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Melavalavu Murders

Melavalavu Murders

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[Today marks the 15th anniversary of the brutal Melavalavu massacre. Read about it in this excerpt from the chapter ‘The Pattern of Abuse: Southern District Clashes in Tamil Nadu and the State’s Response‘ from the report ‘Broken People: Caste Violence Against India’s Untouchables’ published by Human Rights Watch (HRW) in 1999.]

In September 1996, the village of Melavalavu, in Madurai district, was declared a reserved constituency under Article 243D of the Indian constitution.[256] The declaration signaled that the Melavalavu panchayat (village council), which covers eight villages with approximately 1,000 Dalit families,[257] would have seats reserved for scheduled-caste candidates.[258] In June 1997, a group murder of elected Dalits by neighboring Thevars signaled that constitutionally mandated shifts in legal power to scheduled castes would not be tolerated by caste Hindus displaced from their once secure elected positions.

Several observers have attributed the violence in the village and the resulting tensions to a shift in power relations brought on by the government’s mandate of reservation of panchayat seats for Dalits. Dr. George Mathew of the New Delhi Institute of Social Sciences visited the area along with two other researchers soon after the murders. He published his conclusions in an article in The Hindu:

The murders of the Dalit leaders of Melavalavu Panchayat were clearly because “untouchability” was still ingrained in the social system. The economic conditions in the village were abysmal, but the power was concentrated in the hands of a privileged few. These people had hitherto enjoyed a hold over the common properties such as fish ponds, temple lands and forest produce and did not want to relinquish these privileges to the Panchayat Raj system run by the downtrodden… [T]he violence was basically a result of a shift in the power equations from the haves to the have nots.[259]

The article also noted that the leasing of the twenty-five fish ponds alone would fetch an income of Rs. 500,000 to Rs. 1,000,000 annually (US$12,500 to $25,000). The new panchayati raj system put control of such common properties in the hands of the panchayat-that is, in Dalit hands-since the 1997 elections.[260] In a separate article, Mathew referred to the killings as a serious attack on the institution of panchayati raj, which has the potential of changing the powerful rural groups. The new panchayats are perceived by the traditional powerful groups as a threat. Melavalavu and similar villages are paying a price for not holding the panchayat elections regularly and strengthening the foundations of democracy.[261]

The case of Melavalavu provides an example of the interaction of social forces, efforts at reform, violent reaction, and impunity. The announcement of reservations in Melavalavu in 1996 led to a threat of “economic sanctions” by the majority caste Hindu community should any Dalit file for the position of panchayat president. The sanction would effectively leave Dalits without employment or access to economic and social services in villages in that area. As reported in the Bombay-based daily, Times of India, “They were warned that they would lose their jobs as farmhands and not be allowed to graze cattle or draw water from wells located on ‘patta’ [unutilized] land held by the dominant castes.”[262]

The elections, scheduled for October 1996, were subsequently canceled, as all three Dalit nominees withdrew their candidacy for fear of sanctions against the entire scheduled-caste electorate. When polling finally did take place in February 1997, the election was suspended after several incidents of booth capturing.[263] A thirty-five-year-old Dalit named Murugesan won the presidency in the third round of polling, which took place under heavy police protection and was boycotted by the dominant castes. He was, however, unable to perform his tasks as president: neighboring Thevars physically prevented him from entering his office space at the panchayat building.[264]

Several village residents told Human Rights Watch about violence against Dalit voters during the elections:

With police protection the election was held, but at the end of the day upper-caste people entered into the booth and threatened and stabbed one boy and beat both men and women and took away the ballot boxes and threw them into the well. Then again they declared elections after one week. In that one we elected Murugesan. There was heavy police protection. Still the Amblakars [Thevars] boycotted the elections. Then Murugesan was not able to go to the office. Only during the swearing-in ceremony did he go to the office because he had a police escort.[265]

