Row over Pa Ranjith's remark: Focus on Chola emperor Rajaraja highlights apathy towards Dalits' land rights

My mother, along with her eight siblings and parents, lived in the slums of Greams Road in Thousand Lights, a locality in central Chennai. Many from the family, including my 75-year-old grandmother, still live there.

Despite my family having lived there for a hundred years and having raised it to three floors, the land still has no patta. It is considered to be “porombokku” land by the government. The house has seen five generations of Dalits and has produced two generations of arts and science graduates, an MBA graduate, four engineers, an architect, a PhD scholar, an insurance company manager, a journalist and a social activist. This house is shelter to 40 individuals, which is 13 Dalit families: yet it has no patta. In fact, no house in the area has patta despite having many generations of families living in them for more than 100 years.

This brings me to the recent controversy that Pa Ranjith finds himself in. My only problem is: what is this controversy about? Land rights have been denied to Dalits for centuries. And how does a system, like caste, which ubiquitously exists in the Indian subcontinent in the 21st century, disappear from the Chola kingdom from the 13th century? I always imagined that those who claimed Tamil Nadu to be an example of a casteless state were in the post-Periyar utopia of 20th century. I never once thought that their imagination dated as far back as the 13th century.

This also reminds us of the ongoing slum resettlement fiasco in Chennai. Thousands of families were relocated out of their homes across Chennai. Some of these spaces are being turned into parks and parking spaces for institutions. It didn’t affect us until a few of our own families were thrown out of Thideer Nagar, a locality which is adjacent to my area.

 Row over Pa Ranjiths remark: Focus on Chola emperor Rajaraja highlights apathy towards Dalits land rights

Pa Ranjith. Screenshot from YouTube video

In December 2017, around 3,000 families from our area along the Cooum river were evacuated overnight. The Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board (TNSCB) followed no protocols in this process. We stood helpless, watching our people thrown into lorries like garbage and taken away from their lands. One of the families is my grandmother’s own sister.

Incidentally, TNSCB was established by the DMK government in 2007. Since then, it has been used as a political tool by both the Dravidian parties to make gains from the Dalit vote bank in Chennai slums. It's important to note here that like most of the families in my area (story of every other slum in Chennai), my family too was and are patrons of Dravidian ideology. Mine are hardcore DMK supporters.

The party has a strong foothold in the Thousand Lights constituency where our slum is located. Even though Thideernagar was a recognised slum under the Tamil Nadu Slum Areas Act 1971, and it was inaugurated by DMK’s own MK Stalin in 2017 during his term as mayor, DMK “not being in power“ was cited as the reason for the party to have not raised their voice against this inhumane act. When former chief minister M Karunanidhi died, it was not difficult for the party to find a resting spot for him near the beach, even though they were “not in power”. In fact, it is the first time that a non-sitting chief minister was allowed to be buried in the Marina beach.

It is not just in Tamil Nadu but throughout India that Dalits suffer from illegal land-grabbing activities. The special case of Tamil Nadu is that even though the so-called Dalit-friendly Dravidian parties ruled the state, they did not take any step in this regard to make things better. In fact, it has only become worse, as seen in the case of Thideernagar evacuation. Dalits in Tamil Nadu are very different from the rest of India, yes, but they are in no better situation than them.

Since 1999, the Tamil Nadu government — under its various Dravidian parties' rule — has evacuated around 52,268 families (2,00,000 people) from slums to localities on the periphery of Chennai such as Perumbakkam and Kannagi Nagar. DMK was in power in the state for two terms during this period. Since the last three years, 71,268 families consisting of about 2,62,614 people are in the process of being evicted from regions surrounding Buckingham Canal, Kooum River and certain areas in Adyar.

So far, 13,000 families have been forcefully moved. On 8 February, it was decided in the Legislative Assembly that 38,000 more families will be evacuated from the Buckingham Canal slums in the coming few years. Will this too happen right under the nose of the DMK?

Name of water body around which the slums are located Number of families to be evicted Number of persons to be evicted
Adyar 9246 31876
Buckingham canal West 10685 37634
Buckingham canal Central 10479 39550
Buckingham canal East 22564 84664
Otteri nalla 4659 18701
Kooum 13635 50189
TOTAL 71268 2,62,614

Around 51 percent of these families (36,493 people) belong to the SC/ST communities. This is the Dalit's problem of today. We have clearly understood the fluid nature of land-holding for a Dalit in India whether it is for the poorest of poor Dalits or a middle class family of Dalits like us.

Instead of accusing Pa Ranjith of what he did or did not say, it’s high time to understand the underlying truth of matters. Ranjith makes a very valid point about Panchami lands but everyone is busy lamenting about his criticism on Rajaraja Cholan. It is a well-known fact that according to the GO 1010/1010A issued by the British government in 1892, around 12 lakh acres of land from the Madras Presidency was to be distributed to landless Dalits.

This later came to be known as Panchami lands. It is no secret that recorded 3.5 lakh acres are with non-Dalits. These numbers need to be checked, verified and updated. Necessary action should be taken in this regard. This is not about Tamil Nadu or Dravidian politics or Rajaraja Cholan but about the landlessness of Dalit communities wherever they are. Being Tamil does not change the status of a Dalit. Everywhere Hinduism exists, caste survives. I believe in India, no king is an exception to this rule.

Ranjith has given us all the opportunity to ponder upon these issues by constantly raising the pertinent question of land. What does it take to make people understand the weakness in your knees that you feel when you know that the JCB is going to hit your house next, especially when you have still not cleared out most of your family’s photos nailed to its walls?

I went to Perumbakkam to see how the families were doing there. We all know and have heard of the numerous defects in the relocation settlements. But what hit me hard was seeing the people whose voices used to reach at least 70 decibels back home talking in hushed voices for fear of the police raids.

A statement made by Asha Kowtal of All India Dalit Mahila Adhikar Manch (AIDMAM) comes to mind: “What do we have that we can call our own? We don’t have land, we don’t have property. But this small space around Ambedkar’s statue is something that we can call our own.”

Sometimes, even that is caged away. Such is the acute thirst for land among Dalit communities. It is foolish to say otherwise.

(The author is a filmmaker and journalist from Tamil Nadu.)

Updated Date: Jun 14, 2019 22:44:03 IST