Justice for hapless tribal victims after more than 19 years

More than 19 years after forest and police officials descended on Vachathi, a tribal hamlet in western Tamil Nadu, and committed atrocities on hapless villagers in a raid said to be against sandalwood smuggling, a district and sessions court here on Thursday found 215 government officials and employees guilty and handed down prison terms ranging from two years to 10 years of rigorous imprisonment. Seventeen persons were convicted of the charge of rape.

Among the senior officials found guilty by Principal District and Sessions Judge S. Kumaraguru were a retired Conservator of Forests, two serving Conservators and an Additional Chief Conservator of Forests.

The Central Bureau of Investigation, which was directed by the Madras High Court to investigate the case, arraigned 269 officials of the Forest, Police and Revenue Departments, but only 215 lived to receive the verdict in a court thronged by victims, their family members and activists who had supported them over the years. The remaining 54 officials are dead.

On June 20, 1992, a large contingent of officials entered Vachathi following information that sandalwood was being illegally felled and smuggled. The team claimed to have recovered a huge quantity of sandalwood from a riverbed.

Later, the villagers complained that under the pretext of conducting a search, the raiding party had ransacked their property, destroyed houses and killed their cattle.

The most shocking charge was that the men in uniform had raped 18 women.

The State government denied the charges. The then Forests Minister, K.A. Sengottaiayan, now Agriculture Minister, had accused the entire village of being involved in sandalwood smuggling, and when a team of officials went there for investigation, the villagers had attacked them.

However, in 1995, on a writ petition filed by the then CPI (M) State secretary, A. Nallasivan, the Madras High Court handed over the probe to the CBI, which charge-sheeted the 269 officials. Later, compensation was paid to the victims.

The senior-most official convicted was the first accused, M. Harikrishnan, a retired Conservator of Forests, who was awarded a three-year prison term under Section 201 of the Indian Penal Code for causing disappearance of evidence or giving false information to screen the offender, and another three years of rigorous imprisonment and Rs.1,000 in fine under Section 3(2)(1) of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.

Accused number 2, Additional Chief Conservator of Forests P. Muthaiyan, was sentenced to jail for a year under Section 342 (wrongful confinement) of the IPC. Conservator of Forests, Dindigul, L.Nathan was given a one-year term. S. Balaji, Conservator of Forests, Chennai, was awarded three-year rigorous imprisonment on three counts, but the terms would run concurrently. He was also fined Rs.5,000.

Keywords: Vachathi case

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