Social justice

Festering wound

Print edition : July 20, 2018

VCK president Thol. Thirumavalavan with the family of one of the victims of the Kachanatham attack, on June 1. Photo: S. James

Relatives of Kachanatham attack victims and members of various organisations staging a demonstration in Madurai on May 30. Photo: S. James

The attack on Dalit households at Kachanatham village in Sivaganga district in Tamil Nadu on May 28 exposes the deep-running caste-Hindu intolerance of Dalit empowerment.

THE brutal attack on the predominantly Dalit-populated Kachanatham village in Sivaganga district of Tamil Nadu on the night of May 28, which claimed three lives and left several people grievously injured, is one more instance of the deepening divide between caste Hindus and Dalits as a result of the increasing educational and economic empowerment of Dalits. 

K. Arumugam (65) and A. Shanmuganathan (31) died on the night of the attack, while Chandrasekar (22), died on May 31 in hospital. Five others, with multiple gashes, are undergoing treatment in Government Rajaji Hospital, Madurai. One of them, a 50-year-old man, has about 60 cuts on his body. 

Kachanatham is a village of 30-odd families belonging to the Pallar, or Devendera Kula Velalar, community (a Scheduled Caste group) and a couple of families belonging to the Agamudaiyar, a caste-Hindu group belonging to the Most Backward Castes (MBCs). The Dalits of Kachanatham were subjected to discriminatory practices in view of the dominant presence of Agamudaiyars and Kallars, another MBC group, in the surrounding villages of Maranadu, Aladinatham, Avarankadu and Thirupachethi.

The Pallars of Kachanatham are educated and employed and own land, in which they grow paddy, banana and other crops. Economic empowerment saw them take control of the village’s Karuppannasamy temple, too. For the past several years, they have been maintaining the temple and conducting its annual festivals, during which temple honours have gone to the Dalits. All this did not go down well with the caste Hindus. 

The MBC members of Kachanatham were not only envious of the progress of the Dalits, they could not tolerate the social integration of Dalits into mainstream society, as reflected in Dalits presiding over temple festivals and even sitting cross-legged in their presence. 

One Dalit youth said: “We are today empowered and independent, which has been a major irritant for them.” A group of activists claimed that Dalit youths in the village were fighting against a gang of ganja peddlers, which included those accused in the attack. Drug peddling was reportedly carried out in collusion with a few policemen of the nearby Palayanoor police station. 

Some of the residents claimed that one of the victims, Shanmuganathan, had been fighting against drug peddlers for long and had submitted several petitions to the police in this regard. Lending of money at usurious rates is widely prevalent in the village. 

“Almost all these anti-social activities are carried out by a few persons who are from other villages and belong to the MBC groups,” said a college student from Kachanatham. “Though many such reasons could be cited for the murderous attack, the primary factor is our economic empowerment,” he said. 

Extreme provocation

Harassment of and discrimination against Dalits have increased in Sivaganga district in the past six years. Dalits say they have shown great restraint even in the face of extreme provocation so as to avoid a confrontation with a majority group that is numerically and socially strong. “If we get into a confrontation with them, caste Hindus will deny water to our fields from the irrigation tank, which lies in their territory,” said a woman whose husband was one of the injured. She demanded that the State government give the Kachanatham Dalits five cents of land each in a place where they can “live peacefully and with dignity”. 

CPI leader R. Nallakannu calling on one of the victims undergoing treatment at a private hospital in Madurai on June 4.   -  R. Ashok

The May 28 attacks must be seen against this backdrop. The temple festival had concluded on May 25, but many visitors and guests who had come to participate in it were yet to leave. On May 26, A. Deivendiran, who works in the Army, and his friend Prabakaran, a policeman, were sitting near the temple when Chandrakumar (48) arrived on the scene. He reportedly objected to the duo sitting cross-legged before him and reprimanded them in abusive language. Subsequently, Chandrakumar’s son C. Suman reportedly picked a quarrel with them over their “demeanour” and threatened them with a knife. Deivendiran and Prabakaran reported the matter to the Thirupacheti police. The police could not find Suman, so they took Chandrakumar for questioning and released him in the evening after registering a case under Section 294 (b) (uttering obscene words) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). As directed by the Thirupacheti police station, the case was transferred to the Palayanoor police station, under which Kachanatham village falls. 

