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On 31 December 1999, 28-year old Dalit woman Donti Laxmi was abducted from the hotel where she works and taken to a remote place where she was gang-raped by nine non-dalit men from 9:30 p.m. to 3:30 a.m. the next morning. Police arrested the culprits. The accused are: Shankarolla Lachaiah (25), auto driver; Manne Janardhan(19); Mamindla Krishna (20); Shaik Azzemuddin (25); Pitla Bhikshapati (20); Vatturi Satyanarayana (23); Kolamupak Narasimhulu (25); Sivagami Anjeneyulu (22); and, the hotel server.
On New Year’s Eve 1999, Donti Laxmi, a 28-year-old Dalit divorcee, was working in a hotel just off the National Highway on the outskirts of Ravelli in Toopran mandal. At 9:00 p.m. nine visibly drunk young men came to the hotel by auto and asked for tea. Hotel owner Bapuji Narasimhulu told them there was no tea and that it was closing time. When the nine inebriated men demanded tea and threatened him, Narasimhulu finally prepared tea for them. At that time Donti Laxmi and her sister were inside of the hotel, along with another hotel worker. After drinking tea, one of the nine men entered the hotel and forcefully dragged Donti Laxmi outside. The whole gang carried her to the auto, with license plate number APP.13u.9564, and drove away. Narasimhulu and Donti Laxmi’s sister tried to stop the men, but they were beaten back. The gang took Donti Laxmi to the backside of a stone crusher off the National Highway, near Allapur. There all nine men raped her, one by one. They threatened to murder her and, when she asked for water, forced her to drink urine. For six hours, from 9:30 p.m. to 3:30 a.m., the gang raped and abused Domti Laxmi before leaving her there and driving away.
Immediately after Donti Laxmi was abducted, her sister Sujatha filed a case at the Toopran police station. Police searched during the night and arrested seven people early the next morning, 1 January 2000. The police filed the case under sec. 365 & 376 IPC and under section 3(1)(xii) of SC/ST Act.
On the morning of 13 November 1999, Sambhoji Rao, Divisional Forest Officer (DFO), and Krishna, RDO of Nuzividu Revenue Division, along with about three hundred Forest Guards and women police constables raided the Dalit colony of Narasapur. Violating legal procedures for giving notice and allowing time to vacate, forest officials instead surrounded the Dalit colony, attacked and beat the Dalits indiscriminately, and burned the colony – dwellings and possessions – to the ground. In 1997,the Forest Department initiated the VSS (Vana Samrakshana Samithi - Forest Conservation Committee), which promised the Dalits of Narsapur that they would be given twenty acres of land if they agreed to clear the land and plant tree seedlings. The Dalits readily agreed and began clearing the land. While the government designated a Rs. 50 daily wage for this work, the Dalits received only Rs. 10 per day. Forest Department officials allegedly colluded with a Mahila Mandal leader in embezzling the aggregated balance of Rs.40 per day per labourer.
As the years passed, Dalits began to stongly suspect corruption in the VSS program, since no Forest Department officials ever visited or made any effort to maintain the newly seeded land and since the Dalits had not been deeded the land as promised. The Dalits approached higher Forest Department authorities to report on the corruption and inaction of the DFO, Mr. Sambhoji Rao. The DFO was briefly transferred, but later returned back to the same position. The Dalits, observing that the Forest Department was doing nothing and that the land was left unattended, began to occupy the promised twenty acres and built small huts for themselves on the land. Around this time, representatives of the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) visited the Narsapur Dalits and promised to give them house allotments and assistance in building houses. Once reinstated in his original position, the DFO retaliated against the Dalits who had reported him to Forest Department authorities. On the morning of 13 November 1999, under the pretext of the Dalits’ illegal occupation of forest land, DFO Sambhoji Rao arrived at the Dalit hut settlement. Arriving with him, in thirty vehicles, were the RDO Mr. Krishna, Central Reserve Police, Forest Guards, and women police constables. Altogether the force numbered about three hundred. Ignoring legal requirements for advance notice and allowance of evacuation time, DFO Sambhoji Rao announced that the Dalits had to evacuate immediately. The Dalits pleaded with the RDO for time and for alternative housing, but the RDO did not respond. The RDO then ordered the police to confiscate whatever kerosene was available in the huts, pour it over the settlement, and set the place on fire. Dalits who attempted to retrieve chickens, food stocks, ration cards, clothing or other belongings were chased, kicked, beaten with lathis (police clubs), and insulted by caste name.141 huts were burned to the ground. Dalit belongings were summarily dumped into the fire and Dalits were beaten indiscriminately. Police threw mud on those food supplies that the Dalits managed to save from the fire. Though women police constables were present, the men in the police force committed most of the violence. A press photographer who reached the scene was beaten up and his camera was broken. The entire operation was executed speedily and in a manner that indicated planning. Almost all the Dalits sustained injuries. The following were hurt grievously: Tananki Naga Ratnam, Raghavulu, Godavarthi Buchalu, Tennati Venkaiah, Arjun, Chitturi Venkamma, Godavarti, Santosham, and Mulugupati Papa.