Murugesan’s twenty-six-year-old widow, Manimegala, described the threats that her husband had received after winning the presidency:

After he was elected he received as many as ten threatening letters from Thevars. He kept them all in his office and showed them all to the [district] collector. Once he showed one to me. The letter said that one day or another we will definitely cut off your head, and they did. The police did not arrest the main culprits. I keep four children alone. The government gave me employment in the highways department. I put tar on the roads. I get Rs. 1,500 [US$37.50] per month, but it is not enough for four children. The government gave Rs. 150,000 [US$3,750] in compensation, but the collector deposited it in the bank.[266]

On the day of the attack, June 30, 1997, Murugesan was returning from a visit to the collector’s office to inquire about compensation for houses burned in an earlier incident. Kumar, an eyewitness who barely survived the attack himself, boarded the bus and sat next to Murugesan. The assault, Kumar told Human Rights Watch, was led by a Thevar named Ramar. Ramar and Alagarsamy, the former panchayat president, gave explicit instructions to their gang of Thevars to “kill all the Pariahs [Dalits].”[267]

There were nearly forty of them. They were all Thevars. They stabbed Murugesan on the right side of his belly. It was a very long knife. From outside the bus Ramar instructed the Thevars to kill all the Pariahs. Among twelve, six were murdered on the spot. They pulled all six out of the bus and stabbed them on the road with bill hooks more than two feet long.[268] I hid myself under the seat and later hid in the crowd. Five Thevars joined together, put Murugesan on the ground outside the bus, and chopped off his head, then threw it in a well half a kilometer away. I saw it happen, I was hiding in the crowd. Some grabbed his hands, others grabbed his head, and one cut his head with a bill hook. They deliberately took the head and poured the blood on other dead bodies.[269]

When the attackers noticed his presence, Kumar was chased into the fields and cut with a bill hook on the back of his neck, his right underarm, and his finger but ultimately managed to escape by fleeing into the plantation fields of a Dalit village.[270]

Family members of the six murder victims received Rs. 150,000 (US$3,750) in compensation from the state government under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.[271] A total of twelve persons were arrested within a month of the incident.[272] However, eyewitnesses have claimed that the ringleaders were not among them. Those arrested were charged under sections 341, 307, and 302 of the Indian Penal Code for wrongful restraint, attempted murder, and murder, respectively, and under Section 3(1)(10) of the Atrocities Act, the act’s least serious offense, for name-calling or insulting a Dalit person in a public place.

Kumar claimed that the police had an eyewitness and victim sign papers saying that one of the accused, named Sedhu, was innocent.[273] Human Rights Watch spoke to that witness, a forty-five-year-old agricultural laborer, who told us the following:

The police told me to sign papers saying who the real culprit was, so I signed it. I signed a plain piece of paper. Mellur DSP [Deputy Superintendent of Police] Subramanium came here in a jeep and called for me and asked me why I put my signature on a white paper. “Someone got Rs. 50,000 [US$1,250] for it,” he said, “did you get your share?” I said I got nothing from him. “You must have gotten Rs. 25,000 [US$625] at least,” he said. I don’t know what happened with the paper.[274]

A two-member team from the State Human Rights Commission visited the village in early August, five weeks after the killings. Hundreds of women testified to incidents of theft, the burning of Dalit houses, and stone-throwing at night. They also complained of their inability to go to work in the fields, of a lack of police protection, and that most of the men had fled the village out of fear.[275] Karupaia, Murugesan’s older brother, organized a march on August 8, 1997 to protest the lack of action on the part of the police. Participants estimated the number of marchers at 3,000, both men and women. They named the principal culprits as Ramar, Alagarsami, Poniah, Baskarar, Andichami, Markandan, Duraipandian, Chandran, Selvam, Alagu, Vadivelu, Karanthamalai, Ranganathan, Chakarmurti, Chockanathar, Sedhu, Rajendran, and Jothi.