These developments enraged Chandrakumar’s family. The police said that Suman mobilised a gang of 20 persons from nearby villages. The gang, armed with deadly weapons, split into two groups and attacked the Dalits in the village indiscriminately. While one group barged into the houses of Dalits and attacked them, the other waited outside and hacked those who attempted to flee. After seriously injuring at least a dozen Dalit men and damaging their property, the marauding gang fled. Deivendiran’s father, Arumugam, was killed on the spot. “He was dragged out of his house and hacked to death,” said an activist. The next target was the house of Shanmuganathan, where Dalit men had gathered to discuss the arrangements for the festival. He died on the way to hospital. Chandrasekar died in hospital. 

The police formed three teams to nab the culprits. They detained five persons; five others surrendered before a Madurai court. Cases were registered under Sections 147, 148, 294(b), 324, 307, and 302 of the IPC and 3(1) (r), (s), 3(2) (va) of the S.C./S.T. (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Act, 2015. The Sivaganga district Superintendent of Police P.T. Jayachandran placed R. Selvam, sub-inspector of police attached to the Palayanoor police station, under suspension.

The National Commission for Scheduled Castes (NCSC) sought a report from the State government. Its vice chairman, L. Murugan, said the commission would take necessary steps to bring the accused to justice and urge the State government to detain them under the Goondas Act. A Crime Branch-Criminal Investigation Department inquiry has been ordered into the incident. 

Murugan Kanna, coordinator of the Devendera Samooga Padukappu Kootamaippu (Joint Committee for Protection of Devendera caste) and founder of the Nava Bhodi Panpattu Maiyyam, said although Dalits formed the majority in the village, they were subjected to all sorts of oppressive measures. A Tirunveli-based activist, Kanna took part in the agitation organised by the affected Dalits in Madurai from May 29 to May 31. He said: “Although they own lands, they are not allowed to work in their fields.” 

K. Samuel Raj, general secretary of the Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Committee; Thol. Tirumavalavan, Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) leader; P. Johna Pandian of the Tamizhaga Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam; the film director and Dalit activist Pa. Ranjith; and members of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Thamizh Puligal Katchi, the Tyagi Immanuel Peravai and other outfits participated in the agitation. The protesters refused to accept the bodies of the victims until the policemen who allegedly colluded with the accused were suspended. 

After three days of protest, the district administration yielded to their demands. The VCK urged the government to declare Sivaganga district an “atrocities-prone zone” with immediate effect. Film personalities such as Ameer and Bharathi Raja paid homage to the victims. Puthiya Thamizhagam leader Dr K. Krishnaswamy called on the injured at the Madurai hospital. 

A. Kadir, executive director of Evidence, the Madurai-based Dalit rights organisation, said the police should not have forced an 18-year-old college student to be the complainant. In his report based on a fact-finding mission, Kadir said the killings were planned. “They did not like Pallars gaining economic independence. This has been an irritant for them for long,” he said. 

The report claimed that some of those accused in the Kachanatham attack were also involved in the murder of Murugan, a former Dalit panchayat president in the district, in 2017. “We demand a detailed probe. As Dalits had been facing various atrocities in this area, a special cell to deal with such crimes should be opened here,” he said. 

Dalit Christians 

Sivaganga district has been in the limelight for the wrong reasons. Samuel Raj said caste discrimination was widely prevalent in the Sivaganga diocese, with Dalit Christians facing prejudice and ostracism. This was revealed in “Dalit Christians Crucified”, a compilation of reports on the recently held public hearing on untouchability being practised against Dalit Christians in the Catholic diocese of the district. “It is a disgrace to practise caste discrimination in churches,” he said.

He said Devendera Kula Velalars, who constituted about 25 per cent of Catholics in the district, and other Dalit Christains were denied priesthood. He claimed that 15 Dalit seminarians in the district were sent out at the final stage of their formation course. “Brother Michael Raj is one of them, though a five-member bishops’ committee constituted as per the guidance of the representative of Vatican had found him innocent. He is fighting his case of discrimination at various fora today,” he said. 

The diocese, he pointed out, was yet to have a Dalit priest.

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