Hampering empowerment

Published : Sep 16, 2000 00:00 IST

The ill-treatment of Dalits in Tamil Nadu, especially those occupying reserved elective positions at the village level, continues, with the indifference of senior officials at the district level adding to the injustice.

INCIDENTS that occurred in Kodiyankulam in 1995, Melavalavu in 1997 and Tirunelveli in 1999 stand out in the recent record of atrocities against Dalits in Tamil Nadu at the economic, political and social levels.

The police raid on the relatively prosperous village of Kodiyankulam in Tuticorin district appeared to have been motivated by a desire to undermine the local Dalit community economically and thereby strike at what was believed to be the support base of D alit militants in the region.

The police attack on an all-party procession at Tirunelveli on July 23, 1999, held in support of striking Manjolai tea estate workers, led to the drowning in the Tamiraparni of 17 persons, 15 of them Dalits, who were beaten up and chased into the river. Indications of a design to put down any Dalit attempt at political mobilisation were evident in this.

The most shocking among the three incidents was the murder of six Dalits, including the young president of the Melavalavu panchayat in Madurai district, Murugesan allegedly by a group of persons belonging to the Thevar community. These incidents marked t he beginning of a determined offensive by vested interests among casteist social groups in the State to frustrate efforts to empower Dalits at the grassroots level.

From the day the State government notified in June 1996 elections to local bodies after a gap of over a decade and announced that Melavalavu panchayat would be reserved for Dalits under the amended Panchayat Act, sections of caste Hindu people of the vil lage began campaigning against the move. The threat of social and economic boycott was held out against Dalits, who are dependent largely on upper caste land-holders for livelihood. When elections came, Dalits who had filed nominations had to withdraw in the face of upper caste terror and the election was rendered infructuous. When elections were held later with fresh nominations, booth-capturing necessitated a repoll. In the repoll Murugesan was elected the panchayat president but was reportedly preven ted by upper caste people from discharging his duties. On Murugesan's representation to the Chief Minister, armed security was provided to him at the panchayat office. He was, however, slain along with five others - one of them his brother and another th e panchayat vice-president - while returning to the village after a meeting with the Collector in Madurai.

Fresh elections were held after a few months and A. Raja, also a Dalit, was elected president. Although Raja does not seem to be facing the same level of hostility from the upper caste people, he has not been able to function from the old panchayat build ing located in an upper caste area. Lack of cooperation from a substantial number of people belonging to the upper castes has reportedly made his functioning ineffective. Forty-three of the 44 persons, whose names figured in the first information report relating to the multiple murders, were arrested and released on bail after a month.

The case is now before the Special Court in Madurai, which has adjourned the trial pending disposal of three petitions filed in the Madras High Court on behalf of Dalits.

THREE years after the murders, a memorial for the slain Dalits was raised at Melavalavu at a cost of Rs.5 lakhs, making use of free labour from Dalits in and around the village. Dalits of the village, however, continue to be victims of social boycott by upper caste people.

Dalits, mostly landless agricultural workers, complain that they are denied work by local land-holders. With upper caste landlords in neighbouring villages also refusing to employ them upon pressure from their Melavalavu counterparts, many Dalit youth ar e said to have left the village in search of livelihood. Men and women thus go to places such as Madurai and Sivaganga - both about 40 km from their village. " We never mention the name 'Melavalavu' fearing denial of jobs," said 50-year-old Ponnammal. "T he best part of what little we earn goes towards transport," lamented another woman.

The Dalits complained of lack of access to shops and wells in the upper caste areas and also of non-availability to them of essentials such as rice and kerosene in fair price shops. Although there had not been frequent clashes between Dalits and non-Dali ts prior to 1997, untouchability is still practised in the village in its most cruel form, according to the Dalits.

The lesson from Melavalavu - that statutory reservation for Dalits in elected local bodies will not by itself ensure their empowerment and that what is needed is for the government to see that power really reaches the people for whom it is intended - see ms to be lost on the administration.

What happened at Melavalavu is not an isolated occurrence. Four years after State-wide elections were held for the local bodies, there are still two panchayats in Madurai district, Keerippatti and Paappakudi, both reserved for Dalits, where elections cou ld not be held owing to the tactics resorted by upper caste groups. Officials also admit that a number of elected Dalit panchayat heads, particularly women, have not been able to function effectively. There have been several instances of women panchayat chiefs being denied support from non-Dalit/male members for clearing even routine matters such as buying chairs for the panchayat office. Many Dalit panchayat presidents have complained of difficulties in organising gram sabha meetings for want of cooper ation from upper caste people.

