WITHIN weeks of assuming charge as president of the Shenbagaraman Nallur village panchayat in Tirunelveli district, a post reserved for the Scheduled Castes, Iyyakutti Elavarasan brought to public notice the encroachment of land in the centre of the village by panchayat vice-president V. Perachi, who belongs to the dominant upper-caste (Marava) community. After a tough fight at official and other levels, he ultimately got the encroachment vacated. Such an achievement would have been considered impossible half a decade ago.
Elavarasan (42) has worked for several political parties, but at present belongs to none. He said he was also associated with some non-governmental organisations and had participated in several struggles on public issues. He belongs to the neighbouring Thuthukudi district and has studied up to Class 8. He came to reside in Shenbagaraman Nallur, his in-laws' place, only a few months before the panchayat elections last year. He won the election by a 94-vote margin.
As panchayat president he issued a notice to Perachi, asking him to vacate the encroached land. Perachi had raised over 200 plantain trees and a few coconut trees on this land, using for irrigation water from the public drinking water system. When there was no response from Perachi for over three months, Elavarasan sent a petition to the District Collector on June 5 seeking action against Perachi. The very next day the Sub-Collector, Cheran-madevi, visited the place and reported that panchayat land had been encroached upon. Enraged at this, Perachi reportedly threatened to kill Elavarasan if he did not resign as president.
Undeterred, Elavarasan got a resolution passed by the panchayat board on June 16 seeking Perachi's removal from the vice-president's post for the illegal act. Elavarasan said Perachi abused him calling him by his caste name, seized the resolution paper and scored out the signatures of the members. He threatened to kill the president. Elavarasan sent petitions to the Collector and the Superintendent of Police seeking security, but the police did not act. On June 29 Perachi and his brother Sivanpandi allegedly went to Elavarasan's house, abused him and assaulted him. Elavarasan was injured and got himself admitted in hospital.
A. Maria Stephen of Rural Uplift Centre based at Nanguneri, a non-governmental organisation working for Dalits' and women's rights, and M. Bharathan, Director, Human Rights Education and Protection Council (known as Kalam in Tamil), Tirunelveli, have sent petitions to the National Human Rights Commission asking for its intervention "in view of the threat to Elavarasan's life". The police registered a first information report (FIR) on Elavarasan's complaint and leaders of various political parties and Dalit organisations, led by former legislator R. Krishnan of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), presented a petition to the Collector.
Subsequently the encroachment was removed and the plantain, coconut and other trees were felled. Perachi's family members said revenue officials carried out the operation. District Collector Sunil Paliwal told Frontline in Tirunelveli that Elavarasan's main complaint concerned the encroachment and that the administration took immediate action after the Sub-Collector's inquiry.
Paliwal said that "basically the government is committed to the stand that all panchayat presidents should be able to discharge their duties". However, Elavarasan had approached him first only to have the encroachment cleared and did not complain of any attempts at preventing him from discharging his duties. He would look into the threat perception also. Any action regarding the alleged assault had to be taken by the police, he said.
Krishnan, who had suggested in the State Assembly as early as 1978 introduction of reservation for Dalits in panchayat elections, said that the government should intervene promptly to enable the elected panchayat presidents "to function freely and fearlessly" if it was serious about empowering Dalits. He wanted the administration to be softer towards panchayat heads from the marginalised sections. The police response to such situations, he said, was often inadequate.
Bharathan said the Collector should remove Perachi, who had encroached on panchayat land, from the vice-president's post using his powers under the Panchayat Act. He also demanded legal action against him for encroaching on public property.
Elavarasan said there was a greater threat to his life after he had succeeded in vacating the encroachment, and sought police protection. But, he said, he was determined to serve the people, "come what may".