Disempowering Dalits

Published : May 20, 2005 00:00 IST

ONCE again the Tamil Nadu government has failed to take the process of electing presidents for four panchayats reserved for Dalits in Tamil Nadu to its logical conclusion. Defiant caste Hindu groups have been preventing these elections for nearly a decade now. While, as in the past, no nominations were received for the posts in two villages, Nattarmangalam in Madurai district and Kottakkachiyendal in Virudhunagar district, the successful candidate at Keerippatti (Madurai district), V. Azhagumalai, resigned the post within minutes of assuming office on April 24. At Pappapatti, also in Madurai district, the elections were countermanded following the death of one of the candidates.

Adding insult to injury, caste Hindus in Keerippatti reportedly instructed local shopkeepers not to sell vegetables and milk to the relatives of the unsuccessful candidate, P. Poonkodi, fielded by the Dalit Panthers of India (DPI). Fifteen families were affected by the act of ostracism, according to a petition presented to the Tahsildar at Usilampatti. The boycott was withdrawn following government intervention.

Reservation of posts in the three-tier panchayat structure for women and the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes is one of the major features of the panchayati raj institutions that were put in place in 1996 under the Tamil Nadu Panchayats Act, 1994. Sections of caste Hindus, particularly in the southern districts, known for frequent incidents of caste-related violence, have resented reservation for Dalits from the very beginning. In the four villages, where Dalits are in a minority and depend on caste Hindu landholders for their livelihood, various methods have been adopted to stall the elections. First they prevented Dalits from filing nominations. Later, fearing the wrath of the administration, "community leaders" fielded Dalits of their choice as candidates, helped them win, and then made them resign soon after assuming charge. This has been the case in Pappapatti. The caste Hindu standpoint was that a Dalit could not be accepted as the panchayat president. "If they become presidents, we may have to show respect to them in village festivals and public functions. This we cannot do" is the common refrain.

No nominations were received in Pappapatti, Keerippatti, Nattarmangalam and Kottakachiyendal panchayats for the president's posts in the 1996 elections. In the past, both districts have witnessed caste-related violence involving Dalits and Mukkulathor, the predominant caste Hindu community. The caste Hindu majority of the villages was intolerant of a Dalit heading their panchayat and they warned Dalits of serious consequences if they dared enter the fray. Apart from this, the murder of the Dalit president of the Melavalavu village panchayat in Madurai district within months of his election in 1996 also deterred Dalits in the four villages from taking part in the democratic process.

In 2001, caste Hindus in the four villages repeated the same strategy of forcing Dalits out of the fray. In the subsequent elections held along with "casual elections", Pappapatti and Keerippatti opted to participate in the process, but only to make a mockery of it by forcing the winners not only to resign but also to plead with the State government to de-reserve their panchayats.

ELEVEN years have passed since the 1994 Act came into force. The Act was promulgated in the wake of the 73rd Amendment to the Constitution, which Parliament approved in 1993 with the objective of strengthening democracy at the grassroots level. The 73rd Amendment, together with the 74th, made it mandatory to establish strong, decentralised, democratically elected local bodies in rural and urban areas to achieve the twin objectives of "economic development and social justice". A three-tier panchayati raj structure - village panchayats, panchayat unions and district panchayats - and regular meetings of gram sabhas, in which all the electors are members, to involve people in the planning process are the major features of the 1994 Act. While one-third of the total number of seats have been reserved for women, Dalits' representation will be in proportion to their share in the population. The Act also ensures regular elections to the local bodies.

Two rounds of election, the first in 1996 and the second in 2001, have been held in the State to fill over one lakh posts in 12,619 village panchayats, 385 panchayat unions and 29 district panchayats. Of the 12,619 village panchayat president's posts, 3,198 were reserved for women (general), 1,104 for Scheduled Caste women, 1,855 for the Scheduled Castes in general, 66 for the Scheduled Tribes in general and 27 for Scheduled Tribe women.

The performance of the Act in the past nine years has not been, by and large, disappointing. Although the functioning of the panchayati raj institutions has been hamstrung by lack of power and finance, the political empowerment of women and Dalits has generated a lot of enthusiasm in rural Tamil Nadu. However, Dalits had to put up with countless acts of humiliation before overcoming the resistance from vested interests to a significant level.

Dalits, who account for a little over 25 per cent of the rural population in Tamil Nadu, live scattered all over the State, segregated from the rest of the people. This being the pattern of living thrust upon these victims of centuries-old prejudice, they need not necessarily constitute the majority in the villages in which the posts of panchayat presidents have been reserved for Dalits. Perhaps that is why the Act has stipulated reservation for Dalits by rotation. Another apparent reason for this is the need to integrate these hitherto segregated people into mainstream society. The idea seems to be that in about 40 years' time, with different panchayats being reserved for Dalits by rotation, larger sections among caste Hindus may come round to accepting the need to be more tolerant towards Dalit empowerment. Experts feel that any lenient attitude to caste Hindu resistance now would only encourage non-Dalit people in more villages to resist the inclusion of their panchayats in the list of those reserved for Dalits under the rotation system and pose a serious threat to the very system of reservation in future.

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