Change of heart

Print edition : November 03, 2006

For the first time in 10 years, caste Hindus participate actively in the poll process in the four "rebel" villages.

S. VISWANATHAN recently in Pappapatti

P. PERIYAKARUPPAN, who was elected president of the Pappapatti panchayat, being given a rousing reception by caste Hindus outside the counting station in Madurai on October 18.-S. JAMES

THIS time it is a different story from the four villages in southern Tamil Nadu that defied the panchayati raj system for 10 long years.

Sections of the majority caste-Hindu people in these villages - Pappapatti, Keeripatti and Nattarmangalam in Madurai district and Kottakachiyenthal in the adjoining Virudhunagar district - who had been monopolising panchayat posts for long were adamantly refusing to accept Dalits as their panchayat presidents under the reservation system introduced in 1996. They either did not allow any Dalit to file nomination papers or fielded a candidate of their choice and forced him to quit soon after he took charge or did not allow him to complete his term. In the past 10 years elections and byelections were held more than 15 times and every time caste-Hindus adopted the same strategy. They remained insensitive to protests from progressive and democratic sections.

But now the situation is different. Caste Hindus of these villages are now a changed lot. They sprang a surprise by participating enthusiastically in the elections held on October 13 and 15 as part of the State-wide quinquennial exercise. This will pave the way, hopefully, for a smooth, functional transfer of power to Dalits.

Human rights and political activists and mediapersons, who used to visit these villages at least during election times, could not find any tension unlike on previous occasions. Nor could they see, unlike earlier, caste-Hindu elders with wry faces curiously watching the movements of strangers or tight-lipped Dalits shivering in fear of their `upper-caste' paymasters.

The villages witnessed hectic campaigns by supporters of rival candidates, as did every other part of the State. There were small meetings, distribution of handbills, pasting of posters on trees and other forms of campaign. Caste Hindus, young and old, participated in the process helping Dalits to file their nominations and exercising their franchise without fail. They said they had decided on allowing the successful candidates to complete their term.

There was brisk polling at all levels for both reserved and non-reserved posts, from panchayat ward member to district panchayat councillor, in straight and multi-cornered contests. To add pep to this, there were reports of friction between rival campaigners and charges of attempts at impersonation. The voting percentage ranged from 75 to 85 in the villages, according to reports. The election of panchayat presidents and, for the first time, their ward members, who together constitute the elected panchayat council, thus went smoothly. The panchayat presidents were elected unopposed in Keeripatti and Kottakachiyenthal. "We will ensure that they complete their term," said P.K. Chellakannu Thevar, a caste-Hindu leader at Pappapatti .

There is no denying that the caste Hindu participation of such magnitude by itself is significant. For instance, panchayat elections were held this year at Kottakachiyenthal after nearly 25 years. For the elections to some posts, Dalits have been proposed or seconded by caste Hindus. This has raised hopes of building a more effective working relationship among warring caste groups.

How did it all happen? "This has not come about overnight. A lot of effort has gone into this process of change," said R. Mohan, Communist Party of India (Marxist) Member of Parlaiment. He told Frontline that the State government, the district administration, voluntary organisations, political workers "including some of our able activists" and the media had all contributed to this development.

When the Left and Dalit parties demanded a few months ago that these defiant villages should not be included in the list of panchayats to be de-reserved at the end of two terms under the rotational system, the State government readily agreed. Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi also announced in the State Assembly the government's resolve to break the resistance to Dalit empowerment. It is this political will, which was conspicuously absent all these years, that triggered the transformation.

Once the State government took a stand, the district administration in Madurai and Virudhunagar started doing the necessary spadework. The young Collector of Madurai, T. Udhayachandran, made several visits, sometimes with no officials accompanying him, to the three rebel panchayat villages in the district in order to interact with the predominant caste Hindus (Piranmalai Kallars) and Dalits (Pallars and Paraiyars). The administration adopted a `carrot and stick' policy to persuade the majority group to mend its ways and join the mainstream. The officials assured them of basic amenities and development works. Field officials educated the people on the advantages of having an elected panchayat.

Udhayachandran told Frontline that special schemes worth more than Rs.50 lakhs were launched in each panchayat. Self-Help Groups of women were provided loans to the tune of Rs.35 lakhs. Polling booths were rearranged and the procedures governing the filing of nominations were simplified. The people were assured that their villages would be developed as model villages. Several steps were taken to instil confidence among Dalits and encourage their participation in the election process. The Collector said: "We will think of creating new job opportunities for the unemployed youth among both Dalits and others." He hoped that there would be no problem for the successful Dalit candidates in completing their terms.

The Collector of Virudhunagar, S.S. Jawahar, made similar efforts at Kottakachiyenthal, the most rebellious of the four southern villages, where not a single election had been held either to the post of panchayat president or to the post of ward member for 10 years. Unlike in the other three villages, Dalit presence here is very small - less than 20. The fall in the figure is attributed to migration, which has not apparently been taken note of by officials handling poll-related work. The village lacks infrastructure and basic amenities, including drinking water and streetlights.

The condition of Dalits here is worse. Most of their one-room tenements are in a dilapidated condition. They have to cook their food in the open. There is no electricity. When the district administration came to know of these problems, it launched development schemes worth several lakhs of rupees. A ration shop was opened and public taps were provided. A bus service was also promised. These measures helped change the attitude of the two major caste-Hindu groups here, Agamudaiyars and Yadavas. Besides, a rift between the two also worked to the advantage of Dalits, whose nominee for president could count on the support of one or the other of the two for his survival in office.

Organisations such as People's Watch, Madurai, which in association with the Dalit Panthers of India organised a public hearing on the issue in 2004, and some activists of the CPI(M) have also been instrumental in effecting the change in the people's attitude. For instance, noted writer and CPI(M) activist Su. Venkatesan has been involved in creating awareness about the need for amity among the rival social groups to fight poverty and social injustice. A group of Tamil writers who visited Pappapatti and Nattarmangalam on October 8 also made a big impact on the caste Hindus. They recalled at the meetings they addressed how people cutting across castes participated in the struggles led by U. Muthuramalinga Thevar about six decades ago to win for Dalits the right to enter temples and also to get the Criminal Tribes Act abolished and the names of communities such as Piranmalai Kallar removed from the list of notified tribes.

Asked what brought about this change in their mindset, a caste-Hindu youth from Pappapatti said that the younger generation was keen on `removing the bad name our village has earned". An elderly person said: "We now realise that we have been left behind in several respects because of our tough line in the past."

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