Crimes against scheduled castes have actually increased, according to the government’s own figures. But a fact-finding team in Tamil Nadu, where on September 11, 2011 serious police atrocities against dalits were committed, found that the district administration had little awareness about laws and measures for combating crimes against scheduled castes and tribes, writes K S Subramanian

The union home ministry, in its annual report for the year 2010-11 (page 78), has stated that the number of crimes against scheduled castes in the country has increased from 26,127 in 2005 to 33,595 in 2009. State-wise figures are not available, but one has only to read S Viswanathan’s classic study on crimes against dalits in Tamil Nadu (2007) to comprehend the seriousness of the situation there as regards violence against dalits by higher castes and classes.

The report details “measures to be taken in combating crimes against scheduled castes (SCs) and scheduled tribes (STs)” such as implementation of the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989; improvement in convictions for crimes against SCs and STs; proactive role of the police in detection and investigation of such crimes; sensitisation of the law enforcement machinery; application of law without dilution; awareness-building; mechanisms for safety and security of SCs and STs; association of NGOs in such tasks; prompt registration of FIRs, proper supervision, review and follow-up; preventive measures and policing of atrocity-prone areas; representation of SCs and STs in the police, in sensitive areas; measures towards economic and social rehabilitation of victims of violence; sample surveys and studies; exemplary punishment for extreme violations of human dignity, etc.

Though the recommended measures are indeed impressive, none of them was found to have been implemented on the ground, as discovered during a fact-finding team visit to Paramakudi in Ramanathapuram district, Chintamani in Madurai district, and Ilayangudi in the Tuticorin district of south Tamil Nadu where, on September 11, 2011, serious police atrocities against dalits, including murder, were committed. The district administration showed little awareness or was indifferent to any of the above-mentioned laws and measures. The district magistrate, superintendent of police, and inspector general in Ramanathapuram took a rigidly law-and-order approach to a legitimate dalit public protest and agitation, and ignored the proclaimed police code of conduct and charter of duties. The inspector general, a tough cop, went to the extent of branding John Pandian, a prominent dalit leader in the region, a mere criminal, and underlined the need for strict action against such ‘criminals’. He was totally ignorant of special provisions in the law and procedure that govern police conduct in relation to crimes against dalits.

Six people were killed in police firing at Paramakudi, and hundreds were reportedly injured and/or suffered police torture at all locations in the three districts where violence occurred due to police mishandling.

Journalist S Viswanathan, in his classic book Dalits in Dravidian Land (Navayana, 2007), has documented in painful detail 52 cases of atrocities against dalits in Tamil Nadu committed by more powerful and better-off sections of backward castes, especially the Thevars in the southern districts. The negative role of the police and the indifference of the rest of the state machinery, are among the important features documented in the book. In fact, state indifference and police complicity and indifference to provisions of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 are major factors behind continuing atrocities against dalits in Tamil Nadu.

The struggle for social justice and civil rights on the part of the depressed Mallars (which is opposed by the backward Thevar caste) lies at the heart of relations between the two communities in southern Tamil Nadu. A high point in the struggle was reached in 1957 when rights activist Immanuel Sekaran was murdered by suspected members of the Thevar community. Muthuramalinga Thevar, a leading member of the Thevar community, was arrested for his complicity in the case, but was let off.

The relentless struggle for social equality by the Mallars, resisted by the Thevars, was seen again recently in the Mallars’ demand that their leader’s death anniversary, falling on September 11, be celebrated as a state function just as the death anniversary of Muthuramalinga Thevar is celebrated annually. And that their leader should be christened deivathirumagan (‘god’s own creation’) just as Muthuramalinga Thevar has been christened. Negotiations between the two communities took place with the mediation of the police who supported the Thevars against the Mallars, leading to a rejection of their demands. This caused an eruption of police violence against the Mallars on September 11, 2011, in Paramakudi, Ramanathapuram district.

