A humiliating tradition of branding a tribe as criminal, which was first introduced by the British, is still rampant in the hinterlands of south India, reports Nidheesh J Villatt

2015-03-21 , Issue 12 Volume 12

Photo: Tehelka Archives

Photo: Tehelka Archives

On 28 November 2014, Thanjavore district collectorate in Tamil Nadu witnessed a strange incident. A frail woman, in her early 30s, named Murugayee, went to the collector’s office, the symbol of the government and constitution, with her three children to meet the collector to complain about the barbaric torture unleashed by the Tamil Nadu police. Her effort to tell her tale could not materialise and, in a severe bout of depression, Murugayee attempted suicide by consuming poison adjacent to the collector’s office. Her daughter Thaleichelvi, seeing her consuming a drink with ‘foul smell,’ informed a police constable. Understanding the gravity of the situation, the police rushed her to hospital in an ambulance. She survived because of the timely treatment.

In ‘danger zone’ Elderly Korova woman in Manojippatti

In ‘danger zone’ Elderly Korova woman in Manojippatti, Photo: I Pandyan

In another village near Thanjavore, called Muthuveeran Kandiyanpetty, you will find another woman in her early 30s called Shelvarani. Once attractive and healthy, Shelvarani now ekes out a miserable existence. Not able to withstand what she described as ‘police torture and humiliation’, she tried to douse herself in kerosene to commit suicide; she now hovers between life and death with 75 percent burns.

These are not isolated instances, nor are these women’s stories atypical. Latha, 32, in another village called Annai Shivagami Nagar, has a similar tale. She tried to kill herself at a police station in Cuddalore district after she witnessed the police brutalising her three-year-old nephew Santhosh by a method locally known as ‘Ratinam’ — hanging a person upside down by tying the body to a hook — a sight she found unbearable.

Murugayee, Shelvarani and Latha belong to the ‘Denotified Tribe’ (DNT) called Korava in Tamil Nadu, a community that is absolutely alienated and marginalised from the great Indian debate of constitutional promises and fundamental rights. Branded by the British as one of the Criminal Tribes, along with 150 other communities throughout India, the Koravas are still treated as ‘criminals by birth’ by all the institutional mechanisms of the state including the police, judiciary, political executive and, significantly, mainstream media and influential ‘high’ caste people.

As demonstrated by historians like Rajnarayan Chandravarkar, Criminal Tribes Act (CTA) was enacted by the British in 1871 to tame and domesticate different groups who did not fit into the new political economy superimposed by the British as manifest in the form of draconian forest and revenue laws. Thus the British branded several communities that played a major part in the first major rebellion in 1857 and other communities that were thrown out of their traditional habitat. Anyone belonging to these ‘notified’ communities would be treated as ‘hereditary criminals’ as per this Act. As observed by the Renke Commission on DNT, the “amended CTA in 1911 gave more powers to local governments to declare any tribe, section or class of people as a Criminal Tribe; to order registration of members of the Criminal Tribe and taking of their fingerprints; to direct that every such registered member would report himself at fixed intervals to a police officer of the village; report to the police officer or the headman any change of residence; and to restrict the movements of Criminal Tribe members to a particular area”.

Significantly, notified communities were denied normal rights under the common law and all these punitive measures were employed for ‘preventive action’ and not for any offences committed. As underlined by Renke, “notification of the community as a Criminal Tribe was the ‘reason to believe’ that the community was addicted to crime”. By stereotyping and targeting people invoking CTA, the administration created an impression that governance exists.

Even though CTA was repealed in 1952, in keeping with the spirit of the national movement, and notified tribes were ‘denotified’, police across the states, in a direct continuum of colonial mindset, are using the provisions in the Habitual Offenders Act which replaced CTA to fill the crime statistics. The modus operandi is to frame people belonging to DNT in all unresolved criminal cases (ranging from murder to petty pickpocketing) and extract forced confessions by using third degree torture.

This is the larger historical context where Murugayee, Shelvarani and Latha are forced to use the ultimate ‘weapon of the weak’ in independent India like the peasants drowned in distress — suicide. They are not aware of the latest mantra of the Indian establishment: Make in India. But they are very familiar with the state violence of ‘Making Criminals in India’ by the guardians of Indian constitution. Like big business groups who will participate in the Make in India campaign, Koravas also receive ‘incentives’. While the former are gifted prime agricultural lands, the latter are gifted with custodial rape, torture, death, humiliation and ultimately suicide.

