Caste assertion, clashes in Tamil Nadu forcing Dravidian parties to recalibrate their politics

In the background of growing caste related violence in Tamil Nadu, FirstPost travels to the southernmost part of the country to find out how caste dictates life and how the rationalist Dravidian movement has morphed to tackle a resurgent caste identity in the state. This is the first part of the Caste Chronicles series.

M Subbaiah wears a forlorn look on his face. All of 36 years of age, married and with a child, he is now a farmer, despite having a Diploma in Engineering. The problem, says Subbaiah, has nothing to do with his credentials or skills. The problem is that he hails from a village called Gopalasamudram, about 25 kilometres from the bustling Tirunelveli town in southern Tamil Nadu.

“I was working as a tower supervisor in a telecom company earning Rs 25,000 a month,” explained Subbaiah. “In 2013, after the incident, my manager called me and asked casually where I was from. I told him my home was in Gopalasamudram. He then told me the company was laying off people and sacked me. I found out later that I was the only one that got sacked. It is all due to the bad name our village has now got,” he rued.

Since 2013, Gopalasamudram has seen bloodshed – an eye for an eye, one murder to avenge another. This has pitted the formidable Backward Class caste, the Thevars, against the Scheduled Caste Pallars in this village of 15,000.

 Caste assertion, clashes in Tamil Nadu forcing Dravidian parties to recalibrate their politics

Image courtesy: Sandhya Ravishankar and Devang Dave/ Firstpost

In 2013, a row began over celebrations of Thevar Jayanthi (a festival marking the birthday of Muthuramalinga Thevar, an eminent leader belonging to the Thevar caste) in a private school where children of both castes studied. The headmistress of the Pannai Venkatarama Iyer High School (PVI School) in Gopalasamudram organised Thevar Jayanthi celebrations in the school and handed a chocolate and a new pencil to all students. Dalit students took affront and refused to take these gifts. They were beaten and bruised for their stand. Anger over caste snowballed over the next few months, culminating in the murder of 21-year-old Dharmaraj on the banks of the Tamirabharani river that flows quietly behind the village. One year later, the Dalits struck back, hacking 21-year-old Karthi to death in the marketplace in 2014. Tensions are barely under the surface now but neither side feels like the victor.

“There are so many young boys of marriageable age in Gopalasamudram,” said Subbaiah, a member of the Thevar caste. “Now no one wants to give brides in marriage to our boys. They tell us openly that we are trouble makers and murderers. It is shameful,” he added.

Tucked away in a corner of the village is the area where the Scheduled Caste population has resided for decades. These people, numerically equal to the “upper caste” Thevars, belong to the Pallar sub-section of Dalits and are known as Devendrakula Vellalars.

In this area, 14-year-old Muthu Palpandi, silent and with big solemn eyes, follows his mother to the fields. Muthu has not been to school in a year. This too is a fallout of the caste related violence in the village.

“We want to give our children good education so that they at least don’t end up like us,” said a plaintive Velankanni Palpandi, Muthu’s mother. “Please help us reopen the school. We don’t want our children to suffer a fate like ours,” said the 36-year-old agricultural landless labourer as she headed out to the paddy fields.

The mood in Gopalasamudram is grim. Since the incident in 2013, all 130 Pallar students dropped out of the PVI School. With the help of NGOs and with their own contributions, the Pallars of Gopalasamudram managed to raise Rs 8 lakhs to build a school within their own area. Teachers were brought in and these 130 students managed to continue their education for a year. Funds dried up subsequently and the district administration refused permission to allow the school to run. One whole academic year has now gone by with these Pallar children running amok with little to do but play.

“We want a school now, we are desperate,” said S Jayakumar, a 47-year-old resident of the Pallar part of Gopalasamudram. “As a result of this clash, everyone here has understood the importance of education. The only way to get rid of this scourge of caste is to educate everyone. That awareness has come to our people,” he said.

