A fight for common resources

Published : Jun 06, 2003 00:00 IST

The Dalits of Koothirambakkam in Tamil Nadu struggle to assert their right to common resources in the face of an oppressive caste hierarchy and an indifferent government apparatus.

in Koothirambakkam

KOOTHIRAMBAKKAM, a tiny village in Kancheepuram district, drew media attention six months ago when the Jayalalithaa-led All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) government issued the Tamil Nadu Prohibition of Forcible Conversion of Religion Ordinance. The decision of about 300 Dalits in the village to convert to Islam was then being mentioned as one of the proximate factors that provoked the State government to issue the controversial ordinance on October 5. (Two months later it became law.)

The Dalits' decision has a background. For nearly three decades they have been demanding that during the festival season (September-October) the deity of the Muthumariamman temple in the village, which is under the control of caste Hindus, should be taken to their `colony' also when it is taken out in a procession. (`Colony' denotes the area where Dalits live. They are not allowed to enter temples in most villages.) In September 2002, however, their demand was coupled with a warning to the district administration that if their desire was not fulfilled, they would embrace Islam en masse. Vanniyars of the village, the predominant caste group, refused to budge. The district administration, which failed to persuade Vanniyars to concede the demand, tried to mollify Dalits by agreeing to meet some other demands of a non-religious nature.

Some months after the festival season, the village is back in the news. Dalits have since then been subjected to more cruel forms of oppression by the predominant community. The oppression came in the form of denial of jobs to them in farms owned by non-Dalit landholders. They also tightened the social and economic boycott of Dalits, which has been in force for long. Moreover, when Dalits recently attempted to enforce their right to fish in the local lake on the strength of a lease granted by the district administration, a group of Vanniyars resorted to violence. Shouting abusive slogans against Dalits, a 200-strong mob assaulted those engaged in fishing. Pandurangan, 17, a Class IX student and one of those who were fishing, said: "The mob jumped into the lake and began attacking us. They used foul language. We came out of the lake and ran for our lives. We were chased into the village. They beat me mercilessly. Some persons entered our house and took away our tape-recorder." The mob, which comprised mostly Vanniyars, chased the Dalits into the colony and attacked them with knives, sickles, iron rods and casuarina sticks, it was stated. Vanita, 45, said that when she and her friend, Padma, were returning to the village from their fields, a group of people carrying weapons ran towards them and attacked them. They abused the women for fishing in the lake. Vanita said: "Most of our men have now left the village looking for jobs because they could not get jobs in the village. We are unsettled and feel insecure."

Not less than 18 Dalits, including women, children and the elderly, were injured and were hospitalised. Forty-six houses of Dalits were ransacked and their belongings were looted; bicycles, two-wheelers and television sets were damaged. Street lamps and public taps, as well as the extension unit of a fair price shop functioning in the `colony', were targeted. In the village with a population of about 2,000 people, there are about 200 Vanniya families and 58 Dalit families. There are also Yadava and other caste Hindu people. Most of the Vanniya families are land-owning agriculturists. Dalits are mostly agricultural labourers depending upon Vanniya landholders for their livelihood. Although the village has only one primary school, it has no fewer than 10 small temples. Dalits say that untouchability is practised in the village in several forms. For instance, Dalits are denied access to the common pond even when the drinking water system provided to Dalits by the panchayat fails. Dalits are not allowed to enter areas occupied by non-Dalits.

An elderly woman said that Vanniyas, through an `oor panchayat' decision, had banned their people from giving jobs to Dalits and even talking to them. They had also warned that those who violated the `order' would be fined Rs.2,000. A Communist Party of India (Marxist) activist at Kancheepuram, Kumar, recalled that sometime back a ban was imposed on the families of a few party workers in the village by Vanniyas for having challenged the discrimination against Dalits.

THREE weeks after the violence, an uneasy calm prevailed in the village. Police personnel were deployed there. The houses in the colony bear the marks of vandalism. The injured, though discharged from hospital, are yet to recover from the trauma. Several of them with their fractured limbs bandaged and in slings, were seen moving about. An aged Dalit woman, with her broken hand bandaged and leaning on the mud wall of her tiny hut, was murmuring something in pain. A police vehicle arrived and constables began collecting damaged utensils to be produced in the court. A strange silence prevailed in the Vanniya areas as well.

