Tamil Nadu's atrocities against the Dalit community
The atrocities committed against Dalits in Tamil Nadu are manifold and frequent, despite the fanciful claims of politicians about the eradication of untouchability in the state.
The leaders of Dravidar Kazhagam, the DMK, the AIADMK and the MDMK never tire of parroting this boastful refrain: "Tamil Nadu is the soil where Thanthai Periyar was born and tended its soil for social justice to bloom and to fight against untouchability." Thanthai Periyar is E.V. Ramasamy, who fought for social justice and against untouchability. He spearheaded the movement for self-respect. The DMK stands for Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the AIADMK for All-India Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the MDMK is short for Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam.
While the alleged gang-rape and murder of a Dalit girl by a group of upper-caste men in Hathras district in Uttar Pradesh has been in the spotlight for several weeks now, an incident occurred in Tamil Nadu that exposed the hollowness of the fanciful claims of politicians about the eradication of untouchability in the state. On October 10, 2020, details emerged about how Mrs Rajeswari Saravana Kumar (47), a Dalit woman and president of the Therku Thittai village panchayat was compelled to sit on the floor on July 17, 2020, by the upper caste Hindu members of the panchayat. A series of incidents showed that the denial of chairs and even name boards are de rigueur for elected Dalit women presidents of village panchayats in the State.
The July 17, 2020 incident took place when the six elected ward members of the Therku Thittai village panchayat in Cuddalore district met on that day in the panchayat office room. Rajeswari, who belongs to a Scheduled Caste, is one of the six elected ward members. On October 10, "Theekathir", a daily newspaper and an organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) published the news of the humiliation faced by Rajeswari when she was forced to sit in one corner on the floor of the room while the caste Hindu representatives sat in chairs, looking pompously important. Out of six elected ward members, four were upper-caste Hindus. They were all Vanniyars, the dominant caste in Cuddalore district and in Therku Thittai village too. The remaining two ward members - Rajeswari and Suganthi - belonged to a Scheduled Caste.
After Theekkathir published the news on October 10, other newspapers lost no time in carrying reports on the incident the next day. The newspapers carried a picture of Rajeswari sitting on the bare floor in one corner of a room of the panchayat office building while the upper caste Hindu ward members sat in chairs.
It was not the first time that Rajeswari was forced to sit on the floor by the Vanniyars when the panchayat met. She faces the humiliation every time the six elected members meet. She alleged another insult that she has faced, namely she was not allowed to hoist the national flag in the village on the Republic Day this year. But the upper caste Hindu ward representatives had the audacity to claim that since there were not enough chairs available, Rajeswari herself volunteered to sit on the floor!
The Cuddalore District Collector, Chandra Sekhar Sakhsmuri, acted swiftly. He suspended the Therku Thittai panchayat secretary, Sindhuja, for looking the other way when Rajeswari was made to sit on the floor every time the panchayat met and for failing to bring the incident to his notice. The police arrested Sindhuja, a Vanniyar, under The Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.
Panchayat secretaries are government staff, who should be present when the village panchayats meet. Every village has a panchayat secretary and he/she monitors its finances. The secretary executes the government's schemes such as water supply, construction of "greenhouses", granting approvals for building new houses etc. in the village concerned. If panchayat secretaries happen to be Hindus, they normally side with the dominant intermediate caste in the village.
The police invoked the Act against Mohan Raj, vice-president of the Therku Thittai panchayat, for compelling Rajeswari to sit on the floor. Mohan Raj belongs to the ruling AIADMK. His family calls the shots in the village. His father was the president of the panchayat for three terms. Fearing arrest, Mohan Raj feigned illness and was admitted in a hospital in Chidambaram, sources said.
Rajeswari alleged that Mohan Raj and the three other ward members did not allow her to function independently. It was Mohan Raj who convened the panchayat meetings. His stand always was, "I am a woman and I know nothing and should remain quiet", she said. (The Hindu, Chennai edition, October 11, 2020).
If more proof was needed to show that untouchability was flourishing in Tamil Nadu, 60-year old A. Paulraj, a Scheduled Caste person, was forced to prostrate at the feet of S. Sivasangu, a caste Hindu, on October 8, 2020. Paulraj had to bear this affront to his dignity after his lamb got mixed up with Sivasangu’s herd.
The incident happened when Paulraj of Olaikulam village, Kayathar taluq, Tuticorin district, was grazing his sheep and goats on the dried bed of Tirumangala Kurichikuam tank when Sivasangu also brought his herd there. One of Paulraj’s lambs mingled with Sivasangu’s herd. Paulraj tried to retrieve his lamb. "Sivasangu, after abusing me by referring to my caste, tried to attack me with a club", Paulraj said.
Soon afterwards, Sivasangu went to Olaikulam village and returned with a group of people who assaulted Paulraj. In his complaint to the Superintendent of Police, S. Jayakumar, Paulraj alleged that the group forced him to prostrate at Sivasangu’s feet several times even as Maharajan and Mahendran filmed it on their mobile phones.
