#TN2016 and a call for governance: Caste-ing the first stone in Tamil Nadu

Editor's Note: As Tamil Nadu heads into poll frenzy, the overarching theme of the campaigns — both by the ruling party as well as the Opposition — is that of governance. While Opposition parties like the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) claim a breakdown of governance in the current regime, the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam argues that governance has never been better in the state.

In this series, Firstpost takes a dive into various aspects of governance in the past five years to analyse the merits and demerits of each party’s claim. The first part of the series examined criticism, the second part looked at how populist politics are eating away at the economy, while the third in the series sought to explore corruption.

#TN2016 and a call for governance: Caste-ing the first stone in Tamil Nadu

In his small house at the edge of a Dalit colony in Omalur town in Salem, V Kalaiselvan, 24, sobs like a child. The lone photo album in his house brings on the tears - memories of carefree years, the only holiday the family had been on in 2003 to Tirupati.

Kalai has seen tragedy very young. When he was in Class X, his father died of ill health. Last year his younger brother, Gokulraj, was allegedly murdered due to his caste.

"My father Venkatachalam was a neat, stylish man," said Kalai in between sobs. "He was a government bus driver. He used to tell us that an education was most important. Gokul used to look just like dad, had his exact same mannerisms. Now he too is gone," he cried.

File image of J Jayalalithaa. PTI

File image of J Jayalalithaa. PTI

Kalai explains after his tears, that the once happy family fell upon hard times and grew apart after his dad died. Following Gokul's tragic end, life, he says, appears pointless.

Gokulraj, a 21-year-old engineer, was found lying decapitated on the railway tracks near Erode in 2015. Subsequently, police found that the cause for the murder was caste - Gokul, a Dalit belonging to the Scheduled Paraiyar caste, was allegedly murdered for talking to a classmate, a girl from the "upper" Gounder caste in Tiruchengode. The alleged killer Yuvaraj was finally taken into custody after four months of taunting the Tamil Nadu police.

Kalaiselvan's anger which has now turned to helpless grief is not his alone. In 2014, Tamil Nadu had the dubious distinction of ranking number two in the country behind Maharashtra in terms of caste riots. In the past five years of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) regime, a number of cases of caste violence have taken place.

In 2011, a mob of Dalit youths was fired upon by the police in Paramakudi, killing seven. Dalits alleged that the police opened fire without provocation and without first warning the mob or firing rubber bullets. Police claim that the mob was armed and attacked them first.

In 2012, violence broke out in the northern districts as "upper" caste Vanniyars torched 200 huts in Natham Colony, a Dalit area in Dharmapuri district. The reason was that a Vanniyar girl had eloped with a Dalit boy Ilavarasan. Her anguished father committed suicide, leading to the huts being torched. Subsequently the girl returned home to Dharmapuri after living with Ilavarasan for some months. A devastated Ilavarasan allegedly committed suicide by lying down on the railway tracks. Dalit groups insist that Ilavarasan was murdered, while police say both post mortems clearly show suicide. This case triggered a number of revenge attacks across the state.

Kalaiselvan & Gokulraj

"Dalit murders have increased in this regime," said Kathir, convenoe of NGO Evidence, which deals with cases of atrocities against Dalits. "There are two types of atrocities — state violence against Dalits and caste groups related violence. 38 commissions on enquiry were set up between 1999 to 2015. All commissions of inquiry have gone with police version so far. Every year murders of Dalit Panchayat Presidents and other caste related violence taking place. This is a caste attack, not simply caste violence," he stated.

In 2013 came the Marakkanam caste violence in which members of the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) clashed with Dalit groups like Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK). In August 2015, Dalit huts were burnt in Seshasamudram village near Kallakurichi. Apart from these, a series of murders and sporadic violence have marred the current regime's record.

Activists say that the rival Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) has nothing to crow about in terms of preventing caste related violence. "If there was a Paramakudi firing incident in 2011 in the AIADMK period, there was a Thamirabarani police firing in 1999 in which 17 were killed," said Kathir of Evidence NGO.

"This regime has not done anything to contain caste violence which has increased in an unprecedented manner," said C Lakshmanan, Associate Professor, Madras Institute of Development Studies. "There has been a huge increase in honour killings. Rule of law did not help the downtrodden," he charged.

File image of M Karunanidhi and MK Stalin. PTI

File image of M Karunanidhi and MK Stalin. PTI

Lakshmanan states that although there may have been fewer instances of caste related violence during the previous DMK regime, both parties were similar in dealing with this specific issue. "The DMK period did not see so many violent episodes as in AIADMK term. But as Opposition party, neither party takes up the issue of violence against Dalits. There is a clear uniform undercurrent in terms of addressing the Dalit question," he stated.

The ruling party places the blame for caste clshes squarely on the Opposition. "Karunanidhi himself is creating these problems by aligning with caste-based outfits and inciting them to violence," said a senior leader of the AIADMK, who did not wish to be named. "We are bringing reconciliation between caste groups and religious groups in the state," he said.

Police sources stress that firm action was indeed taken during this regime to control and prevent caste clashes. "In 2012, after a petrol bomb attack between two caste groups in Pasumpon, a decision was taken to prevent outsiders from coming into villages and causing law and order problems, especially during festivals like Thevar Jayanthi, Immanuel Sekaran's birthday and any other event related to caste leaders," said a retired police officer on condition of anonymity.

He explained that the Collector of the district would impose Section 144 ahead of the festival, thus preventing groups from other areas from coming in in trucks and jeeps, chanting provocative slogans like "Indha padai podhuma, innum konjam venuma" (meaning is this army enough or do you want more?). "Since people from other districts tended to act irresponsibly in the safety of anonymity, unlike locals, this curtailed misbehaviour," he added.

The jury is out though as regards the handling of caste and related tensions in the state by the current regime. In 2014, Dalits voted almost en masse for Jayalalithaa. With talk of the first ever Dalit chief ministerial hopeful now doing the rounds — Thol Thirumavalavan of the VCK — the issue of attacks on Dalits might just become more important in this election.

The author had previously conducted a detailed study of caste politics in Tamil Nadu.

She tweets @sandhyaravishan

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Updated Date: Mar 04, 2016 07:57:16 IST

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