Dalits are not allowed inside temples in 12 districts of Tamil Nadu, and 460 tea shops in Madurai still follow the two-tumbler system for dalits and non-dalits. Why is this state, with its 100-year-old anti-caste movement, a shadow of its former self, asks Subhash Gatade in this comment sparked by the recent death of Ilavarasan
You cannot build anything on the foundation of caste. You cannot build a nation. You cannot build up a morality. -- B R Ambedkar
Ilavarasan died very young. He was a bright young man with a full life ahead of him, A few days before he died, within the precincts of the high court he had expressed the wish that his wife Divya would change her mind and return to live with him. Divya had declared before the courts that she did not want to remain with Ilavarasan.
Following his cremation, which took place after a second autopsy ordered by the courts, the theory about his 'death by suicide' began to look more and more unreliable. Besides the circumstantial evidence pointing to something 'fishy', a number of related facts about his death have come to the fore. The driver of the Kurla Express, under which Ilavarasan had allegedly committed suicide, had not informed the next station about the incident; nor did the drivers of any of the trains that passed by after the incident. It is mandatory for drivers to do this, according to the railway manual.
It was not for nothing that the high court rejected the findings of the first autopsy. A video recording of the first autopsy clearly shows that there was deliberate negligence on the part of certain people who mattered; therefore crucial evidence had been lost. Although the Tamil Nadu Forensic Science Laboratory has confirmed that the handwriting in the suicide note is indeed that of Ilavarasan, the story of the recovery of the alleged suicide note itself is unreliable. According to the police, it was 'taken away from the body by a resident who was at the scene before the railway police could get there'. It was delivered to the police four days after Ilavarasan's death. To believe the police version we would have to imagine that the person, with whom the alleged suicide note was found, saw the dead body of a stranger, searched his pockets, took the suicide note, and then disappeared, or at best forgot about it!
Officially, it will always be maintained that Ilavarasan committed suicide. Despite holes in this theory, an alternative narrative about his demise will never be told as the powers-that-be seek to appease the dominant Vanniars rather than invite trouble from them. Now that Ilavarasan is no more, 'their girl' will be back with her mother and their stand will be vindicated.
Tamil Nadu, a state which prides itself on a 100-year-old anti-caste and social reform struggle, today is a pale shadow of itself. This is the home of the legendary Jyothee Thass, writer, journalist, social reformer, Buddhist scholar and sidha physician, born in 1845 into a Paraiyar family, and considered a pioneer not only of the anti-Brahmin movement but the Dravid movement as well. Then there is Rettamalai Srinivasan, who went to a roundtable conference in the early-’30s, M C Raja, Periyar Naicker, and several others.
Why then the continuing marginalisation of dalits in a state that is proud of its social reforms legacy? Dalits, who account for a fifth of the over 7 crore population of Tamil Nadu, still find assimilation into mainstream society a struggle.
C Lakshmanan, assistant professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies, who recently organised a seminar on the history of various commissions set up to look into cases of atrocities against dalits, points to a startling fact: Not a single person has been punished for atrocities against dalits in the last 70 years, despite a dozen or so inquiry commissions having been set up! To top it all, not a single member of these commissions has been a dalit.
Study after study highlights the ongoing discrimination dalits face in their daily lives. According to one NGO, dalits are not allowed inside temples in 12 districts, dalit panchayat leaders are not permitted to function, and as many as 460 tea shops in Madurai still follow the two-tumbler system (one for non-dalits, another for dalits).
This deep-rooted caste prejudice was best underlined during the devastating 2005 tsunami when a leading newspaper reported: ‘The tsunami can’t wash this away: hatred for dalits even at ground zero. Dalits are thrown out of relief camps, cut out of food, water supplies, toilets.’ The newspaper published details of the way Nagapattinam, one of the worst affected districts in Tamil Nadu, was coping with the changed situation (The Indian Express, January 7, 2005).
To trace the story of Ilavarasan, one has to go back to the events of November 7, 2012, when the three dalit colonies of Natham, Kondampatti and Annanagar in Naikkankottai, Dharmapuri district, Tamil Nadu, witnessed organised attacks at the hands of the Vanniars. Of the 500 houses in the three colonies, over 268 were damaged when a mob armed with weapons and petrol bombs went on a four-hour-long rampage, breaking open cupboards, stealing jewellery and cash and setting houses on fire. This was no spontaneous outburst of anger; it was a planned attack.
