The violence against Dalits and their decision to boycott the Lok Sabha elections in Kalapatti, near Coimbatore, highlight the problem of caste oppression and Dalits' resistance in Tamil Nadu.
APART from mass religious conversion, a form of collective social protest experimented with by Dalits in post-Independence India is the boycott of elections, the only occasion democratic polity has given marginalised sections such as Dalits and tribal people to assert their rights and press their demands, by virtue of their sheer numbers. In the case of poll boycotts, Dalits have to face immediate resistance from not only the oppressive castes but also from the ruling political dispensation, which takes the protest as a challenge to its authority. The disapproval of this mode of protest by the state is rooted in the fact that it was first resorted to by Left extremists, who do not have faith in parliamentary democracy. In the case of Dalits, tribes and other marginalised sections of people, however, decisions to boycott elections are taken locally, more in protest against the failure of the state machinery to redress their grievances than on any ideological grounds. This form of protest by Dalits is apparently in a nascent stage and is yet to prove its efficacy. When the people of Gundupatti in Dindigul district tried this in the 1998 parliamentary elections, the administration and the ruling party did not take kindly to it and reacted ruthlessly (Frontline, April 17, 1998).
A recent example comes from Kalapatti village on the outskirts of Coimbatore. During the run-up to the parliamentary elections, the Dalits of the village announced their decision to boycott the elections on the grounds that many of their grievances remained unaddressed. One of their principal demands was that they be allowed entry into the common village temple. The predominant caste-Hindus in the village have been resisting their demand for many years now. Neither the State government nor the Sangh Parivar, which wielded considerable influence among Dalits of the region, could do anything about it. The Dalits, however, were firm on their decision. It is said that when the president of the State unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) visited the village for campaigning, Dalits were indifferent to his visit, which infuriated BJP workers. The local caste-Hindus also were critical of the Dalits' boycott decision.
On May 16, a mob of 200 persons belonging to the predominant caste-Hindu community of Gounders, all armed with weapons, allegedly entered Shastri Nagar and New Colony, both Dalit settlements of Kalapatti village and ransacked about 100 Dalit houses, causing damage to television sets and other household items. They burnt down about 20 houses and damaged another 12. When the residents attempted to run for safety, they were assaulted with weapons such as long sticks, iron rods, knives and sickles. Fourteen persons, including two women and a 75-year-old man, were admitted to hospital with serious injuries. The attackers, during their two-hour operation, were also alleged to have attempted to assault a few women sexually. While attacking Dalits, they had also allegedly used abusive language against them.
Among the places attacked was the office of the Adhi Thamizhar Viduthalai Munnani. A photograph of B.R. Ambedkar was reportedly burnt down. School and university certificates and land pattas were burnt, according to the findings of some fact-finding teams, including those of the Tamil Nadu unit of the People's Union for Civil Liberties, the People's Watch-Tamil Nadu, and the Dalit's Human Rights Monitoring (DHRM). According to the reports of these teams, the assailants did not spare even cattle belonging to Dalits.
The police arrested 54 persons and registered cases against them under the Indian Penal Code and the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of) Atrocities Act. The administration also arranged for relief measures and the interim payment of compensation. The study teams have, however, complained that the police arrived on the scene only two and a half hours after the incident, though the nearest police station is within 7 km of the village and some Dalit youth had informed them of the incident while the mob had been on the rampage.
Thol. Thirumaavalavan, Dalit leader and Viduthalai Siruthaigaal general secretary, who visited the village, saw the hand of the BJP behind the attack. Communist Party of India (CPI) and Communist Party of India (Marxist) leaders, who also held the same view, demanded the arrest of all those involved in the incident and payment of compensation to the victims.
Although the immediate provocation for the attack was an altercation between two persons while alighting from a "share autorickshaw", the underlying reason is believed to be the growing intolerance of the Dalit upsurge in the village owing to the active role played by some Dalit organisations. For over three years now, Dalits have been complaining that they are denied entry into the village temple, which is under the control of the Hindu Religious Endowment Board of the Tamil Nadu government. The fact-finding teams have also reported that Dalits, not only at Kalapatti but in many villages in the Coimbatore region, have long been victims of various forms of discrimination other than denial of entry into the common village temple. According to the report, the practice of supplying tea to Dalits in separate tumblers in tea shops; refusal of permission to use the common village roads, tanks and public wells; and caste-Hindu objection to Dalits using footwear are some of the discriminatory practices followed.
The attack at Kalapatti is significant in more than one respect. It is the first time that caste-related violence of such magnitude has been reported in the western region of Tamil Nadu. The Arunthathiyar, who form the predominant Dalit group in the region, are the most neglected Dalits in the State. Mostly cobblers and scavengers, they seem to be the poorest of the community, and have been victims of the worst forms of untouchability for centuries. Unlike the Pallars in southern Tamil Nadu and the Parayars of the northern region, a substantial number of whom have had some access to education and are increasingly becoming aware of their rights and privileges, the Arunthathiyars remain backward, socially, politically and economically. Only in recent times have they been organised under Dalit organisations.
Ironically, until recently, Hindutva forces were using Arunthathiyar youth for violent activities in and around Coimbatore. Dalit leaders say that the Kalapatti incident only shows that the Sangh Parivar, which is apparently losing its hold over the Arunthathiyars as is evidenced by the latter's decision to boycott the election in which the BJP was trying to retain its seat, and the predominant caste-Hindus are intolerant of these voiceless people achieving political awareness and organising themselves.