A tribal community in Tamil Nadu that witnessed state-led brutality three decades ago has just won a battle that reinforces faith in the democratic process and the criminal justice system. This victory, on September 29 at the Madras High Court, signals a paradigm shift in Indian jurisprudence, for it is the first time that a community of 655 Adivasis defeated the collective might of the state. The people of Vachathi in Tamil Nadu’s Dharmapuri district, who for generations lived in the idyllic foothills of Chiteri in the Eastern Ghats, had their lives altered on June 20, 1992. Police, forest and revenue officials — 269 in number — descended upon the village and accused the villagers of hoarding illegally felled sandalwood and allowing a conduit to smuggling. For the next three days, the villagers, women, the elderly and children included, were beaten up, their homes destroyed, wells poisoned and 18 women, including a girl, raped. All this happened under the watch of Jayalalithaa, who was the Chief Minister.
The state refused to register a case against its officials, forcing the villagers to approach the Madras High Court to seek a Central Bureau of Investigation inquiry. The CBI filed its charge sheet in 1996, and the case was tried by a Sessions Court in Dharmapuri for another 15 years. While the villagers won an unprecedented victory at the trial court in 2011 that convicted all the accused on charges ranging from rape to atrocities under the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, this order was stayed by the Madras High Court on appeals by the bureaucrats. Successive State governments under the DMK and the AIADMK, chose to protect their bureaucrats. At a time when the judiciary has been at odds with the government over attempts to maintain the autonomy of the three branches of governance, the High Court’s judgment upholding the trial court’s conviction, warns an elected government that it cannot rule with impunity. And while the SC/ST law has often been criticised for being ineffective, Vachathi is a rare instance where it has served its purpose. This judgment is also a pivotal moment in the long battle for Adivasi rights. It will be remembered as a case where despite India’s stark inequities, the convergence of an alert civil society, committed lawyers, an independent judiciary and the resolve of victims seeking justice, could still work a democratic Constitution and the judicial system to their advantage.