Print edition : July 02, 2010

The rally held by the Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front in Pudukottai on May 29.-M. MOORTHY

THEY thronged Pudukottai, Tamil Nadu, in their thousands on May 29 to participate in a State-level rally against untouchability. Among them were sanitary workers, footwear makers, farmhands, manual labourers and washermen belonging to the Scheduled Castes. They marched shoulder to shoulder with functionaries of trade unions, activists belonging to the associations of State and Central government employees and federations of public sector undertakings, and human rights activists, calling for effective steps to curb all forms of social oppression and atrocities against Dalits.

The rally was held to mark the conclusion of the first State conference of the Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front (TNUEF), a broad front of trade unions, organisations of peasants, students, youth and women, Dalit outfits, and human rights fora, to spearhead the struggle against caste oppression and untouchability.

For the front, founded in 2007, it was an occasion to conduct a review of its experience so far in bringing together Dalits and non-Dalits in the fight against caste oppression. The discussions centred on evolving a strategy to consolidate the gains it had made through sustained struggles and chalking out its future course of action.

Setting the tone for the discussions, P. Sampath, convener of the TNUEF, stressed in his report the need to carry on the struggles against economic exploitation and social oppression concomitantly and even to combine them given the situation in Tamil Nadu where attacks on Dalits were intertwined with class oppression. It is on this basis that the TNUEF seeks to bring under its umbrella Dalits and non-Dalits in the fight against untouchability, he pointed out.

The composition of the conference revealed that the front had achieved a breakthrough in cementing unity between the oppressed people and the progressive and democratic sections among non-Dalits. While 70 per cent of the 425 delegates were Dalits, the remaining came from non-Dalit communities.

The conference, through discussions, resolutions, a declaration and a pledge, brought to light the attacks launched against Dalits on political, economic and social fronts. In its assessment of the political situation, the conference noted that oppressive forces were challenging the efforts to empower Dalits even in the local bodies, either by scuttling the elections in some reserved panchayats or by ensuring that people who were subservient to them got elected so that the panchayat administration would be under their control.

In many cases, elected Dalit panchayat presidents were not allowed to occupy their seats in their offices, it said. According to Evidence, a Madurai-based NGO, such forms of oppression prevail in 600 village panchayats. The government has terribly shirked its responsibility in checking such violations of law, the TNUEF alleged.

In the economic sphere, Dalits by and large face the problem of denial of ownership rights to land and property. The meet pointed out that as most of the Dalits in the State were landless, they had to depend on caste Hindus for employment.

So if they dared to seek police intervention against harassment or atrocities, they would be denied work in all the farms owned by dominant groups and forced to starve.

Land reforms

The TNUEF has urged the Tamil Nadu government to implement radical land reform in the State. In 1972, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) government announced that 20.23 lakh acres (one acre is 0.4 hectare) of surplus land would be redistributed to the landless, but until now not even 10 per cent of the land has been acquired. Similarly, there are about 50 lakh acres of poramboke land and wastelands suitable for cultivation, large stretches of which the government has leased out to big industries, multinational corporations, colleges, hospitals and commercial complexes for meagre amounts. But the government was reluctant to distribute these lands to the landless poor at the rate of two acres for cultivation and five cents as house sites for each family, it said.

The front alleged that panchami lands distributed to Dalits during British rule were under illegal occupation by non-Dalits. Contrary to the government's claim that only 12,000 acres of panchami lands had been acquired by non-Dalits, the actual extent could be around 2.5 lakh acres, it noted. Several multi-storey commercial complexes had come up on these lands, it alleged.

The meet called upon the government to verify the title transfers on the basis of the 1924 and 1954 records pertaining to panchami lands and take necessary legal measures to redeem the lands and redistribute them to Dalits. Transfer of title deeds of the panchami lands should have taken place during the updated survey conducted in 1986, it said. The conference decided to carry on a sustained campaign to redeem the panchami lands and to hold a special convention in Kancheepuram in this connection.

The TNUEF meet discussed the impact of globalisation and neoliberal policies on the living conditions of Dalits against the backdrop of shrinking job opportunities in the public sector and the absence of reservation in the private sector. The White Paper presented by the State government in the Assembly in 2000 had revealed that even five decades after Independence, there were only 13 per cent Scheduled Caste employees in the A, B, C and D groups though 18 per cent of the jobs were reserved for them.

Even while admitting that reservation was no panacea for the problems of caste oppression and class exploitation, the conference pleaded for the extension of the benefit to Dalit Christians as it would provide some limited and necessary relief to them within the existing order. It also demanded that reservation for Dalits be implemented in the private sector.

Scheduled Castes Sub Plan

The conference spent a fairly good amount of time discussing issues related to the Scheduled Castes Sub Plan (SCSP). Accusing the State government of being nonchalant about making allocations for the plan proportionate to the population of Dalits, it said that even the allotted funds were not spent properly. From 1997 to 2005, the government should have allotted Rs.9,401 crore for the SCSP, but the actual allocation was only Rs.2,226 crore. It added that in the past eight years, Rs.7,135 crore ought to have been spent on the welfare of Dalits.

This entrance on the southern side of the Nataraja temple in Chidambaram was closed many years ago because Nandanar, a Dalit, used it in the 11th-12th century. Ironically, he became a saint later and entered the temple. The TNUEF has urged the State government to reopen the entrance.-C. VENKATACHALAPTHY

In the 2010-11 Budget, the government allotted Rs.3,828 crore for the SCSP, forming 19 per cent of the total plan outlay. However, the government had announced that the funds would be spent on 117 other schemes, the front said. This is a gross violation of the prescribed rules. It amounts to causing grave injustice to Dalits, it said.