The observance of Immanuel Sekaran’s death anniversary on September 11 every year has been going on peacefully, as acknowledged even by the police and revenue authorities. Preparations this year went ahead, involving the allotment of time slots for leaders from political parties and others to pay homage to the slain hero. Even the murder of Palanikumar, a 16-year-old dalit student in Pacheri village, on the night of September 9, which caused great concern, did not affect the preparations. Notwithstanding the relatively peaceful atmosphere, the district administration prevented John Pandian, regional leader of the new dalit party, the Tamil Manila Munnetra Kazhagam (TMMK), from visiting Paramakudi to pay his respects to Immanuel Sekaran, after his visit to Pacheri to convey his condolences to the bereaved Palanikumar family. Undemocratic and insensitive though this was, the dalits kept their cool and John Pandian decided not to come to Paramakudi. There were no formal orders of externment against Pandian until the evening of September 10, 2011. Such an order was, however, communicated to the district authorities, from ‘higher formations’, at around 10.30 am on September 11, 2011.

Pandian had earlier been given a specific time slot (3 pm to 5 pm) on September 11, 2011, to pay his respects at the memorial of Immanuel Sekaran, establishing the fact that, till then, the police had no apprehensions of a possible breakdown in law and order in the event of his visit. In a provocative police move, Pandian was arrested in Valanadu, Tuticorin district, under Section 151 of the CrPC, at about 11 am on September 11, 2011. This was just a few hours before his intended departure for a state-approved visit to Paramakudi. The place of detention, a guesthouse at the police firing range, was inexplicable and led to concerns about his safety. The arrest was completely unwarranted.

As the news spread, people assembled at the five-roads junction in Paramakudi, a little distance away from the memorial. A section of the crowd (some 50-odd men out of around 1,000 people) squatted on the road. Traffic on that day mainly consisted of people coming to pay homage to Immanuel Sekaran. From many accounts and practical wisdom, the sequence of events that followed soon after raised more questions than answers. Police officers at the spot failed to contain the small though slightly restive crowd by the usual peaceful means. Instead, they inexplicably resorted to a lathi-charge and began firing even as the crowd was dispersing into various alleys leading out of the main junction. Sivakumar, the Paramakudi revenue official on whose orders force was resorted to, failed to meet members of the fact-finding team. The revenue divisional officer confirmed that she was far from the scene of the incident, and that Sivakumar had ordered the police firing on his own assessment of the situation.

This called for a statutory inquiry into the incident, in accordance with the law.

The fact-finding team was of the view that the situation could have been handled easily and without the use of force. The police version — that the crowd had resorted to arson — appeared wholly unfounded. None of the establishments in the area bore any evidence of having been set on fire. As for the police vehicle — an armoured carrier — that was set on fire, it defies belief that a crowd that was already on the run as a result of the lathi-charge, and far away from the five-roads junction, would have attempted to commit arson, especially in the presence of a posse of heavily armed policemen in riot gear. There is no evidence that the people manning the vehicle resisted attack. Further, a fire-tender stationed a few yards away could have extinguished the fire but the station officer, fire and rescue services, who was in control of the fire-tender, was unable to explain why it took him so long to move a few yards to where the police vehicle had been set on fire. A fire-tender belonging to another fire station, which was brought all the way, had stopped about 500 metres from the junction. Inexplicably, this fire-tender too was set on fire, allegedly by the crowd that was on the run trying to escape the lathi-charge and firing that had begun at around 12.45 pm. This led to the impression that the acts of arson were not the result of any action by the assembled crowd but were, in fact, carried out by the police in order to legitimise the unjustifiable violence. These aspects must be properly probed.

There are pointers to the presence of agent provocateurs in the few hundred-strong crowd at the five-roads junction. A lady in a red sari was conspicuous by her presence and a video recording from atop a building at the spot showed her actively orchestrating the protest against John Pandian’s arrest and the squat-on-the-road agitation. She was also seen continuously talking on her cellphone. Apart from the video, a senior police officer confirmed that the lady was heard speaking over the phone and discussing the detention of John Pandian. The officer added that she had not been seen in the district in the past, and that she could have been an outsider. It is strange that the policemen at the spot, including those from the intelligence, did not consider her presence as something that warranted a probe. Apart from identifying suspected agent provocateurs, officers who failed to follow the basic drill in such situations must be questioned.

