Revenge killings linked to caste rattle Tamil Nadu again

Published on Oct 01, 2021 01:49 AM IST

The latest beheading happened on September 23 borne out of a rivalry that dates back to the early 1990s in Dindigul district near Madurai

In just September, four beheadings took place that have been linked to caste related revenge killings in Tamil Nadu. (Representational image)
In just September, four beheadings took place that have been linked to caste related revenge killings in Tamil Nadu. (Representational image)


In a dramatic penultimate scene in the 1992 Tamil-film “Thevar Magan”, actor Kamal Haasan swipes his large sickle and decapitates the “villain” whose headless body falls to the ground. This final fight after all is a culmination of retributive violence that plays throughout the film pegged on the Thevar caste which was celebrated inside theatres in Madurai - a location where violence and caste dominance is often set.

This set a trend for Tamil films to follow on the combination of caste pride and violence as the fictional accounts gave identity to life in the 1990s in Tamil Nadu when revenge killings had peaked before it was brought down by police intervention.

But, vestiges of such macabre killings have emerged once again in Tamil Nadu. In just September, four beheadings have been committed in a span of 10 days.

Three of these beheadings are said to be revenge killings as the victims severed heads were “offered” to previous murder victims belonging to rival gangs.

The latest beheading happened on September 23 borne out of a rivalry that dates back to the early 1990s in Dindigul district near Madurai. On that day, three men on a bike murdered and decapitated a 61-year-old woman, Nirmala Devi. She is an accused in the sensational murder of a Dalit leader C Pasupathy Pandian in January 2012. They carried her severed head to Pandian’s home which was 1.5 km away away from the spot of murder and placed the lifeliess head below his poster. Police have arrested nine men for Devi’s killing. She is a labourer under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) scheme.

“They murdered her around 10 am when she had sat down to eat her breakfast,” said a police officer investigating the case. Devi was one of accused in Pandian’s murder case for providing asylum to his killers.

These retaliatory murders have reinforced caste-based identities, dominance and loyalty to their communities. Devi is the fifth victim to be killed by Pandian’s supporter, continuing a gruesome bloody trail. The rivalry between the two factions -- the Dalits and the Nadar community in the region dates back to 1990.

In this closed world, it’s a local gang war between Pasupathy Pandian, a growing influential Dalit leader and Subash Pannaiyar, a salt pan baron in Thoothukudi district belonging to the Nadar community- a backward but powerful trading community in southern Tamil Nadu. “Devi and Pandian belonged to the same caste and Pannaiyar planted her as a mole. Because of this caste-factor, the locals aren’t even sad that Devi was killed. They feel it was rightful vengence for Pandian’s murder,” the Dindigul police officer said.

The first murder happened in January 1993 with the victim being an elderly man from Pannaiyar’s family and they suspected Panidan to be behind the killing. This began to spiral into retaliatory killings which were solidified by caste identity for three decades now.

“The Dalits used to be labourers in lands owned by the Nadars who were very dominant and oppressed the schedule caste people like slaves and harrased their women,” explains a retired police officer and an author on police investigations, V Sithannan.

“Panidan grew as a resistance force to support Dalits but over time he and his gang began indulging in criminal activities like extortion, land grabbing and murders.” Sithanan, who joined the police force in 1976 and has worked in southern regions, said that beheadings and revenge killings had been prevalent since the 1980s.

“Both Pandian and Pannaiyar always moved around with at least 20-gang members with them because they feared they could be killed anytime,” he says. “Their cars would always carry sickles and country bombs.”

Despite protecting themselves, including Devi’s murder, 12 lives have been lost from both sides over the generational rivalry. The case even spilled over to Chennai when Venkatesa Pannaiyar, who had sought to avenge his relative’s killings, was shot by the police. Pandian also faced several death threats and fearing for his life, Pandian moved from Thoothukudi to Dindigul in 1997. But in 2006, Panidan’s wife was killed in a country bomb attack in which Pandian escaped. A few years later, when he was alone at home at night, a gang murdered Pandian in his Dindigul residence in 2012.

Devi and Pannaiyar are accused in the case among a dozen others. The case is pending in the trial stage at a special court for SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act in the Dindigul court.

Though revenge killings and murders have happened everywhere, police say that the culture of crime in southern Tamil Nadu is different.

“The people of this region are very affectionate but at the same time they can go to the other extreme of murdering in the most gruesome ways for taking revenge,” says Sithanan. “They don’t care about the consequences. The case may be in court, the rival gangs may be standing just outside the police station but they will kill.”

