GROUND ZERO Tamil Nadu

Ground Zero | An eye for an eye in southern Tamil Nadu

Devendrakula Vellalar Kootamaippu founder Pasupathi Pandian’s funeral rally in Dindigul on January 11, 2012.   | Photo Credit: Karthikeyan G.

At around 8 a.m. on September 22, about a dozen daily wage earners, mostly women, sat under a neem tree in Nandavanampatti village in Dindigul district of southern Tamil Nadu. They had eaten their morning portion of pazhaya saatham (gruel made of leftover rice soaked in water overnight) with shallots and were getting ready to de-silt a tank under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS). A 69-year-old woman, Nirmala Devi, was directing the labourers to quickly get to work without wasting time.

A short while later, when Nirmala Devi — heavy, with a wide forehead, a nose pin and glasses — sat alone in the shade, four men armed with long knives rode towards her on two motorcycles. They dismounted the vehicles, strode menacingly towards her, grabbed her by her hair and assaulted her with the sharp-edged weapons. As the helpless farm workers watched the crime in horror from afar, one of the masked men beheaded Nirmala Devi, who had by then collapsed in a pool of blood. The murderers picked up her head and drove away.

Ground Zero | An eye for an eye in southern Tamil Nadu
 

Aghast at this savagery, the workers fled to safety. For well over 30 minutes, Nirmala Devi’s torso lay there, the smell of death lingering in the sticky air. The village fell into a shocked silence. It wore a deserted look until senior police officers and an ambulance arrived at the scene of the crime.

Armed police personnel were quickly deployed in the village. The police immediately launched a search operation. Special teams assisted by sniffer dogs spread out in different directions in search of the assailants and the victim’s head. About an hour later, Nirmala Devi’s head was found at the doorstep of Chidambaram Pasupathi’s house. Chidambaram Pasupathi alias Pasupathi Pandian, the founder-leader of a Scheduled Caste outfit, Devendrakula Vellalar Kootamaippu, had also been brutally murdered, on January 10, 2012.

It did not take long for the police to join the dots and link her killing to a bloody revenge game that has been playing out in southern Tamil Nadu for decades. Nirmala Devi was named as accused number five in the murder of Pasupathi Pandian — a gangster of medium build with a head full of hair and a striking orange beard. Between 2013 and 2019, four of the 18 persons named as the accused in the case were killed by Pasupathi Pandian’s supporters in different parts of southern Tamil Nadu. Nirmala Devi was the fifth.

A dynamic, dependable woman

What is curious is that Nirmala Devi belonged to a Scheduled Caste, as did those who orchestrated her beheading. The widow of Perumal, a farm worker, Nirmala Devi had been living alone in Nandavanampatti for over a decade. Her elder son, aged about 45, is in the defence service and her younger son, about 40 years old, lives in another village.

Also read | Five surrender in connection with Nirmala Devi murder case

Like any other Scheduled Caste inhabitant of Nandavanampatti, Nirmala Devi also depended on farm work for sustenance. The villagers described her as an active, dynamic woman. A former Panchayat ward councillor, she would travel everywhere on a two-wheeler. She would visit the Dindigul Collectorate to help people in her village apply for and receive pension and get other assistance from the government, said villagers.

Days after her killing, the tension was still palpable in Nandavanampatti, where Dalits and members of other communities live. The villagers seemed suspicious of strangers and refused to share their personal details, including their names.

“She would help us in times of need. It is horrible that her killers beheaded her and took away her head [as a trophy],” said one of Nirmala Devi’s neighbours, a woman, who was unable to come to terms with her death. One villager said Nirmala Devi’s death had left a void in the village. She could be depended on during any emergency, he said.

Also read | Three held in Nirmala Devi murder case

Villagers said Nirmala Devi would mobilise workers from hamlets to do MGNREGS work. She would then get a commission from these workers from their earnings. She was called a mesthri – a supervisor or a person who coordinates with workers for a job. She would also lend money to villagers as soft loans. The interest she earned from this helped her live comfortably, they said.

