Sectarian poison

Print edition : January 25, 2013

S. Ramadoss and leaders of other caste groups at the meeting in Madurai on December 20, 2012, where a new forum was formed to prevent inter-caste marriages and to fight for amendments to the S.C./S.T. Act. Photo: R. Ashok

PMK founder S. Ramadoss and his son and former Union Minister Anbumani Ramadoss at the Vanniyar Sangam conference in 2012. Photo: HANDOUT

Ramadoss and VCK leader Thol Thirumavalavan (in blue shirt). Despite their rivalry, both came together on the issues of Tamil protection and Tamil nationalism. Here, they protest against hoardings in English in Chennai. Photo: S. Thanthoni

A road blockade during the Vanniyar agitation in 1987, in the then undivided South Arcot district. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

The stump of a tree is used to force open the locked door of a house, a common practice during the agitation. The remaining portion of the tree is in the house at left.

IT is a truism that societies by their very nature are discordant. This is particularly true of India, which has persisted with rigid hierarchies and structured inequalities. The framers of the Constitution were conscious of this and the dangers of the caste monster stalking India and stifling its development as an inclusive modern society devoid of disparities and discrimination.

It would have been impossible to abolish the centuries-old institution of caste by legislation and in one stroke. So, when the Constitution was framed, the mandate, as a testimony to constitutional pragmatism, was to ignore it in public life and make illegal its socially iniquitous, outrageous, stigmatic, discriminatory and exclusionary aspects and allow it to have a natural death, providing at the same time adequate safeguards against exploitation and oppression of the disadvantaged groups of traditional India’s caste society and for their social and educational advancement to enable them to move to the mainstream of society.

To transform this mandate into reality, reshaping recalcitrant social patterns by disabling caste as an institution and strengthening and expanding human rights was a sine qua non. An important way of doing this was by treating development as freedom (in the sense in which Amartya Sen used the term), with the development efforts firmly grounded in democracy, secularism, socialism and egalitarianism.

But the framers of the Constitution would not have anticipated that certain political dynamics unleashed by the Constitution would go against the political process that shapes the larger contours of development policies and projects.

Of these the most important was the outcome of universal adult suffrage. As individuals were perceived and treated (and are perceived and treated even now) as members of castes and communities and not as units of society, with the coming of democracy caste got a new lease of life as the sociologist M.N. Srinivas said in 1960 (“The Indian Road to Equality”, The Economic Weekly, Special Number, June 1960 ).

With caste groups suddenly getting a lot more space for political articulation, the castes that were politically active in the past became more active in the new ambience generated by universal adult franchise. The results were twofold:

(a) Realignment of castes for forming a “horizontal stretch” by cognate castes to garner numerical strength for political mobilisation. On this Srinivas’ observations are more relevant today: “The general election of 1957 awoke everyone to the importance of caste in voting. Every party tried to choose a candidate from a locally numerically strong caste. The communists invented a progressive term for it: ‘social base’. And they made sure that every communist candidate had a social base (Ibid.).”

(b) The fallout of the exceptions in Article 15 that “nothing in this Article or in clause (2) of Article 29 shall prevent the state from making any special provision for the advancement of any socially and educationally backward classes of citizens or for the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes” and in Article 16 that “nothing in this Article shall prevent the state from making any provision for the reservation of appointments or posts in favour of any backward class of citizens which, in the opinion of the state, is not adequately represented in the services under the state”.

The S.Cs and the S.Ts are well defined categories; and their population percentages are not in dispute; in fulfilment of the constitutional mandate for their representation in the Lok Sabha and State Assemblies proportionate to their populations they have been enumerated in the decennial Censuses. Hence, the provisions for their safeguard are less controversial.

