Hounded by police, she shows rule book

VILLUPURAM: Palaniammal can still recall the horrors of the Pongal day of 2005. The now 50-year-old Kurava woman, along with her sister, was allegedly taken into illegal custody by the Thanjavur police. What followed was something that would change her forever.

Now she stands to defend women, children and others from the community who face discrimination. After years of fieldwork, Palaniammal became the district secretary of the Kurava welfare association for Villupuram and Kallakurichi regions.

“We were dragged out of a Pongal celebration and taken to the police station without them showing any reason for our arrest. We were brutally beaten up by the police. My sister, who was close to four months pregnant back then, had a miscarriage because of the torture,” Palaniammal harks back to that fateful day.

It didn’t end there. She says both of them were tortured in illegal custody continuously for 12 days and were booked for theft of jewelry, which they allegedly never did. “We were sexually abused in the name of frisking. I can never forget the kind of words used by those in khaki. I have never felt so unfortunate to have been born in my community,” she adds.

It didn’t end there, too. After taking bail on the theft case, Palaniammal says she was again arrested along with two other women from her community, by 40 police officers. This time, the women were booked under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act and suffered nine months in prison, yet again for a crime they allegedly never committed. By now, she knew that her nemesis was her own identity; she knew that her community was getting exploited in a system of hierarchies.

According to a report submitted to the National Commission for Scheduled Castes by a Delhi-based NGO—National Dalit Movement for Justice—and the Chennai state office of the NCSC in 2016, she was booked for five cases in three years, while her husband was booked for 12. “It was after several such illegal detentions that I realised the political situation of our people in this society and the need for us to protect ourselves,” she says.

Going through the toughest of times, she found solace in social welfare organisations in 2012. Palaniammal involved herself in the activities of organisations that conducted meetings with people from her community to raise awareness on legal procedures, help them defend children and women against police brutality, and taught them how to bring the issue out to the public.

In order to get rid of the frequent arrests, Palaniammal moved to Villupuram in 2009. Since then, she has enrolled herself to build a network of Kurava community members across the State, attending various conferences as part of her fieldwork over the years. In 2017, Palaniammal became the district secretary of the Kurava welfare association for Villupuram and Kallakurichi.

“Palaniammal is our go-to person who will provide us with details of victims and help us understand issues better. She stands as a pillar of hope,” said P Sudha of Witness For Justice, an NGO in Madurai. In 2019, Palaniammal organised a tribal conference in Villupuram where she brought people from the community in the district and let them discuss their grievances.

A 30-year-old Kurava woman from Ulundurpet, whose husband was a victim of police torture, last year, extols the efforts that Palaniammal has put in for the community’s welfare. “Palani akka (sister) has taught us how to stay strong at times of turmoil inflicted by the police, and to take up democratic protest against discrimination.” For their akka, it’s all about standing up for her downtrodden people’s cause when no one else cares to bat an eye.