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A setback to empowerment

Print edition : May 01, 2002 T+T-

The resignation of two Dalit panchayat presidents in Tamil Nadu a fortnight after their election highlights the failure of the state to stop attempts aimed at preventing the empowerment of Dalits.

THE resignation of two Dalit panchayat presidents in Tamil Nadu, within a fortnight of their election on April 8, highlights the failure of state power to stand up to the challenge from casteist forces that are bent upon wrecking the political empowerment of the downtrodden. More than pointing to any inherent weakness in the state machinery, the development exposes the lack of political will in the ruling class to render justice to the victims of centuries-old prejudices.

Both Thanikkodi and Karutha Kannan, who resigned as presidents of Pappapatti and Keeripatti village panchayats (both reserved for Dalits) respectively in Madurai district, had been fielded in the elections by caste Hindus. Their papers were filed minutes after the Dalit Panthers of India (DPI) managed to enter the fray, overcoming strong caste-Hindu resistance. However, no nominations were received in both places for the posts of ward members.

Thanikkodi resigned on April 20, two days after assuming charge, and Karutha Kannan on April 22, hardly a minute after he was sworn in. Although both claimed that the decision to resign was their own, it was no secret that the resignations were part of pre-poll deals aimed at keeping the two village panchayats non-operational.

Caste-Hindu resistance to Dalit empowerment has manifested itself in various forms since elections to local bodies were first held in 1996 under the revised Tamil Nadu Panchayats Act, 1994.

When civic elections were held in 1996 and 2001, in several places caste-Hindu groups attempted to get their village panchayats removed from the reserved category. When such attempts failed, they tried to derail the electoral process itself by preventing Dalits from filing nominations. If Dalits managed to file their papers, they were not allowed to campaign in non-Dalit areas. Non-Dalits also resorted to poll boycott and even used force to scare away Dalits from polling booths (Frontline, October 26 and November 9, 2001).

Caste-Hindu resistance continued after the elections. In several places, non-Dalits refused to cooperate with the elected Dalit presidents and ward members and humiliated them with the tacit approval of "upper caste" government officials.

The most cruel expression of caste-Hindu intolerance was witnessed in the massacre of Murugesan, president of the Melavalavu village panchayat in Madurai district, and five other Dalits on June 29, 1997 (Frontline, July 25, 1997). Murugesan's crime was that he got elected as panchayat president, a post reserved for Dalits, after defeating the caste-Hindu group's efforts to sabotage the election.

Besides Pappapatti and Keeripatti, elections to two more panchayats reserved for Dalits, Nattamangalam in Madurai district and Kottakachiyendal in Virudunagar district, could not be held in 1996 and October 2001 because of opposition from the predominant caste-Hindu group in the villages - Piranmalaikkallars (a sect of the Thevar caste). When their efforts to get these panchayats de-reserved failed, they announced a boycott of the polls and threatened Dalits, most of whom were in their pay as agricultural workers, with dire consequences if they did not join the boycott. They did succeed in keeping the villages out of the electoral process. In 1996, the officials gave them the impression that the panchayats would be de-reserved after five years under the "rotation" system. However, this did not happen in 2001 since the Act was amended to the effect that the "rotation" would be done only once in 10 years. In October 2001 also the Piranmalaikkallar community saw to it that no elections were held in any of the four villages.

Elections could not be held on the scheduled date in Nattamangalam and Kottakachiyendal because no nominations were filed. In fact, a day before the last day for filing nominations, Puthiya Tamizhagam president K. Krishnaswamy was prevented from entering Nattamangalam, Pappapatti and Keeripatti.

The run-up to the elections at Pappapatti and Keeripatti saw tense moments and some violence. As soon as DPI candidates Subban (Pappapatti) and Poonkodi (Keeripatti) filed their papers, several Dalit families left the villages fearing harassment by caste Hindus. Subban and Poonkodi were prevented from campaigning in non-Dalit areas despite the presence of a strong police contingent and top officials, including the District Collector. It was a walk-over for Thanikkodi and Karutha Kannan as they were backed by the majority Piranmalaikkallar community and Dalits mostly abstained from voting.

The resignation of Thanikkodi and Karutha Kannan and the way the State administration handled the issue was criticised by several political parties and civil rights activists. The State Committee of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) demanded that elections be held again after extending full protection to Dalits. DPI general secretary R. Thirumavalavan said that the resignations demonstrated the intensity of caste prejudices in Tamil Nadu society. He said that the State government was interested more in shielding casteist aggressors than protecting democracy.

G. Palanithurai, who heads the Rajiv Gandhi Chair for Panchayati Raj Studies at the Gandhigram Rural Institute-Deemed University, said the State administration should have taken the initiative to sort out the problems with the help of community elders. He said the Election Commission should have convened an all-party meeting to address the issue. He favours party-based elections to village panchayats as held in Kerala and West Bengal.

D. Ravikumar, president of the People's Union of Civil Rights, Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry, said: "It is dangerous for political parties to remain mute spectators to such developments." He too suggested party-based elections to village panchayats as a long-term remedy. He said that it might help if political parties take more interest in the local body elections and afford greater protection to the deprived sections.