Dalits in a village in Coimbatore district stand up to caste violence and social boycott, which followed a dispute over the two-tumbler system.
INTOLERANT of Dalit resistance to the continuing practice of untouchability, caste Hindus of Salarappatti in Coimbatore district, Tamil Nadu, have let loose a reign of terror in the village. Thirteen Dalits, including women and children, were injured in a mob attack on February 18. The Dalits had just then returned after participating in a demonstration against discrimination at nearby Udumalpet and were caught unawares. The 500-strong mob descended on the Dalits with sickles, sticks and iron rods and attacked every Dalit house. They burnt down three huts and a haystack.
The police force, which had been deployed in the village in view of the prevailing tension, was a mute witness to the attack, the local people said. Dalit political parties, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Communist Party of India and the Periyar Dravidar Kazhagam staged a massive demonstration in protest against the attack and demanded severe action against the culprits. They also called for relief operations without delay.
The February 18 incident was the culmination of strained relations between Dalits, most of them from the Arunthathiyar sub-sect, and caste Hindu Vanniars for about a month.
It all started when the owners of some teashops objected to some Dalits, all from neighbouring villages, sitting on the benches in front of their shops and refused to serve them tea. The Dalits, who were there to attend a funeral, were shocked to know that all teashops in the village were under the control of caste Hindus and that they practised untouchability in serving tea in disposable cups for Dalits and glass tumblers for others. (The two-tumbler system, as it is known, is one of the numerous forms of untouchability practised despite the law banning it.)
The visiting Dalits spread the word about the practice and the Athi Thamizhar Peravai, a Dalit organisation, took up the issue with the Udumalpet police. In turn, caste Hindus, angry that the issue had been taken to the police, asked all the 13 teashops in the village to shut down.
Explaining the developments that followed, K. Karuppasami (42), who works in a sugar factory near the village, told Frontline that caste Hindus of the village had decided on a social and economic boycott of Dalits there. This brought many hardships to Dalits, most of whom are agricultural workers. A few were employed in textile and sugar factories in the region. Although most of the non-Dalits in the village were only agricultural workers, they could influence the non-Dalit landowners in neighbouring villages to refuse work to Dalits of Salarappatti. Dalits were also denied services such as hair cuts and access to local shops.
When the complaint was lodged with the police on February 7, the station authorities gave them only a receipt and did not file a First Information Report (FIR). Later, the police arranged a peace meeting of Dalits and non-Dalits at the police station on February 15. When teashop owners said they were prepared to serve tea to all in disposable cups, Dalits demanded that both Dalits and non-Dalits be served in glass or steel tumblers. This was not acceptable to the others and so there was no accord.
The revenue official representing the government said the matter could be sorted out later. At the meeting Dalits also demanded that they be allowed to enter the local temple and make use of the community hall in the village. The hall had been built with public funds allotted to the local Member of Parliament, Dr. C. Krishnan of the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK), under the Constituency Improvement Scheme. (Krishnan, representing the Pollachi reserved parliamentary constituency, was yet to visit the affected village.)
As the non-Dalits were opposed to it, no decision could be taken at the peace meeting. Given the tension in the village, a posse of policemen was posted there. The day before the meeting, the owners of two teashops attempted to open their shops but caste Hindus assaulted them and prevented them from doing so.
Karuppasami said that after the meeting failed the Athi Thamizhar Peravai called for a demonstration at Udumalpet on February 18 to press their demands. Salarappattis Dalits responded in a big way to the Peravais call but when they returned home they had to confront the caste Hindu mob.
Karuppasami said the attack came in two spells. First, on the evening of February 18 two Dalit youth were beaten up near a temple by a group of caste Hindus who said their presence near the temple raised suspicion. This was followed by the attack on Dalit residents and their houses.
Velammal (80), a Dalit woman who was hit by a stone during the attack, said her house was badly damaged. She lamented that her lifes savings had been lost and said the attackers did not spare even the elderly and children. Another woman resident said an eight-year-old boy was among those injured. She said some women attackers carried lathis of the kind that policemen used.
Speaking to the affected Dalits after distributing relief materials, R. Athiyaman, president, Tamil Nadu Athi Thamizhar Peravai, identified three distinct features of the mob assault: for the first time women and children formed part of the caste Hindu attack force; women and children were among the victims; caste Hindus entered schools, pulled out Dalit pupils and beat them up.
Athiyaman said caste Hindus told the school authorities not to allow Dalit children to attend classes. They are intolerant of our boys and girls getting education, he said.
C. Govindasami, leader of the CPI(M) Legislature Party, said that when he visited the village a day after the attack, the victims told him that caste Hindus had imposed an economic blockade on them. He said they complained that caste Hindus foiled their attempts to get work in other places and also prevented their children from attending schools.
Govindasami told mediapersons later that the police presence was not adequate. Had they taken precautions, the incident could have been averted. Athiyaman also blamed the police for their inaction.
Thanks to the intervention of the District Collector, Neeraj Mittal, who visited the village on February 20, a substantial number of Dalits had been provided jobs under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. He said the community hall was very much a public property and everybody should have access to it
The significance of the Salarappatti Dalits struggle is that it is possibly the largest manifestation of Dalit assertion in the western districts of the State in the recent years. Another notable point is that the Arunthathiars, the third largest Dalit sub-sect in Tamil Nadu after the Paraiyars and the Pallars, have their highest concentration in the western districts.
The Dalit uprising of the 1990s, which involved the Paraiyars and the Pallars in the northern and southern districts respectively, did not have much of an impact in the western districts. The spread of Dalit consolidation to this region is an indication of the emergence of a new socio-political line-up comprising Dalit movements, the Left parties and the Periarist radicals of the Dravidian movement. A massive demonstration in support of the demands of Salarappattis Dalits, organised by Periyar Dravidar Kazhagam with the support of the Athi Thamizhar Peravai and in which all major Dalit organisations and the Left participated, stands testimony to this.