The lake, at the centre of the controversy, was dry. A pond meant for common use had hardly any water in it. Parched land all around the village testified to the havoc drought had played in the area.

Tracing the history of the 27-year-old dispute between Dalits and the caste-Hindus over the Muthumariamman temple, Mathurai, 55, a Dalit leader, said: "Although there are more than 10 temples in the village, we are claiming right over only the Muthumariamman temple, because our money and labour were involved in building it. Why should we not be allowed to worship in this temple? How is it that our area alone should be left out in the programme?"

Mathurai said that they had been pressing their demands with regard to the temple in a peaceful manner for over two decades in vain. He said: "Every year we would revive the demand; the administration would organise a peace meeting... . This became almost a routine. In 1994, when our demand was rejected once again, we felt dejected. When we were prevented from entering the temple, we felt that there was no point in remaining in a religion that did not treat us as equals. We therefore announced our intention to leave this religion." The district administration intervened again and conceded some of their demands - other than the one relating to their rights over the temple.

Mathurai said: "In 2002, we again warned that we would change our religion in front of the Sankara Math at Kancheepuram" The District Collector and a State Minister intervened, but could not effect a settlement. It was at that time that the Tamil Nadu government brought forward the anti-conversion ordinance. Once again, the district administration conceded all of the demands of the Dalits except the one relating to the temple, "because, they said, it was pending before the court".

"One of the demands was that the lease given to Dalits to fish in the lake be extended for a year since in 2001 there was no water in the lake owing to drought, and this was conceded. When our people went fishing on March 29, we were stopped by a 200-strong mob of Vanniyars, led by the president of the panchayat council. They attacked us and destroyed our belongings," Mathurai said.

Mathurai said that students were targeted. "They do not want our children to study. Many of our boys and girls were assaulted when they were preparing for the examinations. Among the articles the intruders destroyed were school certificates," he said.

Vanniyars of the village were not prepared to talk to the media.

On the basis of complaints filed by Velu, president of the fishermen's association, and Amsaveni, a Dalit injured in the attack, over 20 Vanniyas were arrested and charges filed against them. Among those arrested was the panchayat president, who was, however, released on bail within hours. Charges were filed under the Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. On a complaint from Velu, a Vanniya, 19 Dalits were arrested. Eight Dalits were charged with burning haystacks belonging to Vanniyas.

Human rights activists and political leaders who visited the village after the incidents as members of fact-finding teams expressed surprise over the fact that the district administration had failed to resolve the temple issue for over two decades. Since the denial of entry into temples to Dalits is one of the listed practices of untouchability that is punishable under law, early action by the administration would have enabled it to ensure that the situation did not take a violent turn. They were also critical of the district administration for its failure to give police protection to Dalits when they went fishing in the lake. The fact-finding teams have demanded action taken against all those involved in atrocities against Dalits, under the SC/ST Act. They demanded that Dalits be compensated under the provisions of the Act

Apart from fishing rights, the Koothirambakkam Dalits were also agitated over the district administration's insensitivity to their legitimate aspiration to possess a certain stretch of land. The decision to auction some land belonging to the Kancheepuram Thirumetreeswarar temple at Koothirambakkam to caste Hindu bidders without informing Dalits about it made them complain to the district administration. Dalits said that the move was in violation of an earlier understanding arrived at in a peace meeting over their demands in general. The administration saw reason in the Dalits' plea and announced a fresh auction.

The Dalits' assertion of their right to the common resources of the village as also their attempts, though feeble, to insist on the fulfilment of their land-related demands perhaps indicates a shift in their priorities: economic issues have come to the fore. Dalit leaders across the country have stressed the need for the community to fight for their rights over land and community wealth. The Koothirambakkam incident, though not organised by any Dalit organisation, appears to be a manifestation of the awareness among Dalits about this aspect. The way caste Hindus have generally frustrated Dalits' efforts, owing to the indifferent attitude of the district administration, also indicates the level of resistance that Dalits may have to face from vested interests and the defenders of the hierarchical caste system, which has caused, nurtured and perpetuated, economic, political and social inequality among the people.

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