When we approached the taluk [village block] office, the superintendent of police (SP) and other officials were there. From above the building, a red-colored cloth was thrown down. We were in two rows. A “country bomb” fell in the gap and exploded.[276] Everyone scattered. There are iron pieces from the bomb inside Karuppan’s leg. Tirumavalavan, the leader of the Dalit Panthers of India who led the procession, was the intended target.[277]

Tirumavalavan proceeded to inform the SP that the people who threw the bomb had descended from the building and were getting away. Many pointed them out, but the police refused to arrest them. The marchers then started throwing stones. The SP ordered a lathi-charge on the procession, and many of the protesters were severely injured. The police arrested a total of thirty-six protesters and charged them under the Indian Explosives Act and under Indian Penal Code sections 147, 148, 323 and 436 for rioting, rioting with a deadly weapon, voluntarily causing hurt, and mischief by explosive substance.[278] They also arrested a member of DPI and held him responsible for setting off the bomb. Tirumavalavan expressed outrage at the police’s failure to arrest “the main accused Ramar in the Melavalavu incident,” while simultaneously “nabbing a DPI member and holding him responsible for the blast.”[279]

On August 9, 1997, the thirty-six people arrested were sent to Madurai jail. They were held for forty-five days. Released on bail, they were required to check in twice a day at the Trichitown police station, over 125 kilometers from the village. At the time of Human Rights Watch’s visit, the conditions had been modified to reporting once a day at nearby Mellur police station. According to Karupaia, the arrests were retaliatory:

The police put false cases against us because we organized a procession. They wanted to teach us a lesson. The Section 436 charge [mischief by explosive substance] is still pending. One shop was burned but we did not do it. One hundred Thevars came behind us in the procession and set fire to a shop on the main road.[280]

Human Rights Watch spoke to a forty-year-old resident of Melavalavu who was arrested during the lathi-charge:

I was in jail for forty-five days. My son was also arrested. After the arrest the police said that we looted the shops and set fire to them, but we never did any of those things. In the jail it is a routine practice to ask what cases you came in for, and then they give you blows with their lathis. It is an “admission beat.” I was injured in the head and taken to the jail hospital. I was beaten two times with the lathi.[281]

The leader of DPI and Dr. Krishnaswamy have both charged that the “National Security Act as well as the [Tamil Nadu] Goondas Act were being grossly misused against the Dalits by the state government” and that several Dalits had been kept in preventive custody for many days.[282] In the months following the murders, concerned groups demanding appropriate action by the police organized several protests and marches. On July 10, 1997, members of the Social Action Movement, a grassroots NGO, demonstrated in front of the Madurai collectorate’s office in order to highlight the plight of the villagers in the aftermath of the murders.[283] On July 23, 1997, DPI marched to demand the release of all Dalits arrested under the National Security Act in connection with the murders.[284]

By the end of September 1997, more than forty people had been charged in the Melavalavu murders case, while eleven had been formally accused but remained at large.[285] On November 24, 1997, DPI members marched again to urge the government to arrest those absconding in the murders and to demand a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI)[286] inquiry into the case.[287]

Members of the Thevar Peravai, who organized a protest on October 28, 1997, also demanded a CBI inquiry. The then-vice president, Dr. N. Sethuraman, claimed that innocent people had been arrested.[288] When Human Rights Watch spoke to Dr. Sethuraman, now president of Thevar Peravai, about the incident, he claimed it had no basis in caste conflict:

This is not a fight between Dalits and Thevars. There’s a lot of proof. It was a personal quarrel between the milk society president, a forward-caste member, and Murugesan, the Dalit president. But they have sorted it out now, and the new president can now perform his duties without any problem. The chief minister says that is a quarrel between Thevars and Dalits, but it is not. We have asked for a CBI inquiry to bring these things out.[289]

