Shadow of fear

The pre-dawn arrest of Dalits from Naikkankottai village in Dharmapuri district brings back fearful memories to the Dalit colonies and deepens the caste divide.

Published : Jul 23, 2014 12:30 IST

Dalit residents of Natham colony in Naikkankottai in Dharmapuri waiting outside the District Collectorate on June 30 to submit a petition.

Dalit residents of Natham colony in Naikkankottai in Dharmapuri waiting outside the District Collectorate on June 30 to submit a petition.

THE fragile peace that prevailed in the past 12 months in the riot-hit Dalit colonies of Natham, Anna Nagar and Kondampatti in Naikkankottai village in Tamil Nadu’s Dharmapuri district is beginning to crack.

The first hint of this came on June 28 when a strong contingent of police personnel descended on the colonies in the wee hours in search of some Dalits who, according to them, had been “indoctrinated in extremism and trained in armed combat”.

The police said the arrested Dalits’ objective was to eliminate local leaders belonging to the Vanniyar community, a Most Backward Caste (MBC), and a few functionaries of the Vanniyar-dominated Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK). The Dalits, the police said, were out to avenge the death of E. Elavarasan, whose body was found on the railway track in Dharmapuri under mysterious circumstances on July 4, 2013, after his brief relationship with a Vanniyar girl, N. Divya, had turned sour. The inter-caste relationship had resulted in the girl’s father’s suicide “in shame” and widespread arson and looting at Naikkankottai on the night of November 7, 2012.

The riots and Elavarasan’s death, which the police closed as a case of suicide, inflicted deep wounds on the collective psyche of Dalits. The district administration had even arranged counselling sessions as a part of a rehabilitation exercise. Dalits who had fled the colonies started returning eventually to pick up their lives and the colonies began limping back to normalcy. But the pre-dawn arrests of seven men, aged between 22 and 45, of Natham colony on the eve of Elavarasan’s first death anniversary, have changed all that. A senior police officer sounded elated when he claimed that they had scuttled a sinister plan to avenge the death of Elavarasan after reportedly unearthing two old muzzle-loaded guns and a few pipe bombs near a house and the burial ground in Natham colony.

Civil rights activists said the arrests could intensify the caste polarisation in the district, which was once a naxalite heartland, and sow the seeds of mistrust and suspicion, especially among the 500 Dalit families of Naikkankottai, against the State and its machinery. Incidentally, the State government has spent about Rs.9 crore towards rehabilitation and reconstruction work in the riot-affected colonies. According to an estimate, nearly 270 houses were either damaged or destroyed during the five-hour-long arson in November 2012.

Activists observed that the Dharmapuri police had played into the hands of casteist forces by arresting the seven residents under various sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and the Indian Arms and Explosives Acts and charging six of them under the National Security Act (NSA) for “possessing weapons and conspiring against the state”. The PMK leader, Dr S. Ramadoss, wasted no time in grabbing the opportunity to issue a statement that “a group of anti-socials belonging to a particular caste” had employed the services of hired killers to murder 10 prominent PMK and Vanniyar caste leaders. It is obvious that he referred to Dalits and Dalit-based political parties.

Thanking the Dharmapuri police for their prompt action, he said it was a part of the anti-social elements’ wider design to foment caste flare-ups in the northern and western districts of Tamil Nadu where Vanniyars were at loggerheads with Dalits. He said the plan was to be executed on July 4, the first death anniversary of Elavarasan.

The PMK sees in the police’s ham-handed approach an opportunity to keep the caste conflict alive and achieve its objective of consolidating its hold on Vanniyars and rallying the Other Backward Classes (OBC) behind it. The election of Ramadoss’ son Anbumani Ramadoss from the Dharmapuri Lok Sabha constituency in the May 2014 elections was the result of the PMK’s nihilistic consolidation of casteist forces although leading political parties had also fielded Vanniyars as their candidates in the constituency.

Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) leader Thol. Thirumavalavan described the arrests of Dalits as “inhuman and atrocious”. The police, which could not prevent the November 7 riots against Dalits and had not initiated any convincing action against their perpetrators, unleashed terror on the victims of the riots, he said.

“This shows the anti-Dalit mindset of the government. None of those arrested barring M. Duraikannu (46), who was a former POTA [Prevention of Terrorism Act] detainee, have any [police] charges anywhere against them. This will further deepen the caste rift in the area,” he said. The Dalit leader demanded that the State withdraw the invocation of the NSA against the arrested persons.

Meanwhile, a seven-member fact-finding team led by A. Marx of the People’s Union for Human Rights (PUHR) and consisting of several activist groups, spent two days (July 5 and July 8) at the Natham colony and nearby pockets. The team’s report is critical of the police action in the the First Information Report (FIR). It said the law enforcers had “acted hastily on specific instructions”.

