Stoking caste flames

Hostilities between Dalits and Vanniyars erupt again in Tamil Nadu after the Pattali Makkal Katchi’s attack on a Dalit village.

Published : May 15, 2013 12:30 IST

A scene at Kattayan Theru in Marakkanam after the attack by Pattali Makkal Katchi workers on April 25.

A scene at Kattayan Theru in Marakkanam after the attack by Pattali Makkal Katchi workers on April 25.

A. ANUSUYA stood amid the charred remains of her hut at Kattayan Theru, a Dalit colony near Marakkanam town in Tamil Nadu, on May 2, grief writ large on her face. The 27-year-old woman’s wedding was to take place on May 27 at Kottakuppam near Puducherry, 32 km from her place, and invitation letters had been sent to relatives. Her mother had thoughtfully arranged a loan and bought ten sovereigns of jewellery for Anusuya when gold prices came down in April.

On April 25 afternoon, a mob of Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) workers, all of them caste Hindu Vanniyars, stormed into Kattayan Theru and threw petrol bombs at Dalits’ huts. All that was left in Anusuya’s hut after the attack was blackened and twisted aluminium utensils, which lay heaped in a corner. The family members said the PMK men took away the suitcase in which the jewellery was kept.

A little further away are what were once the homes of T. Narayanasamy (62) and his sons. Nothing is left of the television sets, bicycles, clothes, ration cards and identification cards of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme in the three huts. “There was a loud explosion,” said Narayanasamy’s wife, Anjalai. “They threw petrol bombs at our huts. In no time, all the three huts went up in flames.”

K. Kalaivanan, who was a State government bus driver, lived in a thatched house with brick-and-cement walls. He was standing outside his house when he saw the mob torching the huts in the colony. Kalaivanan was hit on the head with sticks and was injured badly. His niece, K. Selvi, who had locked herself and her children up in the hut, ran out when she heard the mob shout, “This is a big hut. It deserves two petrol bombs.” His neighbours helped Kalaivanan put out the fire. In all, nine huts, a cowshed, a haystack and an Amman shrine were destroyed that day. “All of us sleep in the maidan at night. We cannot sleep anywhere else. Everybody is scared at night,” said Maya, a resident of Kattayan Theru.

It is not surprising that Kattayan Theru was chosen for the attack. Most of its Dalit residents belong to the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK, or the Dalit Panthers), headed by Thol. Thirumavalavan. The animosity between the VCK and the PMK goes back a long way.

PMK founder Dr S. Ramadoss alleged that two of his party’s cadre, Vivek of Devanancheri near Kumbakonam and Selvaraj of Menmangalam near Ariyalur, were murdered on April 25 in retaliatory violence, but the police said they were killed in road accidents. In the case of Selvaraj’s death, the police later filed a case for murder under Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).

Later in the day, the PMK cadre who had gathered at Mamallapuram for a grand festival of Vanniyar youth desecrated the majestic Shore Temple, a World Heritage Monument, there. Other acts of vandalism followed the same day and on subsequent days—setting fire to government and private buses, cars, ration shops and liquor outlets, damaging culverts, cutting down trees, and so on. PMK men also targeted ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) legislators’ homes and offices.

Chief Minister Jayalalithaa signalled that she had no patience with the PMK violence and arrested Ramadoss for violating the conditions laid down for organising the party conference at Mamallapuram. The police also arrested PMK president G.K. Mani, former Union Health Minister and Ramadoss’ son Dr Anbumani Ramadoss, party legislator Kaduvetti J. Guru, former legislator Tirukachchur K. Arumugam and former Union Minister A.K. Moorthy. Ramadoss and Mani were remanded in judicial custody in the Central Prison at Tiruchi and the others in the Central Prison at Puzhal, near Chennai. Old cases against Ramadoss, Anbumani and Guru were revived.

Before their arrests, on April 29, Jayalalithaa declared in the Assembly that “action will be taken, as per law, against anyone who, for selfish ends, instigates the innocent public on the basis of caste and religion and those who take part in violence and endanger law and order”.

