“We sacrificed everything so that he could study MBA. Look how they have snuffed his life out,” said 51-year-old N Maragatham, crying inconsolably as she stood outside the house where her son Shanmuganathan was hacked to death last month.

The incident took place in Kachanatham village in Tamil Nadu’s Sivaganga district on the night of May 28. Shanmuganathan and two other men, all members of the Devendrakula Vellalar community, were killed by a group of 20 men from the dominant Agamudayar community, the villagers said. The Devendrakula Vellalar community comes under the Scheduled Caste list while the Agamudayars are listed under the Other Backward Classes.

When Scroll.in visited Kachanatham on Wednesday, the residents recalled that most of them had been glued to their television sets that night watching the Tamil series Nandini. At around 9.15 pm, the street lights suddenly went off, enveloping the village in darkness. Moments later, several of them rushed out of their homes on hearing screams and discovered the bloodied bodies of Shanmuganathan, Chandrashekar and Arumugam in two houses. The former two were in their 30s while Arumugam was 65.

The villagers said the three men had been butchered with knives and sickles, and claimed the killings were in retaliation to a skirmish between two men from the village and an Agamudayar youth the previous day.

A police truck stands outside the Karupannasami temple in Kachanatham village in Sivaganaga. (Photo: Sruthisagar Yamunan)

However, Maragatham pointed out that the incident was rooted in decades-old hostilities between the two communities.

During violent caste riots in 1957, several homes in Kachanatham had been set on fire and destroyed. In the following months, the government had built new homes for members of the Devendrakula Vellalar community. Years later, a few members of the Agamudayar community, the majority group in the neighbouring villages, had taken over a plot of land from a resident of Kachanatham. This marked the beginning of decades of atrocities against the Scheduled Caste community, its members said.

“Our forefathers faced this atrocity, now we are facing it,” said Maragatham. “There is no one to help us.”

This despite the fact that the majority of the 46 families in Kachanatham today belong to the Devendrakula Vellalar community while only four families from the Agamudayar caste reside at the entrance of the village.

Leading up to the violence

Trouble began when Deiventhiran, an armyman posted in Punjab, and Prabhakaran, a police constable working in Madurai, objected to a speeding motorcycle on May 27. Both men had come home on leave to attend the Karupannasami temple festival, held annually in the Tamil month of Vaikasi. Deiventhiran was also set to get married after the festival.

As they sat chatting away on a small wall abutting the village road, the motorcycle came dangerously close to them, prompting them to raise their voices and question the driver. The motorcyclist, 24-year-old Suman, did not take kindly to this. The two men said Suman hurled caste abuses at them and warned them to watch their tongue if they valued their lives before driving off. “It was unbearable to hear those abuses,” recalled Deiventhiran.

They said Suman came back to the spot minutes later, this time with his brother Arun. The two were armed with knives and sickles. Deiventhiran and Prabhakaran fled the spot and went straight to the Thirupacheti police station. Soon after, a police team arrived in the village to investigate their claims. The residents said that Suman and Arun escaped into the bushes the moment they saw the police jeep. Deiventhiran said the policemen took Suman’s parents to the police station for questioning and released them later in the evening.

The villagers said the officers then told them they could not register a case as the village did not come under their jurisdiction. Deiventhiran added, “They said they would inform the Palayanoor police station, where we were supposed to lodge the complaint.”

Since the villagers believe they should not step out of the village after sunset when the temple festival is on, they decided to lodge the complaint the next day.

N Maragatham, mother of Shanmuganathan, who was murdered in caste violence in Kachanatham in Sivaganga. (Photo: Sruthisagar Yamunan)

On May 28, however, the officer at the Palayanoor police station refused to register a first information report, claiming that the attackers would get anticipatory bail if they found a copy of the report online, the villagers said. Deiventhiran said, “He [the police officer] said he would pick the two up and then register the case.”

That evening, the officer did visit the village. But instead of arresting the brothers, the villagers said they saw him patting Suman on the back.

A few hours later, violence ensued. Residents said the gang entered the village and switched off the street lights. In the dark, they barged into the house where Shanmuganathan and Chandrashekar were watching television and hacked them to death. Some of them then chased Arumugam, Deiventhiran’s father, to his home and killed him. Five others sustained serious injuries and are hospitalised in Madurai. Deiventhiran said the gang also took away Rs 3.5 lakh and some gold his family had saved up for his wedding.

Harassment, threats, forced labour

A fortnight after the killings, there is still heavy police deployment in Kachanatham. On Wednesday, every vehicle entering the village was checked and its number noted. The graves of the three men lay a few feet outside the settlement.

The residents said they had faced caste atrocities and threats of violence for decades. “Last year, they [the dominant caste members] attempted to murder three men,” said Sadasivam, adding that he was one of the targets. “The police did not take the complaint.”

The four Agamudayar families own several acres of the about 250 acres of farmland in this village. Residents said they control the water channels to the fields and often block these to deny the villagers water. “When there is no river water, they lock our pump sets and divert the water,” said Mahendran.

He said the Agamudayar families force the villagers to work on their fields, use threats if they refuse, and also deny them their rightful wages. “They pay wages for two days if we work for 10 days,” he said. This often means that the villagers – most of them farmers themselves – do not get to attend to their own crops and suffer losses.

According to some villagers, the worst of the atrocities is the harassment young women in the village face. “When our girls take bath, those men come and stand with hardly any clothes,” said Maragatham. The residents said that Suman, Arun and their friends from the neighbouring villages were among those to harass young women in Kachanatham.

But how has a community that is in the minority oppressed the majority community for so long? Marudupandi, Deiventhiran’s brother, explained that while there may be only four Agamudayar families in Kachanatham, they are the dominant caste in all the surrounding villages. “If we touch them, the whole village will be butchered,” he said.

The villagers also denied media reports that the May 28 violence was a result of the Agamudayar community being disrespected and stopped from making offerings in the village temple. “In all these years, they have never come to this temple,” said Maragatham.

These caste tensions have taken on a political hue in recent years. Several political leaders, such as K Krishnaswamy of the Puthiya Tamizhagam, have demanded that the Devendrakula Vellalar community be struck off the Scheduled Caste list as they say that the “Dalit” tag is escalating violence against the community.

However, many residents of Kachanatham were unaware of this movement while those who had heard of it were divided in their opinion. Maragatham said the protection that the law gives to Scheduled Castes is crucial and necessary. However, Mahendran said many communities that were once considered untouchables have prospered and violence against them has come down as they were not termed Dalits.

Police and political collusion

A common complaint the residents have is alleged collusion between the Agamudayars and the police. They claimed that many officers in surrounding police stations were from the dominant caste and hence did not take the villagers’ complaints seriously.

Sadasivam said he had taken the matter of the attempt on his life right up to the deputy superintendent of police. “We were asked to produce evidence for the attack,” he said.

The villagers also blamed political parties for the state of affairs. Marudupandi pointed out that Suman and Arun acted the way they did because their uncle Suresh Kumar was a former panchayat president. “We understand that he was first with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and then moved to the Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam,” he said.

Other residents said Suresh Kumar had forced them to vote for him and made them take oaths on milk – the local custom – in front of the temple. However, no top leader from either party had visited them after May 28, they added.

In the wake of the violence, two officers at the Palayanoor police station have been suspended. But the villagers are not satisfied with this. They have demanded that the policemen be included in the murder case and that the investigation be handed over to the Central Investigation Department (Crime Branch) of the Tamil Nadu Police.

Maragatham said her only wish now was that no mother should suffer the loss she did. “With my son lie buried all my dreams,” she said.