Thursday saw the culmination of a two-decade long fight for justice by uneducated, impoverished tribals against the might of the police, forest officials and the local administration - that ended with the conviction of 215 officials with sentences ranging from one year to 17 years after they were held guilty of torture, unlawful restraint, misue of office, looting and rape.
Sentencing the 126 forest department officials, 84 policemen and five revenue department officials to jail terms ranging from one year to 17 years, principal district judge S Kumaraguru offered token relief to the 18 rape victims of what has become known as the Vachathi case.
Forest department officials with the help of police and revenue department officials had let loose a reign of terror on hapless tribal (adivasi) villagers of Vachathi for three days starting June 20, 1992.
The maximum punishment was handed out to 17 convicted of rape (17 years each to 12 rapists and seven years each for the other five). They were immediately sent to jail. The others who were convicted got bail.
The judgement, holding all the accused guilty, was pronounced in an open court, that was packed with over 200 accused, over 100 victims and police officials.
Four forest officials were convicted of committing crime under the SC/ST act for atrocities against tribals. They were punished for destruction of evidence and obstruction of justice.
Advocate Kamalanathan, representing Hari Krishnan, chief conservator of forests, said that "he would move the high court in appeal against the judgment after studying it in detail. We have got a month's time to take appeal, which we will surely."
Describing the judgment as "historic" advocate P Shanmugam, said he would not describe it as happy or sad. Justice has been done but there has been delay and the case progressed inch by inch, under the constant supervision of the high court.
Which is why, no appeal against the trial court judgment would make any difference, he said but added "in fact the court failed to offer financial compensation to the victims."
"I would move the courts for financial compensation for the incalculable loss suffered by the villagers," Shanmugam told Hindustan Times.
Out of the 18 women who were raped, ten were unmarried. One of them was just 13 years at that time. All but one later got married to relatives.
"I only hope that the high court does not reduce the sentence for anyone found guilty. All of them deserve to be in jail, especially the ones who dishonoured us" said one of the rape victims.
Another one said, "I am not happy as our lives have got shattered. It would have been better if the court had given us some money so that we can lead our lives that have been destroyed."
In fact it was Shanmugam, in his avatar as the Tamil Nadu Tribal Peoples Association president, who forced action against the forest officials and the policemen. The police had turned a blind eye to the victims'plight as did the then Jayalalithaa government.
It was the efforts of Shanmugam and CPM state secretary A Nallasivan who took up the matter to the Madras high court, which ordered a CBI probe into the incident in 1995.
Since then it has been a torturous journey for these tribals, he said.
Shamugam had taken their case to the SC/ST Commission that awarded compensation of Rs 1.25 crore to the victims in 2007. This sum was distributed among 500 villagers.
Some 133 villagers were arrested by the police and jailed illegally. But almost every villager suffered, said Shanmugam.
"The court did not offer any financial relief to the victims, except Rs 15,000 each to the rape victims, and that too out of the fines collected. Which is why I am going to file a petition seeking financial compensation to all the villagers, who lost their livelihood, cattle, houses destroyed besides trauma," Shamugam told Hindustan Times.
The forest officials and police roped the special task force (STF) that was constituted to nab sandalwood smuggler Veerappan just to paint the repressive action the colour of an operation, when in reality it was just and plain act of terror against helpless tribals, he said.
Reacting to the verdict S Perumal (70) who was the village chief on the day of the incident, said that justice has been done at last.
"Many of the victims may not be alive today but their souls will finally rest in peace," he said.
The judge began reading out charges against each of the 215 accused at 11 am and could complete all the accused by 4pm.
He also simultaneously held the accused guilty as over 100 victims, all of them from Vachathi village of Dharmapauri district, some 350 km south west of Chennai waited patiently for this day for the past two decades or so.
It was on June 20, 1992 that a forest officials team accompanied by police raided the Vachathi hamlet on the foothills of Sitheri Hills close to Dharmapuri town and turned it into a ghost town in three days of pure terror - raping women and young girls, beating up men and even children.
The team comprising 155 forest officials, 108 policemen and six revenue department officials were raiding the village in search of sandalwood they suspected the villagers to have hidden.
In the name of search and inquiry, the villagers, most women were dragged out of their homes and fields, assembled under a banyan tree and beaten up mercilessly, recalled a victim N Muthu.
Later the women were bundled into the Forest Rangers Office in Harur (Taluka hqrs), where they were subjected to savage brutality and raped. In all 18 women were raped by the different people.
The sensational Vachathi case has become a shining example of justice delayed - 54 of the accused died during the investigations and trial and 34 victims passed away so far.
The then Jayalalithaa government underplayed the episode and it was the CPM that forced the issue by taking it to the court.
The high court ordered a CBI probe.