G. Ramakrishnan, member, State secretariat of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), who has served on the committee appointed by the Tamil Nadu government to study the implementation of the Panchayat Act, said that the main purpose of the 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution was, besides devolving power to the three-tier local bodies, to empower women and Dalits by providing 33 per cent of elected posts to the former and proportional representation to the latter. But, he said, it was only in v illages where the democratic movement was strong and a consciousness about the rights of the under-privileged people existed, that the elected representatives were effective. In places where caste-related clashes had taken place or where caste feelings w ere dominant among the people, elected Dalit representatives, both men and women, were not able to assert themselves and function effectively.

R. Thirumavalavan, convener, Dalit Panthers of India ("Viduthalai Siruthaigal" in Tamil), who has taken up the cause of Melavalavu village and has been instrumental in raising the memorial for the slain Dalits, told Frontline that the ruling Dravi da Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) was in the forefront in running down elected Dalit functionaries.

A case of a Dalit panchayat president having been allegedly prevented from discharging his duties and forced to stay away from his village fearing for his life has surfaced, also in Madurai district. The victim is 35-year-old V. Nagar, president of Marut hangudi village panchayat, 25 km from Madurai. Until 1999, Maruthangudi was bracketed with Keeripatti and Paappakudi as village panchayats reserved for Dalits where elections could not be held owing to caste-related tension amid protests from upper-caste people against their inclusion in the list of panchayats reserved for Dalits.

In 1996, when the election was notified and nominations called for, a powerful few among the upper caste people tried to prevail upon the rest not to participate in the process. Dalit activist Muthupandi's attempt to file his nomination triggered violenc e and led to the postponement of the poll. Fresh polls were ordered for May 26, 1999. This time the upper caste-dominated electorate had its way, without however offending the law. Nagar, a farm hand, was fielded, in a clever manoeuvre, by some upper cas te people. The choice was made at a "village meeting" in which Nagar was present. "When they announced my name on their own, I asked them to give me time to consult my parents. They turned down my plea and asked me to go with certain persons to file my n omination. I felt helpless and reluctantly went with them," said Nagar, when this correspondent met him recently near Madurai. With the en masse support of the upper caste voters, Nagar defeated Muthupandi. Five others were also elected to the panchayat. Nagar said that within minutes of his assumption of office in the presence of officials on May 31, he was asked by a group of upper caste youths to sign a piece of paper. Being an unlettered person, he did not know what he was signing. When he was told that it was a letter of resignation, he said he wanted to consult the elders who had proposed his name for the election. The plea was rejected and he had to sign it, "fearing threat to my life". He later came to know that the letter stated that he propos ed, in keeping with the wishes of the majority of the people, that Maruthangudi should be re-converted into a general panchayat constituency and that he was resigning his post. Later he was asked to stay indoors. A few days later, government officials se nt word to him to call a meeting of the panchayat council to elect the vice-president. Despite his protests, Nagar said, the upper caste people insisted that he not act on the instructions.

There was no reply from the government to the resignation letter even after six months, he said. A farmhand who had to do odd jobs to earn for his family, Nagar found situation unmanageable. Six months after his election, Nagar was asked by the panchayat clerk to sign some papers as otherwise it would be impossible to pay the staff their salary, or make payments for works undertaken. Before signing, Nagar however satisfied himself that the works mentioned had been undertaken. When they came to know that he had signed panchayat documents, the upper-caste people asked Nagar to leave the village along with his wife and children.

Nagar, who is now a loadman working for a business firm far away from his village, said that he had sought police protection to move into the village and discharge his duties as president of the panchayat. A writ of mandamus was filed in the Madras High Court on August 23 seeking a direction to the Collector of Madurai to give police protection to Nagar in order to enable him to discharge his duties as the duly elected president of the Maruthangudi panchayat. The court has sent a notice to the Collector .

CONTACTED over phone, the Collector of Madurai, V. Thangavelu, told this correspondent that on record Nagar still held the post. He said that he could not act on the plea of resignation because he had to follow certain procedures under the Panchayat Act. "We cannot accept the resignation without ascertaining the facts from a meeting of the council," he said. Nagar, he said, had not cooperated in calling a meeting of the council. Later when he saw some papers signed by the panchayat president, he got the impression that Nagar was functioning as president. Regarding Nagar's complaint that he was not provided police security, the Collector said that he did not cooperate either with the police or with the administration. "He could have personally met me or the Superintendent of Police and sought protection," the Collector said.

The Collector said that he had however recommended action against Nagar on the basis of an inquiry he had conducted into charges of financial irregularity in the panchayat.

Asked whether Nagar was aware that certain charges were pending against him, his advocate, G.R. Swaminathan told Frontline that his "inference" was that there was no charge against Nagar. He said that even the administration's letter to Nagar, dat ed August 11 asking him to call a meeting of the gram sabha on August 19 and informing him of the Collector's proposal to be present at the meeting, contained no mention of any charge against him.

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