Tension had been mounting in the region for many months, and the marriage of Divya, the Vanniar daughter of G Nagarajan, with E Ilavarasan, 23, who belonged to the Natham dalit colony, became a pretext to ‘teach the dalits a lesson’. A kangaroo court consisting of members of the Vanniar community instructed the dalits to send back the girl. Divya refused to return to her parents’ home, resulting in her father committing suicide. This enraged around 2,000 members of the said community who subsequently set out to attack the dalit colonies.
All reports on the mayhem point to a single fact: apart from giving verbal assurances and holding out promises, the police took no preventive action.
In the intervening period, events moved fast. The Vanniar sangham, a caste organisation of the Vanniars, and the PMK (Pattali Makkal Katchi), the political outfit launched by Ramadoss, took up the issue of this particular marriage and attempted to set up an anti-dalit coalition of backward castes in the area, claiming that dalit youth were ‘taking away our daughters’. They demanded a dilution of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, saying it was being ‘misused’ by the state.
Under tremendous pressure, and perhaps depressed over her father’s suicide, Divya finally returned to her mother. And Ilavarasan, who had been hoping against hope that his love would ultimately triumph, met with an untimely death. His body was found on the railway tracks and the focus of the debate shifted to whether it was a 'suicide' as claimed by the police, or whether it was actually 'murder' dressed up as suicide.
Even as Natham was being discussed, a similar incident took place in Pabnava, Haryana. The only silver lining here is that the couple is still together.
Dalit residents of Pabnava, Kaithal district, Haryana, will never forget the birth anniversary of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar this year. On the night of April 13-14, a 400-strong mob consisting of members of the local landowning community, the Ror Marathas, armed with spears, batons and other sharp weapons, attacked the basti, ransacking over 200 houses and injuring six dalits. The attack was supposedly to avenge the 'dishonour' wrought on them by a dalit youth who had dared to marry one of 'their girls'. To quote Raji, one of the victims: “They came like a tornado!”
The village had been on edge for a number of days following the eloping and marriage of Meena (21), daughter of an influential Ror Maratha in the village, called Pirthi Singh, with a dalit boy Suryakant, the son of Mahendra Pal. The two were married on April 9 in the high court of Punjab and Haryana, and subsequently sought protection from the administration. On the court’s instructions, they stayed at a district protection home in Kaithal. News that the couple was staying at Kaithal reached the village on April 12. The next day, the Rors held a community panchayat to deliberate on the matter.
For the 5,000-strong Ror Marathas, who control most of the landholdings in the area, it was 'unpardonable' that a person from among the 300 Chamar families, that mostly depend on the Rors for their livelihood, had dared marry one of their daughters. To avenge the insult they issued the dalits an ultimatum -- that the girl be ‘returned’ within two days or the dalits would have to face the consequences. Apart from the Rors and Chamars, the village also houses 200 Balmiki families, around 200 other backward class households and some brahmin households.
The attack was organised the very night the caste panchayat realised that Meena would not return to her parents’ house, nor was Suryakant ready to rethink the matter.
The connivance of a section of the local police in precipitating the violence against the dalits was noted by the chairman of the Scheduled Castes Commission when he visited the village. He was told how the police had released a local goon, under pressure from the mob, who then went on to fuel the violence.
A fact-finding team comprising members of PUCL, NCDHR, HRLN and people representing various civil society groups that visited the village made several recommendations (http://www.epw.in/web-exclusives/atrocities-against-dalits-pabnava-incident.html) to ameliorate the situation and punish the guilty. Demanding that the relevant sub-section of the SC and ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, be invoked in the FIR, and calling for the arrest of the remaining 27 culprits who were roaming about freely in the village, they also proposed that the properties of the accused be attached and that the accused be excommunicated from the village, in accordance with the provisions of the same Act. Apart from imposing a collective fine on them for aiding and abetting the violence, they demanded that the deputy superintendent of police Taken Raj be booked under Section 4 of the SC and ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act for his wilful negligence in not providing protection to the dalits before the incident.
Close watchers of the unfolding human rights situation in Haryana will admit that the developments in Pabnava were not exceptional. Haryana has, in fact, been in the news over the last one-and-a-half decades for growing atrocities against dalits and other marginalised sections of society. Whether it be the Duleena (Jhajjar) case where five dalits were lynched for the 'crime' of carrying the corpse of a dead cow, in the presence of police and other government officials (2002), or the manner in which dalits in Harsoula (Kaithal) were forced to leave the village by members of the dominant caste (2003) for their growing assertiveness, or the burning of hundreds of dalit houses in Gohana (Sonepat) supposedly to avenge the death of Jat boy in a scuffle, or the gruesome attack on dalits in Mirchpur, there are countless incidents where the perpetrators of such atrocities ‘manage’ to evade the law thanks to the active or tacit connivance of the law-enforcement authorities.
