Caste factor in Tamil Nadu

A caste variant of love jehad vitiates social atmosphere in Tamil Nadu

Print edition : December 18, 2020

Elavarasan, a Dalit youth of Natham Colony, Dharmapuri, was found dead near a railway track on July 4, 2013. His marriage to Divya, a Vanniyar girl, had led to large-scale violence against Dalits. Photo: N. Bashkaran

The concept of ‘love jehad’ has not found favour in Tamil Nadu, but ‘caste purity’ has taken its place in vitiating the social atmosphere in cases of inter-caste marriages.

What the Hindu Right could not achieve for more than two decades in the Dravidian heartland of Tamil Nadu, namely carrying out the sinister campaign of ‘love jehad’, the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) has accomplished with relative ease through caste mobilisation.

The PMK, a political party that claims to act in the interest of the Vanniyars, who belong to the Most Backward Caste (MBC) category, has consistently ranted against Dalit men ‘luring’ upper-caste women into marriage. Its caste-centric politics with shades of the Hindutva agenda once vitiated the social atmosphere so much that there were incidents of violence across the State against Dalits involved in inter-caste marriages, some of them ending in murder. Many Dalit youths who married non-Dalit women were murdered or maimed (“Pride, Prejudice and Plain Murder,” Frontline, March 13).

‘Caste purity’

The concept of ‘love jehad’ never found favour in Tamil Nadu as a majority of the men and women who fall in love and get married in the State are Hindus. However, what agitates the State today is the propagation of ‘caste purity’, especially in the case of inter-caste marriages involving Dalit men and non-Dalit women. In the process, caste has emerged as a pivotal factor in this issue, one that Hindutva elements are also latching onto.

Parties such as the PMK, which have views akin to ‘love jehad’, treat any marriage outside caste as “impure and immoral”. This blatant infringement of people’s ‘right to choose’ their life partners has been almost institutionalised now in Tamil Nadu, and no privileged or backward caste group is an exception. A worrying factor is that of late, ideas such as caste pride have been getting entrenched among a few Dalit sub-groups too.

The seeds of hatred were sown when Dr S. Ramadoss, the PMK’s founder, said a few years ago that Dalit men “wear jeans, T-shirts and fancy sunglasses to lure girls from other castes”. This emboldened right-wing extremists in the State to resurrect their divisive politics through caste-based outfits. Ramadoss even forged a ‘caste alliance’ of sorts among various privileged groups, including Brahmins, and backward castes, to thwart inter-caste marriages. He did not invite any Dalit caste group to the meeting he organised in this connection.

The PMK’s dislike of Dalits deepened when a Dalit youth named Elavarasan married Divya, a Vanniyar girl, at Natham Colony near Dharmapuri in 2012, which led to large-scale violence. Dalit colonies were burnt down and properties damaged in the violence that followed on November 7 that year. Their marriage ultimately ended when Divya left him to return to her family. Elavarasan was found dead near a railway track soon thereafter. It was widely believed that the PMK, which opposed their marriage, was behind the entire episode of violence, which it denied. The couple then were barely 20 years of age. (“Caste fury”, Frontline, December 14, 2012.)

Birds of a feather

The PMK has been flourishing on political opportunism and anti-Dravidian rhetoric. Commanding around 7 per cent of the vote share in the State, mostly from among the Vanniyars, the party has been a trusted alliance partner of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) since the 2014 Parliamentary election and still remains in the alliance. Since then, caste-based polarisation has taken a sharp turn in Tamil Nadu, thus enabling Hindutva elements to exploit the situation to pursue their divisive agenda.

In fact, the BJP, after coming to power at the Centre, has been actively pushing the caste angle as part of its divisive politics in Tamil Nadu, the land of social reform and Periyar’s self-respect movement that remains an oasis of religious amity. The party’s dangerous campaign of ‘alien faiths’ “taking possession of Hindu wombs” through the ruse of ‘love jehad’ has not gained traction in the State.

