Tamil Nadu

Remembering Melavalavu massacre

In the incident that is well-remembered as a gruesome mockery of democracy and as one of the heinous casteist violence unleashed against the people belonging to the Scheduled Caste community in Tamil Nadu, a bus journey turned into a tragic end for the 35-year-old dalit panchayat president K Murugesan, 39-year-old dalit panchayat vice-president K. Mookan, and four of their aides. During the ride, they were brutally murdered by an armed gang of caste Hindus on this day (June 30), 25 years ago in Madurai district.

A Dalit’s house set ablaze at Melavalavu village in Madurai district in July 1997

A Dalit’s house set ablaze at Melavalavu village in Madurai district in July 1997 | Photo Credit: K. GANESAN

Why? Murugesan and Mookan, belonging to the Scheduled Caste were elected to the public office despite strong opposition from the dominant caste Hindus after declaring Melavalavu as a panchayat reserved for Scheduled Castes in September 1996.

Published in The Hindu on July 1, 1997

Published in The Hindu on July 1, 1997 | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

The local body election that was scheduled to be held on October 9, 1996, was first put off due to withdrawal of nominations by all the three candidates including Murugesan due to threats and the second attempt in conducting the poll on December 28, 1996, was foiled due to booth-capture. It was during the third attempt on December 31, 1996 that Murugesan and Mookan were elected as president and vice president of the panchayat. The caste Hindus had boycotted it. Out of the total electorate of 4,433, only 716 votes were polled. Even after winning the election, Murugesan continued to face death threats and was prevented from entering his office. Following his representation to the then Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi, Murugesan was provided with armed security at his office after which he started work.

A Dalit house that was razed to the ground in Melavalavu in July 1997

A Dalit house that was razed to the ground in Melavalavu in July 1997 | Photo Credit: K. GANESAN

Six months later, Murugesan, Mookan and their aides K. Chelladurai (45), O. Sevugamoorthy (45), K. Raja (22) and M. Boopathi (22) who were travelling from Madurai to Melavalavu in a bus on June 30 in 1997, were brutally hacked to death by a group of caste Hindus who were armed with sickles. The gang severed Murugesan’s head and threw it in a well that was about half-a-kilometre away from the crime scene.

Villagers belonging to the Scheduled Caste gathered at the burial site in Melavalavu to mourn the death of six men who were hacked to death by an armed gang of caste Hindus

Villagers belonging to the Scheduled Caste gathered at the burial site in Melavalavu to mourn the death of six men who were hacked to death by an armed gang of caste Hindus | Photo Credit: K. GANESAN

Sending shock waves, the spine-chilling murder of the six SC men sparked violence as at least seven huts and a shop were repeatedly gutted and stone-pelting incidents took place in the village in Melavalavu the next day. The bodies of the six men were laid to rest on July 1 after being sent to their village in a convoy from the Government Rajaji Hospital in Madurai city following the autopsy. In four days since the murders, eight men were arrested under non-bailable sections of Indian Penal Code.

A Dalit’s hut set ablaze at Melavalavu village in July 1997

A Dalit’s hut set ablaze at Melavalavu village in July 1997 | Photo Credit: K. GANESAN

Karunanidhi’s reaction

The then Chief Minister Karunanidhi, on July 4, strongly condemned the murders. He said: “The view that dalits should not occupy public offices such as the village panchayat president post is not acceptable in the present democratic age. It is also against the principle of equality to deny dalits the elected post in local bodies after creating reserved constituencies for them in the Assembly and Lok Sabha elections. And the act of murdering dalits who were elected to local bodies is unpardonable.”

Later on, in August 5, 1997 two members of the State Human Rights Commission (SHRC) — former judge of the Madras High Court K. Samidurai and former district judge R. Rathinasamy — visited Melavalavu and heard the grievances of the affected families. As on August 6, the Madurai rural police had arrested 17 persons in connection with the killings.

“Punished with death for getting elected”

In his column for The Hindu on September 30, 1997 following a visit to Melavalavu, the former Director of Institute of Social Sciences (New Delhi) George Mathew wrote, “Murugesan and Mookan were elected through the democratic process. According to the Constitution, a panchayat is an institution of self-government. But these people’s representatives were not only not allowed to function but also not allowed to live. They were “punished” with death for participating in the election and getting elected. Their sin was their low caste — Adi Dravida — and they showed the temerity to contest.

The men and women of the Dalit colony in the village have no work. The Thevars and Kallars have stopped employing them since the mass killing. They were surviving on a few bags of rice provided by the local administration as well as the Harijan Seva Sangh. About 80 children (5-12 years) sit under a tree with one teacher, all of them were earlier in the main village school, but after the murder, they felt insecure and stopped going there. Murugesan’s wife gave birth to a baby 38 days after his killing. The widow of Murugesan’s brother Raja (who was also killed along with Murugesan) is expecting.”