T Kannappan, another retired Inspector General of Police in the intelligence bureau, is credited for bringing down these revenge killings during his two stints in Tirunelveli district as an SP and DIG between the late 1990s and mid-2000s.

“In a revenge killing, after murdering the victim, they maim their hands and legs, cut off their heads or crush it. Their methods often show how deep the emotion of revenge is ingrained, In some cases the motive also can be understood,” said Kannapan. Like in the case of Devi, their heads are ‘offered’ to the previous victim for whom the murder of reveneg was committed. “Like making an offering to God, these people offer their rivals’ heads to the previous victims,” Kannapan says. The beheadings this September began in Tirunelveli.

On September 13, a farmer Sankara Subramanian (38) who belongs to the Thevar caste was murdered. Police found his severed head at a crematorium ground placed on the grave of a Dalit man named Manirathnam who was murdered back in 2013. This led the police to conclude that this was a revenge killing. Police arrested six persons including Manithiram’s son Maharaja (20). And as the police formed special teams suspecting that there could be a counter-killing, it happened two days later. On September 15, a gang murdered a Dalit man, Mariappan (32) and head was found in the same spot where Subramanian was murdered. Mariappan was accused in a murder case of 2014. Police arrested eight people in the case.

“My reading is when such revenge killing happened in Tirunelveli it would have spurred the gangs lying low in Dindigul to act,” says Kannappan.

“Suspects usually find a favourable time to commit such crimes.” He says that while the crimes are steeped in caste-rivalry, it usually stems out from even petty issues. In the 1990s when such revenge killings had peaked, Kannappan says they were steeped in caste fanaticism which could stem out from even petty issues because of the production and consumption of alcohol and unemployment.

“One caste group would want to monopolise illicit arrack and if another group tries to interfere, it’s a loss of economic activity,” says Kannappan. He and other officers helped the bootleggers to set up other professions using financial assistance from the government.

Some of the ‘rowdies’ shifted to Mumbai and other parts of Tamil Nadu during this time. But over the years the bootlegging issue was settled in the southern districts. “But the caste-violence continued in other forms like over land disputes. Even a cattle grazing from a land belonging to an SC caste to another will end up in murders.”

And there was a lull in the years that followed. A former SP of Dindigul, who did not wish to be named, said that during his stint four years ago, “nothing of this sort happened.” He was however briefed on all the previous crimes. “There had been a lot of retaliation killings and we had a ‘bandobast’ even if the accused was going to court,” he said. “I’m not sure why this has re-emerged now.”

A social activist, who did not wish to be named, said they don’t take up these revenge killings though these are also caste killings.

“When a Dalit dies, we have to question the motive,” the anti-caste activist from Madurai said. “These crimes are not solely based on their caste identity. They are also equally involved in criminal activities like money extortion so it’s not the same as honour killings and other caste-based crimes. Their caste is only an extension for their gang wars.”

Sithannan and Kannappan explain that such cases are never over. “When a person was murdered his son may have been a minor and after years as an adult, he re-organises the old gang members to seek vengeance for his father,” says Kannappan.

“The accused may have money and political power due to which he may not be punished for several years. That gives space to grooming situations. Unless these murder cases are disposed immediately, the revenge killings will continue.”

And hence the dramatic method of killing and then decapitating a person to carry their head for a distance and then placing it as ‘offerings’ in homes and graves and statues. “Revenge killings always leave it opens for more retaliation murders to follow,” says Sithannan.

“Pandian’s associates about 60-70 of them are still in the southern belt who have become active now after 8 years to avenge his murder. The nine men we have arrested belong to this group,” said an officer investigating the case. Pandian’s house is currently empty. Devi is survived by two sons and one of them works in the Indian army, police said.

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    Divya Chandrababu is an award-winning political and human rights journalist based in Chennai, India. Divya is presently Assistant Editor of the Hindustan Times where she covers Tamil Nadu & Puducherry. She started her career as a broadcast journalist at NDTV-Hindu where she anchored and wrote prime time news bulletins. Later, she covered politics, development, mental health, child and disability rights for The Times of India. Divya has been a journalism fellow for several programs including the Asia Journalism Fellowship at Singapore and the KAS Media Asia- The Caravan for narrative journalism. Divya has a master's in politics and international studies from the University of Warwick, UK. As an independent journalist Divya has written for Indian and foreign publications on domestic and international affairs.

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