How caste prejudices and class interests brought about the demise of a panchayat administered well by Dalit leaders in Tamil Nadu.A demonstration in
DALIT empowerment remains a dream close to six decades after the Constitution banned untouchability and provided for affirmative action through reservation of jobs for Dalits in government service, Parliament and the State legislatures, in proportion to their share in the population.
Even panchayati raj institutions constituted under the provisions of the 1993 Panchayati Raj Act, with the twin objectives of building an inclusive society and ensuring inclusive economic growth, have not been able to help much in overcoming the hurdles on the way to Dalit empowerment. Stubborn resistance from vested interests and the indifference of an unsympathetic and non-cooperative bureaucracy have stalled empowerment efforts in many places. Complaints of district administrations abusing their powers to dismiss elected panchayat presidents on flimsy grounds have also been reported.
If this is the case 60 years after Independence, it is not difficult to imagine how bad the situation was for Dalits who came to power at least in a few villages in the 1950s and 1960s by contesting general seats. That some of the panchayats they ruled provided efficient administration and earned popular goodwill is a matter of pleasant surprise. However, vested interests among caste Hindus worked overtime with the support of the bureaucracy and succeeded in stopping these panchayats at their straps. The painful experience of one such panchayat in Tamil Nadu came to light recently.
Almost 43 years ago, the successful Dalit-run Iruvappapuram Panchayat, 15-20 km west of the port town of Thoothukudi, in the undivided Tirunelveli district, was dismantled and forced to merge with the bigger, neighbouring village panchayat of Sawyerpuram, which was under the control of non-Dalits.
Today, large sections of both Dalit and non-Dalit populations of the erstwhile Iruvappapuram panchayat have taken to the streets to fight the discrimination against them and are demanding the restoration of their panchayat. They allege that the merger was done against their will. The merger took place in February 1965. Iruvappapuram, comprising 12 villages, was then administered by an elected Dalit-majority council and enjoyed the reputation of being one of the best-run panchayati raj institutions. The panchayat also had a substantial resource base, thanks to revenue from over 2,500 hectares of fertile agricultural land that fell within its limits.
It was under these circumstances that all of a sudden a Government Order (G.O.) on October 20, 1964, announced the merger of Iruvappapuram Panchayat with Sawyerpuram Panchayat. (Sawyerpuram went on to become a town panchayat.) The merger took place on February 3, 1965. Iruvappapuram, however, retained its status as a revenue village.
Why the then Congress government in the State ordered the merger of a well-run and self-reliant village panchayat with another panchayat still remains a mystery. One point stressed by critics of the merger is the intolerance of caste-Hindu landlords and their fear of a Dalit power centre growing in their neighbourhood. Large sections of people in Iruvappapuram were Dalit agricultural workers and most of the fields they worked on in their village were owned by caste-Hindus of Sawyerpuram.
Critics say that this explains the absence of any Dalit resistance to the merger. It would have not been difficult for the landlords, given their stronger social, political and financial base, to force the Dalit farm workers into submission. And so it was an issue where both class and caste interests merged.
According to a retired State government officer, who worked in the area for over 10 years, the move for the merger was in fact initiated in 1963 through a G.O. But that order became ineffective after a subsequent G.O. was issued as a result of the intervention by Maragatham Chandrasekar, a Union Minister of State at the time, and P. Kakkan, a State Minister, following a representation from the people of Iruvappapuram through a resolution at a massive conference of the Srivaikuntam taluk unit of the Depressed Classes League in Thoothukudi in 1963. The conference condemned the G.O., which facilitated the merger, as unjust and demanded its withdrawal.
However, another fresh G.O. was issued in October 1964 yielding to pressure from supporters of the merger. Thus the voice of vested interests ultimately prevailed. The retired government officer added that there was no justification for the merger as the Iruvappapuram panchayat was functioning well and its financial position was sound. The very fact that people of more than 10 villages annexed under the merger plan were not properly represented in the post-merger council is itself evidence of discrimination. The entire annexed area was divided into just two wards and, therefore, had only two councillors. Sawyerpuram panchayat alone had 16 councillors before the merger. The people complain that they were deprived of the benefits they could have enjoyed if only there had been no merger.
