Updated: September 21, 2014 12:24:07 am
On July 4, 2014, it would have been one year to the suicide of Dalit youth E Elavarasan, whose marriage to a girl belonging to the Vanniyar caste had triggered riots in Tamil Nadu’s Dharmapuri district two years ago. A few days before that, the Tamil Nadu Police began rounding up Dalit youths from villages in the district and charging them with being Naxals.
In the three-and-a-half months since, cases have been registered against 50 youths. Except for six charged under the National Security Act (NSA) still in prison, others are out on bail.
The youths, picked up from Kondampatti, Natham Colony and surrounding villages, have been accused of possessing arms and being “indoctrinated in extremism”. They have all been charged under the NSA or the Indian Arms and Explosives Act.
The police have also claimed that these youth were planning to kill leaders of the Vanniyar community, a Most Backward Caste (MBC), and its political face, the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK). Apart from the “confessional statements”, allegedly acquired through torture, police have no other evidence against the youths. A CID report also found no basis for the allegations of the district police administration.
Natham Colony lies tucked behind the bustling Dharmapuri town, 300 km from Chennai. In November 2012, over 250 Dalit houses here had been damaged in attacks by the Vanniyars after Elavarasan had married Vanniyar girl Divyaa.
Peace had returned to the area after Divyaa had come back to her parents’ house under community pressure and Elavarasan had committed suicide. That’s now shattered, with the arrests leaving the Dalits in fear.
On June 27, the first six people were arrested. The same evening, when a crowd gathered at the Dharmapuri town police station seeking reasons for the arrests, more people were rounded up. Briefing the media, the police called it “the biggest case” involving Maoists in Tamil Nadu in recent years. Dharmapuri had a strong Naxal presence during the 1970s and ’80s, and still receives massive funding for anti-Maoist operations. However, apart from a brutal crackdown in the 1990s and arrest of 30 youths in 2002 for organising “a study camp of Naxalism”, there have been no arrests of Maoists from this area.
Among those arrested was Michael Raj, 26, a diploma holder and IAS aspirant, who was taken away at 4 am from his aunt’s house in Salem by a team of 30 police officials.
Raj, now out on bail, claims he was tortured and forced to admit that he possessed weapons and had taken part in an arms training session. “I kept weeping. Pressing the revolver to the back of my head, an officer threatened me to comply. Another suggested that I be shot,” Raj says. According to him, Dharmapuri Superintendent of Police Asra Garg specifically asked him about a “Natham Santhosh” who was in custody. “I told him I had only attended a harmless study camp for Dalit students,” Raj adds, talking about a camp organised by Thudi, which supports higher education for Dalits. Police, however, accuse Raj of attending a camp for “weapons training” at Arakkonam and Marina Beach in Chennai in January 2013. According to them, 50 persons, mostly youths in their early 20s from Natham Colony and around, were also trained in guerrilla warfare and self-defence at this camp.
Immediately after the arrests, the PMK, which is led by former Union health minister Anbumani Ramadoss and his father S Ramadoss, had issued a statement that a group of anti-socials had hired killers to murder 10 prominent PMK and Vanniyar caste leaders.
A Marx, who led a team of the People’s Union for Human Rights (PUHR) to the area, has demanded a judicial probe into the arrests. The PUHR report also points out contradictions in the FIR. While police say some Dalit youths were taken into custody on June 28 on their way to attack PMK leaders, eyewitnesses say that six of the persons now charged under NSA were arrested on June 27 afternoon from their houses and a playground.
V Ramani, a resident of Natham Colony, said the entire plot was a creation of the police and PMK leaders. “The police are targeting educated Dalit youths. They wanted to prevent any functions on Elavarsan’s death anniversary. We have already filed petitions to the National Human Rights Commission and the National Council for Scheduled Castes,” she says.
Questioning the police claim of arms training, Marx says, “The Arakkonam theory nosedived miserably after Vellore SP P Vijayakumar denied any possibility of such extremist activities in his district.”
While Dharmapuri Police Station Inspector T Gandhi claims the training took place around 6 km from Marina Beach, that area, with the Coast Guard, Navy and port installations, is even more heavily guarded.
Samuel Raj, general secretary of the Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front — an organisation floated by the CPM — says the entire episode was orchestrated by SP Garg. Asked about the charge of torture against him, the SP said he was on leave and could not comment. Gandhi too denied the allegations against him and said: “SP Garg and other senior officers were present throughout the interrogation.”
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