A New Threshold of Cruelty

How judges let off killers in the Kilvenmani atrocity

01 July, 2023

TOWARDS THE END of 1968, on the holy occasion of Christmas, India recorded its first instance of mass violence targeting those it had ostensibly stopped treating as untouchables. Sometime after 10 pm, in a remote village called Kilvenmani in the Thanjavur district of the Madras state, a mob burnt alive 42 Dalits. Mostly women and children.

It was a new species of caste atrocity. For the sheer scale and barbarity of the killings, this atrocity was unprecedented. It stood out even in a state that had, over two months in 1957 in the Ramnad district, experienced the earliest post-Independence caste riots. Never before had there been a situation where so many Dalits were eliminated in a single mob attack and rendered so vulnerable that they could hardly offer resistance or act in self-defence. Dominant castes weaponised a deeply entrenched prejudice to perpetrate mass destruction.

Neither Gandhi nor Ambedkar nor Nehru had ever encountered such an aggravated form of caste prejudice. In this most brutal avatar of untouchability, India had crossed a new threshold of cruelty. Kilvenmani triggered a political, social and economic churn in a province that had a long history of grappling with caste. The rupture inspired literary works, feature films and documentaries.

In retrospect, the massacre was an omen that the abolition of untouchability, far from mitigating the oppression of Dalits, had turned it more violent and destructive. Kilvenmani set the template for similar atrocities across the country.

Manoj Mitta is a Delhi-based journalist focussing on law, human rights and social justice. A law graduate from Hyderabad, he has worked with the Times of India, the Indian Express and India Today. Mitta has written two critically acclaimed books on impunity for mass violence: When a Tree Shook Delhi: The 1984 Carnage and Its Aftermath, co-authored with H.S. Phoolka (2007), and The Fiction of Fact-finding: Modi and Godhra (2014). His most recent book is Caste Pride: Battles for Equality in Hindu India, published by Context, Westland Books.