Print edition : December 14, 2012

A woman tries to retrieve her belongings from a charred house in Natham colony.-E. LAKSHMI NARAYANAN

In an attack that is seen as meticulously planned to strike at Dalit empowerment, caste Hindus loot and burn three Dalit colonies in Tamil Nadus Dharmapuri district after an inter-caste marriage.

"The American intellectual W. E. Du Bois noted in his book, The Soul of Black Folk, at the turn of the last century that `the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the colour line'." Quite regrettably, the same could be said without equivocation, of the 21st century."

-Olu Oguibe, American artist and public intellectual and Professor of Art and African American Studies and interim Director of the Institute for African American Studies, University of Connecticut.

MURUGAN stood in front of his completely burnt house in stoic silence. The 400-square-foot single-storey concrete structure at Natham colony is one of the 268 houses that were either damaged or destroyed in the large-scale arson and looting unleashed on Dalits on November 7 in Naikkankottai village in Dharmapuri district of Tamil Nadu.

The 35-year-old Dalit has lost all his material possessions: his motorbike, the bicycles of his two school-going daughters, utensils including China crockery that his wife had proudly displayed in a showcase, bags of rice, groceries and the family photographs that had adorned the walls. All of them were consigned to flames in the attack that followed the death of R. Nagaraj (45), belonging to the most-backward Vanniyar caste, in the nearby Sellankottai village. Nagaraj had committed suicide after his college-going daughter eloped with and married a 19-year-old Dalit boy from Natham colony.

My hard work has been reduced to ashes in a few hours of vandalism. I have lost all that I earned, Murugan said.

He was not the sole victim of the mob violence, which caused heavy damage to property belonging to 500-odd families residing in the three Dalit colonies of Natham, Anna Nagar and Kondampatti in Naikkankottai village, once the heartland of the naxalite movement in Tamil Nadu. The affected families said forced eviction of Dalits appeared to be the intent of the rampaging mob.

The colonies look like a war zone, with charred houses, broken almirahs and utensils, gutted vehicles, burnt bags of rice and scattered documents. The victims claimed that 200 of them had lost their voter identity cards while 50 of them had lost their ration cards. Other documents destroyed in the arson include driving licences, house site pattas and land title deeds, cooking gas papers and insurance certificates.

Eyewitnesses said the nearly five-hour-long arson and looting on the evening of November 7 had left the exploited class, which had started showing signs of affluence with money earned in faraway cities such as Bangalore and Coimbatore, numb. That the extent of the destruction is huge is evident from the district administrations preliminary report. Collector R. Lilly told Frontline that the loss was estimated at a staggering Rs.6.95 crore. The loss can be termed colossal in the sense that no Dalit settlement had suffered such a loss in any caste-related violence before in the State.

Another damaged house in the colony.-E. LAKSHMI NARAYANAN

The seeds of hatred were sown when a kangaroo court summoned the members of the families of the married couple for an inquiry. It said the girl should be returned to her father. A member of Nagarajs family claimed that Nagaraj had even prostrated before his daughter and pleaded her to return home but the girl had refused to desert her Dalit husband, drawing a bout of sneers and mocks from the onlookers. A shamed Nagaraj reportedly committed suicide at his house.

Nagamma, the only Vanniyar woman who stayed back in an otherwise deserted Sellankottai village after the disturbances, said Nagaraj was a doting father. Her snub in public might have provoked him to take the extreme step to save his family honour, she claimed.

Interestingly, police sources say that in the 1980s, Nagaraj was an accused in a case of murder in connection with a land dispute and was acquitted. They also say that he was an active supporter of the Radical Youth League, one of the many front organisations of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) when the naxalite movement was active in Dharmapuri district. Many former naxalite activists and sympathisers belonging to Naikkankottai, have joined various political parties to escape our attention, a senior Q Branch official said.

Nagarajs suicide provided the fuel for the casteist elements that had been waiting to exploit any emotionally surcharged situation. A mob placed his body in front of the boys house in Natham colony and went on the rampage. They split into three different groups and indulged in systematic destruction of property in the three colonies, which are located 8 kilometres apart, said R. Gopal of Anna Nagar whose house and possessions were destroyed.

We thought the issue was a personal one and one between the two families. We never expected it to assume caste contours and engulf us too in its wake, said Mallika, a neighbour of the Dalit boy. Her tiled house did not escape the mob fury. Besides valuables, her daughters bicycles and her husbands laptop were destroyed.

