Memories of Mudukulathur

A well-researched chronicle of one of the worst caste riots Tamil Nadu has seen, the book talks about the politics behind the incidents and their long-term implications.

Published : Feb 14, 2018 12:30 IST

IT is quite paradoxical that a socially progressive State such as Tamil Nadu should have a long and despicable track record of discriminatory practices against Dalits.

Since the Mudukulathur riots and the murder of the Dalit leader Immanuel Sekaran (September 11, 1957) at Paramakudi town in Ramanathapuram district and the gory incident in Keezhvenmani in Thanjavur district in which 44 Dalit agricultural workers were burnt to death (December 25, 1968), Dalits have been asserting themselves against feudalistic forces.

After Mudukulathur, the major act of Dalit assertion resulting in violent flare-ups happened in Bodinayakkanur in today’s Theni district in Tamil Nadu in the 1980s. It was followed by anti-Dalit violence in the villages of Nadunalumuthalikkinaru, Kodiyankulam and Sankaralingapuram (in Tuticorin district in the late 1990s); the murder of Murugesan, a Dalit panchayat president, in Melavalavu in Madurai (2000); the struggle of elected presidents to assume office in the reserved village panchayats of Pappapatti, Keeripatti and Nattamangalam, all in Madurai (2000); the arson and looting at the Natham Dalit colony near Dharmapuri following an inter-caste marriage (2008); and the murder of Shankar, a Dalit youth, following his inter-caste marriage, at Udumalpet town (2017).

The Mudukulathur riots in the east Ramanathapuram region are not only significant in the sociopolitical milieu of Tamil Nadu’s political discourse but remain an emotive issue for the two major caste groups of the region—the Thevars, a dominant land-owning group comprising the most backward castes of Kallars, Maravars and Agamudaiyars (together known as Mukkulathors), and the Pallars, a predominant Dalit sub-caste.

The Thevars remember the riots as “state violence,” unleashed by the then Congress government led by K. Kamaraj, to destroy the esteem their leader, Muthuramalinga Thevar, enjoyed among the members of his caste and the caste’s dominance in the region. Thevar dominance was such that they were a “law unto themselves” in the region. The Pallars recollect the riots as the first bold sign of resistance against the caste-based slavery they had languished under for centuries.

The antagonism between the two caste groups was not restricted to the social realm; economic factors also played a crucial role. In the 1930s, with the help of Christian missionaries, Dalits got educated and subsequently became economically empowered. Migration and, to an extent, religious conversion enabled them to gain access to employment and education. It made them aware of their socially and constitutionally guaranteed rights to dignity and livelihood, and they began asserting themselves. On the other hand, the Thevars remained backward in education and, as noted in a Government Order (G.O.) in 1957, were not able to “reconcile [themselves] to the present democratic conditions and cannot believe that the feudal system is vanishing fast”.

An upsurge could be seen among the Pallars in the 1940s and the 1950s. However, there was no one to guide and organise them properly. Their assertions took the shape of a movement after educated leaders started emerging from within. They first mobilised under the leadership of Perumal Peter and then Immanuel Sekaran and his Depressed Class Youth League, besides getting “identified politically with the ruling Congress party”. The author K.A. Manikumar explains how Kamaraj initiated countermeasures that steadily eroded the Thevar support base. With support from Pallars and Nadars, the Congress even increased its vote share in the region after the 1957 elections, although it could not post a win against Muthuramalinga Thevar. The leaders brought all caste-based atrocities to the notice of the state. Their assertion led to prolonged clashes in the east Ramanathapuram region, which reached a flashpoint in 1957 when Immanuel Sekaran was murdered. This incident triggered a political and social churning that continues to influence politics in Tamil Nadu. Exploiting the volatile situation, the then Congress party and Kamaraj set off a series of political manoeuvres that dislodged the Thevars from their dominant position.

It is against this backdrop that any writing on sensitive issues such as the Mudukulathur riots, including Manikumar’s book under review, has to be viewed. A well-researched attempt to document the social conflict, the book traces the history of the Mudukulathur riots. He makes a sincere attempt to set the record straight, plug the gaps in the narratives, and present the raw documented facts, which many historians failed to do for reasons best known to them.