Tehelka visited important catchment areas of this ‘Making Criminals’ campaign in Tamil Nadu — Thanjavore, Trichi, Villupuram, Madhurai, Chennai and bordering areas of Pondicherry — after learning about an ongoing enquiry by the National Scheduled Caste Commission into the police atrocities unleashed on people belonging to the Korava community (activists point out that sociologically, this community should be in the Scheduled Tribe list. But in Tamil Nadu majority of them are included in the Scheduled Caste category). The Commission appointed a three- member committee to study the atrocities after receiving a formal complaint from Tamil Nadu Koravan Makkal Sangham.

Pain and anguish Shelvarani, daughter of Doraiswamy, who attempted suicide, Photo: I Pandyan

Pain and anguish Shelvarani, daughter of Doraiswamy, who attempted suicide, Photo: I Pandyan

Making Criminals

“Police are the only outsiders who come to our hamlet,”said Murukeshan, a middle-aged Korava man living in Manojpetti, a ‘dangerous’ area according to the police near Thanjavore town. “Denotified people in Manojpetti play an important role in the career of the police officers in Tamil Nadu. Police from different parts of the state come here whenever they are struggling to find real culprits in sensational crimes, even petty crimes. Police are happy at all childbirths that are happening here. For them, each Korava child is a potential trophy in the form of promotions and rewards”.

Pointing to a house in the hamlet, he says, “Four or five years ago, the police came and occupied this house forcefully in the name of capturing criminals. They made it into a mini-police camp. They kept our women there. They entered the pigsty and killed the pigs and poultry. They made our women to cook food for them, and wantonly assaulted them.”

“The police in Thanjavore is notorious for celebrating Ayudha Pooja festival in a bizarre manner. And without Manojpetti this celebration will not happen,” says Captain Dorai, general secretary of the Korava Sangham. During Ayudha Pooja, the ostensibly godfearing police is keen to avoid empty lockups. They fear that empty lockups will be inauspicious and hence they frame innocent people in this hamlet in fake cases to fill lockups. “They also forcefully collect money and do special forms of torture to ensure a prosperous policing year. Properties owned by our people are also systematically looted by the police during this festival,” Dorai adds. It is said that several other police stations in adjacent districts also practise the tradition of filing cases in the name of Koravas after purification rituals during Ayudha Pooja.

Unrelenting fighter Captain Dorai, general secretary of Korava Sangham

Unrelenting fighter Captain Dorai, general secretary of Korava Sangham

Modus operandi

“The way in which the state brings innocent Koravas into the vicious cycle of crime is a mockery at all accepted process of legal procedures and fundamental rights. Police speaks in a language not known to law. Tamil Nadu police is entrenched in a culture of impunity. Right from top to bottom, police officials treat denotified tribes as potential criminals. Very significantly many of them also know that they are convenient scapegoats,” says B S Ajeetha, high court lawyer and legal expert in the special committee constituted by National Commission for Scheduled Castes (NCSC).

“A senior IPS officer who was IG of the Human Rights and Social Justice wing told us, ‘Whatever you say, Korava people are prone to crime.They are attracted to theft and massive robbery. It’s in their blood’. He even went to describe the ‘methods’ of their robbery. Some tales paint them to be in love with blood. Some other tales were about how they defecate in households after committing robbery. I asked him, ‘What’s your source? What statistics you have?’ He shamelessly said, ‘Oral history’,” she adds.

These ‘legends’ are transferred to successive generations of police officers during their training with religious fervour. A recently recruited sub-inspector told Tehelka on condition of anonymity, “We are taught about the hereditary criminal traits of Koravas in our training. We were particularly told that Korava robbery gangs in Ramji Nagar in Trichi are notorious in their operations”.

Mainstream media in Tamil Nadu also parrots the police story about Ramji Nagar. There are also videos available online detailing ‘Korava gangs’ in Trichi. However, this is strongly contested by Korava Sangham activists. “If you check the revenue records, you will understand that our people are not much present in this locality. This is a myth constructed by the police and spread by media,” says Captain Dorai.

Tehelka visited Ramji Nagar to verify the facts. Using the guise of a researcher from Delhi working on caste relations in Tamil Nadu, Tehelka interacted with villagers. Most of the villagers identified them with a dominant caste in the state. “There are some organised criminal gangs in this area. They are from several states and religious caste backgrounds. But whenever they are caught redhanded by the police, they say that they belong to Korava caste. In fact most of these gangs have links with corrupt elements within the police,” a villager revealed.