PLANNED LOOTING

The most intriguing aspect of the violence is that it was executed with clockwork precision. It was meticulously planned looting, said P.L. Punia, Chairman of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes soon after he met the victims in the three colonies. It was not a spontaneous reaction; since the act of destruction was executed in a well-set pattern that betrays the sly intention behind the violencetargeting Dalit empowerment. It is a sorry state of affairs, he told Frontline.

Demanding an inquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), G. Ramakrishnan, State secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), called the violence an act of aggression on fundamental rights. It is a well-orchestrated one against the unfortunates, he said.

K. Balakrishnan, the partys representative in the State Assembly from Chidambaram, consoled the victims. Balakrishnan, who is also a member of the partys State secretariat and president of the Tamil Nadu chapter of the All India Kisan Sabha, pointed out that the rain-fed lands owned by the Vanniyars, unlike in the past, had failed to give the expected yield because of myriad factors thus eroding their economic sustainability.

While Dalits, once pannai coolies [farm labourers], dared to venture into faraway places for sustenance, the landholders, the majority of them Vanniyars, preferred to stay put with no fresh initiatives to bolster their sagging economy, he explained.

MADHU OF ANNA NAGAR in Naikkankottai looking at his burnt almirah. A construction worker in Bangalore, he said: "I have nothing that belongs to me today. All my earnings of the past 15 years have gone up in smoke. I used to spend little for myself in Bangalore and send the money to my family back in the village so that they could have a comfortable life. Recently, I renovated my tiled house into a terraced one. Nothing is left today."-E. LAKSHMI NARAYANAN

The economic stagnation of the Vanniyars as against the Dalits emerging economic superiority has irked the Vanniyars for long. New signs of Dalits affluence were their multi-storied houses, electrical home appliances such as air-conditioners and LCD and LED television sets, portable generators, powered pumps, sleek motorbikes, cars and computers, besides investments for asset creation. That pent-up anger and jealously are manifest in the intensity of the looting, said Rajni, a Madurai-based lawyer and one of the State Conveners of the Peoples Union for Human Rights (PUHR), which led a fact-finding mission. Those who have been following the history of violence against Dalits in Tamil Nadu can find striking similarities between the Naikkankottai and other incidents. The atrocities against Dalits in Nadunalumoolakinaru (1992), Kodiyankulam (1995) and Sankaralingapuram (2001) in the then V.O. Chidambaranar district (now Tuticorin) and Gundupatti (1998) in Dindigul district witnessed a similar pattern of destruction targeting the sources of livelihood and other belongings.

As in Naikkankottai, Dalits in Kodiyankulam led relatively comfortable lives, with the menfolk finding employment in West Asia. But unlike in Naikkankottai, the perpetrators of the violence in the four villages, unfortunately, happened to be the custodians of law. The government was forced to pay a heavy compensation to the Dalit victims in all these incidents. In Kodiyankulam, as per the recommendations of the Gomathinayagam Commission of Inquiry, the government paid Rs.8.53 lakh to 128 victims to compensate them for the loss they had suffered.

Studies on violence against Dalits always point to an established patternmurder, sexual abuse and destruction of property. The last act also is a serious crime since it stymies the economic empowerment of an entire social group. Dalit prosperity is a natural irritant to frustrated caste Hindus, says A. Marx, a rights activist and the State convener of the PUHR. It was controlled fury against Dalit assertion, he said.

In the past decade, Dalits in Naikkankottai emerged as landholders as well. Today, 22 Dalit families in Natham own land ranging from half an acre to one acre while 20 of them share 22 acres [one acre equals 0.4 hectare] of land in Kondampatti. In Anna Nagar, three Dalits own lands (Vanniyars possess near 80 per cent of the lands in the region). Almost all Dalits own house site pattas, a senior revenue official, who was assigned to assess the damage, said.

The shift in the traditional socio-economic pattern has spawned a reverse imbalance of economy between these two social groups, besides creating space for the consolidation of caste elements in the land that once nurtured a radical movement. When the naxalites were active, a sort of social equilibrium was in place, claimed a former Marxist-Leninist activist, P. Palanisamy of Natham. He said that after the dilution of the movement many sympathisers of the radical outfit, mostly Dalits, including himself, shifted their loyalty to the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) led by Thol. Tirumavalavan.

P.L. PUNIA (centre), Chairman of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes, inspecting the damage caused by the attacks.-E. LAKSHMI NARAYANAN

Political observers note with concern that the Naikkankottai incident could further deepen the caste polarisation and escalate the animosity between the two dominant castes in the northern districts of the State. Besides, the accusation by Tirumavalavan that the Vanniyar Sangam and the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) led by Dr S. Ramadoss were behind the violence could not be rejected outright. The PMK has a predominantly Vanniar support base.