He writes: “Violence was the coin of this political commerce. Two kinds of violence were on display in Ramanathapuram—the violence of the dominant class and the violence of the oppressed.” He says that the former’s was to subjugate the oppressed while the latter’s was to uphold the dignity of life. Manikumar is careful not to romanticise the issue, being fully aware of the need to make an honest assessment as it has the potential to influence sociopolitical narratives in Tamil Nadu and draw flak from casteist elements that are perennially in denial mode and refuse to view the past with a historical perspective.

Dalit assertion today is growing, with a new breed of educated and economically empowered Dalits, including a tiny group of radical Ambedkarites, active in the social and literary arenas, besides engaging themselves in grass-roots-level activism. It is also true that in this surcharged environment, genuine and objective works of a few writers and historians have been distorted and sometimes even dismissed as being “casteist”. Many have written well-researched volumes on the riots and its repercussions, both in Tamil and English. But most of the works have been written from a caste perspective.

The political backdrop

Manikumar says that the purpose of his study is not to evaluate the two personalities involved, Muthuramalinga Thevar and K. Kamaraj, but to narrate the sequence of developments leading to the caste conflagration of 1957.

His observation that “conflict in any society is often an outcome of political, social and economical change” sets the tone and tenor of his work. The first two general elections (in 1952 and 1957), he writes, witnessed a gradual shift in the people’s political preference. In 1952 the Congress came to power and in 1957, it returned to power amid the emergence of regional parties, mainly the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK).

The dominance of Muthuramalinga Thevar and his All India Forward Bloc in East Ramanathapuram district and the Rajaji-led Congress Reform Committee, a breakaway faction of the Congress, which supported Muthuramalinga Thevar, was an embarrassment to the Congress. (Muthuramalinga Thevar left the Justice Party in protest against its failure to repeal the Criminal Tribes Act, 1871, implemented by the British against the Mukkulathors, and joined the Congress in 1937, only to leave it in 1949 when it too failed him.)

Until the turn of the 20th century, the Thevars, whom the author says were “prisoners of their own predilections”, were dominant in East Ramanathapuram, and the government was virtually non-existent. Manikumar argues that it was imperative for the Congress and its Chief Minister K. Kamaraj (since 1957), a Nadar by caste, to break the Thevar domination in East Ramanathapuram, where tensions between Thevars and Pallars had been simmering since 1955.

The political developments had a direct bearing on the clashes involving Pallars and Thevars on the one hand and Nadars and Thevars on the other in East Ramanathapuram. After the 1957 general elections, it became more or less a case of personal enmity between Muthuramalinga Thevar and Kamaraj, which percolated down to the party cadre and to members of the caste. The murder of Immanuel Sekaran precipitated the situation.

Historical context

The Mudukulathur Assembly byelection, necessitated by Muthuramalinga Thevar’s resignation after he retained the Srivilliputhur Lok Sabha seat, was won by his supporter T.L. Sasivarna Thevar. This seemingly caused a shift in the political and caste symmetry in the region. By then, the animosity between Muthuramalinga Thevar and Kamaraj had become intense. Muthuramalinga Thevar’s followers believed that Kamaraj had betrayed their leader since they believed it was he who helped Kamaraj enter Madras provincial politics in the 1930s and launch his political career.

Manikumar details how the incidents unfolded and resulted in one of the worst riots Tamil Nadu has ever witnessed. The Ramanathapuram Collector, C.V.R. Panikkar, convened a peace meeting at Mudukulathur on September 10, 1957, which was attended by Muthuramalinga Thevar and his men, Perumal Peter and Immanuel Sekaran, and Veluchamy Nadar, a representative of the Nadar caste. The Communist Party of India was denied permission to attend it.

Quoting from the minutes of the peace meeting, the author says that Muthuramalinga Thevar had accused Nadars of distributing firearms to “Harijans and Nadars to destroy the Thevar community”. The Nadars accused the Thevars of organising a boycott of Nadar shops. Muthuramalinga Thevar questioned the participation of Immanuel Sekaran, saying that “he [Muthuramalinga Thevar] was the sole representative of both Thevars and Pallars”.