A humiliated Paulraj said in his complaint, "Since they posted this video clip on the social media, I felt humiliated, and submit this complaint, seeking action against all those involved in this crime under The Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act." (The Hindu, Chennai edition, October 13, 2020).
Cut to Athupakkam village, Tiruvallur district. It is August 15, 2020, the 73rd Independence Day of India. V. Amurtham, a Dalit woman in her 60s and president of the Athupakkam village panchayat, was delighted that she had been asked to hoist the national flag on that day by the headmistress Dhanalakshmi of the local elementary school. Dhanalakshmi invited Amurtham to hoist the flag because only the school had a flag mast and not the panchayat office itself. Amurtham was looking forward to her moment in the sun. Since she belonged to a Scheduled Caste, she had faced only affronts and insults all her life. Unfurling the country's flag would be a dream moment for her.
But on the morning of August 15th, the headmistress rang up Amurtham and told her not to bother to come to the school. The dominant Vanniyar caste members in Athupakkam would not bestow the privilege of hoisting the national flag on Amurtham. When two reporters who came to know about the incident reached the village in order to report the story, they were beaten up.
V. Haridoss, the former president of the Athupakkam panchayat, had allegedly also prevented Amurtham from unfurling the flag on Republic Day on January 26, 2020. When Times of India and other publications highlighted the August 15 incident, Tiruvallur district Collector Maheswari Ravikumar and Superintendent of Police P. Aravindhan ensured on August 21 that Amurtham raised the flag on a newly erected mast on the premises of the panchayat office. "Today is the real Independence Day for me. Words fail me in expressing my happiness", she said.
The Collector suspended the panchayat secretary M. Sasikumar, a Vanniyar, for humiliating Amurtham because she belonged to a Scheduled Caste. Police arrested K. Vijayakumar, husband of Revathy, panchayat vice-president, and Sasikumar, for assaulting one of the two journalists who went to Athupakkam village.
On September 20, 2020, The New Sunday Express published a researched story, backed by statistics, on how "caste pride and gender prejudice continue to haunt most panchayat presidents of Tamil Nadu." It said, "They don't get to exercise their powers, and watch helplessly as others run the show..." The full-page story was entitled "Pride and Prejudice." It had an illustration where a man's hand is yanking away a chair while a woman is looking on helplessly.
It is worth quoting from the story at length. It begins like this: "Sign here, kezhavi [old woman]...And stop asking for reasons..." That is how the office-bearers of the Athupakkam village in Tiruvallur district address their panchayat president Amurtham. "As a Dalit woman, I am used to being insulted, and ignored", says the sexagenerian, in a matter-of-fact tone. "But when I contested and got elected as the panchayat president, I thought, rather hoped, that things would begin to change." Her village proved her wrong.
On the one side, a few panchayat officials and members were allegedly committing financial frauds, without bothering to even attempt to cover it up. On the other, the public humiliation and insults continued or rather intensified once she assumed office. "I am called into office only for my signature", Amurtham tells Express. "They would not even explain anything. Later, I realised they were getting my signatures on blank cheques."
"Being ignored and humiliated was not new for me, being a Dalit woman," she says. The matter, however, reached a tipping point in August.
August 15th was the day when the Vanniyars prevented Amurtham from hoisting the national flag.
The New Sunday Express went on to narrate other incidents where the chair has been elusive for Dalit women presidents of panchayats. V. Saridha, a Dalit woman, was elected the president of the J. Krishnapuram village panchayat, near Pollachi. During the panchayat elections held in December 2019, Saridha's supporters were not allowed to campaign on the streets where the dominant castes lived. After she was elected as president, she was denied the chair. "They stopped me from writing my name outside my office. They stopped me from sitting on the official chair" she said. She hired a signwriter in February 2020 to paint her name on the door outside her office but the intermediate castes drove him away. "They did not want a Dalit woman's name to be written there", Saridha said.
To return to Rajeswari of Therku Thittai village, she said she was treated shabbily ever since she was elected as the panchayat president in December 2019. She was not allowed to occupy her seat at the panchayat office. Mohan Raj and three other ward members did not allow her to function independently. It was Mohan Raj who convened the panchayat meetings,
She alleged that she was not allowed to hoist the national flag on Republic Day - January 26, 2020. "Mohan Raj and three other ward members, all Hindus, insulted me and forced me and the other Dalit ward member, Suganthi, to sit on the floor during the meetings while the rest sat on chairs," Rajeswari said. She bore these insults and disrespect in the larger interests of the village. She added, "The situation has now reached a point where continued silence will only strengthen their attitude and hence, I have decided to speak out." (The Hindu, October 11, 2020).
District officials, however, denied that Rajeswari was not allowed to unfurl the national flag on Republic Day.
It is common knowledge that untouchability is deep-rooted in villages across Tamil Nadu where people of different castes live. Several districts in the State's northern belt stand out even more starkly in this issue. They include Cuddalore, Villupuram, Vellore, Tiruvannamalai, Tiruvallur and Kanchipuram districts, where the Vanniyars are a dominant community. These districts are notorious for the Vanniyars disregarding the feelings of the people of the Scheduled Castes. In Cuddalore district, the undercurrent of animus between the Vanniyars and the Dalits has always been palpable.
