Caste-based humiliation in Tamil Nadu village

Dalit elders are forced to prostrate before an extra-constitutional body consisting of caste Hindus for conducting a temple festival without their permission in a Tamil Nadu village.

Published : Jun 09, 2021 06:00 IST

Three elderly Dalits  falling at the feet of caste Hindus at the “oor panchayat” at Ottanendal village in Villupuram district on May 15.

Three elderly Dalits falling at the feet of caste Hindus at the “oor panchayat” at Ottanendal village in Villupuram district on May 15.

C aste-based intimidation and humiliation has once again raised its ugly head in Tamil Nadu, a State that prides itself in upholding the social reformer ‘Periyar’ E.V. Ramasamy’s principles of self-respect and social justice. On May 14, three Dalits in their seventies were made to prostrate before the caste Hindu-dominated “oor panchayat” at Ottanendal village near Tiruvennainallur in Villupuram district. “Oor panchayats”, unlike the democratically elected village panchayats, are extra-constitutional bodies operating in the rural areas of the State. They have arrogated to themselves the right to arbitrate on local disputes.

At Ottanendal, the dispute was over the celebration of the annual temple festival in the Dalit colony of the village. The “oor panchayat” intervened to “punish” the Scheduled Caste (S.C.) elders for failing to seek permission from the dominant Vanniyar caste for organising the festival.

The panchayat members directed the three Dalits—Santhanam, Tirumal and Arumugam—to tender an apology and prostrate before them in full view of the public. There are 300 Vanniyar families in the village against 30-odd S.C. families.

V.S. Premkumar, who has been assisting the Dalits in the case, told Frontline that members of the S.C. community began the Mariamman temple festival celebrations in their colony on May 12. This irritated the dominant caste group. “They disturbed the festival on the grounds that the Dalits did not consult them before organising it. Incidentally, Vanniyars have not conducted the common village temple festival since last year,” he said.

Moreover, for the past three years, Dalits had been denied the right to participate in the common village temple festival. The Dalits of Ottanendal are not dependent on caste Hindus for their livelihood since many of them are landholders or are educated and employed. So, they constructed their own temple and organised the festival this year.

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When the Dalits realised that the Vanniyars were unhappy about their festival, they decided to iron out the differences with them to maintain an amicable environment in the village. The Dalits apologised to the dominant caste members and promised to seek permission from the “oor panchayat” before organising such events in the future. But a few Vanniyar youths preferred a police complaint accusing the Dalits of violating the lockdown rules.

The Tiruvennainallur police seized the public address system and other equipment used in the festival. A few elders from the Dalit colony explained to the police that they were ignorant of the lockdown rules and apologised to them. They also gave an assurance to the police that they would not violate the rules again. The police returned the seized items with a warning.

But the Vanniyar youths insisted that the Dalits apologise at the “oor panchayat”. Worried that their refusal to apologise might ruin the future of their youths, Santhanam, Tirumal and Arumugam volunteered to apologise and prostrate before the panchayat.

Access to common assets

D. Ravikumar, Villupuram Member of Parliament and a senior leader of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK), who had visited the village, told Frontline that the district administration should take immediate action to ensure equitable distribution of the village’s common assets. Urging the government to declare the Tiruvennainallur block as “atrocity-prone”, he said that almost all the facilities that were created for the common good—the fair price shop, the school, the electricity transformer, the anganwadi centre, and so on—were located in the Vanniyar areas of the village.

Ravikumar said: “Whenever Dalit villagers tried to access them, they would be harassed and jeered at. I have asked the district administration to keep a fair price shop open at least twice a week in the Dalit locality and install a separate transformer for uninterrupted power supply. Besides, adequate water for irrigation of lands owned by Dalits must be ensured.” Kadir of the Madurai-based non-governmental organisation Evidence agreed with Ravikumar’s demands and said that Dalit residents in all villages across the State should be given access to the common assets appropriated by the caste Hindus.

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Premkumar said priority was given to Vanniyars even in the distribution of irrigation water from the village lake. Dalits usually waited for their turn to irrigate their lands. “There is no proper and equitable system of water distribution. Such discriminatory practices must be stopped,” he insisted.

Collector A. Annadurai and Superintendent of Police Radhakrishnan visited Ottanendal.

Peace committee meeting

Higher Education Minister K. Ponmudi held conciliatory talks with both caste groups of the village on May 18, but they did not yield any positive result. He, however, gave away a solatium of Rs.25,000 to the victims under the provisions of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. The peace committee meeting held at the district office of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) witnessed some unsavoury incidents, which upset the Dalits further. It was claimed that A.J. Manikannan, the DMK MLA representing Ulundurpet and a Vanniyar, allegedly hurled abuses at the Dalits who had come for the talks.

Santhanam, Tirumal and Arumugam were told to withdraw their cases against Vanniyars, but they refused. (The police had registered cases under Section 147, 294 (b), 506 (i) of the Indian Penal Code read with 3(1)(r)(s), (zc) of the S.Cs & S.Ts (Prevention of Atrocities) Act and Amendment 2015.) The Minister expressed displeasure over the incident.

Sinthanai Selvan, the VCK’s Kattumannarkoil MLA and party general secretary, and a few other party members were present at the meeting that lasted more than two hours.

A history of prostration

Incidents of discrimination and atrocities against Dalits are not new in the State. They are perpetrated in different ways. Of late, the relatively better educated and economically empowered sections of Dalits have become the target of such abuse.

Here are some of the incidents of atrocities against Dalits in the past two decades reported by this correspondent in The Hindu . In 2002, Azhagammal, a 27-year-old Dalit woman of Padaminchi village near Ulagampatti in Sivaganga district, who worked as a noon meal worker, was punished by the “oor panchayat” for defying its orders ( The Hindu , August 4, 2002).

She got a divorce from her unemployed husband through the family court against the diktat of the panchayat, which wanted her to continue living with him. It ordered her to hand over her only child to her husband, but she refused. Irked by her “impertinent behaviour”, the panchayat slapped a fine of Rs.51,000 on her “to teach her a lesson”. When she expressed her inability to pay the amount, it ordered her to prostrate before it with a concession that the fine amount would be reduced by Rs.1,000 each time she prostrated.

Unable to withstand the harassment, the young woman prostrated before the panchayat 47 times and paid the rest of the fine amount of Rs.4,000 in cash. She then referred the matter to the Collector, who ordered the Revenue Divisional Officer (RDO) to inquire into the incident. On the same night, a posse of policemen went to her house and caned her. She was left in an unconscious state. When she regained consciousness, she found herself in the government hospital at Ponnamaravathi, where she was treated for multiple injuries. Thereafter, she approached the members of the Women’s Legal Aid Centre of the All India Democratic Women’s Association, Tiruchi, who protected her from further harassment.

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In Anthakudi village in Sivaganga district in 2003, Muniandi, a 65-year-old Dalit landlord, was ridiculed and shamed by the “oor panchayat” for demanding his share of water from the village waterbody to irrigate his land. Muniandi was a poor farm worker once but managed to have his children educated and employed. He and his sons bought two acres of land (0.8 hectare). After a few years, they bought five acres (2 ha). Muniandi even constructed a pucca house.

This evoked the contempt of caste Hindus, especially those belonging to the Marava community. They waited for an opportunity to harass and shame Muniandi. That year the village did not receive rainfall. Whenever the rains failed, the “oor panchayat” would decide on the amount of water to be apportioned for irrigation. The village had two lakes that irrigated 130 acres (52.6 ha). As some of the Dalits became landowners, water was not shared in a fair and equitable manner with them. Hence, many Dalits kept away from panchayat meetings and started praying for rains. The “oor panchayat” regarded the boycott by Dalits as an act of disrespect. It ordered them to attend a meeting held on December 20, 2003. Muniandi, the biggest landholder among not only the Dalits but also the caste Hindus, attended it. The “oor panchayat”, dominated by Maravas and Piramalai Kallars, both intermediary caste groups, asked Muniandi to apologise for boycotting its earlier meetings.

