Tamil society today displays a weird combination of liberal and progressive values on one side and feudal and casteist mindsets on the other. Dalits and women are the worst affected in the tensions created by the interplay of these elements. Dalits in Tamil Nadu have 309 subcastes, according to the 2011 Census. Establishing caste supremacy, an emerging phenomenon among Dalits of Tamil Nadu today, can be attributed to the rise of right-wing ideology, mainly among Pallars in Tamil Nadu. Caste is beginning to be perceived in terms of the notion of purity and honour rather than a sense of inferiority or superiority. G. Jakkaian, founder leader of the Madurai-based Adi Thamizhar Katchi (ATK), one of the outfits that work among Arunthathiyars, spoke to Frontline on how caste hierarchy was getting entrenched among Dalit subcastes and how this had led to killings provoked by perceived violations of caste sanctities.
He said that a Pallar household found it uncomfortable to accept any marital connection with Parayars, while Parayars and Pallars in turn shied away from marital alliances with Arunthathiyars. Arunthathiyar youths were apparently the worst hit because they were perceived to be below Pallars and Parayars. “We unite under one roof on general issues such as caste discrimination. But, unfortunately, we remain divided into subcastes and talk about caste supremacy when it comes to inter-subcaste marriages,” he said. “Almost all castes in Tamil Nadu have been Brahminised. And Dalits are no exception.”
Jakkaian cited cases of violence against people seen to be transgressing boundaries. An Arunthathiyar woman was raped and murdered in 2003 because her brother married a Parayar girl, in Karadichithur village of Villupuram district. In 2012 there was the suspicious death of Kokila, a Parayar, in Kandamangalam village in Villupuram district after she married an Arunthathiyar boy, Karthikeyan.
Ajithkumar, a Parayar youth, was killed because he married a Pallar girl in Thondi in Ramanathapuram in 2019. Priyanka, an Arunthathiyar girl who married a Kulalar (potter by profession) boy in Mallur in Namakkal, was murdered in 2013. In July 2019, a 45-year-old mother of a Dalit boy who eloped with a girl, also a Dalit, at Vilankattur village near Vriddhachalam, was allegedly tied to a lamp post and flogged by the girl’s relatives.
Ira. Athiyaman, a veteran Arunthathiyar leader and founder of the Coimbatore-based Adi Thamizhar Peravai, spoke of the mindset of “Brahminical sovereignty”. “Popular Dalit leaders of political parties always speak against ‘Hindu sanatana’. But cadres and middle-level functionaries do not adhere to the words of their leaders. They follow all kinds of discriminatory practices. Pallars own land, while Parayars, thanks to the efforts of Christian missionaries, are well educated. So they naturally look down upon us, Arunthathiyars,” he said.
Prof. Ramu Manivanan, Head of the Department of Politics and Public Administration, University of Madras, Chennai, said that some inter-caste marriages did take place without drawing much attention. He said: “Whenever they involve Dalits marrying upper-caste persons, they are seen as an offence and defiance of the status quo.” In India, he said, caste was a class with divine sanctity despite the functional divisions breaking down for everyone except the priestly community of Brahmins. “The changing professional base of other castes, including the Dalit subcastes, has not been established, but it has reinforced class consciousness among Dalits in terms of upper and lower strata. The Thoothukudi incident needs to be seen from this perspective as well,” he said.
The precepts of caste, clan, family, purity and honour are deeply entrenched in all caste groups, including Dalits, in Tamil Nadu. The demand for removing Pallars from the Scheduled Caste list and bring them on a par with intermediate-caste Hindu groups has gained traction after Puthiya Tamilagam leader Dr Krishnasamy warmed up to the BJP-led Central government. Dalit activists see this as an attempt by him to change the narrative of a common Dalit identity that could lead to a unified fight against birth-based discrimination in society. In fact, it has encouraged forces that stand for caste purity and patriarchy.
Dr Krishnasamy maintains that Pallars had never been “untouchable” and that the British had done them a “historical injustice” by clubbing them with other Scheduled Castes. “We have been urging the government just to remove the low-caste tag. We do not wish to be called Dalits. It demoralises our younger generation,” he told Frontline recently. His acceptance of the right-wing doctrine, which he strongly believes would move Pallars up in the caste hierarchy, has left social activists and Dalits shocked. He, however, said that his support for inter-caste marriages was unequivocal. “My party had organised conferences against honour killings,” he said.
Another Pallar leader, John Pandian, also seeks the removal of the community from the S.C. list.A rabidly majoritarian narrative is emerging among Pallars. The sociologist and activist Meena Somu, expressing her anguish at the increasing casteist tendencies among Dalits, said that even students among Pallars and Parayars were talking about caste hegemony. “They even resist inter-subcaste marriages between Pallars and Parayars. Attempts to construct a Varnashrama-based graded inequality among Dalits would only harm their upward social mobility,” she warned. The Dalit scholar and writer A. Ramaiah’s article “Untouchability and Inter-Caste Relations in Rural India: The Case of Southern Tamil Villages” ( Journal of Religious Culture , 2004) is based on case studies in a few villages in Ramanathapuram district. According to him, “the Pallar caste is considered to be the highest caste among the lower or the Scheduled Castes and lower caste among the higher castes or the caste Hindus in Tamil Nadu.” He says that Pallars in most villages of Ramanathapuram consider themselves to be above Parayars and treated them as “untouchables”. “Falling next to the Parayars in the caste hierarchy are the Chakkiliyars [Arunthathiyars].”
He explains: “Though like Parayars, Chakkiliyars and other Scheduled Castes, Pallars have also been segregated from the main village habitats, they enjoy a superior status among the Scheduled Castes. It is, therefore, important to understand the sociocultural and economic reasons which keep them superior among the Scheduled Castes particularly in Ramanathapuram district.” A number of studies point to the prevalence of caste discrimination among the Scheduled Castes themselves. However, he says that “these studies have not looked in detail at the reasons behind such discrimination.”
Anand Teltumbde, an academic, columnist, civil rights activist and one of India’s foremost public intellectuals, pointed out that “inter-caste marriage cannot usher in an assimilation of two families as among Dalits”, and also that Dalits themselves had not given up caste. “Today the crevices along the castes are visible not only among Mahar, Chambar, Mang or Mela, Madiga or Parayah or Pallars or Arunthathiyars, but also along their subcastes too. It is visible everywhere,” he said.