In this context, there is urgent need to look into the norms and standards of international human rights law and Indian constitutional and legal provisions that govern the police handling of such situations. The yearly commemoration of Immanuel Sekaran clearly falls under the category of peaceful and lawful assembly.

Article 20 (1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.” The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states in Article 21: “The right of peaceful assembly shall be recognised” and that “no restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right other than those imposed in conformity with the law and which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order, the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.” India is party to the covenant and has a binding obligation to observe it fully.

The Paramakudi event has been recognised as ‘cultural expression’, allowing people to assemble peacefully. The aspect of recognition of the right to peaceful assembly has been observed. Even with certain other factors which may have influenced the gathering, the assembly was peaceful until the lathi-charge and police firing began. In fact, statements were made that negotiations were on between the police and the people assembled, in particular those sitting at five-roads junction. Besides the assembled people, there was a substantial police presence at the venue with all the necessary equipment and vehicles. The sudden rush of police, armed with lathis, brutally assaulting people who were sitting, and the subsequent use of firearms raises a host of disturbing questions about violation of human rights standards declared under international and national human rights law.

A code of conduct for law enforcement officials was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 17, 1979, and the Basic Principles on the use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, 1990 (referred to as basic principles) also exist. Corresponding provisions exist in the domestic law, especially concerning the use of force and firearms by law enforcement officials including the police. According to Article 1 of the code, law enforcement officials/police shall at all times fulfil the duties imposed upon them by law, by serving the community and by protecting all persons against illegal acts, consistent with the high degree of restraint required “by their profession”.

The behaviour of the police in Paramakudi falls far short of this code, especially when “no illegal acts” by the public were noticeable. Article 3 of the code states specifically that “police officials may use force only when strictly necessary and to the extent required for the performance of their duty”. The sudden lathi-charge by the police on people sitting on the ground, with no semblance of violent expression, and the subsequent use of firearms deserves rigorous scrutiny. Moreover, visual images have shown that the use of force was not in accordance with the principles of necessity and proportion. Closely related to the above, and as observed in the testimonies provided by victims with multiple injuries, issues arise relating to Article 5 of the code, which states that “no law enforcement official/police may inflict, instigate or tolerate any act of torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”. The visible injuries observed on victims show that they indeed suffered such violence, along with abusive language related to their caste identity. The right to physical integrity was severely violated, with some victims losing their ability to carry on their profession. For example, a vehicle driver’s inability to use his arms and legs. Rights relating to life, limb and property were seriously violated. In some cases, people were cruelly beaten and killed. Another tragic case was that of a disabled person (polio paralysis to the left leg) being beaten on his legs, which were twisted. Here, one must take into consideration the Convention of the Rights of Disabled Persons (CRPD) which India has ratified. Article 15 of the convention prohibits any form of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment…

Article 6 states: “The law enforcement officials/police shall ensure the full protection of the health of persons in their custody and in particular shall take immediate action to ensure medical attention whenever required.” This provision was repeatedly violated for most victims in the Paramakudi case. In some instances, the victims were left to find their own medical help; no effort was made to call an ambulance or ask for assistance. Besides, with the imposition of Section 144 of the CrPC, efforts to get an ambulance through the number 108 proved impossible even for the hospital authorities. On the use of force and firearms by law enforcement officials/police within the human rights framework, the basic principles refer to the code, especially Article 3 on the use of force, which, with its general provisions, among others, stipulates that government “should consider the development of non-lethal, incapacitating weapons for use in appropriate situations with a view to increasingly restraining the applicable means capable of causing death or injury to persons”. In Paramakudi, there was a wilful negligence in observing the above provisions, with the police indulging in a brutal assault on unarmed people, with all kinds of force including a lathi-charge and stone-throwing. Some people too threw stones, injuring a few police personnel, but the police had protective gear on. Other means of crowd dispersal were never attempted. The district magistrate of Ramanathapuram defended the stone-throwing by policemen as less harmful than police firing! Moreover, visual images showed that people were beaten up repeatedly, with the police stamping on their bodies. Warnings were not given through the appropriate audio means, but the police came well-equipped with riot-control vehicles (VAJRA), fire-tenders, ambulances, etc. Police vehicles appear to have been set on fire deliberately, to aggravate the situation.

