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Most of the cases where Government authorites are involved, it isn’t just about the crime as an isolated act, but the power that backs it, too! A look at the Vachathi case.
“There isn’t enough outrage about Pollachi.”
I hear you ask how much is enough, anyway, which I understand, undoubtedly. But to call what has been nothing shy of rape as “a sex scandal” and to relegate the story to a footnote in the media is really representative of the callousness and this strange cherry picking syndrome we’re all guilty of.
And it isn’t just today that this syndrome is making itself known. Let me ask you a question, and let’s see how many of you are able to come up with a response WITHOUT resorting to Google.
Do you remember Vachathi?
Here, let me rephrase that.
Do you know about Vachathi?
If you do, I’m grateful to know it, and ask you to raise your voice and speak about it to as many as you can. If you don’t, I urge you to stay here and start from this point, to know, to remember, and to keep the memory alive.
On June 20, 1992, in Vachathi – a village in Dharmapuri, Tamil Nadu – a team of 155 forest personnel, 108 policemen, and 6 revenue officials in the region entered the village. The majority of the population of the village were Dalits and tribals. This battalion of officials entered the village in the name of searching for Veerappan’s sandalwood stash and to gather information on his whereabouts.
What followed was a “search operation” that involved a massive ransacking of the village, destruction of their houses and their means of livelihood, the gruesome assault of nearly a hundred villagers and the rape of 18 women! Massive, isn’t it?
The survivors waived their right to anonymity. In one share with the BBC, a survivor noted that she and the 17 other survivors had been taken in a police truck to the embankment of a lake, where they were raped repeatedly. They were then taken to the forest department and tortured all night, before being photographed in front of piles of sandalwood. These pictures were presented before the magistrate, who then remanded these women in jail. The officials who raped them threatened the women with dire consequences if they complained about the rapes to the magistrate – saying that the men in their families would be arrested without room to get out of prison, and the women were silenced. When the women returned to Vachathi, everything was destroyed and the village itself was deserted. Homes destroyed, livestock killed with their bodies dumped in their wells, and their water supply contaminated.
When the survivors lodged a complaint with the police station in Harur on August 22, 1992, the Sub-Inspector refused to register their case. The District Collector asked the Revenue Divisional Officer to visit Vachathi and conduct an inquiry on July 14, 1992 – but nothing happened until after a month passed. The “objective and independent” report that the Revenue Divisional Officer submitted brazenly claimed that “the alleged rape incident cannot be believed and the villages themselves damaged their houses to blame the forest officials and the police.” The investigation had met a dead end.
On July 30, 1992, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) filed a public interest litigation before the Madras High Court, demanding an investigation, but the case was rejected on the grounds that the “Government officials would not have indulged in such conduct” and thus the matter was not fit to be taken up as a PIL. The CPI(M) did not give up and filed a writ petition before the Supreme Court, which then transferred the matter to the High Court, insisting that the case be fast-tracked. In November 1992, the High Court passed interim orders for the restoration of basic amenities in the village, and called on B Bhamati, the then Director of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Commission to visit Vachathi, investigate the matter, and submit a report in two weeks’ time.
Three years passed by because of the State Government’s delaying tactics, and the High Court ordered a CBI inquiry only in 1995 – which submitted a report after one whole year passed by. The case was committed to the District and Sessions Court in Dharmapuri in 1996. Six years later, another writ petition was filed because nothing moved in the earlier case, and in 2002, compensation was awarded to the survivors, while the state was directed to appoint a CBI public prosecutor to conduct the case. The hearings were adjourned month on month because the accused wouldn’t show up. Nine years later, the High Court directed the lower court to expedite the trial – and twenty years later, the sentence had been passed.
The special court convicted 269 accused officials for their atrocities against the tribal population and the Dalit community in Vachathi, and 17 officials for rape. By the time this decision arrived, 54 of the convicted officials were already dead and the remaining 215 were given jail sentences.
In a country where our sisters in Kunan and Poshpora still wait for justice, where it takes nearly twenty years for the Vishaka guidelines to be acted upon, it isn’t a matter of surprise anymore that sexual violence – state sponsored, at that – continues to be treated with apathy, at best. Our selective outrage and our ignorance of power structures that backs sexual violence at all levels represents one of the major reasons why these crimes continue unabashed.
While we hold on to our urban privilege and remain limited in our understanding and oversimplification of sexual violence, we ignore a painful truth: the fact that several identity factors come together to impact the gender experience adversely, for multiple structures are at play.
Think about it: for Government officials to commit such atrocities, for another Government authority to aver that none of it happened and that the entire incident was concocted, for several of the accused to refuse to show up and to undermine the judiciary – it isn’t just about the crime as an isolated act, but the power that backs it, too. MOST importantly, the caste and tribal identity of the survivors is a very important and integral part of the Vachathi incident. Think about it, and I ask you to really introspect, where is the outrage when Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasi women face violence? Do you remember the young Dalit woman who was beheaded after being raped? Did you pay attention to her #MeToo at all?
We turn toward a very formative time for our journey as a nation. As we elect a new Government, please be mindful to understand that the SOPs and frills do not matter. What matters is whether we are electing a responsible leadership that will deliver? As an informed citizen, we must remember these stories, and respond to them. These are truths and all truths are actionable. One of those actions, not surprisingly, is the right to vote, and a responsibility.
Image via ReMindful
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