Iruvappapuram residents complain that basic facilities have been denied to them and that their villages have been neglected in terms of development works in the past 40 years. Organised by the Meetchi Makkal Iyakkam, they have united under the banner of Iruvappapuram Separate Panchayat Restoration Committee and are fighting for their rights with the support of political parties such as the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Paattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), and the Puthiya Tamizhagam.Participants at the
A team led by K. Kanagaraj, secretary, District Committee of the CPI(M), which studied six of the 13 villages that were under Iruvappapuram village panchayat, has said in a report that the team found substance in the complaint that no development work has been undertaken by the town panchayat. In many places tubelights that had fused have not been promptly replaced, particularly in Dalit areas. Even to complain that no streetlights burn, villagers have to visit electricity board offices not less than 6 km away, says the report.
It found that funds allotted for development in the Iruvappapuram area had been diverted to schemes in the Sawyerpuram area. Many Dalit villages have no proper burial grounds or roads. Barring Peikkulam village, none of the six villages that the team visited had sodium lights.
Children have to walk long distances to reach primary schools. Residents walk 3 km or more to the ration shops or the primary health centre. A balwadi has been provided, but is close to the burial ground. No funds have been allotted to these villages for development works under the Anna Marumalarchi Thittam, which takes care of the basic needs of villages, including facilities such as houses, roads and power supply. While no fund has been allotted to Ward 1 of the town panchayat, which falls in the Iruvappapuram area, an allocation of just Rs.1 lakh has been made for laying a road in Ward 2. This too, will benefit only non-Dalits.
R. Nallakannu, National Executive Member of the Communist Party of India (CPI), who hails from the same taluk and who worked in the kisan front for many years, observed that Iruvappapuram village panchayat was considered number one in those days in terms of financial position and administration. Whatever be the reasons for the merger, the demand of Iruvappapurams residents for a separate panchayat now is reasonable as it would serve their needs and protect their interests, according to him.
Jayakumar, Ward 1 Councillor and district secretary, PMK Youth Forum, said he and the only other councillor representing the Iruvappapuram area were voiceless in the panchayat board. He said that a separate panchayat for their villages was the only solution and that all sections of people in the Iruvappapuram villages supported the demand.
Another veteran kisan leader of the area, S. Nainar Kulasekaran, said the landholders of Sawyerpuram village could not digest the fact that Iruvappapuram panchayat was deriving large revenues from land. Inadequate representation for the merged villages was unjust and the demand for a separate panchayat was totally fair, he added.
Justifying the demand for the restoration of Iruvappapuram Village Panchayat, Professor G. Palanithurai of the Gandhigram Rural University said that the government could do this when the delimitation of village panchayats would be taken up in the near future, after assessing peoples support for the demand. The very fact that the agitation for this, though a prolonged one, has been peaceful and the affected people have sustained the struggle for several months now shows that the demand enjoys peoples support.
I.P. Jeevan Kumar, convener of the Meetchi Makkal Iyakkam, and M. Solomon, convener, Iruvappapuram Separate Panchayat Restoration Committee, said they were determined to continue the agitation until their demands were met. We believe in peaceful resistance, said Jeevan Kumar, and added, Our objective is to restore Iruvappapuram village panchayat, put an end to discrimination, and get back all development projects.
But has the message reached the right place? Probably not. Months after the struggle started, its organisers were informed by the district administration that a peace meeting had been arranged. Where is the need for a peace meeting? There has been no breach of peace. We only demand the restoration of the panchayat, said Jeevan Kumar. However, he did attend the meeting along with other leaders and pressed the demand. Nothing came out of the meeting and the relay hunger strike by the people of Iruvappapuram villages completed 100 days on January 9.
However, acting quickly on a complaint that the Dalit residents of Subramaniapuram, one of the villages that were part of Iruvappapuram panchayat, were blocking a public path, the police stormed the place and took into custody seven persons, including Jeevan Kumar, on January 8. Obviously, the administration and the police appear to confirm the Dalits general complaint that the state often sees Dalit-related issues as law and order problems.