Victims of bias

Published : Jun 10, 2000 00:00 IST

The recent murder of three Dalits in Cuddalore district shows that caste oppresion is a living reality in rural Tamil Nadu.

A BIZARRE incident in which three Dalit youths were slain at a village in Cuddalore district of Tamil Nadu has shown how vulnerable the people of this oppressed section are not only to casteist predators but also law-breakers of all sorts. The bodies of Mathiazhagan (35), Gandhi (30) and his brother Vellaiyan (20) were found in a pool of blood under a banyan tree close to their house. Their throats had been slit, possibly with a sharp weapon.

The cold-blooded murder on the night of May 26 at Puliangudi, about 20 km from the pilgrim town of Chidambaram, has sparked tension in the caste-sensitive region. Sporadic incidents of violence, such as stoning and burning of state-owned buses and attacks on shops, were reported in a few places.

The district, which was relatively peaceful when the southern districts of Tamil Nadu were rocked by caste-related violence in the mid-1990s, has seen in the last two years numerous incidents of violence in which the victims invariably have been Dalits. Dalit Panthers of India (DPI, or"Viduthalai Siruthaigal" in Tamil) convener R. Thirumavalavan told Frontline that at least 19 Dalits had been killed in the Chidambaram-Vriddhachalam region in less than two years. Seven of the victims were women, who were also gangraped. Cases had been registered under Section 302 (murder) of the Indian Penal Code in relation to only six of these killings, said Thirumavalavan, who unsuccessfully contested the 1999 Lok Sabha election from the Chidambaram (Reserved) constituency.

As for most other killings, cases were registered only under Section 174 (death under suspicious circumstances) of the Criminal Procedure Code. No arrests were made in these cases, Thirumavalavan said. "This is in total contrast to the arrest of over 200 Dalits, many of them under the Goondas Act, during the same period," he said. Accusing Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi of being anti-Dalit, he said the State government's "partiality" and the presence of the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) in the ruling coalition at the Centre had emboldened the police and casteist forces to continue their assaults on Dalits.

There seems to be a qualitative difference between the earlier crimes against Dalits and the latest incident. Most earlier murders had political overtones, besides being casteist, which is not surprising in a highly charged near-bipolar atmosphere with most people belonging to the two predominant castes, Vanniyas and Dalits, lining up behind two rival political organisations - the PMK and the DPI. The triple murders, however, appear to have a different, non-political angle to it, besides being visibly casteist.

According to one of the two theories about the murder, bootleggers, who have a significant presence and run a thriving business in the region, were angered by the anti-liquor movement launched by a group of local Dalit women and it is they who were behind the crime. The other theory relates the murders to an "affair" between a Vanniya youth and a Dalit girl of the village.

The State government has entrusted the investigation to the Crime Branch-Criminal Investigation Department (CB-CID). The government has ordered payment of cash compensation of Rs.2 lakhs each to the three affected families. (Two of the victims were married, and one of them had three children.) Although the police claimed that three persons were arrested and a search was on for more suspects, Thirumavalavan told Frontline that none of the suspects named by the victims' relatives had been arrested. "While the real culprits are still in the village, the affected Dalit families had to leave for safety," he said.

In Thirumavalavan's opinion, whatever be the immediate motives behind such murders, "the real factor is unmistakably caste oppression". "It is not a stray incident or an 'affair' between a caste Hindu boy and a Dalit girl; a number of our women are subjected to all sorts of humiliation, and harassment by upper-caste men is almost a day-to-day problem for them."

Prior to the entry of the CB-CID, newspaper reports suggested the investigation by the local police proceeded on the premise that a Vanniya boy, who sneaked into the house of a Dalit girl with whom he was "in love", was "punished and humiliated" by a Dalit "panchayat" (an informal local system to dispense justice) and that could have possibly led to the murders. They arrested three persons and were looking out for more.

Another version surfaced soon. A few days prior to the murders, an organisation of local Dalit women launched a campaign against illicit distillation, probably in the wake of the deaths of 12 persons in a hooch tragedy in the neighbouring Thiruvannamalai district a week earlier. Campaigners supposedly prevailed upon the men to stop drinking and discourage illicit distillation. Bootleggers were said to have been further "provoked" when they found that some vessels containing distilled liquor were broken. A Vanniya "panchayat" found two Dalit youths "guilty" and "ordered" them to "pay a fine of Rs.5,000 each". The youths refused and instead complained to the police about the bootleggers. Some persons believe that this may have led to the murders.

