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Dalit death in TN: How the Dravidian project has been hijacked

The death under mysterious circumstances of the Dalit youth whose marriage to a girl from the Vanniyar community last year unleashed a venomous anti-Dalit hate campaign in Tamil Nadu provides a tragic twist to the caste politics in the State.

The body of E. Ilavarasan was found on Thursday with head injuries along a railway track in Dharmapuri, bringing a pitiful conclusion to the personal story of a young couple whose love proved unequal to the poisonous politics of caste. Ilavaran’s marriage to Divya in August 2012 had set off a chain of events, each more horrendous than the other, which was exploited by the rabid assertion of Vanniya “honour” and the targeting of Dalits in their entirety.

After Divya’s father committed suicide, evidently motivated by a misplaced sense of “dishonour”, the Pattali Makkal Katchi, the vehicle of Vanniya political assertion, unleashed a hate campaign against Dalits. Mischievously alleging that Dalits were waging a ‘love jihad’ campaign to entrap girls from the backward classes into marrying Dalit boys, Vanniya hotheads set upon an entire Dalit neighbourhood, and intimidated and emotionally blackmailed Divya into forsaking her marriage.

On Wednesday, Divya, who had returned to her maternal home, had said with finality that she would not return to Ilavarasan. The very next day, Ilavarasan was found dead.

Ilavarasan coming out of the Madras High Court after a court hearing. After getting married against his wife's family's wishes, he filed a missing complaint after she left his home. Firstpost

Ilavarasan coming out of the Madras High Court after a court hearing. After getting married against his wife's family's wishes, he filed a missing complaint after she left his home. Firstpost

Ilavarasan’s parents and the community from which he hails, suspects foul play in his death, and dismissed early speculation that he had perhaps committed suicide, unable to mend a broken heart. The matter has been taken up by bodies representing Scheduled Castes and Schedule Tribes, and could have political repercussions in Tamil Nadu.

But the greater tragedy is that such caste politics continues to be played in a State where the Dravidian movement took root in the 1930s in order to empower socially backward communities through the ‘self-respect movement’ - and where inter-caste marriages, organised by mainstream political parties , became a vehicle for social emancipation in the 1960s.

That movement initially started off as an effort to break the stranglehold of the “upper castes” - principally Brahmins – in the administration and in politics. It proved enormously successful in that endeavour, with the other backward classes becoming politically empowered and securing access to education and employment on the back of affirmative action programmes.

But that political mobilisation project is far from complete, since the fruits of its effort appear not to have percolated to the Dalits.
Although the other backward classes and the Dalits were once united in their opposition to Brahminism – and Brahmins – in Tamil Nadu, that opportunistic alliance appears to have become fractured over time, since they are competing for the same pool of entitlements.

As happened at the national level when the political parties championing the cause of the Other Backward Classes became the most vociferous opponents of the move to provide reservations in promotions for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, the Other Backward Classes in Tamil Nadu have today become the standard-bearers of the politics of caste-based bigotry targeted at Dalits.

As the tragic episode involving the Divya-Ilavarasan marriage establishes, this has manifested itself today in the rise of “honour crimes” – which are centred around the exploitation of sentiments over the issue of female sexuality and “community honour”.

As CPI (M) leader Shubhashini Ali points out, so-called katta panchayats in Tamil Nadu (much like the khap panchayats in the north) lay down the perverse – and extra-judicial - rules of social engagement and wield enormous influence in society even today.

That all this should find tragic traction in Tamil Nadu, particularly given the roots of the self-respect movement is doubly tragic. That social revolution, which began well but lost well its way, is still incomplete. It has, if anything, been hijacked and perverted by the newly empowered other backward classes, which practice the worse forms of caste bigotry that would have shamed the founders of the Dravidian movement.