Revisiting the horrific Vachathi case: What happened in 1992 and what's in the current verdict of Madras HC?

The Madras High Court on Friday - September 29 delivered a crucial verdict of upholding the conviction of hundreds of men who were accused of brutally raping and harassing dozens of women three decades ago. Dubbed as the Vachathi case, the horrific incident goes by the name of the village Vachathi, where it happened, in the Dharmapuri district of Tamil Nadu. 

The Vachathi crime shook the soul of the country as it has been recorded as one of the mass atrocities deliberately orchestrated by the law enforcement agencies and other government officials, who took the women into custody, raped and tortured them, under the guise of investigating them in a case that the agencies not able to prove against the victims. 

The incident happened in 1992 during which the entire village of Vachathi was vandalized, houses were attacked, livestocks were killed, as the village was full of tears and despair. The first breakthrough for the victims in their legal fight came in 2011 where a trial court in Dharmapuri had pronounced all the 269 accused guilty in the case under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Act. 

The accused include policemen and officials from the forest and revenue departments of Tamil Nadu. Of these 269 convicts, seventeen were also found guilty of rape. Vachathi is a village of tribes, located in the foothills of Sitheri hills, near Sathyamangalam forest, in the Dharmapuri district and the policemen stormed the village in 1992 in their manhunt of Veerappan, a forest brigand who was accused of more than hundred murders, kidnapping, smuggling and poaching. 

Veerappan, for whom Sathyamangalam forest was a haven, remained evasive from the governments of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka for years and with the view of apprehending him and dismantling his operations in the woods, the governments had formed Special Task Forces that were tasked to locate Veerappan. They sifted the forests of Dharmapuri and other parts that are close to the borders. It was during their search operation that these policemen stormed into Vachathi, wrongfully accused the villagers of aiding Veerappan, and raped and tortured them. 

Revisiting the Vachathi case 

Until the third week of June 1992, little did the villagers in Vachathi know that their lives are about to upended and their village would mark a horrific history that would be set in stone. For the next three days, from June 20 to 22, the scenes in the village went from bright to bleak as the hundreds of tribal people were brutally harassed by the law enforcement sleuths. 

The officials accused the villagers of aiding Veerappan in smuggling activities and being involved in sandalwood smuggling. These allegations were sharp that the village was under the radar amidst an intense manhunt to nab Veerappan. During June 1992, a forest officer had invetigated a villager named Perumal by accusing the latter of smuggling sandalwood. However, Perumal had strongly denied the allegation due to which he was attacked by that forest officer. 

After learning about the atrocity, some of the villagers went on to attack the forest officer after which hundreds of officials from the law enforcement, forest, and revenue departments had stormed the village and attacked the villagers. During their three-day rampage, the officials had ransacked the villagers property, vandalized their houses, and killed their livestocks. After attacking the village, the officials took around 133 people from the village to another location. 

These 133 people include 90 women, 15 men, and 28 children. Of these 90 women, 18 were sexually harassed and raped by the police officials and the victims include minors. After the efforts of social activists, the horrific incident came to light and while the Madras High Court had intially quashed to hear the petition with regard to the crimes and rapes, the Supreme Court ordered to conduct a swift investigation into the case. 

After 1995, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) took the case and registered a case against over 250 people who have connection and involvement in this heinous crime. All the accused were arrested and during the course of the trial, 54 accused have died and over a decade of investigation, a trial court in Dharmapuri pronounced its verdict in 2011, convicting the rest of over 200 accused and awarding them imprisonments. 

The trial courrt verdict 

In its 2011 verdict, the Dharmapuri trial court found all the accused guilty, particularly, seventeen officials were found guilty of rape. The court awarded 10-year incarceration for 12 accused while five others were given seven years each. The remainder of the convicts were given jail terms of between two and five years. A large portion of people had welcomed the verdict as it became a historical judgment of convicting hundreds of government officials at a same time. 

Reacting to the trial court verdict, P Shanmugam, the then president of the Tamil Nadu Tribal People's Association, said, "This is an historic judgment. All the accused in this case are government officials. Till date, I don't think so many government officials are convicted in a single case." However, all the accused had decided to challenge the verdict and the sentence in a higher court. 

The appeal and the current track of the case 

The convicts moved their appeal petition, challenging the Dharmapuri trial court verdict, to the Madras High Court in 2011 and twelve years after they waged a legal battle against their conviction, the High Court has on Friday delivered its verdict, only to quash their petition and to uphold the judgment and sentence pronounced by the Dharmapuri trial court in 2011. 

During these past twelve years, the High Court had a hectic task of hearing the hundreds of convicts, identiying them, and recording the witnesses. It was due to these marathon process that, the advocates say, it took twelve years to deliver the verdict. Dismissing the appeal petition from 215 convicts, Madras High Court Judge Justice P Velmurugan had delivered the verdict and directed the state government to offer compensation of Rs 10 lakh to each victim. 

Justice Velmurugan ordered the government to give suitable employment to the victims, either it can be government jobs, or from private firms, or from women self-help groups. The Justice has also recommended the government to take stringent action against the then District Collector of Dharmapuri, then Superintendent of Police, and the district forest official. 

Most of the convicts, after making an appeal in 2011, were awarded bail while the convicts who found guilty of raping women spent three years in prison. However, after three years, they were conferred with bail and all the 215 convicts were walking free all these years. As their appeal petition has now been dismissed by the Madras High Court, Justice Velmurugan had ordered all the accused to surrender before the Krishnagiri court. 

On the soil of brutality: Justice Velmurugan is seen inspecting Vachathi village in March 2023 


It has been reported that during these twelve years, some of the convicts have died and the documentations confirming their deaths are being submitted in the high court and for the convicts who had already spent years in prison, they are now ordered to serve the rest of their terms. It is pertinent to note that earlier this March, Justice Velmurugan had visited Vachathi and held an inspection into what now remain grim and haunting rubbles of the past.