The TNUEF meet demanded that the government implement the SCSP without diluting it. It also called for the setting up of vigilance panels to ensure its proper implementation.

On the social front, Dalits face untouchability throughout their life, from cradle to the cremation ground, the conference pointed out. A recent survey conducted by TNUEF activists in 1,845 villages in 22 districts in the State has brought out 82 forms of untouchability and 22 types of atrocities committed against Dalits.

Among the crude manifestations of untouchability are denial of access to public pathways; denial of permission to walk wearing footwear, to wear a towel on the shoulder, to sport a moustache, and to wear polyester dhotis or headgear. Dalits are also not allowed to sit on chairs in tea stalls and restaurants.

Apart from the notorious practice of serving tea to Dalits in separate tumblers at tea stalls, separate chairs are kept for Dalits in barber shops. They are prevented from bursting crackers during festivals. They are not permitted to draw water from public taps, bathe in village ponds or take part in temple festivals, village meetings and auctions.

They are forced to stand in separate queues at public distribution system (PDS) outlets, live in segregated colonies, use separate cremation grounds, remove carcasses and night soil, and beat drums for funerals. In some places, postal employees do not deliver letters to Dalits.

Dalits are awarded inhuman punishments for supposed offences. In some cases, they are forced to eat human faeces, drink urine and do sit-ups a thousand times before members of the dominant communities. They are subjected to physical attacks if they go against the wishes of the dominant communities in local body elections in certain instances Dalits have been killed. And if they dare to intermarry, they are poisoned to death in some places.

The administration's failure to properly implement the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 was debated at the conference. Issues such as counter-complaints by the oppressors and flawed investigations resulting in high rate of acquittals in cases booked under the Act were discussed.

Despite the administration's failure to put an end to the caste-based oppression, there is an emerging trend in Dalit assertion and fighting spirit owing to the intervention of organisations such as the TNUEF, the conference noted. But it expressed concern over the fact that the growing awareness among Dalits and their readiness to fight against casteist forces was sought to be met with inhuman oppression and atrocities.

Some victories

The combined strength of the TNUEF's initiative and the awareness among Dalits have resulted in significant victories in some recent struggles.

The most important among them are the demolition of the walls of hatred put up by casteist elements at places such as Uthapuram in Madurai district, Periyar Nagar in Coimbatore district, and Thuraipadi in Vellore district. Close on the heels of the success of the removal of the caste wall in Uthapuram, the Dalits of the village embarked on a struggle against certain other forms of untouchability. The front has decided to intensify its agitation if the government fails to find a solution to the unresolved issues in Uthapuram.

The TNUEF has added another feather to its cap by joining hands with other democratic forces in rallying people to defeat the attempts of the oppressive elements that scuttled the election process for 10 years in four reserved panchayats Pappapatti, Keeripatti and Nattarmangalam in Madurai district and Kottakachiyendal in Virudhunagar district. Dalit panchayat presidents have been elected in these places.

The temple entry struggle, spearheaded by the front at several places including Chettipulam in Nagapattinam district, Panthapuli in Tirunelveli district and Kangiyanoor in Villupuram district, where access was denied to Dalits to places of worship for periods ranging from 50 to 200 years, ended in a resounding success.

As part of its campaign to do away with untouchability in places of worship, the TNUEF, through a resolution, urged the State government to dismantle the wall that was built many years ago to block an entrance on the southern side of the Nataraja temple in Chidambaram.

According to legend, this entrance was used by Nandanar, a Dalit farm worker, in the 11th-12th century A.D. Ironically, Nandanar later become one of the celebrated 63 Nayanmars (Saivaite saints) and entered the temple. A different entrance is used by devotees in this part of the temple complex even today. The TNUEF decided to resort to direct action if the government failed to meet this demand within a month.

Among the noteworthy achievements of the front is the 3 per cent internal reservation it won for the Arunthathiar community, considered the lowest rung of the caste ladder. In the western districts of Tamil Nadu they work as farmhands, while in other areas they undertake all menial jobs, from manual scavenging to removing carcasses.

A massive rally held in February 2008 enabled the front to extract some promises from the government on ending manual scavenging. The conference pleaded with the government to ensure that people belonging to the Puthiraivannar community received community certificates without hassles.

As Tamil Nadu is one of the six States with a high percentage of Dalits 19 per cent of the population a large number of atrocities against them are reported here. The conference urged the government to constitute a State Commission for S.Cs and S.Ts to protect their interests.

Prakash Karat, general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), who addressed the conference, said people outside Tamil Nadu also looked up to the TNUEF as a source of inspiration in their own struggles against social oppression. In our country, the struggle against the caste system must go along with the struggle against social, economic and class exploitation. Without that there can be no revolution in our society, he said.

Karat said if annihilation of castes as perceived by B.R. Ambedkar was the eventual goal, the first step to achieve it should be getting rid of untouchability. He asked the front to bring into its fold all those who wanted to end untouchability and caste discrimination. Where the communist movement is strong we do not find today the forms of untouchability that exist in Tamil Nadu and other States, he said.

G. Ramakrishnan, State secretary of the Communist Party of India, said that after Periyar' E.V. Ramasamy, none of the Dravidian parties had taken up the cause of Dalits.

These parties owed an explanation to the people as to why they had not taken effective steps to end untouchability despite being in power for over four decades, he added.

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