A senior police official in the district said that of the 142 persons arrested until November 17, barring 15, all others, including two union councillors, one former councillor and a village panchayat president, belonged to the PMK. Another key party functionary, a block secretary, is absconding. A few others are cardholders of the PMK and the Vanniyar Sangam. Eleven first information reports have been filed under various sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) read with three sections of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. While an officer in the rank of the Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) has been waitlisted, three other policemen have been placed under suspension.

The hate speech of the Vanniyar Sangam leader Kaduvetti J. Guru alias Gururajan against inter-caste marriages, especially between Dalits and Vanniyars, at the Mammalapuram conference [of the Sangam in May] has not only instigated his caste men but played a nihilistic role in the uncomfortable bonhomie Ramadoss and Tirumavalavan had maintained until the Dharmapuri incident in the name of promoting Tamil nationalism, says a political analyst.

S. RAMADOSS, Pattali Makkal Katchi chief.-B. JOTHI RAMALINGAM

Rejecting the VCK leaders diatribe against him, Ramadoss said neither the PMK nor the Vanniyar Sangam was involved in the Dharmapuri incident. He told Frontline that he had been espousing the Dalits cause throughout, and had never been against inter-caste marriages. Whether the boy happened to be a Dalit or the girl a Vanniyar, I will welcome their marriage provided the couple completed the age of 21 so that they are mature enough to understand the complexities of the life ahead, he said. However, he said the innocence of adolescence should not be allowed to be exploited by a few elements in the VCK. We cannot permit such celluloid affairs and orchestrated marriages, he said, and pointed out that inter-caste marriages alone, as the Dravidian ideology professed, could not eradicate caste. It is just one of the ways [for caste eradication], he said.

Another interesting factor to be noted is that the issue of inter-caste marriages, claimed to be the root cause of the violence, is not new to the people here. Kondampatti had played host to a marriage between a Dalit youth and a Vanniyar girl two years ago. A few such marriages had taken place in the neighbouring villages, too. But disturbances were confined to the families concerned. It had never touched others, said Murugaraj, a Dalit landholder of Kondampatti whose house and scrap material unit were destroyed in the arson.

R. Nallakannu, Communist Party of India (CPI) leader who visited the affected colonies, wonders how these abhorrent acts could take place in the name of caste honour in the land that nurtured the Self-Respect Movement. A civilised society cannot stall any progressive social activism. Inter-caste marriages reflect the emerging awakening of a sense of social justice and egalitarianism in society. Any attempt to retain the caste pyramid should be opposed sternly, he said.

VCK CHIEF Thol. Tirumavalavan.-B. JOTHI RAMALINGAM

The Dharmapuri unit of the Communist Party of India (M-L) claimed in a press release that about 25 inter-caste marriages had taken place in the district in the 1980s and the 1990s, mostly between Dalits and Vanniyars, and that no reprisal had taken place then. The history of Dalits in Naikkankottai is peppered with a few instances of such disturbances. When the government initiated steps to assign lands for Dalits in Kondampatti, Vanniyars opposed it. Their outright hostility stems from the fact that we are becoming educationally and economically superior to them, said A. Ravi of Vellalapatti, a post-graduate working in a private firm.

He said nearly 200 youth from the three colonies were pursuing higher education as on date. Barring medicine, we have graduates in almost all disciplines, including professional courses such as engineering. Today, we have more graduates and post-graduates than there are in the Vanniyar community, he said. Girls and boys in the affected colonies vouchsafed this by pointing out that the looters had targeted their bicycles, books and notebooks and caste and educational certificates, exposing their intention to prevent us from pursuing our studies.

The role of the police has come under a cloud. With the State government ordering a Crime Branch-Criminal Investigation Department (CB-CID) inquiry, the Dharmapuri Superintendent of Police Asra Garg admitted certain lacunae in preventing the violence. We reacted a bit late. I was on special bandobust duty at Ramanathapuram for the Thevar Jayanthi celebrations at that time. However, the situation was brought under control within six hours, he claimed. Naikkankottai Dalits have bought peace for now, but not before paying a heavy price. We have taken all efforts to instil confidence in the minds of people. Total normalcy has returned with schoolchildren resuming their studies, the Collector said. But the scars left in the minds of the victims will take time to heal.

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