A dastardly and cowardly act. The verdict on Sydo's brutal murder has been unanimous, both in Auroville as well as in the surrounding villages. But it has been very difficult to get information on the background of the spiralling violence that has manifested during the last years. People are scared to speak and feel that the situation has gone beyond their control. “If I speak out, I may be the next to be molested or worse…Look at the recent murder in Edaiyanchavadi. It happened in broad daylight, at 7 o'clock in the morning.” The following report attempts to give an insight and raises some questions. But given the lack of willingness to speak, it is probably far from complete.
Violence is not new to Auroville. In the early days, during the fights with the Sri Aurobindo Society, Aurovilians were attacked by goondas who had been hired to scare them and discourage them from remaining in Auroville. After the government take-over, this type of violence ceased. But other types of criminal activities gradually surfaced: assaults on women, thefts, and robberies on motorcyclists. In those times four notorious thieves prowled the area. One disappeared after having been caught a few times; another was killed in the Auroville greenbelt; the third died in a village row a few years ago; and the fourth passed away last year.
However, the situation was different in the village of Bommaiyarpalayam . From the end of the 1980s onwards, tensions had been played out between supporters of the Mailam temple – which owns more than half of the lands in that village and in the neighbouring villages of Kuilapalayam and Pillaichavadi – and those who oppose it. Skirmishes flared up with distressing regularity, resulting in quite a lot of physical violence and subsequent court cases. The situation took a turn for the worse in 1996 when, after 10 years, the first panchayat (village government) elections in Tamil Nadu were held. Both Bommaiyarpalayam and Kuilapalayam are administered by the same panchayat. In the celebrations that followed the election, the son of one of the village elders, someone who was universally respected and had met The Mother and promised her that Kuilapalayam would collaborate with Auroville, was murdered. He had been affiliated to the losing party. As some Tamil Aurovilians, who had family in these villages, had been active in the elections and had given their support to the winning party, the elders complained to Auroville. Upset by the murder, the Auroville Working Committee issued a stern warning that Aurovilians were not to engage in politics. But everybody was aware that one could not expect Tamil Aurovilians not to show an active interest in the happenings in the village where they were born. For in the Tamil culture, family connections are extremely strong.
This murder was a sign of a vanishing social structure and a changing power situation. Auroville, unwittingly, had contributed to the change of the social environment. There were the more affluent lifestyles displayed by the Aurovilians. There was the influx of people from other areas who were employed by Auroville. There were the Auroville construction projects which needed a large number of workers. Many youngsters had found jobs in Auroville and, for the first time in their lives, earned a decent income. But, contrary to Tamil traditions, the income was often only partly shared with the family. In many cases, large parts of it were spent on the fulfilment of the youngster's personal desires such as a vehicle, a walkman, jewellery or simply for hanging out with friends. This attitude also reflected a change in power structures. Many village elders were no longer respected, and the natural leadership gradually disappeared. A new political leadership was making its presence felt.
Last but not least, there was the influence of Tamil films and television. Of all Indian states, Tamil Nadu has the largest number of cinema theatres and television stations and it has a vast film industry. Most movies are full of violence. In consequence, violence has, unconsciously, become accepted as part of life.
For a few years following the 1996 murder there was an uneasy calm in the village of Kuilapalayam . But two rival groups, composed of young men, had come into existence. In April 2001, at a function in the Auroville community of New Creation, tempers exploded. Members from one group disrupted the children's performance, while members of the other group came to the rescue. It led to bloodshed and a few broken limbs. However, it did not stop at that. A few days later, a member of the group that came to the defence of the children was murdered. The police arrested the suspects. However, they were soon out on bail, and a retaliation murder followed. Once again the police rounded up all suspects as well as some innocents individuals, including some family members who were Aurovilians, and placed them in jail. Afterwards, peace between the two groups was brokered which held for some time.
But the peace notwithstanding, thefts increased. In a short period, more than 25 cases of motorbike and other thefts were registered with the police. Also an attempt to kidnap some people unrelated to Auroville was made, which led to a few more arrests. The gangs, whose members were mostly in prison for a short while, being freed on bail, gained influence. Apart from thefts, they resorted to extortion and blackmail. Rumours have it that gang members were even hired by individuals from Pondicherry to do their ‘dirty' work and that, for fear of retribution or for other reasons, many people in the village tacitly supported one or the other of these gangs.
Also the number of violent scuffles involving Aurovilians increased. In a number of incidents, Aurovilians were beaten up, and a few rapes were committed. While some of these incidents were attributed to one or other of the gangs, mostly they were independent occurences, demonstrating the general deteriorating situation.
In August 2003, an armed robbery with possible intent of murder took place on an American Aurovilian, Steve, in Udumbu. Steve heard some noise in his house in the evening, went to see, and was immediately assaulted by a group of six or seven men armed with knives and katthies (billhooks). They slashed his body severely while he called for help and defended himself with a steel bar. His neighbour Sydo came to the rescue but also got badly wounded by the criminals, who finally fled. Both Steve and Sydo had to be hospitalized for an extensive period to recover from bodily and mental injury. During their convalescence in hospital, the police arrested a number of suspects and brought them before Steve and Sydo. A few of them were recognized by Sydo, who, in doing so, became the main witness in the case. It appeared that these suspects were members of one of the gangs. Some of them were soon released on bail once again. The Auroville police liaison issued a warning that the released might try to eliminate the witness against them, but no action was taken.
In October 2003, the gang war flared up once again, and another murder took place, this time in another village close by Auroville. The victim was a homeopath who had connections with one of the gangs. It did not take long before the retaliation murder occurred. On January 19th, 2004 , one of the senior members of the other gang, who had just been released on bail a few days earlier, was killed in broad daylight in Edaiyanchavadi.
The series of gruesome murders came to a head when, in the evening of January 31st, Sydo was murdered in his house in Udumbu. The ‘why' of this murder has not been resolved but theories abound. One theory is that Sydo was the target of one of the gangs because he successfully intervened a few days earlier when a Western woman was being harassed by the members of the gang. Another theory is that the murder took place because Sydo and Steve had gotten into an argument with some villagers over the ownership of some trees that were being cut by the villagers in or near Udumbu. Another theory is that he was killed to be silenced as the witness in the previous assault. And perhaps the reason is a combination of more than one theory. In one of his last messages, dated 19th January 2004 , Sydo had written:
I would like to add that there is a serious threat that Steve, I and others are potential targets for these criminals since we are witnesses in a case against them. Tampering with witnesses can therefore not be ruled out and serious brainstorming and subsequent actions must be considered. The past and present show that these gangs don't stop at anything. Sydo”
As can be expected, Sydo's murder has raised a lot of speculation and endless discussion. Auroville failed to recognize the cries for help and assistance which the police liaison had given so many times. Questions like these can no longer be ignored and need to be answered. Auroville may have little direct possibility of controlling the gang wars. But it can no longer, in the name of respecting individual freedom, refuse to see or tolerate actions of individuals that endanger the safety of villagers and fellow Aurovilians alike.