Battles for social justice

Print edition : January 09, 2015

Women of a Dalit colony watching the temple car festival, standing behind barricades put up by the police, at Kandadevi near Devakottai in Sivaganga district on June 21, 2005. Photo: K. Ganesan

The author vividly describes the atrocities committed on Dalits in Tamil Nadu and the Left’s sustained struggle against all forms of discrimination based on birth.

WHEN the Communist Party of India (Marxist) decided to increase its intervention in caste-related issues in Tamil Nadu, it was thought that it would only be on a small scale and within the party’s established framework of class struggle. But today such intervention has emerged as one of the major policy planks of the party in the State, which witnessed the self-respect movement for a casteless society led by the social reformer ‘Periyar’ E.V. Ramasamy.

The party felt the need for an exclusive wing for Dalit activism when a few Dalit leaders and their outfits attempted to appropriate the Left’s legacy of struggles and sacrifices. It had to defend the signatures of its struggles, especially after a Dalit outfit tried to take over the memorial it had built at Keelavenmani (Nagapattinam district) in honour of the Dalit workers who were massacred by landlords in that village in 1968. The party formed the Tamil Nadu Untouchable Eradication Front (TNUEF) in 2007 to give proper attention to caste-related issues in the State.

Such a task assumes greater significance today in the sociocultural milieu of the State’s highly fractured society. Despite its status as a land that pioneered the social justice movement, Tamil Nadu is known for social discrimination, caste panchayats and “honour” killings. It is no exception to the practice of discrimination based on birth. For centuries, Dalits have been suppressed and forced to do menial jobs. They are deprived of the benefits of reservation, which the other backward classes (OBCs) enjoy.

The first real Dalit consolidation happened after the murder of their leader Immanuel Sekaran in the Muthukulathor riots in Ramanathapuram district in the 1960s. Dalit writers and activists such as I. Ayothithasa Pandithar, Rettamalai Srinivasan and M.C. Raja were at the forefront of the struggle against birth-based discrimination. But it was the murder that galvanised the then fledgling Dalit movement. At the same time, there was a growing realisation among Dalit youths that education and employment alone could lead to their emancipation. Here, the policy of reservation helped them.

Dalits have since started asserting their presence in the fields of education and employment, leading to resentment among caste Hindus. It led to conflicts such as the Bodi riots of 1989.

The second major Dalit retaliation took place in 1996 following the destruction of the Dalit village Kodiyankulam in Tuticorin district by the State police. The caste clashes that followed claimed nearly 400 lives in the southern districts and destroyed property worth crores of rupees before they were brought under control in 2003-04.

But atrocities continued in subtler forms. Dalits were prevented from contesting elections in the reserved village panchayats of Pappapatti, Keeripatti and Nattarmangalam in Madurai district and Kottakatchiyendal in Virudhunagar district. The State government was forced to amend the rotational reservation system through a special notification in order to ensure that Dalits could become panchayat presidents. A Dalit village panchayat president and five others were murdered in a bus in Melavalavu village in Madurai district in 1997.

Sivagangai district, which was carved out of Madurai, is no stranger to such atrocities. Caste-Hindu groups, including Maravas, Ambalathars, Nattars, Chettiars and Vellalars, form a major OBC block in this arid district where Dalits own very little and face raw discrimination. Ironically, at the “samathuvapuram” (a housing colony set up by the previous Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) to promote social equality) at Arasanur, a Dalit woman who drew water from a common tap had her ear lobe cut off. At Kollangudi village, the local people boycotted “Kollangudi” Karupayee, a Dalit folk singer who attained fame in Tamil cinema in the 1990s.

Alagammal, who refused to submit to an OBC-dominated panchayat at Ulagampatti village, was made to do 150 squats as a punishment. At Sakkarasankottai, a Dalit labourer was beaten up by a few caste Hindus when he questioned the village panchayat’s decision to employ machines instead of manual labour as mandated by the government to desilt tanks. At Kalayarkoil, the only Dalit “landholder” was forced to use the services of his entire family, including a 10-year-old boy, to till a small parcel of land as the village had boycotted them. These and other atrocities that occurred in Sivagangai district before 2005 were exposed in The Hindu when this writer was a reporter in Madurai.

M. Kandasamy, the author of Manusangadaa Naanga Manusangadaa! has passionately documented similar incidents, the majority of which occurred after 2010. The title of the Tamil book, loosely translated, means “Human beings, we are humans”.

Kandasamy, who is the Sivagangai district secretary of the TNUEF, has chosen 40 cases of atrocities in which the Front had intervened directly. He narrates with a down-to-earth lucidity the various forms of discrimination. His description of the incidents leaves readers perturbed. The chapter on the controversial car festival of Kandadevi village traces it to the murder of five Dalits in Chinna Unjanai village in 1979 when they attempted to establish their right over the festival ritual. He explains how Dalits boycotted the festival for 18 years and tried to regain their rights in 1997.

The CPI(M) took the issue to the Madras High Court, which in its June 17, 2005, order ruled that Dalits should be allowed to pull the temple car. The State was evasive in implementing the order, but after a sustained struggle, it allowed a handful of Dalits to touch the rope used to draw the temple car to signify their participation in the festival. Even today, the festival is not held with spontaneous Dalit participation.

The book explains how Nattars have a hold over the villages in and around Kandadevi. The author writes that Gandhi, after hearing about the plight of Dalits in Kandadevi, came to Devakottai town to convene a meeting between Dalits and Nattars. “But the Nattars dismissed him and refused to accept his offer,” he says.

Kandasamy points out that the intervention of the CPI(M) and the TNUEF has strengthened the party’s base in villages, especially among Dalits. He describes the joy of a village or a Dalit colony when its demands were met and how it recalled the role played by the Left. “Today people throng our party office, to get house pattas and ration cards and for our support for their struggles against discrimination…. The people in distress in Sivagangai see us as saviours,” he notes.

He does confine the book to a narration of incidents and devotes the second part to the writings of a few progressive writers to show how the Left has been taking up the issues of the working class since pre-Independence days. “No other country barring India has such a unique caste-based social system. Here, the struggles for class and social justice have to be intertwined to fight against the brutal supremacy of caste Hindus,” says P. Sampath, Central Secretariat member-cum-State convener of the front, in his foreword.

G. Ramakrishnan, CPI(M) State secretary, points out in the preface that the forces wishing to sustain economic deprivation and social inequalities attempt to conceal the Left’s fight against atrocities. “Kandasamy has recalled them and meticulously exposed the bureaucratic apathy, discrimination, political parties’ compromises and the Marxists’ perseverance in the fight for social justice,” he notes.

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