Tamil Nadu's Dalit saga

Published : Nov 18, 2005 00:00 IST

DALITS - for long considered and treated as outcastes in a strictly caste-based social order, later attempted to be glorified as Harijans or people of God, and Scheduled Castes from the time of the adoption of the Constitution in 1950 - constitute approximately a fifth of the population of the country as also of Tamil Nadu. Their contemporary position is the theme of the two volumes brought together here.

Viswanathan's work consists of some 50 pieces published in Frontline from 1995 to 2004, which regular readers may recall. These pieces, which included the chilling accounts of the Melavalavu murders of 1997 and the Tirunelveli massacre of 1999, were the attempt of a dedicated journalist to bring to the notice of the public the atrocities against Dalits in Tamil Nadu in the 1990s and the early part of the present decade and the many ways Dalits have been responding to the situation. The collection comes with an Introduction by Ravikumar. It deals briefly with the question of the origins of the groups of people referred to as Dalits, the anti-Brahmin movement in Dravidian land and the ascendancy of non-brahmins, and the present attitude of the leading political parties towards Dalits.

Hugo Gorringe is a sociologist at the University of Scotland and his work is based on field studies he did in the 1980s and 1990s in Tamil Nadu concentrating on Madurai and neighbouring areas. It also deals with the contemporary conditions of Dalits with a focus on Dalit organisations, especially the Dalit Panther Iyakam (DPI), known also as the Liberation Panthers, led by Thirumavalavan. It is more an analytical study and considers the following questions: "(a) How can democracy be preserved or even enhanced under conditions of extra-institutional mobilisation? (b) What is the current situation of Dalits in Tamil Nadu and how and why, if at all, Dalits resort to protest? (c) How are egalitarian and democratic ideas initiated at the local level? (d) How do action concepts of social movements translate into everyday lives of their members? (e) How are the demands and fears of Dalits located and played out in spatial terms? (f) Finally, what are the implications of Dalits' entry into politics for the `democratisation of democracy' in Tamil Nadu and India?" (Untouchable Citizens, page 22).

Although done independently and with different objectives, the two studies have much in common. Their focus on Tamil Nadu is because of the Dravidian movement's long history of fight against caste discrimination, championing the cause of those once considered to be underdogs. What the two studies bring out is that the oppression that Dalits experience today is caused not by the "upper castes", but by those who were once at the lowest level in the caste hierarchy, socially only slightly above that of Dalits. The equality and justice that the Dravidian movement fought for, and to a measure achieved, were to be limited to the Backward Castes, it would appear. These caste groups, now in power, would like to see the former outcastes remain where they have always been.

But, of course, Dalits can no longer be excluded. The Constitution and laws of the land are now, in principle at least, fully inclusive. Untouchability, once the clearest manifestation of social exclusion, is now illegal and the practice of it in any form is a punishable offence. Over the past five decades there have been many determined efforts to make the principle of inclusion effective, starting with reservation of seats for Dalits in legislative bodies and subsequently in educational institutions and public services. And by a variety of objective criteria, the condition of Dalits today is far better than what it was in the past.

What both Viswanathan and Gorringe bring out is that paradoxical though it may appear, it is precisely the legal inclusion of the Dalits and the progress that they have made and continue make that constitute the Dalit problem today. Once Dalits were excluded and suppressed. Now they are included and oppressed. "Numerous are the ways in which Dalits are tormented. They are murdered and maimed; women are raped; their children are abused and deprived of schooling; they are disposssessed of their property; their houses are torched; they are denied their legitimate rights; and their sources of livelihood are destroyed," wrote Viswanathan in one of his pieces in 2002 (Dalits in Dravidian Land, page 241).

But why? Consider the following: "The first Dalit graduate from a village in Madurai district walked home at the end of the term passing through the upper-caste area of his village wearing shoes and trousers. Perceiving this to be a challenge to their authority, Backward Caste youths set upon him and beat him to death" (Untouchable Citizens, page 185). Two young people, both students at Annamalai University, fell in love and married. The young man was a Dalit. The young woman's family, belonging to the Vanniar caste, above Dalits in the caste hierarchy, objected to the marriage and the couple was found dead under suspicious circumstances (Dalits in Dravidian Land). In July 1998, soon after K.R. Narayanan took over as President, a group of Dalit youths attempted to celebrate the fact of a Dalit becoming the First Citizen of the country. Caste Hindus objected and a clash followed, finally resulting in twenty Dalit huts being torched and over a hundred dwellings of Dalits being damaged (Dalits in Dravidian Land, page 99). On Independence day 2003, the Dalit panchayat president of a village in one of the southern districts of Tamil Nadu was "assaulted and humiliated in public because he `dared' to unfurl the national flag at the panchayat's official function (Dalits in Dravidian Land, page 279).

