A consolidation of forces

Print edition : August 14, 1999

Political developments in Tamil Nadu following the Tirunelveli massacre point to a consolidation of organisations representing the oppressed sections of society, particularly Dalits.

A SIGNIFICANT fallout of the brutal police action on a procession taken out in support of agitating tea estate workers in Tirunelveli on July 23, which resulted in the death of 17 persons (Frontline, August 13), is a consolidation of the oppressed sections, particularly Dalits, in Tamil Nadu.

The development is seen as having the potential to bring about substantial changes not only in electoral politics in the State but in the nature of political activism in general and the approach of mainstream political parties to organisations that repre sent Dalits' aspirations.

More than the fact that 11 of the 17 victims of the police brutality were Dalits and four others were Muslims, it is Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi's attempt to give caste hues to a labour dispute that has driven the two vulnerable sections to come togeth er. These two sections have been frequent targets of violence perpetrated by communal and casteist forces and of police repression unleashed under the pretext of maintaining law and order.

The consolidation of Dalit groupings became strikingly evident on July 31 when several Dalit organisations of divergent political persuasions joined the fasts organised in Chennai and other district headquarters in protest against the police action. The fasts were organised by the Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC), the Puthiya Tamizhagam (P.T.), and the Tamizhaga Muslim Aikkiya Jamaath, which were among the sponsors of the July 23 procession. Among the leaders of Dalit organisations who participated in the f ast were moderates such as L. Elayaperumal (a former Member of Parliament) of the Human Rights Party and Vai. Balasundaram of the Ambedkar Makkal Iyakkam, besides the stormy petrels of the Dalit movement in the State, Dalit Panthers president R. Thirumav alavan, and P.T. president K. Krishnasamy, who led the Tirunelveli procession along with Leader of the Opposition in the State Assembly and TMC leader S. Balakrishnan. In addition, organisations representing Muslims, such as the Indian Union Muslim Leagu e (IUML), took part in the fast.

Thirumavalavan, whose Dalit Panthers has a significant presence in certain northern districts of the State, announced his support for the TMC-led front, of which the P.T., a formidable force in the southern districts, is a key constituent. The Dalit Pant hers' entry into this front was formalised on August 3; the same day, two other Dalit organisations, the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Republican Party of India (RPI) led by C.K. Tamilarasan, joined the front. The Dalit Panthers and the RPI had earlier bee n part of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK)-led front.

On an average Dalits account for 15 to 20 per cent of the population in the 39 Lok Sabha constituencies in Tamil Nadu. The consolidation of Dalit organisations is therefore bound to be a crucial factor in the electoral arithmetic. According to political observers, this development will benefit the TMC, which was seen as having been politically isolated in the State after it ended its alliance with the ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and failed to form an alliance with the Congress(I). Together wi th the polarised anti-establishment votes of the Muslim minorities, the new factor is expected to boost the TMC's prospects. The Dalit organisations, which have together found an ally for the first time in Tamil Nadu politics and are poised to make their biggest impact in the electoral arena, too will benefit in equal measure. Elayaperumal and Thiru- mavalavan acknowled-ged TMC president G.K. Moopanar's efforts in unifying Dalit groups in the State.

IN his initial reaction to the Tirunelveli incidents, Karunanidhi questioned the wisdom of TMC leaders finding common cause with "casteist elements"; he then made another attempt to give a caste colour to the estate workers' struggle. Rejecting the deman d of the TMC, the P.T. and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) that action be taken against the District Collector and the Police Commissioner and other police officials connected with the Tirunelveli incidents pending an inquiry, he said that if he w ere to take action against these officials, "people belonging to the backward classes" would object to it. "This is a blatant attempt to instigate casteist forces," said P. Sampath, a member of the State secretariat of the CPI(M). He pointed to a stateme nt issued by Sethurama Pandian, the leader of a Tirunelveli-based caste organisation, which thanked the district administration "for maintaining law and order by curbing violence". The statement was prominently published in Tamil newspapers.