Following the rejection of the report of the first Backward Classes (Kaka Kalelkar) Commission submitted in March 1955 (the commission was appointed in January 1953), when efforts to devise “positive and workable criteria” other than caste failed, the government, in May 1961, decided not to draw up all-India lists of B.Cs and extend reservation in its services to any groups other than the S.Cs and the S.Ts. Consequently, in August 1961 it informed the States that while they had the discretion to apply their own criteria, it would be better to apply economic tests rather than go by caste. Subsequent attempts, particularly since the 1970s, to extend reservation to B.Cs became politicised and resulted in frequent caste clashes.

Once reservation for B.Cs began, the political rhetoric on policy benefits further embittered the vicious nature of caste in vote-bank politics, transmogrifying in the process the policies formulated for implementation of the provisions. Pertinent to note here are observations by the sociologist Andre Béteille.

Stating that the unanimous and enthusiastic endorsement of the Mandal report by Parliament, on August 11, 1982, constitutes an important landmark in the history of contemporary India, Béteille wrote a few days later: “If Parliament has acted in full awareness of the likely consequences of its action, we are perhaps entering a new phase in the reconstitution of Indian society. This recommendation may be no less far-reaching in its scope than the one attempted by the new Constitution which Indians fashioned for themselves on achieving independence (The Backward Classes in Contemporary India, Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1992, pages 10-18).”

Impact of Mandal report

It was only almost a decade later that the Mandal report was partly implemented by V.P. Singh as Prime Minister of the Janata Dal-led National Front government, mainly to upstage Deputy Prime Minister Devi Lal. But V.P. Singh’s decision itself was an egregious political abuse of his position as Prime Minister; for, much to the discomfiture of even the National Front constituents, leave alone the opposition parties, the notification on August 7, 1990, giving effect to the announcement made in Parliament was abrupt, arbitrary and cavalier and a clear case of the use of caste in the nation’s power play in the name of bringing about a casteless society.

An unprecedented backlash followed, with virtually the whole of northern India in the grip of a mass hysteria and educated upper caste youth in urban areas dousing themselves with kerosene and setting themselves on fire.

By the time Human Resource Development Minister Arjun Singh, in 2006, announced reservation in education for B.Cs, apparently to upstage Prime Minister Manmohan Singh if not Sonia Gandhi, the fight was less in the streets and more in courts.

In the absence of an expansion of opportunities for quality education and employment to match the increasing demand for both, reservation was, as R.H. Tawney wrote, a cover-up for the state’s failure to ensure equality in the sense in which Tawney perceived it, that is, to ensure that “the whole of the rising generation, irrespective of income or social position, grows up in an environment equally conducive to health, enjoys equal opportunities of developing its powers by education, has equal access, according to ability, to all careers, and is equally secure against being crushed by the contingencies of life” (R.H. Tawney, Equality, 1952, London, George Allen and Unwin Ltd).

The presence of a lackadaisical judiciary with chaotic proliferation of jurisprudential literature on, among other things, the nexus between caste and Constitution and caste and reservation, and the failure of the emergence of a strong civil society, and of late the rapid and reckless rise of crony capitalism have all confounded this dismal situation.

Dismal in Tamil Nadu

The situation is particularly dismal in the land of Periyar E.V. Ramasamy, founder of the Self-Respect Movement, which encouraged inter-caste marriage, and the Dravidar Kazhagam, through which he worked for the eradication of caste. Its society inciting caste orgy on Dalits cannot be understood without understanding the deleterious consequences of the State’s sectarian policies and politics.

From at least 1969, when M. Karunanidhi became Chief Minister of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) government (after the death of C.N. Annadurai, founder of the DMK who assumed office as Chief Minister in 1967), the state in Tamil Nadu has failed in every conceivable way to govern with democracy and secularism as its touchstones by pandering to caste and communal considerations for political gain.

The large-scale vandalism unleashed by Vanniyars on Dalits in Dharmapuri district on November 7, 2012, in which 268 homes were burned down, following the love marriage of a Dalit boy and a Vanniyar girl, is only one of the dangerous consequences of this failure.