“From my experience as a lawyer and judge, I’m convinced about the link between police and organised gangs in several parts of the state. Gangs share the loot with police who, in turn, protects the gangs. It’s a business. And politically quiet community like Koravas can be easily made scapegoats,” said Justice Chandru, former Madras high court judge.

Being victimised Kasthuri, wife of Ravi, who was killed in police custody

Being victimised Kasthuri, wife of Ravi, who was killed in police custody

Interestingly, till recently police used to write the caste name Korava as a prefix to the original names of the accused in the FIRs where people from this community were accused. “Why police is not writing Brahmin Jayalalitha in the FIR where she was accused of looting public money?” says I. Pandyan, human rights lawyer involved in documenting police atrocities. “When one Korava woman named Manimeghala was raped by a police head constable during the last regime of Jayalalitha, the opposition raised the issue in the Assembly. In her response, the chief minister referred her husband as a habitual offender and his brother as a ‘Korava’ Anandhan”.

According to Ramesh Nathan, another member of the NCSC appointed committee who visited several police stations in the state, close scrutiny of FIRs by surprise inspections will reveal the extent of frauds committed by the police. “If a crime is happening in January, police will keep it as ‘pending’, ‘accused unidentified/unknown’. By the end of the year, they will definitely find Koravas and fix them in all these cases. Police officials in different stations even fight for claiming the right over Koravas”.

When Tehelka accessed some of the FIRs collected by the human rights activists, a curious pattern surfaced. To file the FIR, police interchange names and try out different permutations and combinations. So in first case A will be first accused, B will be second accused and C will be third accused and D the fourth. In the second case, they will try different combination. “It depends on your sheer luck whether you will be booked for murder, bank robbery or pick pocketing”, Ramesh adds. In some cases, this crude fetish of permutation and combination also exposes the police.

A telling example is of Rajini, husband of Murugayee who attempted suicide fearing police torture. Rajini, hailing from Manojpetti left Chennai on 21 September 2014 to attend a hearing by NCSC.He was with other victims and officials in Delhi including a dig of Tamil Nadu police (who was summoned by the NCSC) attending the hearing on September 24. All documentary evidence including a group photo with dig support this. But without knowing this, Thanjavore medical college police booked him for a theft case on the same day. Police even went to recover the stolen jewellery by torture. He was also falsely booked for a murder that had happened.

After listening to the victims, a typical syndrome is detaining the victims for torture and forced confessions. Like the infamous innumerable white vans used by the Rajapaksa government in Sri Lanka to illegally detain Tamilians in post civil war Sri Lanka, the Tamil Nadu police comes to Korava hamlets in ‘numberless’ vehicles between 1 am and 4 am in mufti clothes to abduct their targets. However, in the FIRs, police would not mention that they were caught from their homes. The police story usually is that they picked them up from public places, railway stations, bus stands and market places based on ‘specific information’.

Immersed in trouble Sumathi and her family are drowned in fake cases

Immersed in trouble Sumathi and her family are drowned in fake cases

The usual modus operandi would be this: victims would be taken by police from station A, then they are handed over to police station B and then to station C for torture. Police from station D would file the case. Once the accused is remanded, police from another station E would come and arrest them, formally charging them in fresh fake cases. Once the accused is out from prison on bail, police from another station would try to arrest them on fresh charges. There are instances of police from different stations who fought with each other in court and prison premises to nab a fresh ‘catch’ of Koravas.

It is also said that whenever police conduct raids on Korava households, they take invitation cards of various rituals like marriage etc. This is to understand the potential movement pattern of Korava people in group. “Unresolved gang robbery cases are generally planted on families who travel for attending rituals,” says Pandyan.

Some critical observations by the study team appointed by National Commission of Scheduled Caste (crosschecked by Tehelka in the field) are:

• Throughout the police stations in the state, General Diary has no notifications about the arrests of Koravas. No victim was remanded to judicial custody in 24 hours as stipulated by law.

• No police stations follow the Supreme Court guidelines given in DK Basu case about arrests.

• Increased using of ‘stock witnesses’ in robbery and theft cases. Police have fake witnesses on their payrolls. In almost all cases same witnesses are shown in the ‘arrest’ mahassar and the ‘recovery’ mahassar

• There is a cult of primitive methods and an absence of scientific investigation, skills and training.

