The story so far: Vachathi is a tribal village situated 17 km away from Taluk headquarters Harur in Dharmapuri district of Tamil Nadu. In 1992, the total population of the hamlet was 655 of whom 643 belonged to Malayali scheduled tribe community. Only 12 people were from other castes. There were around 200 houses, including 120 group houses built under the Centre’s Integrated Rural Development Programme. There was cultivable area of 261.18 hectares in the village and around 190 people owned lands. The rest of the 466 were landless labourers.
The village was situated on the foot of Chitheri hills. The Thombakkal Reserve Forest and Pallipatti Reserve Forest were situated adjacent to it. Though agriculture was the main activity, the tribals also collected minor forest produce and firewood from the forests. Some also visited nearby villages to serve as daily wage agricultural labourers. On the land available in the village, they mainly cultivated ragi, tapioca, rice and other cereals.
The reserve forests on Chitheri hills were rich in sandalwood and there were complaints of large-scale felling and theft of sandalwood from this area. Since it was on the foothills, Vachathi was considered the starting point for transportation of sandalwood illegally procured from the Chitheri hill region. Smuggling of the precious wood was turning out to be a menace for the forest department and a cause of concern for the State government. Hence, special squads were formed for combing operations.
On May 25, 1992, L. Nathan took charge as Deputy Conservator of Forests in Chitheri hill range. He held discussions with the police officials regarding the steps to be taken for prevention of sandalwood smuggling. On June 14, 1992, he met the then Dharmapuri Collector and Superintendent of Police. According to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), the officer requested for police protection to raid Vachathi. He also mobilised a huge pose of forest personnel for the raid on June 20, 1992.
When the raid took place to recover smuggled sandalwood, the forest officials accused the villagers of having assaulted them in which one forest officer suffered grievous injuries and 23 others suffered minor injuries. They claimed that the raid party was kept in captivity for three hours and was beaten up by the villagers, including women.
It was after this, a much larger posse of 269 forest, police and revenue officials descended in the village and ransacked the houses indiscriminately. The aged, women and children were thrashed mercilessly. Their household articles and agricultural implements were destroyed. As many as 18 women were taken to a secluded place and raped. The village head, revered by the residents, was forced to remove the clothes of women and the latter were made to slipper him. The raid party did not even spare the cattle in the village. They slaughtered the animals and threw the carcass into open wells, the villagers complained.
Though the local police registered cases against the villagers for having attacked the officials and arrested many of them, no case was registered against any official for the violence unleashed against the tribals.
What did the State do?
The brutality committed on the tribals did not come to light until P. Shanmugam, secretary of Tamil Nadu Tribals Association, visited Vachathi on July 14, 1992. On the same day, the villagers lodged a complaint with the Collector but the officials denied any such brutality having been committed against the villagers. They, on the other hand, accused the 18 women of levelling a false charge of rape. On July 18, 1992, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) Member of Parliament A. Nallasivan wrote to then Chief Minister Jayalalithaa demanding a judicial inquiry into the issue. In response, the then Forest Minister K.A. Sengottaiyan issued a statement on July 21, 1992 defending the government officials.
Thereafter, the MP raised the issue in the Rajya Sabha on August 5, 1992. Immediately, the Director for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Welfare B. Bhamathi visited Vachathi between August 6 and August 8, 1992 and came up with a report recording the version of the villagers as well as the officials. The report quoted the then Collector B. Dasarathan to have told the Director that the incident had been exaggerated by some political parties. Denying the charge of rape and claiming that women police too had been sent for the raid, the Collector said, he had, nevertheless, ordered an inquiry by a Revenue Divisional Officer after the receipt of the July 14, 1992 complaint. The then Superintendent of Police K. Ramanujam too told the Director that 12 women constables had been sent for the raid.
Ms. Bhamathi observed in her report that neither the Collector not the Superintendent of Police had visited the village even after receipt of the July 14, 1992 complaint. She recommended that the damage done to the village, during the raid, must be probed since officials’ claim of the villagers having destroyed their homes on their own could not be true. She also recorded the statements of a few women constables that many innocent women residents, who had no involvement either in sandalwood smuggling or in assaulting the forest officials, were arrested.