The issue of inter-caste marriages found its echo in Tamil films too. As a retort to a series of Dalit-centric films, such as Pariyerum Perumal and Asuran, which denounced casteism and upheld casteless humanism, a film called Draupathi blatantly espoused the PMK’s cause of ‘caste purity’ and ‘protecting’ women belonging to the backward castes. The film ran to packed houses and was a commercial success.

Dalits and the Sangh Parivar

Taking off from where the PMK left, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh-led Sangh Parivar, of which the BJP is an integral part, has turned its attention to caste groups. After targeting a few dominant castes, such as Thevars (Mukkulathors) and Nadars in the southern districts and Vellala Gounders in the western part of the State, all belonging to Other Backward Classes (OBCs), it has started spreading its corrosive influence among Dalit sub-groups.

The Sangh Parivar has roped in some Dalit writers too to strengthen its hands in its gameplan. The BJP appointed L. Murugan, who belongs to the Dalit Arunthathiyar community, as its State president, mainly to appease the Dalit aspiration that seeks political empowerment in the State. This right-wing bait has been too tempting for many Dalit parties, groups and individuals. Dr S. Krishnaswamy, the founder-leader of Puthiya Thamizhagam, a party of the Dalit Pallar community, has been its prize catch. The BJP-led government at the Centre has reportedly promised to take appropriate steps to remove Pallars from the Scheduled Caste List, which he has been demanding for long.

While many fringe Dalit groups have subscribed to the Hindutva ideology, the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) is the lone warrior in the battle against the right-wing onslaught today. Its leader, Thol. Thirumavalavan, remains a strident critic of the Sangh Parivar, and he even denounced the Manusmriti for its casteist and anti-women views. His party, which wields a lot of clout among Parayars, a major Dalit sub-group, was at the forefront of various anti-Hindutva protests recently.

Isolated incidents

A year ago, the State Education Department issued a directive to its schools to be vigilant against any attempt to polarise students on communal lines following some disturbing reports that claimed a few fringe Hindutva outfits, such as the Hindu Maanavar Munnani (Hindu Students’ Front), had formed student groups in schools to ‘prevent Hindu girl students’ from falling in love with boys from other religions. Earlier, the same department had sent another circular asking headmasters to take action against students who came to school wearing coloured wristbands that reportedly denoted their caste.

However, K.A. Sengottaiyan, the School Education Minister, denied that such circulars had been issued. A social activist in Tirunelveli district in Tamil Nadu told Frontline that the government had buckled under the pressure of Hindutva elements. “What other reason could you attribute to this sham act of the Tamil Nadu government that withdrew the circulars?” he asked. A headmaster in a school in Tirunelveli district said that they were asked not to pursue such issues further.

Such acts have exposed the right-wing party, which has been constantly attempting to create the bogey of ‘love jehad’ in Tamil Nadu. In fact, after the murder of a BJP functionary in January this year in Tiruchi, L. Murugan, who was then the Vice-Chairman of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes, told mediapersons that the ‘love jehad’ angle in the murder should be probed. “Love jehad, which is widely prevalent in Kerala, is spreading to Tamil Nadu,” Murugan claimed. But the State Police dismissed the theory. H. Raja, the then BJP national secretary, criticised the police for this.

In an incident remotely linked to Tamil Nadu, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) in July registered a case of human trafficking against a few Bangladeshi nationals after a Chennai-based girl who studied in London was allegedly lured into a relationship with a Muslim youth from Bangladesh. The girl’s father, who hails from a northern State but is settled in Chennai, had preferred a complaint with the State’s Central Crime Branch (CCP) Police in May this year. The case was transferred to the NIA. Media reports claimed that the NIA’s first information report (FIR) had said that the girl was lured into a relationship by a Bangladeshi national and was taken to Bangladesh where she was converted to Islam. She reportedly told her father over phone that she was being harassed. The case is under investigation.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor