Fire of 1968 still burning inside

Keezhvenmani is preparing to step into the 50th year of a massacre that shook the State’s conscience. While memories are fresh, the condition of the villagers hasn’t changed

Published: 24th December 2017 02:38 AM  |   Last Updated: 24th December 2017 07:46 AM   |  A+A-

Express News Service

NAGAPATTINAM: Manusangada..Naanga Manusangada (human, we are human), a song famous in the revolutionary and Dalit rights activists’ circles, was penned by poet Inquilab, whose family recently refused to accept the Sahitya Akademi Award for 2017, conferred on him posthumously. This is no ordinary song, but the distillation of a thought process influenced by pathos over a blot on the history of the State: the Keezhvenmani massacre, whose 49th anniversary would be marked this December 25.
Around 20-km from Velankanni, where people are into an overdrive to make this year’s Christmas celebrations a grand affair, Keezhvenmani would stand as a study in contrast. In this small hamlet, the residents would recall the heartrending memories of the massacre, which left 44 of their forebears dead on the wintry night of December 25, 49 years ago in 1968. Among the dead were children, burnt alive in their huts when an influential landlord swooped down on the hamlet with his goons and set afire their tenements.

An arch built to mark the 25th anniversary of the massacre welcomes visitors to Keezhvenmani; R Maniyammal, who lost her sister and the latter’s 8 children | M MANIKANDAN

The deceased were from Dalit community, working as farm labourers on the landlord’s farms. Hard toil and backbreaking work used to fetch them one measure of paddy for one sack of grains reaped. However, they drudged on, little aware of the exploitation. That is when Communism came into the picture. A marginalised and voiceless community learnt about its rights and began asserting them.
When those who had put up with their eccentric and dictatorial ways for long began straining the leash, the landlords grew uneasy. Wages, something the landed gentry considered benevolence, became a buzz word and the downtrodden began demanding it as a right. “Why should we work hard for just one measure of paddy?” was the constant refrain that began reverberating through farms across the State. The response was swift and brutal. Bullets of country-made guns, assault and torture were employed in good measure to the silence the voice of dissent.

G Pazhanivel, now in his late sixties, was one of the lucky few to survive the inferno of December 25, 1968. Speaking to Express, Pazhanivel recalls, “When we demanded our rights of increased wages, the angry caste Hindu landlords formed another union: The Paddy Producers Association. All we asked was for an additional half measure of paddy. We were attached to a Left union, the landlords demanded us to leave it and join their association. After some arm-twisting, a few labourers switched camp, but a majority opposed. This upset Gopalakrishnan, zonal president of The Paddy Producers Association. He decided to take revenge and executed the massacre.”

“I was in my 20s then. It was around 8 pm, when about 200 henchmen of Gopalakrishnan barged into our village. First they opened fire. Hearing the gunshots, we ran helter-skelter. Since almost all land belonged to caste Hindus at that time, Dalit labourers ran towards the hut of Ramaiyan, the only Dalit landowner. As many as 48 people, including myself, took shelter in his hut. Many hid in the fields,” said Pazhanivel. “The goons surrounded the hut and set it on fire. They were monitoring the hut to prevent anyone from escaping. When I managed to come out, a goon attacked me with a sharp weapon. However, I managed to escape. There were three like me, who escaped.”  

Reprieve and murder

Muniyan, a 91-year-old now, was the one who lodged a complaint with the Keezhvelur police around 11.15 pm the same night. After the inferno came legal tussle. After a protracted court battle, the Madras High Court acquitted the landlord in 1975, quashing the Nagapattinam district court judgment awarding him 10 years of imprisonment in 1970. The acquittal upset the Dalits and a radical group decided to avenge the massacre. Gopalakrishnan was murdered in 1980.

Many years have passed since the massacre but the socio-economic conditions of the people of Keezhvenmani have not changed. While one may derive satisfaction from the fact that hatred between caste Hindu landlords and Dalit farm labourers has come down, the ground reality is Keezhvenmani has not witnessed any significant developments in all these years apart from a large arch built to mark the 25th anniversary of the massacre on the Keezhvelur-Thiruthuraippoondi State Highway. The 105 huts and 15 tiled-roof houses tell tales of how development skipped past the hamlet.

No development

Maniyammal, who lost her sister Kalimuthu and eight nephews in the massacre, now lives in a small hut. She was given a concrete house by the government 30 years ago, but time has reduced it to a ramshackle building. She constructed the hut on her own. “My sister Kalimuthu (35) and her eight children died that night. My husband Rethinam was shot and sustained bullet injuries on his legs. He was rendered incapable of working on the fields and the burden of providing for the family came on my shoulders. When my husband was alive, the government allotted us a concrete house. It is in shambles now. As I am unable to renovate it, I built a small hut nearby the massacre memorial site,” she added.
It is Samba season again. Except for some school-going children, every man and woman can be seen working in the fields throughout the day. MGNREGA came as a ray of hope, but gives sporadic jobs and the income is erratic. Some uneducated youth migrated to Tirupur to work in garment industries. Of the 1,200-odd residents, only 10 are graduates. The village does not even have a high school. Only a Panchayat union middle functions, with 50 students on rolls. Higher education needs are met by High and Higher secondary schools in Thevur village.

P Devandran, one of the few graduates from the village, now works as a professor at a private university. “If the government introduces a higher secondary school and a college near the village, the education needs of the youth could be met. More graduates will emerge from our village,” he says, hoping that education would correct the affliction triggered by years of neglect.

Did the massacre, the subsequent media glare and becoming the talking point of the State help uplift the lot of the people? S Mariyammal, a farm hand, answers: “Though our elders gave their lives in the struggle to get an additional half measure of paddy, nothing has changed. A few became land owners and some got lower-level jobs in government. Apart from that, there has been no development here.”

Horror tale retold  

● Influenced by communists, landless peasants in Tanjore held agitations demanding increased wages in Keezhvenmani
● Though there was an increase in agricultural production due to green revolution, they were given just one measure of paddy
● The peasants withheld part of the harvest, aggravating the situation
● On Dec 25, 1968, the landlords and their henchmen surrounded the hutments and attacked the peasants. While the landlords fired bullets, the labourers could only throw stones in return. When women and children took refuge in a small hut, the landlords set fire to it, burning them to death. 44 women and children, the families of striking labourers, died on the fateful night
● Though the landlords were convicted in a lower court, the verdict was overturned by the Madras High Court

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