AFTER A trial lasting 19 years an Indian court has convicted 215 police officers, forest department and revenue officials for rioting, raping, assaulting and torturing tribal people in a remote village in southern Tamil Nadu province following a raid targeting sandalwood smuggling.
Of the 269 accused of brutality against the people of Vachathi village, some 400km southwest of the state capital Chennai (formerly Madras), 54 had died during the investigation and trial, a sad commentary on India’s lax and notoriously slow judicial system.
However, on Thursday, Sessions Judge S Kumaraguru handed down prison terms ranging from two to 10 years to 126 forest officials, 84 policemen and five revenue department personnel.
Seventeen were sentenced to seven-year jail terms for rape while 12 were given an additional 10 years for violence against tribal people who are protected under the Indian constitution.
The majority of those convicted were elderly, and many had difficulty standing in the courtroom packed with villagers.
“Finally justice has been done. We have regained our lost honour,” said P Gandhimatti, a victim of the large-scale violence in Vachathi in June 1992 that occurred when the locals prevented forest guards from searching their hamlet for a notorious sandalwood smuggler.
But a delay of almost two decades in getting redress in court is not unusual in Indian courts. This was emphasised by the casual and sketchy manner in which the verdict was reported in yesterday’s national newspapers.
“The adage justice delayed is justice denied is truly applicable to India’s legal system,” social activist Seema Mustafa said. The country’s courts are perhaps the world’s slowest, she added.
According to official figures, more than 31.28 million cases are pending in India’s supreme court, 21 high courts and hundreds of subordinate courts.
More than a quarter of a million people awaiting trial languish in jail – several thousand have been incarcerated for more than five years, longer than what many would have served if found guilty.
Last year, a senior high court judge from southern Andhra Pradesh state said it would take India’s judiciary 320 years to clear the backlog of cases.
The mayhem in Vachathi occurred when 108 armed policemen, 155 forest department personnel and six revenue officials surrounded it after being refused entry earlier in the day. They then set about mercilessly beating the men, they gang raped 18 women and laid waste to the hamlet over two days of destructive looting.
The complaints of the victims to the state authorities were not only ignored for three years but former forest minister, K A Sengottaiayan – now the provincial agriculture minister – accused the entire village of being involved in sandalwood smuggling.