Sleepless in Athimoor

TE Raja Simhan | Updated on July 20, 2018 Published on July 20, 2018

Under lock-and-key: Most shops in Athimoor remained shut for more than two months after the incident of mob violence images   -  C Venkatachalapathy

Nearly three months since the day it attacked a group of visitors, killing one woman, this village in Tamil Nadu is yet to come to terms with its new-found notoriety

The low whirr of the car engine is enough to unsettle the calm that greets us in the narrow mud lane of Tamukottanpaarai, in village Athimoor, 175 km from Chennai. A group of men disappear into the sugar cane fields ahead of us, as our vehicle inches towards a huge rock under a banyan tree. The four women in sight, their hands busy making brooms from coconut leaves, watch our movements with suspicion.

Athimoor’s discomfort with visitors is recent — less than three months to be precise. The scenic beauty of this village in Polur taluk, Tiruvannamalai district, makes it doubly difficult to imagine it as a scene of mob violence. One that ended in the death of a 65-year-old visitor from Chennai, and the arrest of 45 villagers. The police are on the lookout for more suspects, which explains the trepidation at the sight of our car (or any unknown vehicle, for that matter).

“Nobody had heard of Athimoor before May 9. Now it has attracted attention for all the wrong reasons,” says Mahesh*, a mechanic who witnessed the lynching on the main road in Kaliyam, three km from Tamukottanpaarai. A team of 10-12 policemen from the Polur station failed to stop the 600-strong mob that attacked Rukmini and the four men accompanying her. The sexagenarian died on the spot while the others — Chandrasekharan, Mohankumar, Venkatesan and Gajendran (the driver of their red car) — were taken to Tiruvannamalai Government Medical College hospital for treatment.

Chandrasekharan and Mohankumar are both natives of Tiruvannamalai, who had, arrived from Malaysia on May 3. They joined the others at Athimoor on May 9 and together they set out in search of a kuladeivam (family deity) temple.

“Their car had been circling the village for two days,” says a local, Palani*. Mahesh adds that there was nothing in the vicinity that matched the location the visitors were looking for. “Their vague replies made the villagers suspicious,” he says.

The suspicion deepened when Rukmini was spotted gifting “foreign” chocolates to two children in Tamukottanpaarai. The car had just left the spot when the children’s grandmother raised an alarm, saying the chocolates had left the children unconscious. Word spread like wildfire, and the vehicle was waylaid on Kaliyam road. What unfolded next defies words in its brutality, says one eyewitness, who declines to be identified, adding that Rukmini suffered unspeakable abuse at the hands of some of the men in the mob.

Trouble at home: The police have arrested 45 people for the lynching and are looking for 74 other suspects   -  C Venkatachalapathy



KS Kandasamy, district collector of Tiruvannamalai, confirms that the police team that rushed to the spot was unable to stop the lynching.

In the residential pockets, many are upset over the crime, which has attracted the attention of both national and foreign media. Some of them, however, seem to believe that the visitors were partly to blame for the violence that unfolded. “Who asked her (Rukmini) to give chocolates to the children here,” many ask. They also wish the visitors had clearly stated the purpose of their visit.

The tension that gripped Athimoor following the killing, soon turned it into a ghost village. Most of the men fled fearing arrest. “I was away for 45 days,” says Mahesh. Even today, many of the villagers continue to play hide-and-seek with the police, says another resident, Babu. It took 65 days for the local shops to return to business, though the markets continue to look deserted.

“We have arrested people after studying video footage and photographs. Of the 45 arrested, three have been booked under the Tamil Nadu Goondas Act. We are still looking for 74 more,” he tells BLink.

Kandasamy also points to the role that technology, more specifically social media, plays in such instances of mass hysteria. Villagers readily believe rumours about kidnappers, unwilling to heed the administration’s assurances to the contrary. The district authorities had, in fact, published advertisements in the local media and distributed pamphlets to warn against rumours circulated on social media. “We had urged the locals to alert the police station if they suspected anyone, but they chose to take the law into their own hands instead. It was a spontaneous outburst and they acted on their own without any leadership,” he explains.

Restlessness is now a constant in Athimoor. Located at the foot of Javadhu Hills, an extension of the Eastern Ghats, the village has changed from happy to phobic overnight. Used only to the occasional honking of a government bus or a passing truck, it now breaks into a sweat every time a police vehicle rolls in.

(*Name changed to protect identity)

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Published on July 20, 2018
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