Just a few hours before she was murdered, Nirmala Devi had listed the names of people who wanted to work under the rural employment scheme, a police officer said. These interested villagers had provided their thumb impressions or signatures on a piece of paper, to serve as proof of their working for wages. They will now be cited as prosecution witnesses in her murder trial, the officer said.

Tit-for-tat killings

The accused in Pasupathi Pandian’s murder are supporters of Subash Pannaiyar, a Nadar, an intermediate caste in Tamil Nadu. The rivalry between Pasupathi Pandian and Subash Pannaiyar dates back to the early 1990s, to Thoothukudi district, located about 210 kilometres south of Nandavanampatti village in Dindigul.

Pannaiyars are traditionally landlords. Over two decades ago, Subash Pannaiyar’s grandfather, Sivasubramanian Nadar alias Sivasubramanian Pannaiyar, was an influential landlord in Moolakkarai in Thoothukudi. He owned hundreds of cultivable acres of land in the coastal district and enjoyed the following of the Nadar community.

It was a property dispute involving Sivasubramanian Pannaiyar and a bank manager named Rajagopal that led to the first clash between the Pannaiyars and Pasupathi Pandian. Pasupathi Pandian, who was already facing criminal charges then, intervened on behalf of Rajagopal. The matter reached a flashpoint when the senior Pannaiyar’s son, Asupathi Pannaiyar, was killed in January 1993. Following his father Asupathi’s death, Subash Pannaiyar took over as landlord. He and his first cousin, N. Venkatesa Pannaiyar, the founder of the caste outfit Akhila India Nadar Pathukappu Peravai, sought to take revenge on Pasupathi Pandian, but they were unsuccessful. Soon after surviving the attack by the Pannaiyars, Pasupathi Pandian and his supporters murdered Subash’s grandfather Sivasubramanian Pannaiyar in 1990. They later killed two witnesses to this murder.

In 2003, Venkatesa Pannaiyar was shot dead by the police in an ‘encounter’ in Chennai, triggering a massive political row. His death led to anger among many Nadars. This prompted then Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam president M. Karunanidhi to field Venkatesa Pannaiyar’s wife Radhika Selvi in the 2004 Lok Sabha election. Selvi went on to become Union Minister of State for Home in May 2007 in the Manmohan Singh government.

According to the police, Pasupathi Pandian fled Thoothukudi district in 2006 after the Pannaiyar gang killed his wife Jascinta Pandian, an advocate. She was accompanying Pasupathi Pandian, who was on his way to Thoothukudi along with his accomplices to appear before a court in connection with a case against him, when a bomb was hurled at the car. The gangster promptly took refuge in Dindigul after his wife’s killing. There he met Nirmala Devi, who also belonged to a Scheduled Caste.

Pasupathi Pandian mourns the death of his wife Jascinta, outside the General Hospital, in 2006.

Pasupathi Pandian mourns the death of his wife Jascinta, outside the General Hospital, in 2006.   | Photo Credit: Karthikeyan G.

Nirmala Devi and a few others helped Pasupathi Pandian identify a housing plot in M.N. Nagar, Nandavanampatti, where he built a house. Pasupathi Pandian’s patronage saw Nirmala Devi’s fortunes improve. Thanks to this acquaintance, Nirmala Devi managed to build a modest house for herself. Others who helped the Devendrakula Vellalar Kootamaippu founder also prospered.

In Dindigul, Pasupathi Pandian was always surrounded by his supporters. “Whenever he travelled, he was surrounded by his men who were always armed,” said a retired police officer, who had served in the district till 2015. However, on the night of January 10, 2012, Pasupathi Pandian’s men left him to go elsewhere on work. The gang leader met a gory end when armed men arrived at his house and slit his throat.

