When a sensational murder shook Tamil Nadu on July 5, another Friday

That day in 1996, two men, wielding long knives, brutally hacked Vijaykumar, an accused in an attempt to murder case, in front of Egmore Xth Metropolitan Magistrate P. Devadoss, court workers, advocates, and litigants. It was similar to the daring killing of K. Armstrong, Tamil Nadu president of the Bahujan Samaj Party, in Chennai last week

Updated - July 10, 2024 12:21 pm IST

Published - July 09, 2024 10:11 pm IST

Act of violence: As panic spread after the killing, the then Acting Chief Justice of the Madras High Court, T.S. Arunachalam, accompanied by some judges of the High Court and City Police Commissioner G. Veeraraghavan, visited the Egmore Xth Metropolitan Magistrate Court “to infuse confidence in the judicial officers and the public”. 

Act of violence: As panic spread after the killing, the then Acting Chief Justice of the Madras High Court, T.S. Arunachalam, accompanied by some judges of the High Court and City Police Commissioner G. Veeraraghavan, visited the Egmore Xth Metropolitan Magistrate Court “to infuse confidence in the judicial officers and the public”.  | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

The daring murder of K. Armstrong, the Tamil Nadu president of the Bahujan Samaj Party, in Chennai on July 5, a Friday, has become a talking point nationally. In a strange coincidence, 28 years ago, on the same day and date, a sensational murder in the city shook the State.

Around 3.15 p.m. on July 5, 1996, Egmore Xth Metropolitan Magistrate P. Devadoss had just finished the hearing in an attempt-to-murder case. Just then, there was a huge commotion in the court hall. Before anyone realised what was happening, two men holding long knives “chopped down” Viji alias Vijaykumar, a 26-year-old accused in the case, right in front of the magistrate, court staff, advocates, and litigants. Viji lay dead in a pool of blood in the court hall till 7 p.m. before his body was shifted for a post-mortem. The assailants escaped.

Dramatic entry

Just 15 minutes earlier, an armed gang, including the two assailants, had dramatically entered the court premises in two cars and four motorcycles. “One two-wheeler went straight to the Xth Metropolitan Magistrate Court. Seeing the vehicle, those in front of the court’s gate moved away. The motorcycle bumped into the steps leading to the court. Two assailants jumped from the vehicle, went inside the hall, shouting, and attacked Viji with long knives. Both his palms were cut off and he also suffered multiple injuries on his body and neck,” says a report in The Hindu dated July 6, 1996.

The daring operation looked like a scene straight out a Telugu film. The gang’s real target was ‘Punk’ Kumar, a notorious gangster, who was waiting near a police van that had brought him from the Salem prison. The vehicle was stationed close to the Fifth Metropolitan Magistrate court hall, where he had to appear in a case of abduction. The assailants were aware of his visit.

‘Malaikan’ Selvam, one of the gangsters involved in the crime, was nabbed later. Here he is seen with the car used for the crime and found abandoned near Guindy.

‘Malaikan’ Selvam, one of the gangsters involved in the crime, was nabbed later. Here he is seen with the car used for the crime and found abandoned near Guindy. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

As the gang went in search of Kumar and his co-accused — Philips and Nagender — they “threw crude bombs in different corners of the sprawling campus, forcing the litigants to run helter skelter”. While Kumar was hiding in the police van, one of his police escorts fired in the air to scare away the gang. The assailants then chased another accused Ramesh and cornered him in a restroom, but fled sensing trouble. They found in Viji, a member of the Kumar gang, a ‘soft target’.

Within minutes of the horrendous crime, Chennai Police Commissioner G. Veeraraghavan arrived at the scene — his office, the city police headquarters, was located a few hundred metres away at Egmore (now shifted to Vepery).

As panic spread, the then Acting Chief Justice of the Madras High Court, Justice T.S. Arunachalam, visited the court “to infuse confidence in the judicial officers and the public”. He was accompanied by three of his brother judges — Justices K. A. Thanickachalam, J. Kanakaraj, and M. Karpagavinayagam; Chief Metropolitan Magistrate S. Krishnan; and High Court Registrar M. Subramaniam. Home Secretary Ashok Joshi also rushed to the court. The Commissioner and Magistrate Devadoss, who later went on to become a High Court judge, briefed them about the crime.

Asaithambi behind it

It did not take long for the police to find out that Asaithambi, a member of the Chera gang that held sway in north Chennai, had carried out the daring murder. The Chera gang and the Kumar gang (part of the ‘Vellai’ Ravi gang) had been at loggerheads since 1991 when Subbiah, a relative of Chera, was murdered by the Kumar gang at the Government Stanley Hospital.

The crime, however, turned into a major embarrassment for M. Karunanidhi’s DMK that had entered office less than two months ago. AIADMK leader Jayalalitha (there was no additional ‘a’ to her name then) alleged that though armed policemen were present at the court, they did not act when the gang descended on the premises. “The Magistrates and staff had to flee, fearing for their lives,” she noted, blaming the incident on the DMK government transferring “effective police officers” and replacing them with “favoured” ones.

The police, meanwhile, began cracking the case. While they found one car used in the crime abandoned near Guindy, they seized the other one after a chase at Anna Nagar. One suspect, ‘Malaikan’ Selvam, was caught the same night, and two others, ‘Cat’ Rajendran and Nambi, were arrested thereafter. In all, 11 persons were arrested, but the main accused, Asaithambi and Mano, remained elusive.

While the police continued to look for them, on the night of July 30, members of the Asaithambi gang abducted Sudhakar Reddy, an industrialist, and his son Sudhir Reddy, from their surgical instruments manufacturing unit at suburban Porur. Later, the gang let off the father, demanding that he return with a ransom of ₹10 lakh to secure his son’s release. Sudhakar, however, informed the police. The following afternoon, as instructed by the gang, he waited near the Loyola College-Sterling Road junction to hand over the money. The police had by then quietly taken positions at different places.

Heated argument

“A youth came near him on the motorcycle and asked him to hand over the suitcase. As a heated argument between Mr. Reddy and the stranger was going on over the release of Mr. Sudhir Reddy, Asaithambi, Mano, and two others, who were watching from the car parked in the opposite direction, came near the spot. On seeing a scuffle between Mr. Sudhakar Reddy and the gangster, the other kidnappers opened fire,” according to The Hindu’s account of the events.

The police then opened fire, killing Asaithambi and his associate Gopal on the spot. Mano, who was injured, holding a pistol in hand, “ran into a mental health nursing home nearby, jumped over two compound walls and tried to escape along the banks of the Cooum. The police, in hot pursuit, shot at him, and he fell dead on the banks.” A decade later, ‘Punk’ Kumar was shot dead by the police on the outskirts of Chennai. The following year ‘Vellai’ Ravi was shot dead by the police in a forest near Hosur.

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