A number of UN basic principles on the use of firearms were violated during the firing at Paramakudi on September 11, 2011. The basic principles include provisions for policing assemblies of different categories. Above all, as seen by the performance of the police in this incident, special measures need to be taken to sensitise the police and concerned state officials on anti-discriminatory approaches to policing and human rights protections as recommended by the Union home ministry itself. The basic principles also call for clear reporting and reviewing procedures; Article 23 states that persons affected by the use of force and firearms, or their legal representatives, shall have access to an independent process, including a judicial process. In the event of the death of such persons, this provision shall apply to their dependents. In all these circumstances, the issue of command responsibility should be examined.

After hearing witnesses, interacting with officers and taking into account the facts and circumstances of the case, the fact-finding team reached the following prima facie conclusions:
The arrest and detention of John Pandian, and preventing him from paying homage to Immanuel Sekaran, was unwarranted and led to the Paramakudi anti-dalit police violence.
It was clear that the dalits were proceeding to the memorial in a peaceful manner and were unarmed. There was no justification therefore for the use of force.
The use of force, including use of firearms, for an extended period of over four hours (from 12.45 hours to 16.45 hours) was unjustified.
The lack of a system to render medical assistance to the injured, and the brutal means by which the men in uniform dealt with the victims, was shocking and warrants action against those found guilty of such brutal acts.
There was no justification for using firearms; excessive firing caused death and injury to a large number of innocent people who were unarmed and were in a peaceful assembly/procession to the memorial. The firing/lathi-charge amounted to offences under the IPC and SC/ST (POA) Act, 1989.
It is learnt that there has been no executive magisterial inquiry into the use of firearms in this case, as required under the CrPC, apparently in light of the setting up of the Justice Sampath Commission of Inquiry. This is a patent dereliction of duty on the part of the district authorities.
There is a public perception that there will be no proper inquiry of any kind by the local administration, which is biased against dalits. An independent inquiry or investigation is therefore imperative. The investigation must be entrusted to the Central Bureau of Investigation.
A number of complaints from those who suffered serious injuries in the brutal police action state that no complaint or FIR has been registered. Each of the individual atrocities should be the subject matter of a separate inquiry. A special court should be set up at Paramakudi to receive complaints and process and investigate them.
Victims have not been properly rehabilitated both in terms of compensation and in terms of requisite medical treatment. Long-term measures of rehabilitation must be addressed, such as distribution of land to every SC family in the affected villages, development of their land, admission of their children to good residential schools, and provision of independent approach roads to their villages without them having to pass through areas of tension. Proactive, holistic measures must be adopted on the basis of equality, justice and dignity as mandated by the Constitution of India. Periodic fire-fighting is not the answer. A committee consisting of eminent citizens must be set up to continuously engage in measures to build the confidence of the people.

The fact-finding team recommended the following measures, in this context:
Transfer the investigation of all cases related to the Paramakudi, Chintamani and Ilayangudi firings to the CBI.
The Legal Aid Services Authority must provide free legal aid to the victims by appointing advocates to: i) assist them in preparing and filing complaints/follow-up, register the same either by filing petitions or private complaints in the magistrate courts, and secure convictions for perpetrators of the crime; ii) secure compensation for victims; iii) sensitise government officials at all levels to treat everyone equally and inspire confidence in the minds of the victims to make them feel that they will be heard and can secure justice from the state; iv) mobilise police personnel from castes other than those in the region to regulate public gatherings; v) create a special force, with special training, from among the armed reserve to regulate and manage any public gatherings; vi) provide the police constabulary posted to manage public gathering with reasonable facilities, not pile them up in schools or other institutions which have no infrastructure to even cover basic necessities; vii) post more doctors and other paramedical staff, on sensitive occasions, in hospitals in and around areas where such congregations happen.

(K S Subramanian, a Senior Fellow at the Council for Social Development, New Delhi, was a member of the fact-finding mission led by Justice Hosbet Suresh and set up by People’s Watch, a Tamil Nadu NGO, to go into the police firing on dalits at Paramakudi, in Tamil Nadu)

Infochange News & Features, January 2012