Tamil Nadu Caste Chronicles in Pictures

In the photo: Velankanni Palpandi (in orange saree) with other women in the Dalit area of Gopalasamudram say their kids have missed out on one academic year. Check out other photos of the series here.

While the Pallars have lost out on education, the Thevars have lost jobs and prospective brides for their young men. Other castes in the village include Chettiars, Brahmins, Nadars, Pillais and Konars (Yadavs). Many of these residents, although not directly involved in the clash, have suffered due to it. A number of long time residents have moved out of the village fearing a reprisal of 2013. Many others have sent their children to boarding schools far from home so that their studies may not be interrupted. Most villagers agree that the caste related violence has destroyed much more than peace in Gopalasamudram.

While the two murders were of residents of Gopalasamudram itself, the violence had a cascading effect on villages surrounding Gopalasamudram. In 2014, another Pallar man was hacked to death while traveling by bus in the neighbouring Kothankulam village. A spate of almost copycat murders followed, at least six such killings according to Dalit activists, as caste became a talking point once again. Rifts deepened along caste lines in neighbouring villages, say activists in the area.

“In Suthamani village, about a kilometer from here, 20 Thevar boys moved out of the government school so that they did not have to study with Pallar boys,” said Rajavel Paramasivan, a social activist in Gopalasamudram. “They moved to a private school just because of this issue in our village,” he said.

Tamil Nadu stands second in the country currently in terms of caste clashes, pipped only by Maharashtra, according to data released by the National Crime Records Bureau. 211 caste related riots have taken place in the state in 2014. The southern districts of the state record more violence and caste related murders and honour killings than the other regions of the state. Dalit experts say that this is likely due to the fact that the Pallars who abound in the southern districts are largely a land-owning community and therefore more aware and willing to fight for their rights.

John Pandian, leader of Dalit political party Tamilaga Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam (TMMK or Tamil People’s Progressive Party) says that despite caste related murders and riots reducing in numbers in Tirunelveli district in the past 10 years, the reasons behind such murders are much more mundane.

“Feelings of caste have increased across the state,” said Pandian. “The problem is that there are not enough industries here. There is no way for all castes to work together. If they all work together in the same factory, there will be no issues. Our youth are unemployed in the villages,” he said.

Subbaiah and Jayakumar of Gopalasamudram, on either side of the caste divide, agree. “Our youth have nothing to do, they are educated but unemployed,” said Subbaiah, of the Thevar caste. “They go around in groups, get drunk and then pick fights. Even a small remark or a glance can turn into an issue and ends in murder,” he said.

Pallar resident Jayakumar says that unemployed Pallar youth too consume liquor and speak of caste amongst themselves as an identity and therefore situations get out of hand. “There is no proper education for our boys, no access to higher studies for any of the youngsters here, be it Thevar or Pallar,” he said. “Without education and jobs, they sit under trees and discuss small issues and blow them out of proportion. Only education can resolve this caste issue,” he said.

A ray of hope though finds its way in the maturity of some decisions taken by middle aged members of both castes in Gopalasamudram. A peace committee comprising all castes in the village, formed in the aftermath of the two murders, came up with some positive resolutions. One resolution was to push for a government school in the village where all students would study together. The second was that no caste-affiliated political parties would be allowed to come in and campaign in the village. The third was that no flags would be raised anywhere in the village which symbolised a caste. The flagpoles of Gopalasamudram until today stand bereft of yellow, red or green, an indication of the sanity that its people are trying desperately to keep.


In the next edition of Tamil Nadu's Caste Chronicles:

Firstpost finds out how caste is taking on a newer, more aggressive form in the southern districts of Tamil Nadu, as a resurgent Dalit takes on the aggressive Thevar, the all powerful Nadar and the other so-called higher castes. We also delve into how caste identity has become crucial for Tamilians down south.

The author tweets @sandhyaravishan

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Updated Date: Nov 17, 2015 09:19:23 IST