FIFTY years ago 44 Dalits mostly women and children belonging to the agricultural families were charred to death by landlords. This massacre took place on the Christmas night of 1968, in an inconspicuous hamlet Keezhvenmani (also known as Kilvenmani), now in the Nagapattinam district of Tamil Nadu.
A group of 44 including women and children of the families of striking Dalits village labourers, were murdered by a gang, allegedly led by their landlords on December 25, 1968.
Gopalakrishna Naidu, a landlord from Irinjiur near Keezhvenmani (Kilvenmeni) Nagapattinam and the president of the Tanjore Congress Party Area Committee was the architect of Keezhvenmani Massacre that killed 44 farmers. He had also formed a Paddy Producers Association with Narayanasamy Naidu, a former MLA.
The incident occurred when the landless peasants were influenced by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) to organise themselves into a campaign for higher wages following the increase in agricultural production as the result of Green revolution in India.
The lands were controlled by powerful families, while the labourers were from a Dalit community. In 1968, the agricultural labourers of unified Tanjore district formed a union seeking better working conditions and higher wages. To mark their union the workers hoisted red flags in their villages, irking their landlords. The landlords formed a separate union with yellow flags and started laying off workers belonging to the Communist unions.
This led to tensions and finally a boycott by all labourers. The peasants withheld part of the harvest as a negotiating tactic. The Paddy Producers Association, representing the local landlords, organised external labourers to continue the harvest. Matters became fraught when a local shopkeeper who supported the protesters was kidnapped by supporters of the landlords and beaten up. Protesters attacked the kidnappers, forcing them to release their hostage. In the clash, one of the landlords’ agents was killed.
44 people burnt alive
According to eyewitness accounts, on December 25, 1968, at around 10 p.m., the landlords and their 200 henchmen came in Police lorries and surrounded the hutments, cutting off all routes of escape. The attackers shot at the labourers, fatally wounding two of them. Labourers and their families could only throw stones to protect themselves or flee from the spot.
Many of the women, children, and some old men took refuge in a hut that was 8 ft x 9 ft. But the attackers surrounded it and set fire to it, burning them to death. The fire was systematically stoked with hay and dry wood. Two children thrown out from the burning hut in the hope that they would survive were thrown back into the flames by the arsonists. Of six people who managed to come out of the burning hut, two of whom were caught, hacked to death and thrown back into the flame.
Post this heinous crime, attackers went straight to the police station, demanded protection for themselves and got it. The massacre caused 44 death, including 5 aged men, 16 women and 23 children.
Responding to the news of carnage, the then Chief Minister C. Annadurai sent two of his Cabinet Ministers – PWD Minister M Karunanidhi and Law Minister S. Madhavan — to the site of the incident. He also conveyed his condolences to the bereaved families and promised action.
In the subsequent trial, the landlords were convicted of involvement in the event. Ten of them were sentenced to 10 years in jail. However, an appeal court overturned the conviction.
Irinjur Gopalakrishnan Naidu, leader of the Paddy Producers Association, was accused of being behind the massacre. The Madras High Court acquitted the landlord in 1975, quashing the Nagapattinam district court judgment awarding him 10 years of imprisonment in 1970, but he was murdered in a revenge attack in 1980.
The condition hasn’t changed much over the years. According to a ministry of social justice and empowerment report in 2016, a total of 5,131 cases have been registered under Prevention of Atrocities Act (1989) against SCs and STs between 2013 and 2015 in Tamil Nadu as compared to the BJP-ruled Rajasthan which tops the list with 23,861 cases.
An examination of cases with the police under the POA Act, read with Sections of the IPC, show that between 2015 and 2016, reported crimes against Dalits increased by 5.5% (from 38,670 to 40,801), and those against STs by 4.5% (from 6,276 to 6,568). Rape and “assault on women with intent to outrage her modesty” constituted the largest number of cases of atrocities against SCs and STs. In 2016, the largest number of reported rapes of Dalit women was in UP (557), while rapes of Adivasi women in Madhya Pradesh (377), Chhattisgarh (157), and Odisha (91) accounted for 10% of all crimes committed against STs throughout the country.
Some of the better-known cases of Dalit atrocities, all in Bihar’s Patna High Court, are the Bathani Tola massacre (1996, 21 Dalits) in which all 23 Ranvir Sena accused convicted by the lower court were acquitted in 2012; the Lakshmanpur-Bathe massacre (1997, 58 Dalits), in which 26 Ranvir Sena men were let off in 2013; the Miyanpur massacre (2000, 32 people, including Dalits), in which nine of the 10 accused were acquitted 13 years later; and the Nagari Bazaar massacre (1998, 10 CPI-ML supporters, mostly Dalits), in which 11 accused walked free in 2013.–Dalit Media Watch