Recall Value: No Kadhal, Kilvenmani?

52 YEARS ON, JUSTICE IS A DISTANT DREAM FOR KILVENMANI VICTIMS

30th December, 2020

Written by Suryansh Srivastava

Artwork by Suryansh Srivastava

Before they set the hutments on fire, they began to shoot at the labourers and their families—who could only pelt stones in defence. Many women with their children and the elderly sought refuge in a hut of barely 72 square feet. This tiny hut was burnt down along with the people in it. 

Trigger Warning: Caste Violence, Arson, Death 

 

Nestled amidst the fertile sanctuary of the Cauvery delta, just a few kilometres from the town of Nagapattinam, is the sleepy hamlet of Kilvenmani. Its swaying trees embrace the sky and sullen shrubs cling to the alluvial soil. Village folk go about their routines and the cattles graze on their master’s pastures, careful not to stray into forbidden territory.

 

However, this veil of normalcy stretches thin over Kilvenmani. The village, afterall, is handcuffed to history and how. On the Christmas day of 1968, Kilvenmani witnessed a spine-chilling tragedy: 44 Dalit peasants, mostly women and children, were burned to death in what is often regarded as independent India’s first organised caste massacre.

 

However, the conversation around the Kilvenmani killings is often met with ignorant silence and curiously raised eyebrows. Not only are the gruesome details of the massacre not made part of public discourse but its importance within our social justice system is left undermined.

 

The Kilvenmani massacre, like many feudal conflicts, is rooted in the political powerplay of caste and class from which stemmed the bloodshed.

What Happened?

 

Early 1960s saw the erstwhile Thanjavur district emerge as Tamil Nadu’s rice bowl — responsible for a whopping one-third of the state’s paddy produce. Large expanses of land belonged to temple trusts which leased vast portions out to prominent members of the community. Eventually, the control of over 26 per cent of the land was limited to around 4 percent of the households. On the other hand, the district was also home to the highest number of landless labourers—a majority of them, Dalits. Impoverished and oppressed, the peasants belonged to the lowest rung of the society.

 

With the recent rise of the Communist movement in the region, the Zamindari system was abolished and the Tanjore Pannaiyal Protection Act, 1952 (later abrogated) and the Tamil Nadu Tenants Protection Act,1955 were passed. However, these measures failed to offer much relief to the labourers barring the fact that they were now highly exploited landless peasants and no longer poorly treated bonded labourers. 

 

In 1966, due to a multitude of reasons, the price of paddy shot up, encouraging Dalit labourers to demand a handful more of rice. This newfound voice caused much unrest in the cabal of the land owning “high” class, the Mirasdars. To safeguard their interests, they organised themselves into a union, the Paddy Producers Association (PPA).

When the communist backed labourers protested against their miserably low wages, the PPA did not pay heed to them. Instead, they strove to pursue them otherwise and coerced them into joining the Association. When the peasants did not give in, labourers from outside the village were sourced. In an attempt to prevent outside labourers from stealing their bread, a migrant peasant was killed. In the following months, three agricultural workers and prominent members of the CPI(M) were also murdered.

 

In November that year, a PPA meeting saw the Misardars openly threatening the peasants with arson. Soon after, the Thanjavur District Secretary of the agriculture workers association sought protection from the then Chief Minister, C. Annadurai. This letter, however, was acknowledged only in January, a week after the massacre.

 

Eyewitnesses recall, on 25th December, the missardars along with their henchmen surrounded the hutments of the Dalit labourers and effectively blocked every possible escape route. Before they set the hutments on fire, they began to shoot at the labourers and their families—who could only pelt stones in defence. Many women with their children and the elderly sought refuge in a hut of barely 72 square feet. This tiny hut was burnt down along with the people in it. 

The honourable court found it difficult to believe that the Mirasdars could commit such an act personally and not play safe by sending their servants to do the dirty deed for them. 

In the article titled ‘the Gentlemen Killers of Kilvenmani’ published in the Economic and Political Weekly, a vivid, gruesome account can be found:

They speak of the heart rending cries heard far far away, of the bolted door, of the burning hut surrounded by bloodthirsty murderers with lethal weapons, of two children thrown out from the burning hut in the hope that they would survive, but thrown back into the fire by the arsonists, of six people who managed to come out of the burning hut, two of whom were caught, hacked to death and thrown into the fire, of the fire systematically stoked with hay and dry wood, of the leading lights of the PPA, who led the rioting, going straight to the police station and demanding protection against reprisals and getting it. They were arrested much later after the matter had got out of the hands of the local police.

What Happened Next?

 

The media abstained from offering the event its due importance and stripped it off its caste angle. Most dailies, irrespective of their language of publication, preferred looking at the massacre as a mere violent turn to an otherwise general farmer conflict. The Hindu’s 27th December headline, for instance, read: 42 Persons burnt alive in Thanjavur Village following Kisan Clashes. To quote The Indian Express, “Kisan Feud Turns Violent, 42 burnt alive in Thanjavur”.

 

This simplistic reporting is reminiscent of the debate sparked by media’s coverage of the Hathras Rape Case and its blatant disregard for the Dailt cause. This bears testimony to the inability of Indian media to acknowledge and understand power structures ever since its inception. 

 

The judicial response was strikingly contemporary as well. Varying reports sprouted the day following the massacre. The police claimed that it learnt about the incident only the next morning—despite there being a police station only three miles from the village. Moreover, while the official toll accounts for 42 deaths, eyewitnesses and the union claim that at least 44-45 men, 20 women, and 19 children had succumbed to the fire.

The Nagai Sessions court called it a preconceived and deliberate attack. However, the Madras High Court quashed the ruling. The HC order revolved around the idea that as vengeful as the rich Mirasdar landlords might have been, it was impossible to believe that men of such high stature would take the painstaking effort of walking down to the hutments of impoverished, “impure” Dalits and setting them on fire without as much as the assistance of their servants. The honourable court found it difficult to believe that the Mirasdars could commit such an act personally and not play safe by sending their servants to do the dirty deed for them. 

 

The freshly elected Dravida Munetra Kazhagam (DMK) sent its two ministers to the site of the carnage—including the then PWD minister, M. Karunanidhi—and assured prompt action against the perpetrators. However, it is believed that the DMK did not want to dampen its equation with the Congress, of which the PPA president was a supporter, in its first political innings. Instead, it chose to underplay the Kilvenmani incident. 

What Now?

 

52 years on, the victims of the bloody massacre are bereft of justice. Kilvenmani, in its entirety, has been a largely ignored chapter in the violent history of class conflicts in the country. It finds no echo in the ridges of general academia and is often restricted to passing mentions in the Dalit intellectual circles, and exists as a blotch on the class and caste conscience. 

 

What is most astonishing (or not) about Kilvenmani is the striking resemblance it bears with contemporary manifestations of caste discrimination, landowners’ supremacy, and class struggle. Media whitewashing, indifferent and complicit authorities, and lopsided court rulings. So much so that the horrors of Kilvenmani feel like just another blow of shrapnel in the chain explosion that this year has been. 

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