Over the months, the murder investigation was handed over to the CB-CID. Necessitated by the murders, a by-poll was held on November 21, 1997 during which A. Raja, a close relative of Murugesan was elected as the panchayat president. A few months later, Raja said he was not able to convene regular meetings at the Melavalavu panchayat office. Though police protection was provided to him, he had said he was not in a position to guarantee the safety of the four women members of the panchayat. 

Grave of the six slain men of Melavalavu. Published in The Hindu on April 11, 1999

Grave of the six slain men of Melavalavu. Published in The Hindu on April 11, 1999 | Photo Credit: P. Sainath

The legal battles

In April 1998, a group of advocates presented a memorandum to the then Chief Justice M.S. Liberhan to set up a Division Bench to deal with the cancellation of bail granted by a single judge to 30 men who were accused of the murders. “Following the release on bail of the accused, the witnesses were scared and apprehensive in coming forward to give evidence. One of the absconding accused had been threatening the members of the SC community that if they did not obey his orders and if they did not desist from pursuing the trial, all the people of his community would be killed. This had resulted in a ‘fear psychosis’ gripping the SCs of the village,” the advocates mentioned in their memorandum. However, four months later, a Division Bench of the Madras High Court comprising Justice T. Jayarama Chouta and Justice V. Bakthavatsalu, on September 24, held as not maintainable the petition filed by the group of advocates. 

On December 18, 1998, a petition seeking a re-investigation by the CBI into the Melavalavu massacre was dismissed by the Madras High Court. The petition filed by S. Krishnan who was one of the persons injured during the murderous assault. Stating that he was under the belief that the police had registered a case against the 14 known persons and four unnamed persons in connection with the murders while the police had not registered a case against the real culprits, he sought a reinvestigation by the CBI. Passing orders, the Court said the petitioner neither made any complaint nor raised his voice against the arrest of “innocent persons” immediately after such arrest. Besides, no other eye witness had raised any objection, it pointed out. 

Two years later, accepting a plea from Murugesan’s brother K. Karuppiah and M. Kumar, a Division Bench of the Madras High Court comprising Justice N. Dinakar and Mr. Justice P. Sathasivam directed the transfer of the Melavalavu murder case from a special court in Madurai to the Principal Sessions Court in Salem on December 15, 2000 to ensure a fair trial. After a majority of the 41 accused men who were charged under various sections of SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act were granted bail, witnesses were being intimidated and pressured, the petition contended while also pointing out the inadequate security for the petitioners and the witnesses from the dalit community.

Published in Frontline on August 17, 2001

Published in Frontline on August 17, 2001 | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

Delivering verdict in the Melavalavu massacre case on July 26, 2001, the Principal District and Sessions Judge A.S. Ramalingam found 17 persons guilty and awarded them life imprisonment. Of the total 41 persons who were chargesheeted, 17 were convicted, and 23 were acquitted while one died during trial. The convicted were found guilty under Section 302 (murder) read with Section 34 (group attack), and Section 148 (rioting with deadly weapons) of the IPC. Those who have been awarded life imprisonment are Alagarsamy (50), Ponnaiyah (45), Jothi, Manikandan, Andisamy (31), Manoharan (39), Ranganathan, Markandan (50), Rasam alias Ayyavu (60), Sarkaraimurthi (21), Azhagu (33), Rajendran, Sekar, Chokkanathan (45), Selvam (25), Chinna Odungan alias Chinna Ulaganathan (28) and Ramar. 

A year after conviction, the 17 men were let off on conditional bail by the Madras High Court in November 2002 while their appeal challenging their life sentence was still pending, based on Melur police inspector’s report stating “now both the communities are maintaining cordiality in the village”. Quashing the order of the High Court, the Supreme Court, on February 16, 2005 cancelled the bail, following which they were all taken into custody and lodged at Madurai central prison the next day. 

Confirming the trial court’s order, the life imprisonment awarded to the 17 convicts was upheld by the Madras High Court on April 19, 2006. The Division Bench comprising Justice P. Sathasivam and Justice N. Paul Vasanthakumar said, “evidence was clear that the murders were committed to “terrorise the dalit community and prevent them from contesting elections.”

Three years later, the Supreme Court, on October 22, 2009, upheld the life sentence awarded to the 17 persons in the Melavalavu massacre case while the Bench comprising Justice V.S. Sirpurkar and Justice Deepak Verma dismissed the appeals filed by the convicts.