Dalits, who are listed as S.Cs in the decennial Censuses, account for 19 per cent of Tamil Nadu’s population. Unlike Vanniyars, they are a heterogeneous ensemble. Of the 76 S.Cs notified in Tamil Nadu, five—Adi Dravidar, Pallar, Paraiyar, Chakkiliyar and Arunthathiyar—together constitute 93.5 per cent of the State’s S.C. population. Adi Dravidars are numerically the largest, constituting 45.6 per cent of the State’s S.C. population. They are followed by Pallars (19.2 per cent), Paraiyars (15.7 per cent), Chakkiliyars (6.6 per cent) and Arunthathiyars (6.5 per cent). Other groups, with the exception of Madaris (2.8 per cent), have less than one per cent population; of them, 35 have below 1,000 people. Among the major S.Cs, Pallars have the highest (76 per cent) rural population, followed by Paraiyars (73.1 per cent), Adi Dravidars (69.4 per cent), Chakkiliyars (67.9 per cent) and Arunthathiyars (64.4 per cent).

These castes are concentrated in the States’s northern, southern and western (Chakkiliyars and Arunthathiyars) regions and their caste oppressors have traditionally been Vanniyars in the north, Thevars and Maravars in the south and Goundars in the west. As Adi Dravidar and Paraiyar are overlapping categories, together, as a single category, they account for 61 per cent of Dalits; as such they should be far more numerous in the north. Though they live in separate colonies, reflecting the traditional spatial segregation of castes, they are still victims of Vanniyars’ caste violence.

Atrocities are committed against Dalits for several reasons. Among them are the persistence of the traditional caste mould within which the oppressors still operate; jealousy and antipathy; the realisation that in a State where governance is weak they can continue to oppress the oppressed; and the fact that over the years Dalits have become assertive and aspiring, conscious of their dignity, self-respect and human rights, and economically prosperous, mainly through their own efforts in towns, cities and even distant countries.

Dalits’ economic prosperity has, in turn, improved their perception of their status in society as equal, if not superior, to that of their traditional oppressors and changed their behaviour accordingly. As a result, many Dalits are unwilling to perform their traditional caste-based menial tasks and work as agricultural labourers on their oppressors’ lands.

Vanniyar identity

Vanniyars, who account for about 12 per cent of the State’s population, are concentrated in northern Tamil Nadu and have, unlike Dalits, only a few subdivisions. In their attempts at caste mobility from the late 19th century, they forged a common identity and formed a horizontal stretch. The Vanniyakula Kshatriya Maha Sangam (VKKMS) founded in 1888 was a high-water mark in Vanniyars’ attempts at mobilisation on caste lines. It helped create a strong esprit de corps among members of the caste and worked for their social mobility.

Unable to secure from the Congress party any guarantee of representation in the services and local bodies proportionate to their population, for which they had petitioned the government (they played a major role in the formation of the Backward Classes League in the 1930s for communal representation in government services), in the 1949 elections to the district boards they contested as independents and secured 22 of the 52 seats in South Arcot, defeating many Congress candidates. Anticipating elections to the State Aassembly, a State-wide conference of the VKKMS, convened in 1951, resolved that Vanniyars should contest the elections in cooperation with the toiling masses, and for that effect was formed the Tamil Nadu Toilers’ Party under the leadership of M.A. Manickavelu Naicker and S.S. Ramaswamy Padayachi. This party soon split, with the Toilers’ Party of Ramaswamy Padayachi remaining in South Arcot and Salem districts and the Commonweal Party of Manickavelu Naicker in North Arcot and Chingleput districts. In the elections held in 1952, the former won 19 seats and the latter six.

Responding to the overtures of the Congress, which failed to secure a majority in the State Assembly, first the Commonweal Party and later the Toilers’ Party supported it in return for ministerships for leaders of both parties in the eight-member Cabinet. With this, both parties were dissolved, their members joined the Congress and the leadership of the Vanniyars became moribund.