Mulugupati Papa is a twelve-year old girl while Naga Ratnam, who had recently returned from an operation, fell into critical condition after sustaining major lathi wounds during the police attack. In its research, the Fact Finding Team came to know that DFO Sambhoji Rao had a history of inflicting violence upon Dalits. In the past, Rao had also attacked the Dalits of Rangapuram village, Reddigudem mandal; and, moreover, he had a long-standing record of abusing Dalits by caste name. The Fact Finding Team concluded decisively that the 13 November 1999 attack on the Dalits of Narsapuram – including the burning of their huts, insulting of them by caste name, and destruction of all their property – represents not the action of a Forest Department concerned with the ecological protection of forest land, but a planned, vengeful, caste-based attack orchestrated under the personal leadership of Sambhoji Rao. Notably, extensive tracts of forest land immediately adjacent to the twenty acres of Narsapuram are illegally cultivated by the local dominant caste community, yet they are not forcibly vacated, let alone attacked.
The attack was widely covered by the press but the government took no action. The Forest Minister, in fact, made a public statement in support of the incident. On 15 November 1999, Madiga Reservation Porata Samiti (MRPS) leader Krishna Madiga visited the victims and led a peaceful protest directed at the MRO and other officials, demanding that a criminal case should be filed against Sambhoji Rao. Only then was a FIR registered against Sambhoji Rao. It was not, however, registered under the SC/ST Act. Eventually a legislative committee inquired into the atrocious behaviour of Sambhoji Rao and he was temporarily suspended. Ten days after the incident, the Chief Minister suspended two police constables for assaulting the press photographers. Still later, various officials made routine promises to the Dalits of housing sites, compensation for loss, etc.
On 2 November 1999, police of Taluka Police Station took Dalit painter Gurram Ramaiah into custody in connection with a theft case. During the next three days, police allegedly tortured Rammaiah so severely that he died in police custody on 4 November 1999. On 1 November 1999, Santa Kumar, Correspondent, Little Flower School, lodged a complaint with the Ongole Police against Dalit Gali Yadardham, his house servant. Kumar claimed that Yadardham had stolen some valuable ornaments from his house. The police arrested and interrogated her on his complaint. According to the police, Yadardham confessed to the crime and informed the police that the stolen ornaments were in the possession of brothers Rama Rao and Gurram Ramaiah, a painter by profession. On the same night, the police proceeded to arrest Gurram Pitchamma, the wife of Rama Rao, along with her three months-old baby. Police in India commonly arrest the innocent wives, mothers and families of men – particularly low caste and Dalit men – wanted for interrogation, as a means of bringing the suspects to the police station without having to search for them. On 2 November 1999, when Gurram Ramaiah and Rama Rao came to know of Pitchamma’s arrest, they ventured to the police station to find out why she had been arrested. The police promptly took the brothers into custody, where, for the next three days, the two Dalit men were repeatedly tortured. Gurram Pitchamma and her baby also remained in custody for the three days. On the third day, 4 November 1999, Gurram Ramaiah died.
Police took Ramaiah’s corpse to the hospital and claimed that he had died naturally from a heart attack. Ramaiah’s wife and relatives, however, as well as representatives from local non-governmental organizations, all observed traumatic injuries on the body. Moreover, Rama Rao and Gurram Pitchamma, who had remained with Ramaiah in police custody, maintained that the police had beaten him to death.
Initially Police registered the case under sec. 176 CrPC (suspicious death in police custody). After people’s organizations protested, the police altered the case to sec. 302 IPC (murder); but as of 10.11.99, no action had been taken.
Mudivedu is a major panchayat village in Kurabala Kota Mandal of Chittoor District. The Dalits, belonging to Madiga (SC) of Mudivedu live in two settlements: one located on the eastern side of the village, called ‘east Dalit wada’, and the other on the western side, called ‘west Dalit wada’. In the main village, Muslims and dominant caste Hindus own and operate ten hotels. Dalits are denied entry into these hotels. When Dalits approach the hotel for water or tea, they are served either outside or on the roof of the hotel. Water and tea are served to Dalits in vessels separate from those used to serve the rest of the community. After using these separate glasses, Dalits must wash them and return them to the roof of the hotel.