The arrests led to more violence by PMK cadre. According to the police, from April 25 to May 6, they damaged about 500 public and private buses, setting fire to 13 of them; cut down 160 trees; and torched 20 tamarind trees. Shaggar Khan of Rajasthan, the driver of a truck carrying two-wheelers from Haryana, was seriously injured after PMK men threw petrol bombs at the truck. He succumbed to his injuries on May 7. Panneerselvam, a lorry driver, too, lost his life when miscreants threw stones at his vehicle near Siruvadi village in Villupuram district.

Normal life got affected in Kancheepuram, Tiruvallur, Cuddalore, Villupuram, Vellore, Tiruvannamalai, Salem, Namakkal, Dharmapuri and Krishnagiri districts where a large number of Vanniyars live. Dalits form a large chunk of the population in these districts. The PMK also called for a bandh on May 3 in the Union Territory of Puducherry, which has a sizable population of Vanniyars. The PMK’s Puducherry wing threatened to block trains in order to highlight its demand for the release of the party’s leaders.

Renewed hostilities As has been its practice for the past several years, the PMK, a party with a base in the Vanniyar belt of northern Tamil Nadu, had announced that it would organise a grand festival of Vanniyar youth on April 25, the full moon day in the Tamil month of Chithirai. The Vanniyar Sangam was to organise the festival on the beachfront adjacent to the Shore Temple at Mamallapuram, 55 km from Chennai, home to the Pallava monuments built between the sixth and eighth centuries C.E.

The “grand festival” itself was held against the background of renewed hostility between Dalits and Vanniyars, particularly in the western Dharmapuri district. Although there has been an entente between them for the past six years, with the PMK making common cause with the VCK on some issues, hostilities broke out on November 7, 2012, with a Vanniyar mob torching or damaging 238 dwellings of Dalits in three colonies near Naickenkottai in Dharmapuri district. The prime target was Natham colony. The immediate provocation was the suicide of Nagarajan, a Vanniyar from nearby Sellankottai, after his daughter Divya (20) married Ilavarasan, a Dalit youth from Natham colony (“Caste fury”, Frontline , December 14, 2012).

Soon after this incident, Ramadoss formed a nine-member front of intermediate castes, named the “All Communities Federation”. At public meetings of the PMK, its leaders alleged that Dalit youth, wearing jeans, T-shirts and sunglasses and flaunting their motorcycles and mobile phones, were luring caste-Hindu girls into marriage. The federation held public meetings in different districts to expose these “farcical love marriages”. Although the resolutions passed at the meetings held in Chennai and Madurai in December 2012 and January 2013 said the federation’s constituents were not against love marriages or inter-caste marriages, they blamed “a party that misguides the Dalits, directs them from behind and encourages them to do these ‘love dramas’”. This was a clear reference to the VCK.

The resolutions said that the “theatrical love marriages” were aimed at “extracting money” from the families of girls belonging to the intermediate castes. “All the girls who were involved in these ‘love dramas’ belonged to communities other than the Scheduled Castes,” a resolution said. The girls who “get trapped in these dramas of love” were teenagers and so the marriageable age for girls should be raised to 21 from 18, and it should be 23 for boys, another resolution said.

A core demand of the federation was for amendments to be made to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities Act), 1989, so as to make offences under the Act bailable. It wanted surveillance committees, headed by a district judge, to be set up in every district in order to prevent the misuse of the Act.

Several political parties, including the Communist Party of India, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the VCK and the Dravidar Kazhagam, ridiculed the federation’s railing against inter-caste marriages involving Dalits.

D. Ravikumar, former VCK legislator, writer and activist, said the PMK, having performed badly in the elections to the Lok Sabha in 2009 and the State Assembly in 2011, had lost its recognition as a State party and “so Dr Ramadoss, in a desperate move, wants to antagonise the Dalits so that he can recover the backward community votes”. (In the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, PMK candidates were defeated in all the seven constituencies the party contested from—six in Tamil Nadu and one in Puducherry. This despite the PMK aligning with the AIADMK. In the 2011 Assembly elections, which the PMK fought in alliance with the DMK, only three of its 30 candidates got elected.)

