Print edition : April 15, 2016

WHEN the Dalit youth V. Shankar was brutally murdered right in front of his hapless wife in Udumalpet town in Tiruppur district, the civil society was outraged. The ruthlessness of the killers benumbed those who viewed the footage of the CCTV that had captured the crime.

What shocked people equally was the muted and half-hearted response of the political parties in the State, including the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), to the heinous crime. Barring the Dalit outfits, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Communist Party of India, the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) and the Congress, all political parties chose to tread cautiously since Assembly elections are going to be held in the State on May 16. Their statements on the murder were guarded and circumspect.

While the AIADMK is yet to condemn the crime, the DMK chose to reduce it to a mere law and order issue. It was reluctant to call it a casteist murder. In fact, the party’s treasurer M.K. Stalin merely issued a statement a day after the incident took place saying all murders should be condemned. Two days later, his father, DMK patriarch M. Karunanidhi, condemned the incident in his question-and-answer mode of press release. In their carefully worded statements, the political leaderships avoided using the term “inter-caste” but condemned the murder. Dalit and Left parties had no hesitation in registering their strong protest against the casteist murder. While State Congress president E.V.K.S. Elangovan condemned the killing in no uncertain terms, a few Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders downplayed the incident by saying that girls should show respect to their families. The BJP’s discomfort arises from the fact that such murders go against its larger goal of Hindu unity. As the AIADMK has kept mum, a few small Dalit outfits that have aligned themselves with the ruling party have also chosen to remain silent. The State government even registered cases against a Tuticorin-based lawyer and a functionary of the People’s Rights Protection Centre for urging the government to withdraw the reservation benefits granted to people belonging to the Most Backward Classes (MBCs) and the Backward Classes (B.Cs) who resort to honour killings, under Section 153A of Indian Penal Code and Section 3 of Tamil Nadu Open Place Disfigurement Act.

When reporters tried to seek the views of Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) leader Dr S. Ramadoss, he brushed aside the issue by saying that he had expressed his opinions on many important State and national issues, which needed to be highlighted by the media. Faced with strong a criticism for his rude reaction, he issued a statement subsequently condemning the Udumalpet murder.

Dr K. Krishnasamy, president of the Pallar-dominated Puthiya Thamizhagam (P.K.) party, criticised Ramadoss for trying to consolidate all intermediate caste groups under one banner, the All Castes People Federation, with the sole objective of creating a caste-Hindu vote bank for the PMK, which he said was the main reason for such gruesome incidents. The Dalit leader said: “He must be held responsible for such caste-based atrocities that take place even in the western region [of the State].”

The leaders who condemned the incident demanded a special law to prevent such inhuman crimes being committed in the name of caste and family honour. Krishnasamy visited Komaralingam village to share the grief of Shankar’s family. The Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) sent its senior leader, Vanni Arasu, to hand over a cheque of Rs.1 lakh to the victim’s family. The VCK and the All India Insurance Employees Association have expressed their willingness to meet the educational expenses of Kausalya, who discontinued her studies when she got married to Shankar.

Social scientists and academics cite the emergence of identity politics as the primary reason for such mute political responses to horrific crimes. Caste identity and caste-based voting, coupled with caste purity, they said, had become an important facet of Tamil Nadu politics. “Love across caste lines has been a taboo,” Dalit ideologue and the VCK’s senior leader D. Ravikumar said.

The Dravidian movement, for all its claim of being the fountainhead of socially progressive ideals, contributed to the consolidation of a strong Other Backward Classes (OBC) group with a patriarchal and feudalistic mindset. This group made a smooth transition to electoral politics. The main beneficiaries of this consolidation are intermediate caste groups such as Mukkulathors in the south and central districts, Vanniyars in the northern districts and Vellala Gounders in the western districts. Politics and political power in Tamil Nadu revolve around these three powerful blocks today. The landed class, which enjoys social, economic and cultural dominance, has also acquired considerable political power.

Social and political activist A. Marx is, however, of the view that the OBC consolidation cannot be attributed to the failure of the Dravidian movement. “First, a clear demarcation is essential between today’s Dravidian political parties and the Dravidian movement of the past. The failure of Marxian politics and the emergence of identity politics in the 1980s have helped caste-based politics to flourish in Tamil Nadu. Both the AIADMK and the DMK had to reorient their electoral politics with the OBCs. They cannot afford to oppose them,” he said.

Marx pointed out that while the Dravidian parties were reluctant to antagonise caste-Hindu forces, the Congress boldly opposed them. “The Congress has a Gandhian tradition, which is essential for an egalitarian society. The failure of Dravidian political parties to take forward the socially progressive ideas of Gandhi and Periyar led to the OBC domination,” he said.

“Today we have a caste-based democracy in which caste has become indispensable for political parties,” the Tamil scholar V. Arasu said. A restless caste-Hindu psyche, he said, was facing uneasy but confident subaltern groups. Education, political and economic empowerment and the committed work of the functionally literate among Dalits, Arasu said, had heightened the awareness of the oppressed about their rights. Hence, the OBC consolidation against Dalits, which manifests itself in the political sphere, he said.

“The political parties in Tamil Nadu do not treat Dalits as vote banks. They think their votes can be purchased with freebies. At the same time, the parties have to pamper the casteist ego of intermediate groups. The three major OBC groups enjoy political power and the resultant economic advantages. The parties’ top leaders also belong to these caste groups. So, it is a vicious circle, which cannot be broken,” Ravikumar said.

The cocktail of love, caste and politics will remain a lethal brew as long as caste-based politics is practised.

To borrow B.R. Ambedkar’s words, it is a “conspiracy of silence” that the major political parties maintain even when dastardly acts are committed on the polity.

Ilangovan Rajasekaran