Dharmapuri 2012: Worse Than Kilvenmani By Dr Anand Teltumbde
11 November, 2012
(Dr Anand Teltumbde is a writer, political analyst and civil rights activist with CPDR, Mumbai.)
My friend Prof C Lakshmanan called me today from the ground zero in Dharmapuri narrating in his choked voice the horrific state of things in three villages - Natham, Anna Nagar and Kondampatti, where nearly 500 houses of Dalits were looted and burnt by the Vanniyar (an OBC caste) mob on 7 November. Lakshmanan was part of a fact finding team that had just reached the site of devastation. I had known of it from a sms I received from an activist on 8 November and subsequently from the scanty reports from newspapers. And still I felt shaken to the bones.
The immediate cause for the caste violence was the love marriage between a Parayar boy, Ilavarasan, 23 and a Vanniyar girl, Divya, 20 that took place a month ago. The girl’s family approached the police, and the police counseled both parties that the marriage was valid. Meanwhile the Vanniyars from 30 villages had a meeting and discussed the matter. They held a ‘kangaroo’ court at Nayakkankottai village the previous week and directed the Dalit family to return the woman on Wednesday but Divya refused to obey and made it clear that she would live with Ilavarasan. Dharmapuri SP Asra Garg knew about this all and said that the police were searching for those who took part in it. On 6 November 2012, the girl’s father G Nagarajan (48) suddenly died at his residence in Sellankottai, not far from the Natham Dalit colony. The Vanniyars claimed that he died because he could not digest that his daughter married a Parayar guy. But Dalits felt that he was murdered by Vanniyars to have an alibi for action against them. The memory of the recent shock at the statement of Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) MLA J Guru, who heads the Vanniyar Sangam, the first avatar of the PMK, at a community meeting forbidding the inter-caste marriages, had not yet faded. This public meeting inspired the OBCs across Tamil Nadu to decide against the OBC girls marring Dalit boys, whatever the consequences. Also, the Kongu Vellala Goundergal Peravai, which claims to represent the community, issued advertisements in newspapers calling a meeting of community members to oppose inter-caste marriages and launched a campaign against it. All this is well known to the state. Therefore the incident should be seen in the context of such a casteist build up in the recent past.
The autopsy on the body of Nagarajan was delayed reportedly because of frequent power cuts, and the body was handed over to his relatives only on Thursday evening. Around the same time, a mob of over 2,500 people attacked Dalit houses in Natham, Anna Nagar and Kondampatti. The Administration, anticipating trouble, had stationed a 300 strong police posse in the villages but it is simply said they were outnumbered by the mob. This weird logic for police inaction has gone unquestioned so far even though there is no evidence that the police ever resisted the attackers. It could have been plausible if there were some injuries on the police side but there was none. The police proffering this absurd logic perhaps want to say that there should be as many policemen as the population of the country to maintain law and order. The truth was, as the Dalits reported, that the police remained mute spectators as they normally did, when the mob looted valuables and then set the houses on fire. There were only old people, women and children in houses, all young people having gone to work in Begaluru and Thirupur. They fled to fields and forests or nearby villages. It was all well planned, despite the police knowing it. The miscreants had blocked the roads with huge trees felled across, so that the fire tenders did not reach the villages. The orgy went over nearly for five hours and ended by 9.30 pm by which time everything was reduced to ashes. The Police claimed that the situation was brought under control after an additional 1,000 personnel were deployed and more than 90 people arrested. Cases had been registered against 210 others. If there were only 300 culprits to be charged, the question remains how the police were outnumbered. The chief minister announced compensation of Rs 50,000 to each family that lost houses and belongings and issued usual sterile statements that a severe action would be taken against those responsible for the violence.
It is notable that this violence has occurred in hamlets which used to have a strong presence of the left movement. Dharmapuri district was once the headquarters of the naxalite movement in Tamil Nadu. It is revealing that as the naxalite movement is on decline, casteism has raised its ugly head in the district. Vanniyars and Dalits economically are not very different but it is the prowess of the poisonous castes that they violently clashed many times notwithstanding the enlightened statements and actions of their leader S. Ramadoss. It may be said to his credit and also of Thol Tirumavalavan, the leader of Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi, a Dalit party in North Tamil Nadu that there is a bit of communal amity between Dalits and OBCs in North compared to South tamil Nadu. But the upsurge of obscurantist and rank casteist forces from among the Vanniyars amply show that such patch up across castes do not mean the demise of the caste consciousness. It just means its temporary suppression. The best insurance against this poison is to annihilate it altogether with alternate idiom of class. Difficult though it may sound to very many well meaning people too, there does not seem to be any other solution to the problem.
The Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front floated by the CPM has been doing a good work in Tamil Nadu. It sent its team to Dharmapuri and raised very sensible demands as not even the established Dalit Party has done. Indeed, the issue in Dharmapuri is to rehabilitate Dalits properly. It is shame that the ruling parties who are the trend setter in shamelessly distributing television sets and laptops and household appliances, announce pittance of Rs. 50,000 as compensation taking alibi of the SC/ST Act, which otherwise is observed more in its violation. The said compensation is meant for the sufferance of atrocity and not for the loss of property. It is the obligation of the government which has failed to protect Dalits to compensate for their losses in addition to compensation for the agony that they have undergone. The Front’s demands that the Government should build decent houses for the victims, it should provide compensation for actual losses suffered; provide for due police protection; restore their documents; and take care of their children’s education are therefore most endorsable. It may be tempting to advise the Front as an outfit of the communist party that they should now scale up their efforts and think in terms of uniting people on class lines while creatively taking up anti-caste fights.
The incident is reminiscent of the massacre in Kilvenmeni more than four decades ago although there has not been any loss of life in Dharmapuri. On 25 December 1968 the goons of the landlords had similarly torched a Dalit hamlet there and killed 44 hapless Dalits, mostly women and children, inaugurating what I call a new genre of atrocities in the post-independent India. One could sensibly analyze and attribute it to the changes in political economy that befell the countryside because of the capitalist strategy of development followed by the so called Nehruvian socialist regime with half-baked land reforms and green revolution. This strategy created a class of rich farmers out of the erstwhile shudra caste (read today’s BC/OBC) peasants as an important ally of and political buffer for the ruling classes at the centre and transformed Dalits to be pure proletariat dependent on the wage labour, sans security of the jajmani system. This class of rich farmers assumed the baton of Brahmanism, the upper caste landlords having left villages to nearby towns smelling greening pastures there. This class, enriched and empowered in a flash lacked in cultural sophistication of the traditional upper castes, had numbers at its command using its caste ties. The contradictions of new agrarian economy between them and Dalits as wage labourers, often manifesting through faultlines of castes, resulted in caste atrocities in a carnival mode. Kilvenmani was the inaugural piece which would be followed by many of its kind later.
Kilvenmani took a toll of 44 lives of poor Dalits. Those days Dalits did not have much to lose than their lives. In 2012, two generations after Kilvenmani, the state of society is not the same. The villages in 1960s may have had a few pucca houses belonging to a landlord and his kin but today they have many, even belonging to Dalits, not necessarily signifying increasing equality but surely elevated cultural levels, thanks to the spread of education and more so, the television reach. The relative gap between Dalits and others may have gone up but surely Dalits do not look their dilapidated selves as their parents. They have striven hard to better their and their children’s lives. Most Dalits in Dharmapuri slogged in the construction industry in Bangalore and sweat shops of Thirupur and had invested their earnings to have better houses for their families left behind. Their houses and their contents objectified their lives. Not only theirs but also of their families. Destruction of this investment is equivalent to the destruction of all Dalits in those burnt houses. The Dalit property and not Dalit lives therefore came handy for inflicting maximum damage in order to ‘teach lesson’ to the defiant Dalits, which is the basic objective behind caste atrocities.
In this sense, Dharmapuri should be taken as worse than Kilvenmani. In 1960s, the Dalit movement could be said to be in making. Today it is in unmaking. The representational logic has come full circle. Despite having had always a houseful Dalit representation in parliament and legislature assemblies and having produced a sizable middle class that has reached every nook and corner of the governance structure, it has been of little use to Dalit masses who have been left behind. Neoliberalism has already sung a requiem to its representational logic. The intellectuals who should fearlessly put forth truth before people are engaged in befuddling reality with ‘cartoon controversies’. Dharmapuri cries out for answers to these and many such questions.
Dr Anand Teltumbde is a writer, political analyst and civil rights activist with CPDR, Mumbai.