After the Dharmapuri incident, Dalit organisations in various districts staged demonstrations demanding the arrest of Ramadoss for “inciting violence and disturbing peace”. Collectors of Madurai, Ramanathapuram and Cuddalore invoked Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) to bar Ramadoss’ entry into these districts, fearing communal violence.

While DMK president and former Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi said Ramadoss was playing “dangerous politics” by forming a caste-based federation, he called the decision of the Madurai and Cuddalore Collectors “an undemocratic act”.

Marakkanam incident It was against this background of strained relationship between Dalits and Vanniyars that the PMK/Vanniyar Sangam mobilised their youth to attend the full-moon day rally on April 25 this year. Marakkanam is situated between Mamallapuram and Puducherry on East Coast Road (ECR). About a kilometre away is Kattayam Theru, in Marakkanam colony (‘colony’ is the term used to describe areas with Dalit predominance). A dense grove of eucalyptus and cashew trees on a stretch of hundred metres hides Kattayan Theru, with its row of Dalit huts, from the ECR. Nearby are villages where Vanniyars live. In 2002, two Vanniyar youth were killed in a clash between Dalits and the PMK cadre near Marakkanam colony on the day of the Chithirai Pournami rally.

On April 25, hundreds of vehicles carrying PMK cadre were streaming towards Mamallapuram from Cuddalore, Villupuram, Tindivanam, Chidambaram and Puducherry, when about 30 PMK men, who were drunk, got down to have lunch near the eucalyptus grove.

There are different versions of what happened later. According to K. Ramesh, deputy secretary of the VCK in Villupuram district and a resident of Marakkanam colony, a van carrying PMK cadre hit three motorcycle-riding boys from Kattayan Theru on ECR. When Kattayan Theru residents went to question the PMK cadre about the accident, they were apparently beaten up. The huts were torched after this.

Another version is that trouble erupted when Kattayan Theru residents asked the PMK cadre why they had chosen that particular spot, where trouble had erupted in 2002, to have their lunch. Angry PMK men then threw beer bottles at the Dalits and the two groups came to blows. Later, Kattayan Theru was targeted.

What is puzzling is that how PMK men from other districts came to know that Kattayan Theru was located there as it was shielded from view by the eucalyptus grove. The PMK men on the road came running through the grove and set fire to the huts. “From the road, you cannot see the colony,” said Ravikumar. Ramesh, who is one of the accused in a case of riots in 2002, said a local PMK leader had gone round the colony a couple of times a few days before the arson. Besides, when the mob attacked Kalaivanan’s hut, they specifically demanded to know where his nephew Nagaraj was.

Nagaraj (33) is another accused in the 2002 riots case. The mob also threw big stones at the tiled roof of K. Srinivasan, a Dalit driver.

The enraged residents of Marakkanam colony squatted on the ECR and blocked traffic. Several hundreds of vehicles ferrying PMK men to Mamallapuram were stranded. Unable to reach the venue, the PMK men went on the rampage, damaging and setting fire to government and private buses, cars and two-wheelers on the road. They targeted houses belonging to Muslims at nearby Koonimedu village. The mob also damaged toll booths and closed circuit cameras at Hanumanthai, and threw stones at the vehicle of S. Manoharan, Superintendent of Police, Villupuram district. The police fired in the air to disperse the mob and some PMK men were injured.

At the rally’s venue in Mamallapuram, Ramadoss declared: “We are not against the Scheduled Castes. We are not their enemies. We want to live in harmony with them.”

Various communities have been asking for the total abolition of the S.C. and S.T. (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, he claimed. “We are not asking for its abolition. We only want amendments to be brought into the Act. We want it to be used properly,” he said. He harped on people making money by enacting “love dramas” and on the police inaction over the disappearance of 14- or 15-year-old girls.

Anbumani Ramadoss asserted that the PMK would not align with the national parties or the Dravidian parties in the coming elections but would form a social front. “Our goal is 20 per cent reservation for Vanniyars and reservation for every community depending on its population. Communal reservation is social justice,” he said. “Liquor, freebies and cinema are the achievements of Dravidian parties.”

