The Kilvenmani massacre (or Keezhvenmani massacre) was an incident in Kizhavenmani village, 8 km from Kilvelur which is Taluk headquarters, Nagapattinam District, Tamil Nadu on 25 December 1968 in which a group of 44 women and children, the families of striking Dalit (untouchable) village labourers, were murdered by a gang, allegedly led by their landlords.
At its core, Keezhvenani is a gruesome reminder of the treatment that is meted out to the oppressed when they start demanding what is rightfully theirs.
It became a notable event in left wing political campaigns of the time and in Dravidianist ideology. The incident helped to initiate large-scale changes in the local rural economy, engendering a massive redistribution of land in the region.
The incident occurred when the landless peasants were influenced by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) to organise themselves into a campaign for higher wages following the increase in agricultural production as the result of Green revolution in India. The lands were controlled by powerful families, while the labourers were from a Dalit community. In 1968, the agricultural labourers of unified Tanjore district formed a union seeking better working conditions and higher wages. To mark their union the workers hoisted red flags in their villages, irking their landlords. The landlords formed a separate union with yellow flags and started laying off workers belonging to the Communist unions.
This led to tensions and finally a boycott by all labourers. The peasants withheld part of the harvest as a negotiating tactic. The Paddy Producers Association, representing the local landlords, organised external labourers to continue the harvest. Matters became fraught when a local shopkeeper who supported the protesters was kidnapped by supporters of the landlords and beaten up. Protesters attacked the kidnappers, forcing them to release their hostage. In the clash, one of the landlords' agents was killed.
According to eye witness accounts, on 25th December 1968, at around 10 p.m., the landlords and their henchmen came in Police lorries and surrounded the hutments, cutting off all routes of escape. The attackers shot at the labourers, mortally wounding two of them. Labourers and their families could only throw stones to protect themselves or flee from the spot. Many of the women and children, and some old men, took refuge in a hut that was 8 ft x 9 ft. But the attackers surrounded it and set fire to it, burning them to death. The fire was systematically stoked with hay and dry wood.  Two children thrown out from the burning hut in the hope that they would survive were thrown back into the flame by the arsonists. Of six people who managed to come out of the burning hut, two of whom were caught, hacked to death and thrown back into the flame. Post this heinous crime, attackers went straight to the police station, demanded protection against reprisals and got it. The massacre resulted in death of 44, including 5 aged men, 16 women and 23 children. A list of victims and their ages is given below.
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Reacting to the carnage, the then Chief Minister C Annadurai, sent two of his Cabinet Ministers – PWD Minister M Karunanidhi and Law Minister Madhavan- to the site of the incident. He also conveyed his condolences and promised action. But nothing much happened. In fact, Anna’s government was later accused of downplaying the incident.
In the subsequent trial, the landlords were convicted of involvement in the event. Ten of them were sentenced to 10 years in jail. However, an appeal court overturned the conviction. Irinjur Gopalakrishnan Naidu, leader of the Paddy Producers Association, was accused of being behind the massacre. He too was eventually acquitted, but was murdered in a revenge attack in 1980.
The massacre led to widespread demand for changes in land ownership and to attitudes regarding caste. Gandhian reformer Krishnammal Jagannathan and her husband led a series of non-violent demonstrations, arguing for the redistribution of land owned by the local Hindu temple and Trust lands in Valivalam to members of the Dalit caste. The couple also founded an organisation to promote their aims. Krishnammal Jeganathan later said, on the eve of a commemoration of the massacre, "I could not sleep last night, and the sight of the violence feels fresh in my mind - fresh blood of a butchered child, and charred bodies of women and children, who had taken refuge in a hut".
Feminist activists played a significant role in making the massacre well known. Six years after the killings the first state conference of the Democratic Women's Association was held in Kizhavenmani. Mythili Sivaraman helped to publicize the atrocities through her articles and essays. A collection of her writings about the incident was released as a book named Haunted by Fire.