Muniandi apologised and prostrated before the panchayat. Some members of the panchayat pounced on him and started beating him with footwear. Muniandi’s wife, Muniammal, intervened and saved him from further humiliation. The Communist Party of India (Marxist)’s Sivaganga district unit came to his rescue. Following a complaint, the police registered cases against a few persons under the S.Cs & S.Ts (Prevention of Atrocities) Act and arrested them.

On October 8, 2020, Palraj, 60, of Olaikulam village in Kayataru block of Thoothukudi district was forced to fall at the feet of a group of seven people, including a woman, belonging to the Marava caste for allowing his goat to mingle with Sivasanghu Thevar’s sheep in the common grazing land. Similarly in 2018, the “oor panchayat” at Kangeyam in Tiruppur district made a Dalit woman and her teenaged daughter prostrate before a group of Vellala Gounders, a backward caste, after a goat belonging to the Dalit women strayed into the farm of the latter. The woman’s husband and son witnessed the humiliation.

Insult to self-respect

The practice of prostration is rooted in birth or descent-based inequities, which the Self-Respect Movement led by Periyar in the 1920s had resented and resisted. Periyar had criticised the practice of prostration on various platforms, asserting that it destroyed an individual’s dignity and pride.

But this act of submissiveness has developed into a cult of reverence in Tamil Nadu politics. The Dravidian academic Prof. A. Ayyasamy stated in an article titled “On Falling at Leader’s Feet” published in The Modern Rationalist (February 2017) that the practice of falling at someone’s feet was against a person’s dignity. He said the culture had entered Tamil Nadu politics recently and, during J. Jayalalithaa’s days as the leader of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and its government, descended to ridiculous levels.

Ayyasamy maintained that while it was an act of “sycophancy and stimulated reverence” in politics, in the case of Dalits it was an act of subjugation and discrimination. Making Dalits prostrate before “oor panchayats” and caste Hindus is a loathsome practice in the State. In his article “The Making of Adi Dravida Politics in Early Twentieth Century Tamil Nadu”, published in Social Scientist (July-August 2011), Prof. Raj Sekhar Basu of the Department of History, Calcutta University, has pointed out that in June 1921, the Adi Dravidas, under the leadership of a reformist leader, Jagannatha Swami, became involved in a mass movement against the oppression of upper-caste landlords against ‘untouchable’ communities. Basu writes: “The followers of Jagannatha Swami distributed pamphlets among the servile agricultural labourers instructing them to discontinue the practice of prostrating before upper-caste landlords.”

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The “oor panchayats” of Tamil Nadu are a soft variant of the “khap panchayats” (caste/community groups or unions) of some north Indian States. Like khap panchayats, “oor panchayats”, too, function with a feudalistic and patriarchal outlook and are invariably controlled by the dominant castes in the area, mainly caste Hindus, except in a few villages or hamlets where Dalits are in command. The swift rise of Dalits, socially, politically and economically, in the post-globalisation era, has disturbed sections of economically stagnant caste Hindus who until two decades ago had kept them oppressed. Dalits who are longer dependent on caste Hindus for their livelihood have become the target of shaming and ridiculing.

Atrocities unlimited

Stringent legal provisions such as the Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955, and the S.Cs & S.Ts (Prevention of Atrocities) Act have not brought down the number of incidents of atrocities against Dalits. However, public awareness about such acts of discrimination has increased. In many rural and semi-urban areas, birth-based discrimination remains, mostly on the sly. The Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front, affiliated to the CPI(M), has identified and listed around 200 forms of atrocities, some discreet and others palpable, against Dalits. Many of these acts of discrimination are subhuman in nature.

In 2002, caste-Hindu landlords forced Sankan, an agricultural labourer in Dindigul district, to drink urine for lodging a police complaint against a caste Hindu. In May 2002, two Dalits were forced to eat human excreta for taking on a former caste-Hindu village panchayat president at Thinniyam in Tiruchi district. In 2020, a Dalit woman panchayat president in Cuddalore district was made to sit on the floor during a meeting.

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