Both father and son blamed the VCK for the “planned” violence at Marakkanam. How would the PMK cadre from other districts, who were eating their lunch under the trees on the roadside, know that there was a Dalit colony there and that trouble had taken place there in 2002, Ramadoss asked. “It is the VCK men who came there, provoked them and picked a vain fight with them,” he alleged. He charged that Vivek and Selvaraj were not killed in accidents but were murdered. He blamed the police inaction for the violence at Marakkanam. The duo demanded a probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation and a judicial inquiry into the violence near Marakkanam and the death of Vivek and Selvaraj.

To press these demands and the demand for the arrest of “the VCK leaders who prepared the plan for the murder of two innocent persons, attacks on hundreds of persons and the destruction of public property”, Ramadoss said he and Mani would lead a demonstration at Villupuram on April 30. But police clamped prohibitory orders.

K. Balakrishnan, CPI(M) legislator from Chidambaram, said it was a planned attack by the PMK cadre on the Dalits at Marakkanam as the PMK cadre travelling in vans had come armed with sticks, logs and petrol bombs and indulged in violence from Puducherry to Marakkanam (over a distance of 30 km). “Dr Ramadoss is planning a confrontation by forging a caste-based confederation and creating contradictions between these castes and Dalits. The Tamil Nadu government should take tough action to prevent the State from being made the arena of caste conflict,” Balakrishnan said.

In the assessment of K. Samuelraj and P. Sampath, leaders of the Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front, which is affiliated to the CPI(M), the PMK, after its humiliating defeat in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections and in the 2011 Assembly elections, was trying “for a re-entry into politics by forging a casteist federation and portraying the entire Dalit community as their enemy”. The anti-Dalit violence was the result of the PMK’s sustained propaganda against inter-caste marriages and the S.C. and S.T. (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, they said.

That tough action against the PMK leaders was round the corner became evident when Jayalalithaa, while replying to a calling attention motion in the Assembly on April 29 on the Marakkanam violence, listed the conditions the PMK had accepted for organising the rally, which it violated. For instance, the organisers had assured the police that the public meeting would be over by 10 p.m. The Chief Minister quoted Dr Ramadoss as saying at the meeting: “It is 11-30 p.m. and I am speaking. File a case…. I am not worried.” She added, “Accepting Mr Ramadoss’ demand that a case be filed against him, a case has been booked.”

The next day, as Ramadoss, Mani, legislator A. Ganesh Kumar and several hundred party cadre reached Villupuram to stage a demonstration, the police arrested them for defying prohibitory orders and remanded them in judicial custody. Within hours of Ramadoss being granted bail in this case on May 3, he was arrested in another case, relating to an attack, by his security men, on film actor Rajnikant’s fans on April 2, 2004, in Madurai.

The PMK leader was arrested in another case too, for disturbing public peace and violating the conditions laid down for holding the rally. The case invoked Sections 143 (unlawful assembly) and 188 (disobedience to order duly promulgated by public servant) of the Indian Penal Code. In Chennai, the police arrested Anbumani Ramadoss from his residence, under Sections 143, 147 (punishment for rioting) and 188 of the IPC read with Section 7 (1) (a) of Criminal Law Amendment Act in connection with the Chithirai festival held at Mamallapuram on May 5 last year. Guru, Arumugam and Moorthy were held under various charges.

As the news of the arrests spread, black flags were hoisted in PMK strongholds. Furniture in the office of S.S. Ramanidharan, AIADMK legislator from Andhiyur, at Annamuduvu in Erode district was set on fire.

Karunanidhi appealed to the Chief Minister to release Ramadoss on humanitarian grounds. “It will be proper if the PMK men stopped attacking other political parties in an abusive and uncivilised manner. This will lead to the creation of an amicable atmosphere,” Karunanidhi said. Other political leaders also appealed for Ramadoss’ release.

But it is anybody’s guess what the State government will do.

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