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The Lede Ground Report: As Politicians Holler Caste, Villupuram Faces A Serial Rapist On The Loose

The home where the brutal attack on Meenamma, Latha and Prakash took place

The village of Vellamputthur in Tamil Nadu’s Villupuram district is more afraid of caste tensions being ignited than the fact that an unknown serial rapist roams free

At the eastern fringe of Vellamputthur village, dotted by mesquite bushes, a small green house sits, forlorn. Beyond this house lie vast stretches of farmlands.

The inhabitants of this house have reason to be not just forlorn, but devastated. Tragedy struck in the wee hours of 22 February. Meenamma*, a 45-year-old widow, her 13-year-old daughter Latha* and 8-year-old Prakash were asleep on the floor. Their door was left open for the occasional breeze, a practice common in the village.

“It is always Meenamma who would be up at 3 am to collect water from the common pipe in the street,” S Suganthi, a neighbour of the family told The Lede. “On the morning of the 22nd there was no sign of any activity in front of their house even at 7.30 am.”

Suganthi sent her daughter to check on them. This 17-year-old girl did as she was told – the door was open and the television was switched on. Within seconds, frightened, she ran back shouting that the family was “asleep” and that they had “poured red colour” all over themselves and the house.

“When I went there, I saw there was blood everywhere – the blood had even dried up and turned black. Latha’s pants and underwear were missing and there was blood on the floor. I thought all of them were dead. I called the other villagers. When some of the men went closer, they found that both Meenamma and Latha were breathing. We immediately called for an ambulance,” said Suganthi, with a shudder at the memory.

The ambulance arrived at the Thirukovilur Primary Health Centre where Prakash was declared dead on arrival. Mother and daughter were referred to the multi-speciality JIPMER hospital in nearby Puducherry.

Medical reports from JIPMER show that Meenamma had sustained horrific head and neck wounds, with a blunt instrument – something akin to the damage caused an iron rod covered with cloth and used to inflict injury. The neck injury appeared to have been caused by blows from sharp edges of a broken clay pot. Meenamma continues to be critical but doctors say that she is likely to live.

As for the teenage Latha, her head wounds were so severe that bleeding would not stop from her ear. She underwent a special surgery to stem that flow. She also had injuries in her private parts. Although it is not official, both mother and daughter appear to have been the victims of rape.

How Caste Got Involved

The brutalisation of Meenamma and her daughter and the murder of the young son created shockwaves in the state. The needle of immediate suspicion pointed to a man by the name of Rajendran who owned the parcel of land adjoining that of Meenamma.

Bickering between the two – with Rajendran asking Meenamma not to use his land to wash vessels or bathe – would take place, but Vellamputthur residents confirmed that it was not of a serious nature. “Meenamma’s late husband and Rajendran had some kind of a deal that went sour,” said S Vennila, a neighbour. “After he died, Meenamma and Rajendran would have a few verbal duels. But Rajendran is not someone who is capable of committing such a crime.”

Rajendran, in reality, belongs to the Gounder caste. But the media referred to him as belonging to the Vanniyar caste. In Villupuram district, Vanniyars are the dominant caste and clashes between Vanniyars and Dalits have been frequent since the 1980s.

Meenamma and family are Dalits. It was enough fodder for politicians to descend upon the village, calling it a caste-based atrocity between Vanniyars and Dalits.

“We need to cross through the dominant caste side of the village if we want to catch a bus or go to the main road,” said Vennila, a Dalit woman who has been living there for over 25 years. The dominant castes in this village are Vanniyar, Gounder and Naidu. “We have never faced a single problem or tension here. We are almost like family members here,” she added.

A view of Vellamputthur village

But the political parties and activists have decided that this is a caste-related rape-murder. Parties like the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK), a Dalit party, Naam Tamilar, a pro-Tamil political party, Manithaneya Makkal Katchi, a Muslim party as well as other smaller parties like Tamilar Vaazhvurimai Katchi led by former MLA Velmurugan have given the crime casteist overtones. They have pointedly referred to the history of attacks on Dalits by the dominant caste, emphasising their allegation that the crime was due to caste.

The Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), a party claiming to be representative of Vanniyars, has issued a statement to the effect that “anti-social elements” were using caste to distract the issue. The VCK has planned a protest on 28 February at Vellamputthur. Social media too, as a result, is rife with speculation over this being a caste atrocity.

