Book Review: D. Ravikumar’s 'Dalithugalum nilamum' is an account of Dalits and their bond with land

Print edition : December 17, 2021

Dalits erecting temporary thatched shelters in an open piece of land in Theni, Tamil Nadu, claiming ownership over the land. A file picture. Photo: The Hindu photo archives

Dalit leadesr Iyothee Thass Pandithar and Rettamalai Srinivasan (next photograph) fought for the restoration of land rights to Dalits.

Rettamalai Srinivasan.

A broad-based account of Dalits and their struggle for right to landholdings.

THE Dalit ideologue and writer D. Ravikumar’s Dalithugalum nilamum (Dalits and Land), published by Manarkeni, is yet another tract that seeks to explain how Dalits, especially Adi Dravidas (or Paraiars), were rendered landless in Tamil Nadu. There is a rich body of work on Dalits and their struggle to own land. Some of these works view the issue from a social angle and some from an economic viewpoint. Ravikumar’s work offers a broad perspective, tracing the socio-economic, historical and cultural aspects of the issue, thereby providing a comprehensive analysis for those interested in the subject.

The 83-page book, written in lucid Tamil, is divided into 28 chapters. Talking about the reasons behind the historical injustice against Dalits, the author explains how a social system that was alien to the Tamil-speaking region systematically alienated Dalits from their lands and denied them a livelihood and forcibly made them “exteriors”, a term meaning outcast. He argues that with the advent of Sanathanam, religiously ordained duties, Dalits were rendered inferior in all spheres of life.

Ravikumar argues that before the 11th century, Dalits were prosperous in a society that did not practice Varnashrama, the caste-based system which was at the time in vogue in northern India. Before Sanathana dharma came to be practised, the Tamil-speaking society had a horizontal social system represented by the two classes, Valangai (right-handed) and Idangai (left-handed), in which Dalits occupied pride of place as one of the Valangai classes, enjoying and sharing with others equal social and economic prosperity.

Ravikumar points out that the vertical caste system induced by Varnashrama was introduced during Chola rule and later solidified. This system of caste division gradually alienated Dalits, who at one time were landholders, and subjected them to the evils of social discrimination and neglect. During the Chola period, lands were classified and forcibly taken from traditional tillers and redistributed to Brahmins for free, thus making them a landed class. The author explains the landholding pattern and its distribution before Sanathanam came into practice and places it in today’s context.

Also read: How Dalit lands were stolen

The book also details how lands were usurped from Dalits, who were primarily agriculturists, by subsequent rulers of the region, such as the Vijayanagar kings. The British, too, followed this caste division for convenience of administration and revenue generation. The social, economic and cultural churning that began in the 10th century resulted in complete alienation of Dalits from their lands in the late 19th century.

The Dalits were left totally landless with the establishment of the “Mirasi” rights system. The mirasdar was allowed to own all lands in a village. The mirasis acted like village chieftains and controlled all lands in villages. The rulers, including the British, depended on them for revenue collection.

But Dalits did not remain passive. They fought against the injustice throughout, which, Ravikumar says, has been recorded in history. The arrival of missionaries gave a fillip to not only the Dalits’ land struggle but also to their upward mobility in the areas of education and employment. The missionaries’ influence over British administrators resulted in the introduction of several progressive measures that saved Adi Dravidas from the clutches of slavery and poverty though lands remained out of bounds for them.

The British Collector Lord Tremenheere’s report on the status of Paraiars in Chengleput district (in Tamil Nadu) was a watershed moment for Dalits. Tremenheere highlighted the plight of landless Paraiars. On the basis of his report, the British government passed a new Act, the Depressed Class Land Act, 1892, under which the untouchable communities were given rights to own lands, and these came to be protected as ‘Panchami’ lands. Ravikumar describes how Dalit leaders such as Iyothee Thass Pandithar and Rettamalai Srinivasan took up the issue at various forums and fought for the restoration of land rights to Dalits.

Unfortunately, the writer says, the Panchami lands were usurped by caste Hindus over a period. He says he and the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK), of which he is the general secretary, have raised the issue in the Tamil Nadu Assembly and in public forums on numerous occasions. He mentions the Karanai Panchami land retrieval agitation in which two Dalits were killed in police firing and the present status of the Panchami lands in the State and refers to some important judgments delivered in the Madras High Court.

Karanai agitation

Many books have been written on Dalits and their struggles for ownership of land. Land to the Dalits by S. Anandhi, published in English in 2000, while explaining the struggles of Dalits for entitlement to land focussed more on the Karanai agitation and land distribution in Chengleput district. The monograph emphasised that the Karanai agitation had created an awareness among Dalits about the lands that had been theirs but were lost and gave a fillip to Dalits’ struggle for lands.

Also read: The importance of giving land to Dalits

Ravikumar relies heavily on historical data from the 11th century and data from various agencies to back his claims. Compared with the neighbouring States of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, he points out, the number of landed Paraiars in Tamil Nadu was significantly fewer. He wonders how a State known for the social justice movement could ignore an important issue such as this. He, however, does not mention any specific reason for the decline in landholdings among Dalits today. Neither has he analysed the status of agriculture and the relevance of land in the era of neoliberalism.

In the preface, Ravikumar says the struggle for land is not only for the retrieval of economic capital, which Dalits had lost, but also for restoring their cultural capital. He says both are intertwined. He insists that political will to address the issue is the need of the hour. The book is a repository of information for those who wish to study the deep bond that exists between Dalits and land.

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