Forum, linked to the powerful OBC Nadar community in southern Tamil Nadu, to draw wider community support, police said.
In 2006, Pannaiyar gang allegedly played a role in killing Pandian’s wife, Jacintha. In 2012, Pandian, accused in at least eight murder cases, was himself killed.
M Muthupandi, one of the accused in Pandian’s murder, was killed in Madurai in April 2014.
While Subash Pannaiyar is backed by his Nadar outfit, Pandian also had the backing of community and political outfits such as Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), a party supported by Vanniyars, classified as a Most Backward Caste community. Pandian, who belonged to the Dalit community Pallar, later started the Federation of Devendrakula Vellalars, a community seen as evolving as a vote bank in recent decades.
Dindigul SP V R Srinivasan said the accused arrested Friday are primarily daily wage workers from villages. “Caste affinity motivates them,” he said.
Another officer monitoring the probe said none of the accused were hired killers. “They all had a collective motive — of revenge. Nothing could have stopped them,” he said.
The feud between Pannaiyar and Pandian groups also has an underlying caste motif — the locally dominant caste versus the Scheduled Castes. According to an officer familiar with these cases, many victims, on either side, were beheaded — their heads were “offered” to the victim murdered before. “This was repeated in many other (earlier) cases,” the Dindigul police officer said.
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