Manikumar quotes from G.O. No.45 (MS), Public (General-A), (Confidential), Department, 11, September 1958: “[Muthuramalinga] Thevar abused Immanuel Sekaran as a man of straw and questioned his audacity to sit with him on equal terms as a leader.” Muthuramalinga Thevar left the meeting after chiding his followers for allowing “Immanuel to talk back to him”; the developments eventually culminated in his murder.

The material sourced by the author, including the peace document, has helped him substantiate his claim that there was more to the riots than meets the eye. The document pointed out that the general election and the subsequent Mudukulathur byelection “have created a lot of misunderstanding between the Forward Bloc and the Congress parties. The hatred for each other during the last two months resulted in a number of clashes between these two parties and was responsible for creating tension in this taluk.”

Immanuel Sekaran’s murder

An analysis of the pattern of the conflagrations in the book indicates that the murder of Immanuel Sekaran “did not evoke any organised protest from the Dalit community [immediately]” since the caste violence “had been fierce with battles involving Thevars on one side and Pallars and Nadars on the other”. In his concluding chapter, the author says that there was no immediate reaction to the murder as “it would take time to germinate”. He refers to the editorial, titled “Stop the rot”, in The Hindu of September 22, 1957: “It is difficult to believe that the flare-up is wholly spontaneous….”

He argues that the differences between the two political parties, the All India Forward Bloc, led by Muthuramalinga Thevar, and the Congress, led by Kamaraj, were the main source of the hatred between the Thevars and the Pallars and between the Nadars and the Thevars. The murder of Immanuel Sekaran, though it had “conscientised the Pallars about their rights”, could not be termed as “the” reason behind the clashes, says the author. However, in a later chapter, he acknowledges that “the Pallar retaliation was certainly due to the work of Immanuel Sekaran”.

The police firing at Keelathooval village, which resulted in the death of five Thevar men on September 14, 1957, “was the outcome of the government’s determination to adopt a tough stand against Thevars”, according to Manikumar. The S. Venkateshwaran one-man commission of inquiry exonerated the police. The author also refers to the editorial in The Hindu of October 12, 1957: “It seems that the recent troubles are not solely of communal origin and that political differences dating from the first general elections and intensified by the recent byelection in Mudukulathur have been also responsible.” The Hindu , in fact, had demanded a judicial inquiry into the riots.

On the basis of the Venkateshwaran commission’s report, the government arrested Muthuramalinga Thevar under the Preventive Detention Act on September 28, 1957. Manikumar says that his arrest “caused no major law and order problem” and adds that “by the second week of October, the violence has abated”. However, he adds that “[Muthuramalinga] Thevar’s actions after Independence wiped clean his nationalist legacy”.

“The Congress,” he agrees, “projected itself as the defender of Dalit interests in Ramanathapuram district.” The Pallars seemed to have received more relief than the Thevars during and in the aftermath of the riots.

(P. Kakkan, a Dalit leader, was a Minister in the Kamaraj government then.) However, Manikumar says that Kamaraj was not innocent. “Astute he was, his tactics to handle Muthuramalinga Thevar politically bore fruit. His determination won the appreciation of those who had been disillusioned with the disruptive politics of Thevar.” At the same time, he takes pains to refute the allegation that Kamaraj instigated the Pallars against the Thevars in order to safeguard the Nadar community. He writes: “So the argument that the Pallars rioted only at the instance of the Chief Minister Kamarajar or some wealthy merchants of the Nadar community scarcely holds water.”

At the book’s launch in Chennai, Manikumar said: “I have tried to deal with it as dispassionately as possible. I have just laid the facts before the readers. Since political leaders are often seen as icons of their caste community, I had to identify every person who played a part.”

N. Ram, Chairman, THG Publishing Private Limited, who spoke on the occasion, said: “The author should be praised for providing a critical historical account of what happened in 1957 and for treading a difficult ground as it could lead to a reaction.” The author has anchored his arguments in archived records, quoting extensively from various sources, especially the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly’s debates and notes on the failed no-confidence motion moved against the then Congress government, to explain the politics behind the clashes.

Although the narration lacks lucidity, with repetitions and casual editing that obstruct the reading experience, it is without doubt a valuable work on the Mudukulathur riots.

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