NAGAPATTINAM: Smell of fresh paint wafts through the village that would otherwise have remained a tiny speck on the revenue map of the district. Going by the bustle, a first time visitor would think preparations were on for Christmas, but regular travellers on the Keezhvelur-Thiruthuraipoondi State Highway know what the frenzy is all about.
Welcome to Keezhvenmani, where survivors and kin of victims of caste oppression are trying their best to put behind them memories of the gory night of 25 December 1968 when 44 Dalits were burnt alive for raising their voice against the dominant community.
Influenced by Marxist-Communist ideology, Dalit farm labourers were involved in a standoff with upper caste landlords. As the night unfolded, riots broke out in which at least 44 villagers, including 16 women and 23 children, were burnt to death in a hut belonging to one Ramaiyan, where the labourers sought refuge to escape the marauding gangs allegedly let loose by the landlords.
“We will celebrate the anniversary on a scale never seen before. For us, the victims are martyrs of Communism who fought capitalism, and not just victims of caste oppression,” said A Sivakumar, district president of DYFI, and a Venmani resident. It is a race against time as the locals try to complete the new memorial they planned to inaugurate on the 50th anniversary of the massacre. But for the cyclone, the memorial would have been ready well in advance.
Fifty years since the dark night, there is not much development in the village as more than half of the families live in huts. Some of them, including survivors and kin of the victims, though own lands thanks largely to efforts of Krishnammal Jagannathan and her organisation called Land for Tillers’ Freedom (LAFTI).
“My husband and I travelled to Keezhvenmani, the day after the incident. The gory scenes and misery broke my heart. I sent my husband back and lived the life of Keezhvenmani villagers,” said Krishnammal Jagannathan, who is now 92-years-old and lives in Chennai. For three years after 1968, she ate with the villagers and rested with them.
“But, there was still much to do,” she said.
In the days after the massacre, Krishnammal persuaded the landlords into negotiation and secured 55 acres of land for the victims’ kin. G Pazhanivel, now 70, is one among them. He escaped with hack wounds on his left leg and remains the history book of the incident. Though there has not been any other flash point since, elders in the village remain wary.
“Most marriages take place within the caste or community. The children have turned progressive, but we do not have the strength to see any other caste conflict,” said G Ruthirapathi, a retired school teacher and Pazhanivel’s elder brother.
Pazhanivel’s children are well educated and inspired several others to follow in their footsteps. While his only daughter is married and settled near Nagapattinam, Pazhanivel’s first two sons are marine engineers, and his fourth and youngest son completed PhD and works in a university. His third son came back from abroad to take over farming activity from his father.
On the social front, there is a hint of change. There have been few intercaste marriages in the surrounding villages. The first was a love marriage that took place 24 years ago between N Anbuselvan, a Dalit in Keezhvenmani and R Jyothi, from a dominant caste in Irinjiur.
“It was not easy. Although my wife’s family did not object, the others threatened to burn me alive. Thankfully everything became alright,” says Anbuselvan who now is a Panchayat Secretary and lives in Thevur. The couple has two children.
Meanwhile, at Irinjiur village in Anakkudi Panchayat, the family of Gopalakrishna Naidu, the landlord who allegedly orchestrated the massacre has sought police protection this year, considering this is the 50th anniversary of the incident. Gopalakrishna Naidu was murdered 38 years ago. His brother, Govindaraja Naidu and his four sons died over the years. Only two of Govindaraja Naidu’s sons Krishnamurthy, aged 70 and Pappaiyan, aged 63 are alive.
When this reporter visited their house, Krishnamurthy’s wife Kirubalini and his nephews were reluctant to answer him and cited health conditions of elders to avoid speaking. Eventually they relented. “Our uncles do not give interviews anymore, as our words (quotes and television bytes) often get trimmed out of stories, We were projected in such a negative manner that people who did not know us but came for the anniversaries in recent years abused us severely. Our side of the story was ignored,” said R Senthil Kumar, Govindraja Naidu’s grandson.
Krishnamurthy denied his family’s involvement in the massacre and said the perpetrators were from Irukkai village. Further, he pointed out that he and a few other land owners still employ farm labourers from Venmani during Samba season.
“In the ten years after the incident, we found it very difficult to find people for farm work. Eventually, we adopted direct sowing method, which is not labour intensive. We continue to employ farm hands irrespective of castes for sowing, weeding, and harvesting. Even during the drought in 2016, we ensured good wages for people who took part in whatever farming activity we could involve in,” said Krishnamurthy.
The villagers are still affiliated to Communist Party of India - Marxist, very much like their ancestors. The village remained a stronghold of the Left. So is Keezhvelur constituency, under which Venmani falls.
“We will always be loyal to the Communist Party of India - Marxist, as it is those principles which taught us to stand against oppression and persecution,” said U Selvaraj, a Venmani resident.
Pazhanivel sighs at the sight of the dilapidated memorial which was built in the place where Ramayan’s hut stood, two years after the incident.
“I was fortunate to see the daylight. I now wish to see a more revived Keezhvenmani with developments such as social harmony rural development, education, self-employment, and standard of life before my time is up.“
The incident happened on 25 December, 1968 in which a group of 44 Dalits, mostly women and children belonging to families of striking labourers, were murdered by a gang, allegedly led by landlords