Soon after the police began their investigation into the murder of Pasupathi Pandian, Subash Pannaiyar and 17 others were named as the accused in the First Information Report. Nirmala Devi allegedly took money from the Pannaiyar gang to pass on information to them on Pasupathi Pandian’s movements, which led to his death. Though caste bonds are strong in rural Tamil Nadu, in some cases such as this, currency helps forge a deeper bond.

Also read | 9 acquitted in Pasupathi Pandian wife murder case

Pasupathi Pandian’s supporters have been thirsting for revenge since his death, said the police. They have been carefully planning and meticulously eliminating their targets, as Nirmala Devi’s killing suggests. Subash Pannaiyar miraculously escaped an attempt on his life in March 2016 when country bombs were hurled at him by a gang of at least 50 members during a visit to his farm. At that time, Arumugasamy, a supporter of Subash Pannaiyar, was beheaded, and his head was placed under a roadside banner carrying Pasupathi Pandian’s photo, on the Thoothukudi-Tirunelveli highway.

The police have arrested three persons in connection with Nirmala Devi’s murder. Five others have surrendered before a judicial magistrate court in Tiruchi, 100 km from Dindigul.

The cycle of revenge murders

Leading psychiatrist C. Ramasubramanian explained that a lack of closure and the inability to accept the sudden and planned death of a loved one leads to a thirst for revenge. When a person represses their anger, it is often impossible for them to deal with that emotion, he said. “Having seen or heard about the manner in which their loved ones died really affects the person,” he said. Even if the accused get arrested, it doesn’t provide closure for the affected families if the murder was gruesome, he said. “And the act of revenge passes on sometime even to the next generation and beyond.”

Policemen inspect the spot where Nirmala Devi was murdered in Nandavanampatti village, Dindigul, on September 22, 2021.

Policemen inspect the spot where Nirmala Devi was murdered in Nandavanampatti village, Dindigul, on September 22, 2021.   | Photo Credit: Karthikeyan G.

 

The police in southern Tamil Nadu have been updating their records to note down the multiple lives that have been claimed on either side of this gang rivalry. The conflict assumed a caste angle over the years between sections of the Nadars and the Devendrakula Vellalars. On many occasions, it ballooned into a law-and-order problem with supporters of these gangs taking to the streets and damaging public property. But unlike the other caste conflicts in southern Tamil Nadu, which are fanned by political parties representing one community or the other, this conflict between the Nadars and the Devendrakula Vellalars has largely played out due to the intense rivalry between the two gangs.

 

The police have been rattled by Nirmala Devi’s murder and the string of unrelated killings that came on its heels. Director-General of Police C. Sylendra Babu has asked all district police and commissionerates to form special teams to deal with rowdy elements and gangsters. He asked them to follow murder cases as old as 10 years and prepare fresh dossiers on gangsters likely to be involved in retaliation. The details of such gangsters, with their photographs, will be uploaded in a special app, he said. The police force launched ‘Operation Disarm’ to conduct storming operations at caste-sensitive locations across the State. They did not lose sight of the fact that the gruesome crimes took place just as the State was preparing for its two-phase rural local body polls in nine districts, including two in the south. The second phase of polling is scheduled on Saturday. They arrested 3,325 suspects wanted in various murder cases and seized hundreds of lethal weapons including firearms. The officers have also been asked to closely follow murder cases pending in courts and work towards the conviction of perpetrators.

The police are unsure whether Nirmala Devi is the last victim of this gang rivalry between the Pannaiyar and Pandian clans. A retired Deputy Superintendent of Police, who had served in southern districts, said that her murder may not be the last in this bloody saga. In some instances, the revenge murder is executed decades later, he said. “Revenge murders,” he said, “rarely cease.”


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Printable version | Oct 16, 2021 4:52:05 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/tamil-nadu/an-eye-for-an-eye-in-southern-tamil-nadu/article36905261.ece

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