It also drew attention to the two operative parts in the FIR dated June 28, filed in the Krishnapuram police station. While the first gave details about the arrested persons’ links with elusive Maoists such as Kalidoss and Chandra, who were said to be underground since the Uthankarai shoot-out on September 24, 2002, and their indoctrination in extremism, the second part accused a non-governmental organisation (NGO), Thudi, of providing arms training to the arrested.

The team members said the naming of Thudi was malicious as the NGO was engaged in creating awareness among Dalit youths about the educational opportunities available to them and also informing them about the government’s initiatives, including the Tamil Nadu Government Order 92 of the Adi Dravidar Welfare Department, which provides fee exemption to Dalits studying in private colleges. A. Murali, a Salem-based human rights activist who has conducted programmes on Dalits and education, said the accusations against Thudi were “preposterous”.

Criticising the Dharmapuri police for naming Thudi in the FIR, former Indian Administrative Service officer R. Christodos Gandhi, who is also its patron, told Frontline that without any material evidence the police had linked an honourable organisation with a heinous crime. “No preliminary investigation was done to find out what Thudi was all about. I spoke to the Dharmapuri Superintendent of Police, Ashra Garg, who said he was not aware of it [naming Thudi in the FIR],” he said.

“The FIR charged unabashedly that our organisation conducted arms training near the Marina beach in Chennai. Does it not sound ridiculous?” he asked. Thudi, he said, was involved in “the lofty objective of creating awareness on the importance of education among Dalit youths”. It was engaged in the exercise of “depoliticising” Dalit youths and discouraging them from getting influenced by Marxism or Tamil nationalism. He said Thudi had helped 18 students from Natham colony join engineering courses in a college near Arakkonam, while two other boys had joined Loyola College in Chennai. “Our connection with Natham colony ends there,” he claimed.

The fact-finding team’s probe revealed that Thudi had been conducting awareness programmes for Dalit youths on education in association with the Rajiv Gandhi National Institute of Youth Development and the State Adi Dravidar Welfare Department. “Our general secretary, Bharathi Prabhu, who is wanted by the police on charges of providing arms training to Dalit youths, has applied for anticipatory bail,” Gandhi said.

The team’s report wondered why the police had taken such a long time to prevent the movement of radical elements in Natham colony. It pointed out many discrepancies in the police’s claims about the exact location and timing of the seizure of arms. It asked how a camp for extremists could be held in Arakkonam and on the Marina beach as claimed in the FIR.

It further noted that six persons were arrested on the afternoon of June 27 in full view of the village residents, while the FIR claimed that they were arrested on June 28 from two different locations. The arrested persons, the FIR said, had mobilised funds, for the execution of their nefarious plan, from the residents of Natham colony out of the compensation they had received from the State.

The team suspected a sinister motive behind the arrests since they coincided with Elavarasan’s first death anniversary. It observed that after the 2012 violence, the colonies in Natham, Anna Nagar and Kondampatti remained under close surveillance. A surveillance camera had been fixed atop a building that housed the village cooperative society. It could cover vantage points in the colony and the site where Elavarasan was buried.

“Any suspicious movement could not have escaped the attention of the law enforcers. The police would have easily spotted them had they [extremists] stayed in these colonies. They need not have waited so long to arrest them,” Marx said.

What worries the rights activists is the timing of the arrest. “The police are of the view that if they resort to strong-arm tactics now, Dalit youths will not rally around Elavarasan’s grave every year,” State secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) S. Balasundaram said. It was an attempt to muffle the voices of the oppressed, he said.

The activists also expressed dismay over the way the S.P., Ashra Garg, handled the issue. Marx said: “We appreciated him for his pro-Dalit stance in other places, such as in Madurai. But the way he handled the Dharmapuri issue, he has lost our trust completely. We are not here to blame an official. But still, behind his acts we can see the power of vested interests in the State and in the higher echelons of the Police Department inimical to Dalits.”

But the S.P. denied the accusations. He said the police were investigating Thudi’s role in the issue. “We named the organisation in the FIR because the arrested persons had confessed to us that they were given training… in arms. We have no specific motive as accused by a few groups and political parties in this case,” he clarified.

Balasundaram was of the view that in a region where caste polarisation had become clear, the police should not support caste-based parties such as the PMK, which is against Dalits. “At a time when the government was celebrating the birth anniversaries of caste-Hindu leaders, why should it resort to arm-twisting tactics against Dalits when they wish to observe the memorial day of their leaders?” the fact-finding report said.

The Dalits in Natham colony said there was fear everywhere. Palanisamy, who was charged under POTA in the late 1980s for his alleged allegiance to Maoism, said the entire colony was filled with policemen in plainclothes.

“The constant surveillance unnerves us. Hardly anyone is willing to talk. The intimidating years of the 1980s and 1990s when the police, hunting naxalites ravaged the lives of the people of Naikkankottai, seem to have returned. The future is unpredictable,” said Selvi (37), wife of Duraikannu.

Devastated by the latest developments, the Dalits of Dharmapuri do not see an end to their sufferings. They have reasons to despair since they have long forgotten the good times.

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