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Tamil activists face torrid time under AIADMK's autocratic approach, twisted subaltern politics

Ever since J Jayalalithaa's demise, the AIADMK regime – which has a notorious history of autocratic tendencies – has gotten worse.

Whether it is the Jallikattu protests, agitations for farmers' rights or ecological issues, demonstrations against NEET and GST, the state government has either been neglectful or has responded in a high-handed manner, curbing rights to collectively mobilise. Activists belonging to civil society organisations, who have taken up these issues, have been targeted by the state.

Thirumurugan Gandhi of the 17 May Movement, and Daison Jose, Ilamaran, and Arun of the Tamizhar Vidiyal Katchi were arrested by the Tamil Nadu Police on 21 May, 2017, under the Goondas Act. These activists were arrested for organising a remembrance of the genocide of Eelam Tamils by Sri Lanka. None of the arrested activists was involved in any form of violence, nor did they instigate any.

This draconian act incidentally was introduced in the rule of MG Ramachandran, considered by many to be a staunch supporter of the Eelam Tamil cause. From then till now, the Goondas Act has been evoked several times to stifle criticisms of the ruling government. This time though, it was used to prevent criticisms of the actions of a neighbouring state.

Tamil Nadu protest. Representational image. PTI

Representational image. PTI

Sri Lanka's war crimes have been documented in several reports and the state has been accused by a panel of renowned international jurists and human rights experts of the Permanent People's Tribunal of having committed genocide on the Eelam Tamils. Gandhi and others did nothing that was even mildly anti-social by organising something as simple as a candlelight vigil to remember an event that is indelible in Tamil history.

The arrested activists have been denied bail. Amnesty International, PUCL, writers and intellectuals, activist groups in India and abroad have condemned the detention of Gandhi and others on such flimsy grounds. The Leader of Opposition MK Stalin has also criticised the arrest of Gandhi "for lighting candles at the Marina beach". If the state attempts to silence such civil society activists at one end, at another, 'subalterns' who claim offended sentiments try to do the same.

One such recent target of enraged subalterns is Divya Bharathi, the Madurai district convenor of the All India Students Association. Divya's 'crime' was to have made a documentary on manual scavenging. Kakkoos (toilet), a hard-hitting documentary, shows how different oppressed castes are forced to engage in this cruel, inhuman work.

A nasty shock hit this woman activist when the most violent reactions against this documentary came not from casteists and those in power, but rather from a section of the Dalits themselves. Dr Krishnaswamy of the Puthiya Tamizhagam, a party representing the Pallars of south Tamil Nadu, allegedly took offence to this documentary for showing Pallars in a negative light.

Following this, several supporters of his party have taken to showering abuse on Divya. These include hundreds of threatening calls, WhatsApp texts and vulgar sexist messages on social media. Apparently, activists of the BJP, who are trying to build a base among the Pallars, have also joined the assault on her. Though she has complained to the police, no action has been taken.

The irony of the situation is that the Pallars, who often claim facing oppression at the hands of the intermediate castes and resisting the same, are now offended that this documentary has shown them as oppressed. Pallars, who fashion themselves as Deventhira Kula Vellalars, have a horror of being identified with Arunthathiyars.

The latter are considered 'lowest' among the Dalit castes of Tamil Nadu and have faced violence not just from the so-called 'caste Hindus' but also from other dominant Dalit castes like the Pallars and Paraiyars. It is worthy to note that Arunthathiyar groups have welcomed Divya's documentary.

Both Gandhi and Divya belong to a new generation of civil society activists in Tamil Nadu. Without any familial political backing or caste networking, these activists have created a name for themselves in spaces that they operate. While their politics differ, and while one may also have differences with their politics, both have opposed casteist and communal forces in the state of Tamil Nadu as a matter of principle.

It is indeed a pity that while the logic of the state is invoked to silence the voice of one, offended sentiments are used as an excuse to shame and shut down the other – ultimately serving the interests of the status quo. Those who genuinely believe in 'freedom of expression' must have the courage to confront the draconian laws of the state; equally, they must also not fear political correctness in challenging the politics of subalternity when it goes haywire.

Updated Date: Aug 03, 2017 11:48 AM

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