The Communist Party of India (Marxist) organises an annual "Venmani Martyrs Day" to commemorate the massacre. Foundation stone for memorial was laid by Jyoti Basu in 1969 when he was Deputy Chief Minister of West Bengal. The memorial was erected by the party in the form of a black granite monolith carved with the names of the forty-four victims, including fourteen victims from one family. It is topped with the hammer and sickle of the CPI(M). A plantain bud "carved out of monolithic red granite mounted on a platform serves as a memory of the dead". Other political groups have also participated in the commemorations. The Dalit political party Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi have objected to Communist control of the event. Its district secretary S. Vivekanandam said, "We also want to pay tributes to the martyrs. But the CPM does not allow us to arrange for any programmes during the anniversary saying that only their party stood in support of the farmers of Keezhvenmani. They also said that they had got the place of massacre registered in their party's name. It is unacceptable that a single party claims ownership of the historical place".
In 2006, the CPI(M) announced that it would begin the construction of a much larger memorial (referred to as "Mani Mandapam"). In 2014, the partially completed new memorial was inaugurated by the party. It comprises 44 granite pillars, representing each of the victims, surrounding a large building functioning as a museum and centre of commemoration.
Books and films
- The Incident became the main background subject in the 1977 Sahitya Akademi winning novel Kurudhippunal, by Indira Parthasarathy.
- The 1983 film Kan Sivanthal Man Sivakkum was based on Parthasarathy's novel.
- The massacre was the main subject of the 1997 Tamil language movie Aravindhan starring Sarath Kumar, Parthiban and Nagma.
- In a 2006 documentary film, Ramiahvin Kudisai (The Hut of Ramiah) in Chennai, survivors told their stories.
- The 2014 novel The Gypsy Goddess by Meena Kandasamy is based on this incident.
- "Farmers pay tribute to Kilvenmani victims". The Hindu. 25 July 2013. Retrieved 11 November 2013.
- Kathleen Gough (1974). "Indian Peasant Uprisings". Economic and Political Weekly. 9 (32/34): 1391–1412. Retrieved 13 June 2014.
- "Anniversary of Keezhvenmani carnage observed". The Hindu. 26 December 2009. Retrieved 13 June 2014.
- "New memorial to commemorate Keezhvenmani massacre". The Hindu. 10 March 2014. Retrieved 13 June 2014.
- The Administrator, Vol. 35. Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration. 1990. p. 94.
- "Continued violence against Dalits raises the question, how 'tolerant' are Hindus?". DNA India. 3 May 2014. Retrieved 13 June 2014.
- "Communists, dalit groups pay respects to Keezhvenmani massacre victims". Times Of India. 26 December 2012. Retrieved 13 June 2014.
- Elisabeth Armstrong (7 November 2013). Gender and Neoliberalism: The All India Democratic Women’s Association and Globalization Politics. Routledge. p. 28. ISBN 978-1-317-91142-5.
- Josian Racine & Jean Racine, Dalit Identities and the Dialectic of Oppression and Emancipation in a Changing India: The Tamil Case and Beyond
- "Red Rice: caste and class war". The Sunday Indian. 11 March 2012. Retrieved 13 June 2014.
- Omvedt, Gail, Reinventing Revolution: New Social Movements and the Socialist Tradition in India, M.E. Sharpe, Armonk, 1993, p..78
- "Lest we forget…". The Hindu. 29 October 2013. Retrieved 13 June 2014.
- "America was a golden cage for me". The Hindu. 1 July 2012. Retrieved 13 June 2014.
- "The Gypsy Goddess by Meena Kandasamy, book review: Class war exposes India's dark heart". Independent. 10 April 2014. Retrieved 13 June 2014.
- Hugo Gorringe, "Which is Violence? Reflections on Collective Violence and Dalit Movements in South India", Social Movement Studies, Volume 5, Number 2 / September 2006, pp. 117–136
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