The confrontation between the Vanniyars and the Dalits intensified with the founding of the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) and the Viduthalai Siruthaiga Katchi (VCK). While the PMK, founded in July 1989 by Dr S. Ramadoss, is a vehicle of the Vanniyars' aspirations, the VCK led by Thol. Thirumavalavan symbolises the Dalit youth's yearning for a dignified place in society. For they are chafing at the humiliating treatment they receive from the caste Hindus, especially the Vanniyars. The PMK and the VCK are, therefore, at daggers drawn.
What is happening is that the intermediate castes are not able to digest the rise in the well-being of the Dalits, aided by reservations for the SCs and the STs in educational institutions and government jobs. The Dalit youths zipping about on motorbikes are an eyesore for the Vanniyars. In this situation, when Dalit women presidents of panchayats are humiliated by Vanniyars, other Hindu communities conveniently look the other way.
In the villages in the northern districts, although the Vanniyars form the majority, there are people belonging to other caste Hindu communities such as Mudaliars, Chettiars, and Naidus as well. However, in all these villages, the Dalits are segregated and live separately in "colonies", which lie some distance away from the main village where the intermediate castes live. The caste Hindus employ the Dalits to do agricultural work such as ploughing, planting saplings, harvesting crops etc. Even today, the Scheduled Castes cannot enter the homes of the caste Hindus in the villages, especially the Vanniyars, through the front entrance. The Dalits can go in only by the back yard. The caste Hindus do not normally attend weddings in the Dalit families if they are held in the colonies. A few may attend if the marriages are held in wedding halls in small towns nearby.
It is in the coastal Cuddalore district, which is frequently buffeted by cyclones and floods, where the Dalits' deprivation is stark. While Vanniyars and other caste Hindu groups live in cement concrete houses, most of the Dalits live in ramshackle huts. In the tsunami of December 26, 2004, the aftermaths of Thane, Neelam and other cyclones, and the 2015 deluge, all of which hammered the Cuddalore district, it was the fishermen and the Dalits who suffered the most. This reporter, who has covered these tragedies in the Cuddalore district, has seen the Dalits' huts, made out of coconut or palmyra tree fronds, torn to bits or swept away. Most of their cattle perished. But the bureaucracy, including the tahsildars, was heartless and denied them even small compensation amounts for the huts which collapsed or the cattle that were swept away. The tahsildars had the temerity to ask the poverty-stricken Dalit families to produce the carcasses of goats which were swept away in the 2015 deluge in order to receive compensation!
Clashes have often erupted between the Vanniyars and the Dalits. Although there was some entente between the PMK and the VCK from 2006 to 2012, a confrontation broke out on November 7, 2012, when a Vanniyar mob torched and damaged 238 Dalit dwellings in three colonies near Naickenkottai in Dharmapuri district. Their prime target was the Natham colony. The provocation for the attack was the suicide of Nagarajan, a Vanniyar from the nearby Sellankottai, after his 20-year old daughter Divya married Ilavarsan, a Dalit youth from Natham colony.
The caste Hindus allege that "select" Dalit youths have been given "assignments" to ensnare caste Hindu girls and marry them. The PMK leaders alleged that the Dalit youths were enacting "love dramas" to marry caste Hindu girls. The PMK leaders called such incidents "nadaka kadhal" in Tamil.
An article by this writer in Frontline dated May 15, 2013, said: "Soon after this incident [Nagarajan's suicide], Dr Ramadoss formed a nine-member of intermediate castes, named the "All Communities' Federation." At public meetings of the PMK, its leaders alleged that Dalit youth, wearing jeans, T-shirts and sunglasses, and flaunting their motorcycles and mobile phones, were luring caste Hindu girls into marriage. The federation held public meetings in different districts to expose these "farcical love marriages." Although the resolutions passed at the meetings held in Chennai and Madurai in December 2012 and January 2013 said the federation's constituents were not against love marriages or inter-caste marriages, they blamed "a party that misguides the Dalits, directs them from behind and encourages them to enact these "love dramas''". This was a reference to the VCK."
Then the attack on April 25, 2013, happened when a mob of PMK men threw petrol bombs at many Dalit huts at Kattayan Theru, a Dalit colony near Marakkanam in Villupuram district. Everything in the huts, including the ten sovereigns of jewellery bought by A. Anusuya's mother for Anusuya's wedding to be held a month later, was lost.
Given this background, elections were held in four categories of local bodies, including ward members of village panchayats in 27 out of 37 districts in December 2019. Many wards were reserved for the Scheduled Castes and women. Vanniyars and other caste Hindus were not able to contest in them. So members of these communities started manipulating the Dalit women presidents of these panchayats to be subservient to them and do their bidding. When the humiliation of these Dalit women goes beyond a point, it explodes in the faces of these intermediate castes.