When the Vanniyar Sangam (not to be confused with the VKKMS) founded in 1980 by Dr S. Ramadoss spearheaded, in the late 1980s, agitations involving widespread vandalism and violence for reservation of 20 per cent jobs and seats in educational institutions for Vanniyars in the State and two per cent jobs in the Centre, the main victims of its fury were Dalits though the protests were directed against the government.

The M.G. Ramachandran-led All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) government refused to negotiate with the Vanniyars when the agitation was on, but the violence, death and devastation it left behind forced the government to review the reservation issue.

Following MGR’s death in December 1987, the DMK Ministry that assumed office after the January 1989 elections ordered compartmental reservation in fulfilment of its election promise. Of the overall 50 per cent reservation for 201 communities, accounting for an estimated 67 per cent of the State’s population, it set apart 20 per cent for 39 communities listed as Most Backward and 68 listed as denotified tribes, which together accounted for about 36 per cent of the population. Though this fell short of the Vanniyars’ demand, it came very close. As the largest community among the Most Backward Classes listed, accounting for about 53 per cent of their population and probably the least backward among them, the Vanniyars have cornered the largest share of the benefits.

PMK struggle

The perceived success of the Vanniyar agitation prompted Ramadoss to form the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) in 1989, and the party had some sheen initially. But over the years it failed to make effective use of electoral politics. When the Vanniyar Sangam spearheaded the agitation, its main slogan was ‘Vanniyar ottu anniyarukillai’ (Vanniyar vote is not for non-Vanniyars). Even after developing a cadre base and forming a political party Ramadoss did not outgrow this narrow sectarian mindset and develop a national perspective. Unable and unwilling to democratise himself and his party cadre and integrate them with non-Vanniyars, the PMK persisted as a caste organisation. Predictably, the Vanniyar slogan rebounded on the PMK, which the non-Vanniyars refashioned as ‘Anniyar ottu Vanniyarukillai’ (non-Vanniyar vote is not for Vanniyars).

The PMK contested four Assembly elections on its own, winning one seat in 1991 and four seats in 1996. Since then, it has alternated between the AIADMK and the DMK as allies, walking in and out of alliances of expediency, and failed to gain political credibility and many political seats.

In the wake of his party’s poor showing, Ramadoss’ desperately conjured up ideas, such as rotation of the post of Chief Minister on an annual basis and a PMK nominee as Chief Minister of Puducherry for two and a half years followed by an AIADMK nominee, were seen as inane. He was desperate, if not to become Chief Minister immediately, at least to remain politically visible in the shifting sands of Tamil Nadu politics and continue to keep his head above the political quicksand in the State.

That led to his weird demand, in 2002, for the bifurcation of Tamil Nadu and the creation of a new State with 13 districts where Vanniyars constitute a sizeable proportion of the population. His justification was that the Vanniyar community, which is predominant in 13 of the 29 districts in the State, has yet to have its member as Chief Minister. His argument was that “if Vanniyars remain united we can definitely capture power in 2006; let 25 youths from each village come with me, I will convert Tamil Nadu into a land ruled by Vanniyars.” The bifurcation demand and the hullabaloo it caused helped Ramadoss remain in the limelight for some time.

Like other fringe parties, the PMK was vocal in its support for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam even after its ban in India. In its “Tamils’ right to live” conference in Chennai in September 1992, the PMK took out a rally at which slogans were raised glorifying Dhanu, the assassin of Rajiv Gandhi. Chief Minister Jayalalithaa wrote to Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao seeking a ban on the PMK. It is a mystery that she did not put Ramadoss in jail just as she did Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMDK) leader Vaiko, on July 11, 2002, and Tamil Nationalist Movement president P. Nedumaran, on April 13, 2002.