Natham in Tamil Nadu and Pabnava in Haryana, separated from each other by hundreds of kilometres and peopled by communities speaking different languages and cultures. Can one claim that they are examples of India’s much celebrated ‘unity in diversity’?
In the case of Haryana, incidents like Pabnava are explained as the outcome of a society that perpetuates the material deprivation of a large section of dalits, and structural asymmetries inherent in the system. An added explanation could be that the region does not have a strong anti-caste history or a women’s empowerment struggle. Haryana indeed has emerged as a centre of what are popularly known as 'honour killings', where parents and relatives, with support from the community, engage in extreme forms of violence against their own for exercising the right to choose a life partner and so bringing ‘dishonour’ to the family and community. This criminalisation of love happens not only between the dominant and dominated castes but even within castes or gotras.
This logic cannot however be extended to Natham/Dharampuri or Tamil Nadu which had a galaxy of leaders engaged in a plethora of activities to awaken the masses. We need therefore to go beyond the existing explanations.
Just when Divya's marriage to Ilavarasan was making the headlines, there came news of the marriage of Gokila (a Paraiyar girl) and Karthikeyan (an Arunthatiyar boy). Incensed over the marriage, Gokila’s parents tried to convince her to change her mind. When she refused to do so, she was brutally killed by her parents. Members of the Paraiyar caste beat drums while the Arunthatiyars are leather workers and sweepers/scavengers in Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka. The Pallars and Paraiyars of Tamil Nadu look down upon the Arunthatiyars.
It is worth noting here that none of the dalit formations -- apart from those representing the interests of the Arunthatiyars -- raised questions about the killing, or even condemned the act.
In a comment in a blog, a writer, while condemning the death of Ilavarasan, said: ‘In Tamil Nadu there are so many places where there is untouchability between the dalit castes, and since Arunthatiyars are sweepers/scavengers, they are even more badly treated by the dalit castes, the Paraiyars and the Pallars. My point here is: If people say it’s caste violence, why are they not seeing Gokila’s murder as caste murder? Sadly, the Arunthatiyar issue never got into any debate. How different then are the Paraiyars compared to caste Hindus? If you support inter-caste marriage, then come forward and say you will not oppose or at least support a Paraiyar girl marrying an Arunthatiyar. (http://kafila.org/2013/07/05/after-falling-in-love-i-saw-the-reality-of-caste-e-ilavarasan/)
Deliberating on the issue, Ravi Chandran wrote: ‘The dalit movement and intellectuals keep on saying that Dharmapuri is an example of caste violence. But they fail to see the gender violence behind the tragedy which has transformed into caste violence. Certainly, every community seems to want to control its population numbers, and they see women (marrying outside the community) as a threat and also as easy targets for their male chauvinism. There are many such incidents where Arunthatiyar men marrying Paraiyar women have been murdered or their sisters sexually assaulted. (http://roundtableindia.co.in/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=6001:the-murder-of-a-dalit-girl-and-the-silence-over-it&catid=119)
The manner in which dalits 'copy' their oppressor/dominant castes is visible also in areas that are infamous for medieval-sounding decisions by caste/community councils. Take Haryana again, which remains in the news for the rulings of its Jat khap panchayats. The state has also witnessed 'judgements' by dalit caste community councils (Balmiki, Ravidas, etc) which have 'punished' couples for marrying into other dalit castes of their own will.
While organisations like the Vanniar Sangham or PMK must be condemned for the frenzy they have created in the state, and appropriate action taken against them, it is also time for dalit formations to introspect.
In its editorial 'Fighting Caste, Fighting Patriarchy' (Economic and Political Weekly, Vol XLVIII, No 29, July 20, 2013) two important points were raised. "The limiting of social justice to identity assertion has seen the continuation of age-old caste antagonisms, rather than their gradual erosion. It is tragic and ironic to witness the revival of such fatal casteism in a state which pioneered powerful anti-caste movements in south Asia... Ilavarasan’s tragic death is an indication that progressive forces need to come out more forcefully against the intermeshing of caste and patriarchy. Whether it is the middle class families of India’s growing cities or the khap panchayats of rural north India or criminal politicians, it is becoming clear that caste cannot be fought without fighting patriarchy."
Is anybody listening?
(Subhash Gatade is a social activist, translator and writer whose writings appear regularly in Hindi and English publications and occasionally in Urdu publications. He edits a Hindi journal Sandhan)
Infochange News & Features, July 2013