It took more than a fortnight for the outside world to know the enormity of the raid of the Forest and Police department personnel in Vachathi, the tribal village that began on June 20, 1992. A few villagers hiding in Sitheri hills, brought the issue to the attention of the leaders of the Tamil Nadu Tribals Association, affiliated to the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

The association's president Bhasha John and vice-president N. Krishnamurthy were in Sitheri to attend a conference on July 7, 1992, and they informed their general secretary P. Shanmugam, who first entered Vachathi, on July 14, 1992, along with six other leaders.

“I found the entire village in a shambles. The well supplying water to the village reeked of kerosene. An eerie silence prevailed and there was no one in the village, except Thallammal, an assistant in a noon meal centre,” P. Shanmugam recalled his visit in a conversation with The Hindu. With her help they could meet some people hiding in forests. Based on their account, Mr. Shanmugam and others visited the Salem Central Prison where many of the villagers including 18 rape victims were lodged. They prepared a memorandum and woke up the Dharmapuri District Collector at midnight and demanded action.

The consistent efforts of the Tribals Association and leaders of the CPI(M) brought the nation's attention to the atrocities against the tribal people and succeeded in getting an inquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigation.

Justice K.S. Bhaktavatsalam of the Madras High Court ordered an inquiry by B. Bhamathi, the director of the SC/ST Commission, Tamil Nadu.

Again in February 1995, a petition from A. Nallasivan, CPI(M) State secretary, resulted in Justice Abdul Hadi ordering a CBI inquiry. The State government filed an appeal against the CBI inquiry and a Division Bench comprising Chief Justice K.A. Sami and Justice D. Raju, dismissed the appeal in March.

Later, besides ordering compensation for the rape victims, the High Court directed the State government to appoint CBI public prosecutor K. Jayabalan to conduct the “Vachathi rape case” in the Dharmapuri sessions court.

In June this year, the Madras High Court directed the lower court to expedite the trial in the case relating to the incident nearly two decades ago.

“All these 20 years we had to approach the courts now and then to get justice because the government adopted all means to scuttle the issue. On July 13, 1992, I led a demonstration and submitted a memorandum to Harur tahsildar asking to take action. Little did I realise that he also had played a role in the incident. Now, he has also been punished by the court,” said Mr Shanmugam.

Describing the judgement a victory for the people of Vachathi and the Tribals Association, CPI(M) state secretary G. Ramakrishnan said the government should immediately release relief to the victims without any delay.

Keywords: Vachathi case