Though the Dalits registered a complaint with the police regarding this practice of “untouchability”, the police did not file a case.
On 6 September 1999, Satyanarayana left his house to meet a doctor in Kottapeta. He returned by bus at about 10:00pm on the same day. While proceeding to his house from the bus stand, Satyanarayana was allegedly abducted by local landlords Koduri Laxmana Rao and Vakalapudi Gopal Krishna. The next morning, the victim’s children informed their mother Bhavani that Satyanarayana had died and that his body was laying in the fields of landlord K. Chitturi Raja Gopala Chowdhari. On hearing this, Bhavani went to see the body, but the village elders prevented her until the police arrived on the scene. When finally allowed to come forward, Bhavani observed multiple injuries on the body of her husband. There was a deep cut on the back of the neck and backbone, and the head was split. There were bloodstains at the mouth and eyes, and the tongue had been cut. On the left leg there was a wound that looked like it was caused by an axe. Bhavani also observed that the corpse wore different clothes than her husband had worn when he left the house the previous morning. At the time of initial examination, Bhavani, the Police Sub-Inspector and the assembled villagers widely acknowledged the event to be a murder. On 9 September, in the house of Koduri Veeravadra Rao, Koduri Laxman Rao, Vakalapudi Gopal Krishna Chaudhury, and two other Kamma landlords offered the widowed Bhavani two thousand five hundred rupees. Another fifteen thousand rupees were deposited in a bank in the name of her three children. The landlords gave Bhavani another five thousand rupees toward funeral expenses, and she was promised yet another fifty thousand rupees if she remained quiet on the issue of her husband’s death. Meanwhile, elders of the Mala community, under pressure from the Kamma landlords, cremated the body of Satyanarayana immediately following the post mortem examination. The cremation wa s performed in haste, without the knowledge of the victim’s wife, at the expense of the landlords, and in unusual violation of the Mala community tradition of burying, rather than cremating, the deceased. Allegations have been made that the postmortem examiner insisted to the landlords that he would only give a favourable report if the body would be cremated.
The landlords then circulated a story that Satyanarayana had died due to electric shock when he attempted to steal some coconuts surrounded by an electric fence. To support this story, the landlords compelled one of their workers to admit that he was responsible for putting a live electric wire around the coconut heap. The said worker stated that he had arranged the electric wire so that any thief who contacted the wire would shout from shock and thus alert the night watchman. It was in these circumstances, the worker stated, that he found Satyanarayana’s body dead from electric shock. On this admission the police arrested the said worker and registered a case against him under sec. 304 IPC. Due to the atmosphere of intimidation created by the landlords, the wife of the victim felt insecure. Under pressure, Bhavani signed five blank sheets of paper and agreed to the monetary arrangements offered by the landlords. Later, when media coverage of the event led several non-governmental organizations to visit the village and provide support to the intimidated, Bhavani came out with the entire story and filed a complaint with the RDO and police on 29 September. Thus, the story came to light 22 days after the incident, after the most vital piece of evidence had been, in highly suspicious circumstances, disposed of.
After the news broke out and the struggle by the non-governmental organizations ensued, the case was taken over by the DSP. A RDO enquiry was also conducted on 30 September and 1 October. Many witnesses deposed before the RDO that Satyanarayana had been murdered by the landlords and sacrificed to the god Verabadrudu and the goddess Kanaka Durga at the newly constructed temple. A number of witnesses, including the village sarpanch Kommabattula Venkataratnam and Member of the Parishad Territory Constituency (MPTC), Nakka Satyanarayana, deposed before the RDO that they had observed multiple traumatic injuries on the body of the victim, including the wound on the left leg that looked like it was caused by an axe. A case was registered Cr. No 96/99, under section 174 CrPC, and afterwards changed to section 304(A) & 201 IPC. There are a number of evidences that together discredit the version of the story propagated by the landlords, and, in fact, incriminate the landlords for deliberately murdering Satyanarayana. The type and number of traumatic injuries on the dead body observed by Bhavani and multiple other witnesses clearly establish that the cause of death was not accidental electric shock, but murder. The landlords’ offering of substantial sums of money to the victim’s wife, of course, suggests conspiracy and cover-up. Likewise incriminating is the quick and suspicious disposal of the body - the chief piece of evidence - by cremation, without the wife’s knowledge, and at the expense of the landlords, all of which contradicted Mala custom.