The Melavalavu murders of 1997, which created a lot of sensation in the State and which both Viswanathan and Gorringe record was also a clear case of Dalit progress inviting retaliation by higher castes. The presidentship of the panchayat of Melavalavu village, close to Madurai, was reserved for Dalits. Members of the Thevar caste, a backward caste but above the Dalits, tried their best to prevent it by disrupting the election process. Finally, under police protection, the election was conducted and Murugesan, a Dalit, was elected president. Members of the higher caste made it difficult for him to operate from the panchayat office. Murugesan went to Madurai to make a representation to the District Collector. On his way back, a mob stopped the bus he was travelling in, dragged him out and murdered him and six of his followers. (One account says that the murder was committed by some who were travelling with Murugesan.)

Commenting on instances of this kind, Gorringe says: "The intent in each of these is apparent. The Dalits are to be kept in their place, which is deemed to be beyond the boundaries of society," (Untouchable Citizens, page 185) especially when attempts are being made, with some measure of success, to bring them in, one must add.

Viswanathan's accounts show that the harassment of Dalits is very much a day-to-day affair. The denial of access to public sources of water is the commonest form of harassment in many villages; this arises from the notion the higher castes nurse that Dalits are impure. Another manifestation of it is the still prevalent practice in village tea shops in many parts of the State to have separate tumblers for Dalits. Land-related problems also arise frequently. Since Dalits have been for centuries agricultural labourers working for their livelihood on other people's land, there is a widespread notion that they have no right to own land. Caste groups that are slightly above Dalits who have been coming to have ownership of land resent it when Dalits become landowners. And there is the perennial problem arising from Dalits having to use village roads to carry dead bodies to burning ghats and burial grounds set apart for them.

However, Viswanathan's pieces are not mere tales of woe. He documents several cases of Dalit assertiveness and persistence. One of the most striking cases is of a Dalit woman named Parvathi. In the new panchayati raj system she was elected president of a panchayat reserved for Dalits. She had to confront a hostile and influential vice-president from the dominant Marava community. He and his associates tried to prevent her from conducting the meetings. Parvathi sought the help of the police and thwarted the plans of her detractors. Her courage and determination enabled her to go ahead with her task and win support in the village even from members of the higher castes. She was re-elected for a second term in 2001 (Dalits in Dravidian Land, page 231).

THE Dalit scene in Tamil Nadu is one of progress, oppression and suffering, resistance and change. Gorringe analyses this complex process. He has an apt description of the sense of exclusion that Dalits still experience in spite of the legal inclusion that they have in independent India. "The exclusion of Dalits from the main body of society is symbolised on many fronts. Physically the cheris are located outside the main village; semantically they are referred to as `Untouchables'; spiritually, Dalits are denied access to temples, told that they are impure... ; materially Dalits are alienated from resources and land; culturally their skills are demeaned; and socially they are served in different receptacles in restaurants" (Untouchable Citizens, page 73). And since these are as much the Dalit reality today as they were in the distant past, Dalits are "at the same time inside and outside the system" (Untouchable Citizens, page 306). If they are to become realistically inside the system, what must they do?

In the 1990s, the Dalit response was to get organised. Perhaps it was forced upon them, initially as the natural response in each village, the cheri, that is, to atrocities against one of them or many of them. Newspapers, radio and television soon made them aware that similar problems were coming up in many places around them and so regional `movements' started taking shape. The regional movements demonstrated the strength arising from numbers and unity, but also brought out some inherent limitations. First, of course, was the fact that they did not have the resources, the personnel and leadership to build up and sustain large-scale movements. Of the three, leadership was the most crucial. It is in this context that the services of K. Krishnasamy and Thirumavalavan have to be appreciated, the former a medical practitioner and the latter a well-placed government official. Both of them gave part-time help to aggrieved fellow Dalits initially, later they became leaders of Dalit movements and have since emerged as political personalities. Their sustained effort and personal sacrifices have succeeded in mobilising Dalits, enthusing more Dalits to devote time for the movements, and generated resources to make the movements fairly well established in the State.

Attempts to mobilise have also brought to the fore some deep-rooted problems. There is, to be sure, an essential caste problem as far as Dalits are concerned and the attempt sometimes made by leftist parties to reduce it to a class problem of agricultural labourers is an oversimplification. In organising Dalits, therefore, their specific caste grievances get prominently featured. However, it immediately brings out the fact that Dalits themselves are not a homogeneous group. In a caste-ridden social order, Dalits too have their caste divisions, and arising from them hierarchical ordering too. Understandably, the distinctions arising from these tend to be region-specific, which makes it difficult to have a Dalit movement for the State as a whole. Gorringe notes that there are over 70 different Dalit organisations in Tamil Nadu. The largest is the DPI. The second largest is the Puthiya Thamizhagam (PT) with Krishnasamy as the leader, which, however, was the first to be started as Devendra Kula Vellalar Federation. The two represent two different Dalit castes and are active in two different regions of the State.

