CCTV footage of a Dalit man and his upper caste wife being attacked by goons on Monday exposed the ugly face of caste violence in Tamil Nadu. This, however, is definitely not the first noted instance of caste-based violence. This attack makes one wonder how a state that embraces transgenders with open arms and gives them an identity on paper is still under the grip of caste-based discrimination.
One of the first, most noted instances of violence against the Dalit community was in Kizhavenmani village, Tamil Nadu on 25 December, 1968. A group of 44 people, belonging to the Dalit community, were killed by their landlords. It was around the time when the landless peasant community of Dalits were urged by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) to fight for higher wages. This led to clashes between the Dalits and the upper-caste landlords, eventually ending in the landlords surrounding homes of the Dalits, burning them down, murdering over 40 people. The Keezhvenmani carnage anniversary is observed every year and marks a point in Dalit history that changed the face of Dalit violence post-independence.
Another noted instance of violence was in 2012. Marriage between a Vanniyar girl and a Dalit boy called Ilavarasan in Nayakankottai, on the road from Dharmapuri, incited a 1000-strong army of men, who burst into three Dalit settlements, looted, smashed and burnt over 260 houses. However, A report in The Hindu says that inter-caste marriages are not uncommon. Activists have been crusaders of justice for years and the state even offers benefits to couples in inter-caste marriages.
Another article in The Hindu tries to analyse what led to the fall of progression in Tamil Nadu — each lower caste community trying to assert their caste-based pride with a purpose of upward mobility and protecting their identity. The Thevar and Vanniyar community receiving recognition and representation in Tamil politics, more than the Dalit community renders the Dalit community feeling slighted of their Tamil Pride. Parties like DMK and AIADMK are very selective in choosing only socially dominant classes.
In another instance of caste-based violence, a group of 150 Dalits were forced to flee from their homes in Seshasamudhram village in Tamil Nadu’s Villupuram district after a group of Vanniyars looted and torched down all the houses Dalit houses on 16th August, 2013, according to a Frontline report. The Dalits were set to celebrate a festival which involved pulling a cart with an idol of God placed on it, all the way to a temple. In peace meetings before this incident, the Vanniyar community had acknowledged their right to celebrate the festival. Later however, they were urged by the village Panachyat president Subramanian to burn down the Dalits' side of the village. Subramanian, a member of the Pattali Makkal Katchi(PMK), had earlier promised money and supplies to help build a cart to carry the idol for the Dalits only to win votes. However, he received a lot of flak from the Vanniyars for betraying his caste. He, thus, hatched a plan to revive their trust, incited the youth to destroy Dalit homes just before the festivities.
Politics polluting education
A report in The Indian Express from November 2015 noted how schools in Tirunelveli mark off students based on their castes - red and yellow bands for Thevars, blue and yellow for Nadars, saffron for Yadavs (note that these are all Hindu communities that have a strong foothold socially and politically and fall under the Most Backward Clases (MBC) category) and green, white, black and sometime red bands for Dalits.
Chief Educational officers of Tirunelveli R Swaminathan ordered schools to ban any use of colour to identify caste. But identity goes deeper than a band. Students in the district have other ways of identifying who they can and cannot befriend - colour-coded tilaks or binidis or locally known as pottu, colour-coded houses and music even. The article talks of an incident where a student was playing a song praising Ambedkar in a bus, when another student started playing a song from a Kamal Haasan movie Thevar Magan (Son of the Thevars) to contest with him, eventually leading to a clash between the communities.
Another instance of caste politics tainting education was in 2012. In Salem district, caste conscious Vanniyars in a few villages refused to send their kids to school unless the Dalit women cooking their kids’ mid-day meals were fired. One Dalit cook, S Sundaravanitha recounts her woes in The Hindu’s report on the incidents; she expressed the harassment and humiliation she -faced from the Vanniyars everyday. She was eventually shifted to Mookanur where she faced similar treatment from the socially superior Hindus.
The Democratic Youth Federation of India staged a protest demanding the arrest of those promoting untouchability.
While on one hand, sense and rationality is trying to fight the unchasted effects of politics, people like S Ramadoss, founder of Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), have manipulated masses into believing in discrimination and have been successful in inciting violence. Following the 2012 violence over the inter-caste marriage, he had said that Dalit boys woo girls with fancy sunglasses , jeans and T-shirts and that girls fally prey to such ‘Romeos’.
In a report published by Kafila in 2011 revealed that Thevars formed 7.56 percent of Tamil Nadu’s population while the Dalits constituted 4.92 percent. An interesting point to note is that 30 percent of the Tamil Nadu police force is made up of Thevars. This makes for a case in point because in 2015, a prime accused in a Dalit murde case, Yuvraj surrendered in Namakkal. A senior police officer, in The Indian Express report which highlights the audacity of the accused, was quoted as saying that Yuvraj surrendered ‘in style’ and went on to say how the police received him like a hero.