The PMK was also in league with the Tamil Nationalist Movement in supporting the formation of a Tamil Eelam. At a rally taken out in support of Sri Lankan Tamils in Chennai on May 21, 2009, political leaders, in particular Ramadoss, Vaiko, Nedumaran, CPI State secretary D. Pandian and his senior colleague leader R. Nallakannu, came together under the banner of the Sri Lankan Tamils’ Protection Movement and called for the intervention of the United Nations to protect thousands of homeless Tamils and unarmed civilians in Sri Lanka. They also demanded that the international community declare Sri Lanka a “Terror State” and that the Government of India stop all aid to the island nation. By that time, the LTTE had been decimated. While the Eelam issue is still alive, Ramadoss does not seem to have gained any political mileage from it.

That raises a larger issue. While the Tamil protection movement and Tamil nationalism in Sri Lanka are still crucial, are they relevant in Tamil Nadu, where Tamil, if not its use, is recognised as a classical language, and which recognition Chief Minister Karunanidhi celebrated grandiloquently in the Chemmozhi Maanadu? Besides, why another Tamil nationalism within the nationalist Tamil Nadu?

There are two possible answers to this. In Tamil Nadu, “Tamil protection” appears as the moral diktat of Ramadoss and Tol. Thirumavalavan, leader of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) of a section of Dalits, who despite being sworn enemies came together on this issue and on Tamil nationalism. Though these two terms (Tamil protection and Tamil nationalism) are used separately, on occasion they overlap. These two leaders wanted to protect what they perceived as Tamil culture and fight affronts to it; and without culture there cannot be nationalism. Their violent take on actors such as Vijaykanth, Rajnikanth, Kamal Hasan, and Khushboo on what they considered anti-Tamil in films, such as smoking, drinking and the use of English, are in the context of both culture and nationalism.

Some of their campaigns were laudable—those against smoking and drinking and for the introduction of prohibition and the closing of the money-spinning TASMAC (Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation) liquor shops, which have ruined families, particularly of the poor. But the Tamil protectionism and nationalism of the duo are in no way comparable to the Tamil separatism and cultural movement campaign of Periyar and Anna some four decades ago (box on page 41), which culminated in Anna’s demand in his first speech in Parliament for a separate Dravida Nadu and in its sudden end after Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru treated such demands as secessionist.

While the PMK leadership—Ramadoss and his coterie—has not helped its own community switch from its caste-centric atavism and its antipathy to India’s constitutional and democratic ethos and praxis, it has over the years earned the dubious distinction of being vile. The Tamil Protection Movement, too, is largely in this dubious category. Hence, if Ramadoss wants to remain relevant in politics he has to give up his outlandish ideas about language, culture and society and his posturing as an extraconstitutional authority.

Khushboo controversy

When Ramadoss was in desperate need of a new issue, actor Khushboo’s views on premarital sex and virginity, published in a Tamil magazine in September 2005, came in handy. The PMK and the Tamil Protection Movement unleashed agitations against Khushboo and prompted or coerced people to file criminal cases against her, forcing the beleaguered woman to appear [or surrender] before the courts.

Quashing the 23 criminal cases against Khushboo on April 28, 2010, a Supreme Court Bench blamed the PMK for the fabricated cases:

“As we have already noted, most of the complainants are associated with the PMK, a political party which is active in the State of Tamil Nadu. This fact does add weight to the suggestion that the impugned complaints have been filed with the intention of gaining undue political mileage.... We are of the view that the institution of the numerous criminal complaints against the appellant was done in a mala fide manner.... We must be mindful that the initiation of a criminal trial is a process which carries an implicit degree of coercion and it should not be triggered by false and frivolous complaints, amounting to harassment and humiliation to the accused.”

After the Khushboo controversy, the PMK’s most contemptible act was undoubtedly the Dharmapuri caste violence. Ramadoss demanded a ban on marriages between Dalits and caste-Hindus and a dilution of the S.C./S.T. (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. To achieve this he even sought to bring together leaders of various “intermediate castes” on a common platform.

Major political parties came out strongly against Ramadoss. Vaiko, among others, said it was unbecoming of a leader of a political party to ridicule inter-caste marriages and the modern dress code of Dalit youth, who sought to secure equal status in society.

