Northern Tamil Nadu

Caste divide

Print edition : April 18, 2014

IN the 12 constituencies (four reserved) in the parched “Vanniyar heartland” (spread over Kancheepuram, Cuddalore, Vellore, Villupuram, Tiruvannamalai and Tiruvallur districts), there are interesting pointers to the fact that the contest this time has moved beyond the contours of the traditional rivalry between the two Dravidian majors. The formation of the front including the BJP, the DMDK, the PMK and the MDMK has forced “mood readers and poll strategists” to rework their calculations. Much to their surprise, besides issues such as water scarcity and prolonged power outages, intense caste affiliations have taken centre stage in this round of elections.

PMK founder S. Ramadoss’ 14-month-long mobilisation of the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and the Most Backward Classes (MBCs), predominantly Vanniyars, against Dalits seems to have changed the caste demography in the northern districts and laid a strong foundation for identity politics.

The high point that occasioned this shift was the death of a Dalit youth, Elavarasan, after resistance to his marriage with a Vanniyar girl sparked a caste flare-up in Natham colony, where he lived, in Dharmapuri district. For the first time in a general election, voters remain divided sharply on caste lines, where migration from one to another is strictly prohibited.

“My caste is important for me since people of my caste can help me and my family in times of crises. Although other political parties have fielded candidates belonging to my caste, I will support ‘Doctor Ayya’ [Ramadoss] who wants us to remain united as one caste block,” said Govindan, 55, a vegetable farmer and a Vanniyar in Ural, a remote hamlet in Villupuram district. Ural is part of Arani constituency, where former Union Minister A.K. Moorthi is contesting as the PMK candidate against candidates of the AIADMK and the DMK, also Vanniyars.

The PMK’s annual “Chitra Pournami” (full-moon day in the Tamil month of Chitirai) conferences at Mahabalipuram (organised by the Vanniyar Sangam, a community organisation attached to the PMK) had played a major role in facilitating Vanniyar consolidation and restoring the PMK’s electoral relevance and bargaining power, which it had lost following a steep fall in its political prospects. The hate campaign against Dalits is all-pervasive in almost all the villages falling under the 12 constituencies. Dalits have been pushed to the margins, socially and politically.

Thimmaraju, 35, of Periyathappai hamlet, some 17 kilometres from Palacode block in Dharmapuri district, claimed that the Chitra Pournami conclave had instilled caste pride in him. “We prefer doctor Anbumani [son of Ramadoss and a first-time contestant in Dharmapuri constituency]. A vote for the PMK is a vote for Vanniyars,” he said.

The Vanniyars’ strong preference for the PMK does not come as a surprise. In fact, they dismiss Vanniyar candidates fielded by other parties as “aliens”. “When we have no other choice, we support caste candidates of other parties,” explained M. Pandiyan of Mangalam village in Tiruvannamalai district, who, surprisingly, is a DMK loyalist. The PMK is contesting in Tiruvannamalai against the AIADMK and the DMK, both of which have fielded OBC candidates.

Thus, the message from the community is loud and clear: the PMK is for Vanniyars and Anbumani Ramadoss, who has been studiously marketed through effective caste-based manoeuvres, is the party’s future face.

But the sociopolitical churning in these districts is not welcomed by the OBCs, such as Mudaliars, Reddys and Chettiars.

The OBCs feel they are caught between two major social blocks. The emerging Vanniyar consolidation and the increasing alienation of Dalits, they fear, will prove “risky” in the long run. “The balancing mechanism needs to be in place for peaceful coexistence,” said an office-bearer of a weaving society in Arani. The weavers are mostly Mudaliars, a major landholding group which controls the economy in this region. But this time they have decided to back the PMK since a “few fringe local Dalit groups” are trying to threaten their economic superiority. OBC voters in the reserved constituencies prefer candidates belonging to non-Dalit parties. For instance, non-Dalit voters in Tiruvallur (Scheduled Caste) constituency have decided to vote for the AIADMK candidate and sitting MP, Dr P. Venugopal, instead of D. Ravikumar, a senior functionary of the VCK.

“The fear the vested interests have instilled in the minds of the OBCs against the militant Dalit groups has vitiated the social environment, which is very unfortunate,” said Stalin Rajangam, a Dalit sociologist based in Madurai.

“But I remain a people’s candidate, above caste and creed,” Ravikumar said.

This polarisation was visible in Chidambaram (reserved) constituency where VCK leader Thol. Tirumavalavan is seeking re-election. He is banking on the DMK and minority votes besides the votes of Dalits, who constitute a formidable 27 per cent of the electorate, almost equal to Vanniyars.

But the gamble of politically isolating Dalits, which appears to be successful at present, may have social consequences. A counter-mobilisation is under way even in remote villages. Dalits have started reacting aggressively to the subtle attempts to isolate them politically. They are naturally backing candidates fielded by Dalit parties.

Besides, they have decided to vote for the DMK in the other constituencies. “We will never vote for the DMDK-led BJP alliance because it includes the PMK,” said Renganathan, a petty Dalit trader of Attur village near Kancheepuram. The caste divide, many fear, will revive the bitter memories of violence and destruction.

A.K. Moorthy arrived to a hostile reception in Periya colony, a Dalit habitation in Vandavasi in Tiruvannamalai district. Stones were hurled at him, forcing him to withdraw his campaign hastily. “Our votes are not for Vanniyars,” said Sureshkumar, a 20-year-old carpenter from the colony. But Moorthy dismissed the incident as an aberration. “I am confident of winning,” he told Frontline. “It is Ramadoss who frayed the peace that prevailed in the northern districts after both the PMK and the VCK decided, in 2004, to bury their differences and share a common platform, ostensibly for the cause of Tamils. Everything went on smoothly after that. Peace prevailed and no untoward incident took place until violence erupted in Dharmapuri [over the inter-caste marriage]. We even worked together amicably for the local body elections and also in the 2011 Assembly elections,” Ravikumar said. “For political considerations, Ramadoss is playing the caste card, which is unfortunate,” he said.

In a highly fragmented electoral field, the chances of a vote transfer from the DMDK (10 per cent) to the PMK (5.75 per cent) and vice versa are remote. The electoral understanding between these two parties, which were hostile to each other in the not-too-distant past, remains confined at the top level. “Can you expect a Vanniyar in Salem to vote for the DMDK’s L.K. Sudheesh, a non-Vanniyar?” asks a senior PMK functionary in Salem. The PMK’s youth wing secretary, R. Arul, had to withdraw in favour of the DMDK candidate under alliance compulsions after having canvassed for nearly 150 days.

The BJP is a nonentity here and Narendra Modi a stranger. Guhanraj, a college student in Villupuram district, said: “My village has always voted for the AIADMK.” The BJP’s rainbow coalition has distanced the minorities from both the PMK and the DMDK. This is discernible in Vellore where Muslims are present in predominant numbers.

R. Ilangovan