 Thol. Thirumavalavan, president of Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi, placing a wreath at ‘Viduthalai Kalam’ - the memorial of Melavalavu massacre victims in Madurai district on June 30, 2003

Thol. Thirumavalavan, president of Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi, placing a wreath at ‘Viduthalai Kalam’ - the memorial of Melavalavu massacre victims in Madurai district on June 30, 2003 | Photo Credit: K. GANESAN

Premature release of convicts springs a surprise 

Of the 17 convicts, all of whom were caste Hindus, three were given remission in September 2008 as part of Anna birth centenary celebration when DMK was in power and one other accused Jothi died in prison in 2010. Coming in as a rude shock to the bereaved families and villagers in Melavalavu, all the 13 remaining convicts were released from Madurai Central Prison in a hush-hush manner on November 9, 2019 by the AIADMK government as part of MGR birth centenary celebrations, on the ground of ‘good conduct’. The convicts who were let off include U. Ponnaiah, K. Manikandan, A. Andichamy, V. Manoharan, N. Renganathan, N. Sakkaramoorthy, M. Alagu, K. Rajendran, P. Sekar, A. Chokkanathan, P. Selvam, P. Chinnaodungan and S. Ramar. Activists and the villagers who strongly condemned the premature release, termed it a move by the state government to appease the dominant Thevar community votebank. 

While hearing a petition by advocate P. Rathinam who challenged the release of the convicts, the Division Bench of Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court comprising Justices S. Vaidyanathan and N. Anand Venkatesh, on November 18, 2019, expressed displeasure over the release and directed the Tamil Nadu government to produce relevant documents of the orders passed to effect their release. ‘Wondering how the 13 men, convicted of a heinous crime, were released, the Court asked, “Why the hurry? With six people killed and two courts including the Supreme Court confirming the convictions, what was the hurry to release the convicts?”

The Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court on November 25, 2019 issued notice to the 13 life convicts in the Melavalavu massacre case, who were released by the government on account of good conduct. A Division Bench of Justices S. Vaidyanathan and N. Anand Venkatesh ordered notice to the 13 life convicts. The petitoner advocate P. Rathinam, who had challenged the government orders on the release of the 13 life convicts, amended the prayer and added additional grounds challenging their release. Mr. Rathinam said the authorities released the convicts prematurely without giving an opportunity to the families of the victims to object to their release — a ‘right’ under the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. He had said the G.O. was passed without placing the relevant documents before the Governor.

Two days later, a Division Bench of the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court comprising Justices S. Vaidyanathan and N. Anand Venkatesh, while issuing interim orders on November 27, 2019, directed the released 13 life convicts in the Melavalavu massacre case to stay in Vellore district and not enter the region in Madurai district, till the disposal of the writ petition. The 13 men were also ordered to report to the Superintendent of Police, Vellore, and to the District Probation Officer, twice a month. They were prohibited from moving out of Vellore without getting the leave of the court. 

Nearly three months later, the Division Bench of the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court comprising Justices R. Subramanian and N. Sathish Kumar, on February 18, 2020 recalled its interim order that directed the 13 life convicts in the case to stay in Vellore after the litigant advocate P. Rathinam failed to appear for the hearing. After three days, when five women from the bereaved families moved the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court on February 21, 2020 challenging the premature release of the 13 life convicts, Justice A.D. Jagadish Chandira clubbed it to be heard along with similar petitions filed earlier.

Murugesan’s widow hardly moved on 

Manimekalai, wife of the slain Dalit panchayat president K. Murugesan

Manimekalai, wife of the slain Dalit panchayat president K. Murugesan | Photo Credit: G. MOORTHY

Speaking to The Hindu on the 25 th death anniversary of her husband Murugesan, M Manimekalai reminisced, “My husband continued to receive anonymous letters with death threats even six months after being elected as the Melavalavu panchayat president. On that day, he had gone to meet the then Collector of Madurai district A.M. Kasi Viswanathan to seek protection citing the threats. While returning after the discussion, a group of caste Hindu men who were travelling in the same bus and another group of armed men who hid in haystack en-route our village waylaid the bus around 3 pm and beheaded him, as warned. At that time, I was eight months pregnant with our fourth child while my younger sister R Vasanthi who married my husband’s younger brother Raja (who was one among the six men killed) was three months pregnant with her second child.“

The six men apart, another dalit man was stoned to death by the angry mob of caste Hindus, making him the seventh murder victim. “However, his death was registered separately and the case was closed soon citing lack of witness,” Manimekalai added. Each of the six bereaved families were handed over Rs. 2 lakh. Manimekalai who has studied till class 5, was given a job in the state highways department. Following the cold-blooded murder, Manimekalai said, she does not interact with the caste Hindus although the caste tension has eased over the years. “Some families were able to move on but I could not. It was even more upsetting when the 13 convicts walked out of prison before completing their life sentence, due to the support of former AIADMK MLA from Melur constitutency K Periyapullan. The case filed by the widows of the slain men, challenging the premature release is still pending before the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court,” she lamented. “Melavalavu which thereafter got a police station has been electing dalit panchayat presidents ever since but why was my husband alone not allowed to work or even live?” she asked, rightfully indignant .


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Printable version | Jul 9, 2022 3:04:14 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/tamil-nadu/remembering-melavalavu-massacre/article65585014.ece