Apart from this primarily strategic issue, making caste as the basis of organising Dalits throws up a major question of principle. If the long-term objective is a casteless social order where every citizen is treated as equal in law (as enshrined in the Constitution), can the solidarity based on caste consideration be accepted as a means to move towards that goal? It is on this consideration that serious doubts are expressed as to whether sectoral movements and organisations, such as those of Dalits, strengthen or weaken democracy. This is one of the crucial aspects that Gorringe deals with and we shall get back to it shortly.

Once Dalits are organised to protect themselves and fight for their causes, they have to make clear their stand in relation to political processes and parties. In its initial years the DPI projected itself essentially as a movement to make Dalits proud of their identity, to ensure that Dalits have equal access to public spaces and resources and to convey that Dalits have autonomous organisations and their own areas of influence. "The identity of a slum or cheri that has affiliated itself to a Dalit movement is qualitatively different from one that remains unmoved by the struggle. Erecting the emblem of a movement in a place marks the end of obedience (though not necessarily the end of fear) and the beginning of an organised struggle against inequality"(Untouchable Citizens, page 201). During those early years the DPI detached itself from all political processes, almost with a vengeance, exhorting its members even to boycott elections. This was partly to protest against the tendency of the major parties to treat Dalits as mere "vote banks" much sought after during the election campaigns, but conveniently dumped after the elections are over.

This phase lasted only for a few years - a sort of preparatory stage that the Dravidian movement also passed through before entering the political arena. In 1996, Krishnasamy contested the elections and won. In 1999, the DPI entered into the political fray by contesting the parliamentary election, but failed to win the seat it contested. But the fact that Thirumavalavan got over two lakh votes against his formidable Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) rival Ponnusamy was a big morale-booster.

But the political path that was opened up has not been a smooth one. The Dravidian parties - the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam - may be willing to accommodate Dalits to some extent but view Dalit movements and parties as a challenge to their monopoly of power in the State. In the fluid "alliance politics" of Tamil Nadu, Dalit parties have not yet become positively attractive to any of the major players.

Dalits also have to clarify their view about the state and state power. In general, the Dalit position regarding the state is ambivalent. When they view state power via the police, they can only identify it with brute force, as an ally of their oppressors. When they think of the state in terms of the governing parties, they perceive it only as becoming increasingly antagonistic. At the same time, for many Dalits "the state is a vital resource in terms of government houses, jobs, college places and ration cards" (Untouchable Citizens, page 286). The decision to convert movements into political parties and contest the elections must be seen as a recognition that sharing state power is vital to the long-term interests of Dalits.

So, then, what is the contribution of the Dalit movements to what Gorringe refers to as the "democratistion of democracy" in Tamil Nadu and the country as a whole? There are those who consider Dalits and their movements as disruptive elements in society and hold their aggressiveness as being responsible for violence. It is also alleged that their concerns do not go beyond themselves and that their emphasis on caste is a threat to the secularist ethos that the country needs and is striving to cultivate. Gorringe's approach is different. One of the women he interviewed detailed the difficulties they were facing day after day and said: "Instead of living like this and dying one by one we'd be better off attacking them (higher castes) or dying in the attempt" (Untouchable Citizens, page 232). If Dailts are the ones responsible for violence, it is desperation that drives them to it. Even when violence is initiated by others - and the evidence is that the vast majority of instances are of that kind - Dalits get blamed because of the general perception that they are "undesirable characters". Dalits do resist violence against them, but only through resistance are they empowered. And let there be no hiding of the fact that Dalits are fighting, and fighting hard, for a legitimate share of the public space and of power.

If that fight is taking the form of identity politics, it is because politics overall is of that nature now, not a quest for the common good, but for power for specific groups, for their own welfare, though wrapped as the welfare of the nation. The shrill voices of Dalits (as opposed to their groans that "society" had become used to) and their aggressive political posturing are resented because these expose the sham that pervades our public life. In Tamil Nadu particularly, where the original radicalism of the Dravidian parties seems to have evaporated almost completely, Dalit resurgence is expanding the base of democratic contestation. It is thus contributing to a more critical civil society challenging political institutions to be accountable to it. In this sense, according to Gorringe, Dalit movements are deepening democracy and, indeed, constitute a cultural revolution.

Viswanathan's report and Gorringe's analysis of the condition of Dalits in Tamil Nadu make significant contribution to one's understanding of a persisting social and political problem that is the reality of one out of five in the population. I strongly recommend a study of the two volumes.

Dalits in Dravidian Land - Frontline reports on anti-Dalit violence in Tamil Nadu (1995 - 2004) by S. Viswanathan, ; Navayana Publishing, Pondicherry, 2005; pages 318, Rs. 300.

Untouchable Citizens - Dalit Movements and Democratisation in Tamil Nadu by Hugo Gorringe, Sage Publications, New Delhi, 2005; pages 397, Rs. 750.

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