Despite the widespread condemnation of his moves, Ramadoss floated a new forum of intermediate caste groups in Madurai on December 20, 2012, to prevent inter-caste marriages and to fight for amendments to the S.C./S.T. Act. At a meeting attended by 51 non-Dalit outfits the forum was named “All Community Forum to Fight for the Amendments in Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act and Prevent Inter-caste Fake Love Marriages”.

The same day several members of the students’ wing of the VCK took to the street in Madurai semi-clad to highlight the PMK leader’s remarks that Dalit youths were trying to entice young girls of other castes by sporting jeans, trousers, T-shirts and sneakers. The party’s State deputy general secretary, V. Kaniamuthan, remarked that Ramadoss had belittled the girls of his own caste by claiming that they would fall for this attire; that he probably did not like Dalit youth wearing such dresses and wanted them to sport loin cloth; and that their protest was to highlight this aspect.

More than 60 years after the Constitution came into force, if Tamil Nadu is still plagued by the coarsest forms of casteist, exclusivist and sectarian politics and violent caste clashes, the reasons are partly in the functioning of the judiciary.

Judiciary’s role

The Supreme Court’s order says 50 per cent is the quota limit and the emphasis is on justice. The inclusion of the Tamil Nadu Reservation Act of 1993 (for 69 per cent reservation without elimination of the creamy layer) in the 9th Schedule in 1994 should have received utmost importance and the immediate attention of the Court, as the inclusion involved questions concerning the fundamental rights of citizens; and justice delayed is justice denied.

After writ petitions filed before the apex court every year since 1994, in 2007 a nine-judge Bench examined the scope of the 9th Schedule. It ruled that all laws passed, even if they are in the 9th Schedule, have to pass through the basic structure doctrine and directed that the petitions/appeals be placed for hearing before a three-judge Bench. But the three-judge Bench has not materialised even five years after the ruling. That raises the question of vital judicial disconnect.

In Andhra Pradesh, the Court has not allowed reservation for B.Cs based on religion and subclassification of S.Cs, whereas Tamil Nadu did both a few years ago and the Court has not raised any objection.

In 2010, the Court directed the Tamil Nadu government to place quantifiable data before the State’s Backward Classes Commission and allowed the State’s existing reservation for one year. Its report was seen to be highly misleading. Though the court may be aware of this report and its immediate approval by the government, the Tamil Nadu Reservation Act is still in the 9th Schedule.

As differential approaches and decisions of the judiciary on the same issues in different States are blatantly discriminatory, and caste is often the bone of contention in reservation cases, the judiciary cannot absolve itself of some of the blame for the caste demon entering politics and governance.

If Ramadoss and persons of his ilk stoke the embers of caste conflict, it is because they are emboldened by the judiciary’s lackadaisical approach, lack of continuity in pursuing cases of public and constitutional concern to their logical end.

Dalit unity as a class

As for the Dalits’ plight, the price they have paid for not being assertive and not participating actively in mainstream society and politics is denial of the benefits of the constitutional provisions even after six decades and the State’s failure to implement effectively the Prevention of Atrocities Act. It is time they mobilised themselves as a class, burying their inter-caste differences, to identify the fault lines and correct them speedily. The political climate in Tamil Nadu is ideal for this. Political outfits such as Puthiya Thamizhagam and the VCK should form an umbrella organisation of all Dalit castes with a clearly worked out agenda for Dalit emancipation and development. That Dalits account for about one-fifth of the State’s population itself is an important factor that will work in favour of such a venture.

As social inclusion cannot come about without political inclusion, and given the fact that the two Dravidian parties, the AIADMK and the DMK, have not helped Dalits for such inclusion, they should be on their own as a solid bloc for inclusive politics and political action. And as they progress they should leave behind their bitter past and see society from the victors’ and not the victims’ perspective.

P. Radhakrishnan was Professor of Sociology at the Madras Institute of Development Studies and is a media commentator on public affairs. His email is: prk1949@gmail.com

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