“It may be true that some Vachathi villagers were involved in the sandalwood smuggling but even they were used by master operators. The villagers were only a conduit for the smuggling and they were exploited by the powerful operators. The economic status of the village is generally poor and hence the villagers may not be the real sandalwood traders/brokers. Unless, the master operators are brought to book, there is no point in punishing the villagers alone for the illegal trade. The loss of property and damages done to the houses should be compensated suitably,” Ms. Bhamathi had said in her report.
How did the CBI take up the case?
Armed with the strong report, Mr. Nallasivan filed a writ petition in the Madras High Court on September 20,1992 seeking a thorough inquiry into the brutality apart from necessary action against the officials on the basis of the inquiry report and adequate compensation to the victims. Advocates N.G.R. Prasad, K. Elango and others had prepared the case and Senior Counsel R. Vaigai argued on behalf of the MP before Justice Abdul Hadi. On January 12, 1993, R. Baskaran, Deputy Secretary, Environment and Forest Department, filed a counter affidavit denying the claim that the residents of Vachathi had been victims of brutal attack by the forest and police personnel.
Also Read | Full list of accused in the Vachathi case
The Deputy Secretary told the court around 300 villagers, armed with deadly weapons such as guns, knives and spears, had attacked the forest staff without any provocation and in that process a Forester named Selvaraj had suffered head injuries. After hearing both sides, Justice Hadi ordered a CBI probe into the incident despite the petitioner himself not having specifically sought an investigation by any specific agency. The State government challenged the single judge’s order but a Division Bench of the High Court dismissed the appeal thereby leading to the registration of a case by the CBI.
Deputy Superintendent of Police S. Jagannathan was appointed as the investigating officer and he filed a charge sheet against 269 government servants from the forest, police and revenue departments. The prime accused was the then Principal Chief Conservator of Forests M. Harikrishnan. Four other Indian Forest Service (IFS) officials too were listed as accused along with a host of Foresters, Forest Rangers, Forest Guards, Plot Watchers, Inspectors of Police, Sub Inspectors, Head Constables, constables, drivers, a Revenue Inspector, Tahsildars and the then Village Administrative Officer.
Did the victims get justice?
Due to the huge number of accused in the case, the requirement to examine as many as 74 witnesses and the legal hurdles created at regular intervals, it took 19 long years for the trial to complete. Finally, Dharmapuri Sessions Court pronounced its verdict on September 29, 2011. By that time, as many as 54 accused died and hence the trial court convicted the rest of the 215 accused under various provisions of the Indian Penal Code as well as the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.
It also ordered compensation of ₹15,000 to each of the 18 rape victims from the fine amount to be paid by the convicts and said the CBI would also be entitled to ₹1 lakh from the fine amount for having spent considerable number of years in prosecuting the case. Immediately after the pronouncement of the verdict in 2011, all the convicts filed appeals before the Madras High Court and again the appeals remained pending in the High Court for 11 long years until Justice P. Velmurugan insisted on completing the hearing early this year.
The judge also visited Vachathi before pronouncing his verdict on September 29, 2023 dismissing all the appeals and confirming the punishment imposed on the government servants. The judge directed the State government to pay a compensation of ₹10 lakh each to the 18 rape victims and recover 50% of it from the those who had been convicted for the charge of rape. He ordered provision of employment opportunities for the victims and also called for a report from the State government on steps taken by it to improve the living standards of the villagers.
- The reserve forests on Chitheri hills were rich in sandalwood and there were complaints of large-scale felling and theft of sandalwood from this area.
- The brutality committed on the tribals did not come to light until P. Shanmugam, secretary of Tamil Nadu Tribals Association, visited Vachathi on July 14, 1992.
- Due to the huge number of accused in the case, the requirement to examine as many as 74 witnesses and the legal hurdles created at regular intervals, it took 19 long years for the trial to complete.