A sense of fear and anxiety pervades the hamlets around Kaniyamoor near Chinna Salem, where large-scale violence occurred at a private school 20 days ago following the death of a Class XII girl student.
Villagers allege that the police have indiscriminately arrested youths and able-bodied men from these habitations on suspicion of their involvement in the rioting and arson. Properties of the Sakthi Matriculation Higher Secondary School and police vehicles, worth several crores of rupees, were destroyed during the violence on July 17.
Most of those picked up by the police for “interrogation” have not returned to their families.
Bleak future and shattered dreams are written large on the faces of a few families. For N. Selvaraj, a sanitary worker of the Chinna Salem town panchayat, and his wife S. Mallika, of Gandhi Nagar, a Dalit habitation near the school, the arrest of their two sons has left them shattered.
The couple’s sons — S. Kudiarasu, 26, a postgraduate in mathematics, and his brother S. Vasanth, 25, a B.Tech graduate — were preparing for the Group IV examinations of the Tamil Nadu Public Service Commission (TNPSC).
“Both my sons were arrested on the day of the violence. They were preparing for the Group IV examinations and had attended a model exam conducted by a private IAS academy in Kallakurichi that very day [July 17]. They went to a relative’s house after the exam for lunch and were returning home when a police team detained and questioned them in connection with the violence,” says Mr. Selvaraj.
“Despite their explaining that they were returning from an IAS training academy and producing their hall tickets for the Group IV examinations, scheduled on July 24, the police refused to believe them. They snatched their mobile phones and tore their hall tickets before detaining them,” he alleges. “How can my sons be involved in the violence when they were attending classes at an IAS training academy,” he asks in an agitated voice.
Showing photocopies of CCTV footage of her sons entering and leaving the IAS training academy on July 17, Ms. Mallika says the family also submitted copies of the footage to Collector Sravan Kumar Jatavath.
“They had entered the academy around 10.17 a.m. and left around 1.13 p.m. [when the violence had almost ended]. My sons had dreamt of clearing the Group IV examinations. But now the police have spoiled their career. Even if they are found not guilty and released, it would forever remain a black mark on their careers. The government owes us an answer,” she says.
A similar account was shared by Kesavan, an Adi Dravidar, hailing from Periyeri, a Dalit habitation located a few kilometres from the school, at Thalaivasal in neighbouring Salem district.
Mr. Kesavan’s eldest son K. Sivan who had completed M.Sc in social work was picked up on the same day. He is yet to return home. Claiming that his son was innocent, Mr. Kesavan says he was picked up while returning home after collecting study materials from a friend at Kallanatham.
Mr. Kesavan, a labourer working in Kerala, had studied up to Class VIII. “My son is the first-generation graduate in my family and his aim was to become a police officer. He had studied hard over the last two years to prepare for the Group IV examinations. He was returning home after collecting study materials from a friend when the police detained him.”
Quoting his son, Mr. Kesavan says the police questioned him whether he belonged to the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi or the Thanthai Periyar Dravida Kazhagam. “Though my son said he was innocent and was preparing for the Group IV examinations, they refused to believe him. They beat him and dragged him to a distance of 1 km. I was in Kerala and I came to know about my son’s arrest after my wife informed me on the phone. His long-cherished dream was to clear the Group IV examinations and support the family. But his dream has ended abruptly,” Mr. Kesavan laments.
A senior official in the Kallakurichi district administration told The Hindu, “The police have been probing from various angles. However, some innocent people have landed in the net unknowingly.”
Referring to the claim of Mr. Selvaraj and Ms. Mallika, the official acknowledges that prima facie, the family’s claims appeared to be true. “We have perused the CCTV footage of the two entering and leaving an IAS training academy. It appears to be a genuine case. Our intention is not to torture or book anyone who has not participated in the riots. If the investigation reveals that they are not involved, they will be set free. We are hopeful they will get bail when their case comes up for hearing on Monday. Ultimately, the court has to take a call,” the official adds.
When contacted, a senior police officer denied that innocent persons were arrested. “The police arrested those who were part of the mob based on evidence and cases were registered based on their involvement in the violence,” he insists.