"The very fact that Dalits have begun to question them is intolerable to the casteist forces, who had all along been oppressing them," observed S. Dhanasekaran, secretary of the Cuddalore district committee of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). He said: "That Dalit women of this most backward village could form an association and raise their voice against injustice is by itself historic."

Less than one-tenth of Puliangudi's population of nearly 5,000, Dalits, who are mostly agricultural workers, have been meek all along. So they had no problems with their caste Hindu masters even when violence rocked the region during and after the September 1999 Lok Sabha elections (Frontline, January 21, 2000). Dalits in Karuppur, Kandamangalam, South Mangudi and North Mangudi villages, which lie around Puliangudi, have been victims of casteist oppression of one form or another.

Interestingly, Puliangudi is where veteran Dalit leader and founder of the Human Rights Party of India L. Elayaperumal, who was the Chairman of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes, launched in 1946 his first struggle against the oppression of Dalits by caste Hindus. Elayaperumal said in an interview in Chithirai Neruppu, a book published by Dalit, Neyveli, that he organised a mass movement when Vadamalai, an ex-serviceman and son of the Dalit headman of the village, was tied to a tree and beaten up by caste Hindus for three days simply because he had entered the village, was well-dressed and wore a moustache "in violation of the village law". (The "law" prohibited women from wearing blouses and anklets, besides placing restrictions on Dalits' movements in general.) Thanks to his struggle, the caste Hindu elders apologised, paid compensation to the victim and lifted some restrictions on Dalits, according to the interview.

The triple murders have served to highlight a social problem - the menacing growth of the illicit liquor business in the region and the criminal and anti-social activities related to it. The police are often accused of either collaborating with the law-breakers or at best being soft to them. "Even as Karunanidhi declares war on bootlegging at his meeting with the Collectors and police officials, the policemen down the line appear to be in no mood to go with the administration in this respect," said CPI(M) district secretary Dhanasekaran. He said that when the Dalit youths of Puliangudi went to the Kumaratchi police station with a complaint against bootleggers, the policemen, instead of acting on it, had attempted to effect a compromise between the bootleggers and the Dalit protesters. Just as the government's efforts to bring caste-based discrimination to an end were half-hearted, the police response to the bootleggers' challenge was grossly inadequate, he felt. While he blamed the caste bias of the leaders of some political parties for the government's indifference, he faulted corruption in the Police Department for the inaction. Dhanasekaran regretted that although his party had demanded action against the growing menace of goondaism in the district ever since the murder of a Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) activist R. Palanivel in Chidambaram on July 9, 1998 and the attack on CPI(M) State secretary N. Sankariah a fortnight later in the same place (Frontline, August 28, 1998), no serious efforts had been taken in this regard. He recalled that in June 1999 two workers of the Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI), who were engaged in the fight against illicit liquor traders and their henchmen, were murdered by bootleggers.

The CPI(M) staged demonstrations at seven centres in the district on June 1 "to condemn the triple murder" and to focus attention on the need for "concerted and constructive" efforts to stamp out casteist oppression and bootlegging. A district bandh planned by the DPI for June 2 was, however, postponed after the problem was discussed at an all-party meeting at Cuddalore on June 1 under the chairmanship of Minister for Backward Classes Welfare M.R.K. Panneerselvam. The parties pledged their support to the police in putting an end to bootlegging within a time-frame. The Minister reportedly assured the participants that the Chief Minister would be persuaded to intervene in the matter and consider the demands for extending protection to Dalits and paying adequate compensation to the families of the victims. The police agreed to release the hundreds of DPI workers who had been taken into preventive custody in view of the bandh.

Despite the postponement of the bandh, there were stray incidents of violence in Cuddalore district on June 2. A government bus was burnt and the windowpanes of a car were damaged. Some shops were ransacked. The incidents were blamed on the "communication gap" in the announcement of the bandh postponement. The administration, Dhanasekaran said, could ensure restoration of peace on a more permanent basis only by acting quickly and firmly on the decisions taken at the all-party meeting.

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