An I-Day experience

Published : Sep 12, 2003 00:00 IST

ON August 15, when the nation was celebrating the 56th anniversary of its Independence, the Dalit panchayat president of Chottathatti village in Tamil Nadu's Sivaganga district was assaulted and humiliated in public because he "dared" to unfurl the national flag at the panchayat's official function.

In a petition presented to District Collector J. Radhakrishnan, the victim, K. Rasu, said that after hoisting the flag at the local school ground, he was making arrangements to hold the mandatory gram sabha meeting when, all on a sudden, Subbiah, who belonged to the dominant Mukkulathor caste, entered the scene and challenged his right to unfurl the tricolour. "How dare you, a low-born, hoist the national flag? How dare you sit in a chair at the panchayat office?" the intruder shouted at Rasu and beat him with a chappal, according to the petition.

When Subbiah attempted to attack Rasu with a steel chair, Rasu's wife intervened and was injured in the process, the petition said. Others who had gathered for the gram sabha meeting rescued Rasu from further attack. The District Collector assured Rasu, who is in his second term as panchayat president, of action. He visited the village and ordered an investigation. The police arrested Subbiah and registered a case against him under various sections of the Indian Penal Code and the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.

Sivaganga district was in the news recently when the majority caste-Hindu group refused to help enforce a High Court order that equal rights be ensured to all sections of the people at a temple festival in Kandadevi village. (Frontline, August 15, 2003)

There are reasons to believe that the August 15 incident was not a sudden development, but a manifestation of `upper caste' prejudices against Dalits and their intolerance of the moves to empower the marginalised. In the fortnight preceding Independence Day, several members of Rasu's family - his son, daughter-in-law and sister - were victims of `upper caste' atrocities.

According to a complaint lodged with the police at Thiruppuvanam, on the morning of August 3, Veluthai, Rasu's daughter-in-law, went to the house of Mari, son of Mayandi, a relative of Subbiah, and complained to Mari's mother that her son had entered her house the previous night and attempted to rape her. She showed Mari's mother the injuries she received. Incensed by the complaint, Mari's mother attempted to assault her, Veluthai said in the complaint. Mari's relatives beat up Veluthai and her husband, Sengai, who had accompanied her, the complaint said.

The police registered a case and took into custody four persons. However, Mari was not among them. The district unit of the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA) staged a demonstration at Thiruppuvanam in protest against the police ignoring Veluthai's charge that Mari attempted to rape her. On Independence Day-eve, a sister of Rasu was hit with chappals at Silaiman.

A fact-finding team, which included the secretary of the district committee of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) M. Arjunan, AIDWA's district secretary B. Damayanti, and advocate T. Kumar, among others, visited Chottathatti and held an independent inquiry on Veluthai's charges. Referring to Rasu's representation to the Deputy Superintendent of Police at Manamadurai over the sex-related violence against his daughter-in-law, the report says that the team learnt from its investigation that Rasu, who represented to a police official on the slow pace and inadequacy of the investigation process, was insulted by the official, who, ironically, is in charge of investigating crimes under the S.C. and S.T. Act. Arjunan said that had the police taken swift action on Veluthai's complaint against Mari, the incidents that followed could have been averted.

The AIDWA team's report also revealed that there was evidence to show that untouchability was practised in the village and Dalits were victims of caste-based discrimination in several respects. Significantly, the report also said an influential section of the caste-Hindu majority made a mockery of Dalit empowerment by refusing to allow the elected panchayat president to function independently.

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