The Kilvenmani 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.
This event remained in the history book as injustice served by the high class to the lower class people. Dalits just wanted their rights but they were denied and killed by their landlord.
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. ( “New memorial to commemorate Keezhvenmani massacre“)
To mark their unions workers hoisted red flags and against it the Landlords hoisted yellow flags. And stated laying off the workers belonging to Communists Party.
This led to the tension between workers and landlords and finally a boycott of labours.
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. (Gender and Neoliberalism: The All India Democratic Women’s Association and Globalization Politics)
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 which 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 (Josian Racine & Jean Racine, Dalit Identities and the Dialectic of Oppression and Emancipation in a Changing India: The Tamil Case and Beyond )
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. ( “New memorial to commemorate Keezhvenmani massacre“)
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. ( “Red Rice: caste and class war“)
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”. (“Anniversary of Keezhvenmani carnage observed“)
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”.
This event was painful and shameful as after the independence this event occurred. This event showed and influence the people that such events don’t happen in the future.
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. ( “The Gypsy Goddess by Meena Kandasamy, book review: Class war exposes India’s dark heart“)