Serial Rape, Not Caste

But caste is no bar, it appears, for the rapist of Vellamputthur. In May 2017, a 17-year-old tribal girl was raped at night by an unknown assailant. She too suffered head injuries and was unconscious for some days. It was found only in the hospital that she was a victim of rape. No case was lodged as the family was afraid of the stigma attached to the same.

In October that same year, a stone’s throw from the tribal girl’s home, a 24-year-old Vanniyar woman was raped in a similar manner. “Her mother-in-law, father-in-law and her 6-month-old infant were all sleeping in the same house,” said a neighbour B Minnal. “No one knows what happened and how this woman was taken out of the house without the knowledge of her in-laws. She was picked up, taken to a nearby field, her head was repeatedly banged on a wall, she was raped and even dragged around the field. She survived with great difficulty,” she narrated. Again, no police complaint was lodged – those who asked were informed that she fell down and sustained injuries when she visited a hospital.

“All of us women at the time got frightened,” continued Minnal. “We discussed that we should be careful and lock the doors at night when we sleep. But since everything was calm since then, gradually we went back to our usual practice,” she said.

Women of Vellamputthur are afraid for their safety, even though police has provided protection

Apart from the rapes, since the beginning of 2017, there have been at least five incidents of unknown persons entering homes at night and cutting away the ‘thaali’ (sacred marriage thread), the only gold jewellery these women had. Manimekalai who lives next door to Meenamma said her ‘thaali’ had been taken away in a similar fashion about 4-5 months ago.

From the accounts of the villagers, it appears that a serial rapist-thief is on the prowl in the area. There is of course, no way of knowing whether it is the handiwork of a single person or a group.

Vellamputthur is peculiar in that the men are few in number. Males who live in the village are either old men or boys. Young adults and the middle aged males are away for most of the year – they earn a living as construction workers in Bengaluru and live there. The men come home briefly during festivals.

Only old men and boys remain in Vellamputthur as the adult males live and work in Bengaluru

“We are all afraid now,” said P Mahalakshmi, a resident of Vellamputthur. “Earlier it was so safe, we would even sleep out in the open with our children. But now women are staying together in groups along with their children. We are afraid to even come out of the house at night to pass urine. We are even thinking of leaving this village and moving to Bengaluru to stay with our men,” she said.

A Slow Start To Investigations

As of now the investigating team is completely clueless and they admit it off the record. As soon as the FIR of the death of Prakash was lodged on the morning of 22 February, the Thirukovilur police rounded up five persons on suspicion of being behind the murder. All five were Dalits – two of them relatives of the victims.

But the case has gone nowhere, despite immense pressure and beatings of these five by the police, demanding a confession.

The Prime Minister’s visit to Puducherry on 25 February meant that senior officials, who should have ideally taken charge of the investigation in this sensitive case, were deployed in Auroville which falls within Villupuram district limits.

The probe instead, fell to the local sub-inspector and constables of Thirukovilur Police Station, who, by all accounts, seem to have botched up the initial investigation. Forensic examinations have not been conducted satisfactorily. A sniffer dog taken to the scene of crime could not come up with anything. Now, almost a week later, there are no leads for the police to follow.

“There were security rehearsals ahead of the PM’s visit so we had to be at Auroville three days before he arrived,” said a senior police officer on condition of anonymity. “If the district crime branch officers had been available, we could have picked up some clues – maybe footprints or cigarette butts – anything which could have led us somewhere.” On 26 February, a special team of the police was finally formed to investigate the crime. “But what can we get five days after the crime? We are completely lost,” said the frustrated officer.

The police have already eliminated the caste angle to the crime and also the possibility of a murder for gain. Now they are onto the angle of a possible serial rapist in Vellamputthur. “We have formed seven teams,” Investigation Officer and Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) T Ashok Kumar told The Lede. “Our officers have gone into the village in mufti and gathered information on similar previous crimes. We are also probing whether these crimes could be connected with labourers who have been working in the area since the beginning of 2017, which is when the crimes began,” he said.

Seven teams of officers in mufti and in uniform discuss investigations at the village

As the police intensify their probe, Vellamputthur’s residents are getting more anxious by the day. “In television channels and in newspapers we are reading that this is a caste atrocity,” Vennila told The Lede. “We know that there are such caste clashes in other villages but we are living peacefully here. Now we are getting very scared that these media reports and politicians might actually create caste tensions here. And in that process the real culprits might get away,” she sighed.

Residents of Vellamputhur live in fear that this crime could create caste tensions in an otherwise peaceful village

(*Names changed to protect identity)

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