Sampath saw in Karunanidhi's effort to give a caste colour to the incidents an attempt to win the support of the dominant Thevar community, a large section of which is believed to back the DMK's principal rival, the AIADMK. The southern districts have wi tnessed periodic outbursts of violence involving Dalits and Thevars. Interestingly, AIADMK general secretary Jayalalitha's criticism of the police excesses in Tirunelveli was mild.

Leaders of the Tamil Maanila Congress, the Puthiya Tamizhagam and their allies on a fast in Chennai on July 31 to press for punitive action against the police officials involved in the Tirunelveli massacre.-R. RAGHUNATHAN

Karunanidhi also rejected the demand for a second post-mortem on the bodies of the victims. However, he modified his earlier order instituting a judicial inquiry by a retired District Judge and announced that Justice S. Mohan, a retired judge of the Supr eme Court, would conduct the inquiry. The TMC and other parties had demanded an inquiry by a sitting judge of the High Court. (Karunanidhi said that he had consulted Moopanar before making the announcement.)

The Chief Minister's announcement was evidently part of an effort to dissuade the TMC-P.T. combine from organising a protest fast by MLAs and MPs in front of the State Secretariat on July 28. A huge police cordon, which was part of one of the largest mob ilisation exercises by the State police, was thrown around the Secretariat to thwart the protest. Krishnasamy alleged that he was "wrongfully confined" in his hotel room by a large police presence. The TMC and its allies subsequently announced that their leaders and party workers would observe a one-day State-wide fast on July 31 to condemn the police excesses in Tirunelveli and "the Chief Minister's attempt to give a caste colour to the Manjolai workers' agitation."

In a joint statement, leaders of these parties said that the fast was to focus people's attention on the "anti-Dalit, anti-minorities and anti-poor stance adopted by the State Government." The leaders criticised the Chief Minister's statement that any ac tion taken against the district officials would lead to protest by backward communities; they saw it as an attempt to create bad blood among different castes.

On July 30, the Communist Party of India and the CPI(M), which had associated themselves with the Tirunelveli procession, held protest demonstrations and meetings all over the State. In Tirunelveli, they held a public meeting after the police denied them permission to take out a procession. In Chennai, demonstrations were held at five centres. CPI(M) leaders alleged that printing presses in Chennai refused to print posters for the party's protest programme. "Press owners said that they were acting on po lice instructions," said T. Nandagopal, secretary of the CPI(M)'s South Chennai unit.

Leaders of the TMC-P.T. combine went on a nine-hour fast on July 31 to reiterate their demand for action against the officials and a second post-mortem of the victims of the police action. Moopanar criticised the tendency to brand a particular organisati on (meaning, the P.T.) as a violent force. He said that he hoped to have a "moderating influence" on the Dalit leaders. Krishnasamy declared that he had no faith in violence and sought the cooperation of leaders of all castes and parties to resolve the M anjolai estate workers' problems.

Observers see the fact that Dalits did not retaliate violently following the Tirunelveli atrocities, unlike on similar occasions in the past when they suffered huge losses, and their success in mobilising public opinion in their favour through political means as a welcome change in Dalit politics.

(In another development, Krishnasamy filed a petition in the Madras High Court on August 3 seeking an inquiry into the Tirunelveli incidents by the Central Bureau of Investigation and a second post-mortem on the victims' bodies. The court directed the St ate Government to file its reply.)

Thirumavalavan told Frontline that the coming together of Dalit organisations would help them establish themselves as an organised political force and a force to reckon with. This would go a long way in fulfilling the aspirations of Dalits to achi eve political recognition and empowerment and to isolate the Dravidian parties, which, he said, had all along used Dalits for their political ends.

A letter from the Editor

Dear reader,

The COVID-19-induced lockdown and the absolute necessity for human beings to maintain a physical distance from one another in order to contain the pandemic has changed our lives in unimaginable ways. The print medium all over the world is no exception.

As the distribution of printed copies is unlikely to resume any time soon, Frontline will come to you only through the digital platform until the return of normality. The resources needed to keep up the good work that Frontline has been doing for the past 35 years and more are immense. It is a long journey indeed. Readers who have been part of this journey are our source of strength.

Subscribing to the online edition, I am confident, will make it mutually beneficial.


R. Vijaya Sankar

Editor, Frontline

Support Quality Journalism
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor