On 8 May, Muthulakshmi’s husband Thangaraj and father Palavesam were murdered, allegedly by a mob of Thevars, in Sathankulam’s Udayarkulam. This is the same infamous panchayat town where Jeyaraj and his son Benix were killed in police custody
Editor’s note: In 2020, the COVID-19 outbreak upended lives and livelihoods in myriad ways. The novel coronavirus threw up new and unprecedented challenges, especially for people from marginalised sections of society. In a multi-part series, Firstpost explores how individuals from different walks of life lived through the year of the pandemic. This is part six of the series.
Read part 1 of the series here, part 2 here, part 3 here, part 4 here and part 5 here.
Muthulakshmi, 21, spent the last three months of 2020 compiling documents she needed to apply for a government job.
In October, she’d been told by the Thoothukudi collector, only after multiple trips to the Collectorate, that she’d be absorbed into the government workforce after after submitting these documents.
She’d spent almost every day since working towards getting them.
Muthulakshmi had little choice. After all, she had two-year-old Dhanalakshmi to care for. And she was now a single parent.
On 8 May, Muthulakshmi’s husband Thangaraj and father Palavesam were murdered, allegedly by a mob of Thevars, in Sathankulam’s Udayarkulam.
This is the same infamous panchayat town where Jeyaraj and his son Benix were murdered in police custody barely a month later.
While the Jeyaraj and Benix case received a lot of media attention, the chargesheet for the murders of Thangaraj and Palavesam is yet to be filed.
C Prathapan, the DSP at the time of the murder of Thangaraj and Palavesam, was put on a wait list due to the custodial deaths of Jeyaraj and Benix.
Since then, the DSP for this division has been shuffled with alarming frequency.
While the three main accused in the case are in jail, the rest are out on bail.
When this reporter met Muthulakshmi’s family in May, they were at their native village of Pudupatti in Srivaikuntam Taluk. They had left all their belongings and fled from Udayarkulam after the night of the killings. Muthulakshmi’s brother Muthurasa was still in hiding.
“They are still thirsty for my blood, they are still hunting for me,” he said. An armed constable had been posted for their protection. Muthurasa and Muthulakshmi’s mother Kaliamma refused to let her son out of sight, much less take his truck out for work.
Eight months on, Kaliamma has moved to Pudukottai with her four daughters and a granddaughter, hoping that it would be safer there. Muthurasa lives in Pudupatti with his family and has started going out for work. There is no constable with either of them. “We don’t have the luxury to sit, fearing for our lives. I have four daughters and a granddaughter to feed now,” says Kaliamma.
The daunting process ahead for Kailamma isn’t just providing for her daughters. It is the criminal justice system which she has to face in the days to come. “Every month, that inspector amma visits us, telling us to send Muthurasa to the court. I have refused point blank. I’ve lost two men from my family already. I don’t intend to lose him,” says Kaliamma, who went to the court instead.
She was told to appear by SI Vijayalakshmi, Nazareth Police Station, to contest the bail applications of the accused. The bail applications were initially rejected but due to delay in filing of chargesheet, all the accused other than the three main accused arrested under the Goondas Act are out on bail.
The chargesheet is yet to be filed. DSP Godwin Jegadishkumar told Firstpost that they are working towards filing it. When asked about police protection for the family since some of the accused are out on bail, the DSP said that there is an official at Udayarkulam.
This reporter informed the DSP Jegadishkumar that the family is now in Pudupati and not in Udayarkulam. DSP Jegadishkumar didn’t respond to this. This reporter asked the DSP Jegadishkumar how he intends to protect them once the chargesheet is filed. “That we will take care of, not to worry,” he said.
Kaliamma poses a question to me as we discuss the imminent trial. “If I say I saw them murder my husband and son in law, will they take this statement seriously? Will it result in something?,” she asks.
Kaliamma’s more pressing question is if their lives will be at risk were they to speak the truth.
“We tried to do the right thing, and look where it got us,” she says.
Kaliamma’s husband Palvesam worked with Shanmugasundara, a moneylender, for a while. He had borrowed Rs 40,000 from Shanmugasundaram in 2017 after pledging his patta documents. After repaying the money with interest, Palavesam requested that his documents be returned.
During the same time, Palavesam’s younger son Muthurasa was working with Shanmugasundaram in lieu of a certain portion of the debt. But after being subject to ill-treatment and casteist barbs from Shanmugasundaram’s family, Muthurasa decided to stop working there. This, around the same time that the debt was paid off.
After that, when Palavesam approached Shanmugasundaram for his land documents, Shanmugasundaram refused to part with them. Palavesam made regular trips for months to Shanmugasundaram, saying that he needed the documents urgently. On one such occasion, Shanmugasundaram abused Palavesam and his family with casteist slurs and attacked them.
Palavesam and his entire family reported the incident at Nazareth Police Station on 7 May. They camped at the station for close to a day, following which Shanmugasundaram was arrested under provisions of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. But by then, Palavesam and Kaliamma had sensed the impending danger.
“I continuously told the police officers at Nazareth to provide us with police protection for just one night. We were planning to leave the very next day to Pudupatti,” says Kaliamma.
Despite repeated requests and pleas, the police sent the family away, saying “nothing will happen”.
Their home in Udayarkulam was around seven to eight kilometres from the police station. Within minutes of the family reaching home, they heard a knock at their door. Muthulakshmi’s husband made his way to the door, only to be attacked with an aruva the minute he opened it.
What happened after was a blur, says Kaliamma. A mob of 12 to 13 men had surrounded their house, mouthing casteist expletives and trying to make their way into the house, as the entire family tried to keep the door shut. “They were trying to get to me, but my father and brother-in-law came in the way,” says Muthurasa, looking at his sister.
The men managed to hack away at everything they could reach, wounding everybody in the process. Palavesam and Thangaraj succumbed to their injuries on the spot. How a mob of 13 assembled outside their home unquestioned, during an intense lockdown, kilometres away from the nearest police station, is a question that is yet to be answered.
An even more serious question is why police didn’t turn up immediately despite incessant calls.
When the police eventually showed up, they transported the bodies of Palavesam and Thangaraj using Muthurasa’s truck for post mortem, not an ambulance or a police vehicle. Muthurasa had to clean off the blood of his father and brother-in-law by himself, after having witnessed them being butchered.
After the murders policemen were deployed across Udayarkulam.
Since the murder, Muthulakshmi had to deal with the loss of her husband, and the abuse from her father-in-law, Ramar, who refused to return her documents or her gold. He also tried, on many occasions, take Thangaraj’s motorcycle from Muthulakhsmi.
After repeated pleas and requests to civil society leaders, she and Kaliamma went to the Collector’s Office themselves, requesting him to intervene.
The Collector directed the police from her taluk to assist her. The police officials, instead of helping, offered moral sermons.
“Even they acted so inhumanely. They abused us, asking why I am unwilling to share the money that I received as compensation with my father-in-law, and saying that me and my mother are “doing drama”. When I told them I have an infant daughter, one of them said even he has a daughter. How is this comparison even fair?” questions Muthutlakshmi.
Finally, she bribed her father-in-law Rs 50,000 through the police just to be able to access the documents she needed to apply for her job.
Muthulakshmi has thyroid problems, which at times, make her feel weak. But she is determined to start working soon.
For the sake of her daughter.
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