R.S. Bharathi, Member of Parliament and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s (DMK) organising secretary, was arrested early morning on May 23 under the provisions of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, just over 12 hours after he filed a complaint with the State’s Directorate of Vigilance and Anti-Corruption alleging malpractice in COVID-19-related purchases by the State government. About five hours later, he was enlarged on interim bail until June 1.
On February 15, at a closed-door meeting of the DMK, Bharathi had used a derogatory term about Dalits while saying that it was the Dravidian movement that made them judges in the higher judiciary. Videos of the speech made it to WhatsApp and, later, a first information report (FIR) was registered against him in a local police station. Three months later, the Central Crime Branch arrested him in the case even as it was being heard in the Madras High Court.
In fact, Bharathi had sought a direction from the High Court to ask the jurisdictional court to accept his surrender and enlarge him on bail, and to quash the FIR against him. The State government sought time till May 27 to file its response. He was arrested in the meantime. This fact was pointed out by N.R. Elango, fellow MP and advocate while seeking bail for Bharathi. The court granted the defendant’s prayer, but made it conditional: He was remanded in judicial custody till June 5, but he has been protected from arrest till May 31. If the High Court does not give him relief on June 1, Bharathi will be remanded in custody.
DMK president M.K. Stalin described the arrest as a desperate act of the government to cover up its failure in controlling the spread of COVID-19 and the corruption involved in the purchase of essentials to fight the disease. “R.S. Bharathi had filed a complaint with the DVAC against Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswami, Deputy Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam and Local Administration Minister S.P. Velumani. He had also submitted to the DVAC detailed proof of corruption in the Highways [Department] tender during corona,” Stalin said. This was the reason for the arrest, he said.
Congress leader Peter Alphonse said that the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) government was drawing inspiration from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which was indiscriminately filing cases against opposition leaders, including Congress president Sonia Gandhi. “The leader of the opposition party questioned the government on a policy matter. Immediately, someone manages to get an FIR filed in a BJP-ruled State, Karnataka. This template is now being employed in Tamil Nadu,” he said. All those who stood for democratic norms and functioning should condemn the arrest, he added.
The arrest signals a more complex political game and has followed the defection of a Dalit DMK leader, V.P. Duraisamy, from the party. Duraisamy’s decision to leave the party and join the BJP just a few days ago and the arrest of Bharathi under the SC/ST Act when there was an ongoing case points to the creation of a narrative around the alleged mistreatment of SCs by the DMK.
The AIADMK is focusing on Scheduled Castes because the party believes that this vote bank can be swayed, regardless of the fact that SCs in Tamil Nadu are fragmented into Pallars, Paraiars and Arundathiyars. For the BJP, the AIADMK’s closest ally in Tamil Nadu, this is yet another gamble after a series of failed plans. It began with the appointment of a person from the Scheduled Castes as its State president. The BJP hopes to cash in on this identity. Its association with Puthiya Tamilagam’s K. Krishnasamy, another Dalit leader, is supposed to help in this consolidation.
Tamil Nadu’s caste calculus dictates that a victory is possible only if the largest block, the Backward Castes, throws its weight behind a political party. But since the they are not a monolith, and since both the Dravidian parties, the AIADMK and the DMK, have a large chunk of the BCs between them as supporters, the battle shifts to other groups in the State, including the Scheduled Castes. With the Assembly elections to be held early in 2021, the battle for the castes has already begun, even in the midst of a pandemic.