When Human Rights Watch visited the village in February 1998, the bodies of the six murdered men were still buried in shallow graves in the village center as “a tribute befitting martyrs.”[290] The new Dalit panchayat president was again unable to perform his duties, and Thevars-in a concerted campaign to punish Dalits-had ceased to employ Dalits as laborers on their lands. The Thevars also encouraged others to refrain from awarding farm work to Dalits. Many Dalit students were also afraid to go to school for fear of further reprisal.[291]

Human Rights Watch spoke to the new panchayat president, Raja, who was six months into his term. He claimed that the threats from Thevars had continued and that the police protection he received was inconsistent and insufficient to ward off another attack. Five Dalit women, elected members of the panchayat, had also been unable to perform their duties.

The office is in the caste Hindu area. I am not allowed in the office. So we have to hold meetings in our TV room here; it is a makeshift office. They are still threatening us. They are watching and following me. Five Dalit women are members of the panchayat. If the elected Dalit women go there, the upper caste would do some harm. If the women insist on going into the office, they will hit them. There is one police guard for me. He has a gun, but he puts it inside his bag. He only gives protection when I go to the taluk[village block]office. But any other time he doesn’t give protection. He has joined the police of the other camp. Everything is paralyzed.[292]

Raja also explained the village’s dire economic situation:

We got regular employment in their fields. Some Dalits have land, but most are landless laborers. Women received Rs. 12 [US$0.30] for six hours of work from the morning until the afternoon. Men received Rs. 25 [US$0.63] for six hours of work, but they do harder work using bigger instruments. The period after the elections they did not invite us for field work. Now the women work fifteen kilometers away, and most of the men went to Kerala [a neighboring state] and send money back.[293]

Thirty-four-year-old Gandhi also spoke of the difficulties faced by female agricultural laborers: “Prior to the elections I worked in this village. Now I go nearby to work on anyone’s land… If you go near the landlords’ houses and they are in a drunken mood, they misbehave with us, and we want to avoid that.”[294]

The February 1998 national parliamentary elections brought a new wave of violence to the village: Thevars allegedly beat Dalit women in poll booths when the women went to cast their vote.[295] As of July 1998, Raja had still not received funds normally allocated to panchayat presidents for village development-leading human rights activists to believe that the local administration had yet to legitimize his presidency.[296] As of February 1999, the forty people arrested for the murders were out on bail, and no one had been prosecuted. Ramar, the person identified by eyewitnesses as the ringleader of the attack, was still at large.


[256]See Appendix A for article.

[257]”6 Dalits hacked to death in Madurai” The Times of India (Bombay) July 3 1997. The Dalits in this area belong to the Pariah community.

[258]Articles 243D and 243T inserted by the Constitution (Seventy-third Amendment) Act 1992 and the Constitution (Seventy-fourth Amendment) Act 1992 respectively provide that in every panchayat and every municipality seats shall be reserved for scheduled-caste and scheduled-tribe members in proportion to their representation in the population. Among the seats reserved for the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes not less than one-third shall be reserved for women belonging to those castes or tribes. Additionally no less than one-third of all seats in every panchayat and municipality shall be reserved for women. At least one-third of the total number of seats for the offices of the chairpersons at each level shall also be reserved for women and all such seats shall be allotted by rotation to different constituencies.

[259]”Melavalavu violence due to shift in power equations” The Hindu August 16 1997.

[260]Ibid. Literally translating to “rule by five elders” the panchayati raj system was based on the traditional models of the village system for settling customary and local disputes. This model of governance was given up under the influence of the Westminster model. Since the 1950s however there has been a movement to revive the panchayati raj system in an effort to model a participatory and relevant polity andto return to village governance as a means of decentralizing development. In addition to continuing its role as a village governing body the panchayats are also responsible for the implementation of several development programs. Institute of Social Sciences Panchayati Raj Update (New Delhi) November 1995 p. 8.

[261]George Mathew “The meaning of Melavalavu” The Hindu September 30 1997.