• Elaborate torture methods are used by police to extract confession. Police torture Koravas as if it is a ritual. In certain police stations, giving ‘good food’ to Korava victims indicates the starting of torture, and applying green chilli juice to the eyes after tying one leg to a window and the other leg to another window is very usual. Removing nails using coarse cutters. Needles are inserted into hands and then they are asked to take push ups. The victims have a rope tied to their genitals, which is subsequently tied to a brick and the insertion of needles into their private parts and ears. Feet are covered with wet sandbags, as iron rods are used to inflict pain without visible injuries.

• Special methods to torture women include custodial rape with special focus on ‘lathi penetration’. Stripping and applying chilli powder to genitals and forcing the women to strip in front of close male relatives and forcing male relatives to comment on their physique are also a ‘usual’ practice. ‘Searching’ for ‘stolen items inside the blouses that women wear is standard practice.

An absolute travesty and anachronism that systematically dehumanises the branded goes on unchecked, 68 years after the colonial power was ousted. Serious psychiatric cases and increasing number of school and college dropouts have multiplied Koravas’ agony.


• Kasthuri Ravi, w/o Ravi (deceased)
Villupuram district

Falsely booked Doraiswamy, an agricultural worker from Thanjavore

Falsely booked Doraiswamy, an agricultural worker from Thanjavore

Thirunavalur police abducted her husband Ravi in midnight from their home accusing him of being part of a robbery of a cooperative bank. Police looted Rs 40,000 (which they got from selling pig) and also the motorcycle of Ravi from their house. He and some of his relatives were brutally tortured in Naduveerapattu police station to admit the crime. He died in police custody. Police compelled Kasthuri to sign a statement saying, “We handed back your husband after questioning”. When she refused, she was threatened with being framed in fake drug and prostitution cases. Later, police made up a story that while trying to escape, Ravi fell into a pit and died. Police tried to settle the matter by offering money and other forms of assistance to the family. They admitted to the village elders, “We were drunk and made a mistake”. But Kasthuri refused to accept their money. Then their relatives who witnessed the torture were arrested and fake theft cases were slapped on them. Later a special police team found that an employee of the bank was behind the robbery: no one from Korava community had any relation with the case. Kasthuri is still fighting case against the custodial death.

• Anjulakshmi (name changed) ­Pappireddipatti Taluqa, Dharmapuri

Now she is in her late 30s but looks about 60-years old. She was working as a headload worker in a quarry and was very healthy. She was picked by police at midnight from her house along with sister and tortured to admit gold theft. Her sister was stripped and forced to stand naked for a day in Harur police station. “I was beaten to pulp. My fingernails were plucked by policemen. I was stripped and chilli powder was applied to my genitals. They penetrated me using lathi also. A policeman penetrated me using the thumb of his foot. When I cried, he said, ‘Imagine that I’m your uncle’s son and you are my aunty’s son. So I can do this to you’,” she told Tehelka. Her husband says that she has developed psychological issues; she is not able to sleep at night. She sits whole night. Exposure to police uniform will make her really uncomfortable. She has filed cases against policemen who tortured her.

• Meenakshi (wife) and Ooty Arumugam (husband) Thanjavore

Kudavasal police came to search for her husband. He was not there. So police abducted her and took her to a private lodge notorious as a torture chamber. Her brother-in-law Raji was also taken to the same lodge. She was tortured and stripped in front of Raji. Humiliated, she tried to commit suicide by jumping from the third floor of the lodge. Later, her husband Arumugham was abducted and kept in illegal detention for around 90 days. He also underwent brutal torture and was crying in pain. Then the policemen perversely forced him to sing, dance and act as a monkey.

• Doraiswamy (Thanjavore)

A hard working agricultural labourer from rural Thanjavore and local leader of CPM, Doraiswamy was also a panchayat member. He was respected cutting across caste lines for his selfless contribution to public good. But in their anxiety to muster up crime statistics, he was booked on fake theft case. Police pressurised him to confess that he sold the loot to some small Malayali Jewellery owners in Thanjavore. (It was the period of increased Kerala-Tamil Nadu tension over Mullaperiyar dam. So police wanted to teach a lesson to Malayalis). He refused. He was handcuffed and publicly humiliated by taking him to different places to recover ‘stolen gold’. Shelvarani, his daughter attempted suicide after seeing his plight.