[262]”6 Dalits hacked…” Times of India.

[263]Booth capturing was described briefly in the Bihar context in Chapter IV.

[264]”6 Dalits hacked…” Times of India. Human Rights Watch interview Madurai district Tamil Nadu February 15 1998.

[265]Human Rights Watch interviews Madurai district Tamil Nadu February 15 1998.

[266]Human Rights Watch interview with Manimegala Madurai district Tamil Nadu February 15 1998.

[267]Human Rights Watch interview with Kumar Madurai district Tamil Nadu February 15 1998. Activists in the area assert that Ramar had been involved in several other incidents in the past. According to the head of the Dalit Panthers of India Tamil Nadu “if he had been handled properly earlier Melavalavu never would have happened.” Human Rights Watch interview Madras February 13 1998.

[268]A bill hook is an agricultural instrument with a hooked blade.

[269]Human Rights Watch interview with Kumar Madurai district Tamil Nadu February 15 1998.


[271]Human Rights Watch interview Madurai district Tamil Nadu February 15 1998. “Minister visits Melavalavu” The Hindu July 3 1997. See Chapter X for more on the Atrocities Act.

[272]Melavalavu murders: twelve arrested” The Hindu July 31 1997. Two others surrendered in court and according to an official press release were charged under the National Security Act 1980. Ibid.

[273]Human Rights Watch interview with Kumar Madurai district Tamil Nadu February 15 1998.

[274]Human Rights Watch interview Madurai district Tamil Nadu February 15 1998.

[275]”Human rights panel visits Melavalavu” Indian Express August 6 1997.

[276]The term “country bomb” refers to a crudely manufactured bomb which unlike a time bomb requires direct ignition.

[277]Human Rights Watch interview with Karupaia Madurai district Tamil Nadu February 15 1998.


[279]”Police cane dalit processionists” The Hindu August 9 1997.

[280]Human Rights Watch interview with Karupaia Murugesan’s older brother Madurai district Tamil Nadu February 15 1998.

[281]Human Rights Watch interview Madurai district Tamil Nadu February 15 1998.

[282]”Dalit leader promises ‘peaceful’ procession” Indian Express August 4 1997. For more on the preventive detention of Dalit activists see Chapter VIII.

[283]”Govt’s back-up measures lethargic in Melavalavu” Indian Express July 10 1997.

[284]”Tension in the air as Dalits take out a procession” Indian Express July 24 1997.

[285]”Chargesheet filed in Melavalavu murder case” The Hindu September 27 1997.

[286]CBI is a federal investigative agency that handles cases of corruption and cases of inter-state and other complicated crimes. CBI inquiries are often demanded in cases where local or state investigations are perceived to be biased or impartial.

[287]”Procession seeks arrest of accused in murders” The Hindu November 25 1997; “Dalit Panthers Iyakkam march peaceful” Indian Express November 25 1997.

[288]”Thevar Peravai march for CBI probe” Indian Express October 29 1997.

[289]Human Rights Watch interview with Dr. N. Sethuraman Madurai district Tamil Nadu February 18 1998.

[290]Human Rights Watch interview with Melavalavu resident Madurai district Tamil Nadu February 15 1998.

[291]”Dalits of Melavalavu treated as outcasts” The Hindu July 12 1997; Human Rights Watch interview Madurai district Tamil Nadu February 15 1998; “Govt’s back-up measures lethargic in Melavalavu” Indian Express July 10 1997.

[292]Human Rights Watch interview with Raja Madurai district Tamil Nadu February 15 1998.


[294]Human Rights Watch interview with Gandhi Madurai district Tamil Nadu February 15 1998.

[295]Human Rights Watch interview with Raja Madurai district Tamil Nadu February 15 1998.

[296]Human Rights Watch interview with Henry Thiagaraj Dalit Liberation Education Trust Bangalore July 25 1998.

[Courtesy: Human Rights Watch]