Friday, June 6, 2008

Beyond Kilvenmani: The Dravidian Movement and violence against Dalits in Takil Nadu

Caste violence has become an important element in the political life of contemporary Tamil Nadu. We may define caste violence as systematic, organized and sustained acts of physical and cultural violence directed against the less powerful, marginal, and in a hierarchical sense lower social groups by members of the dominant landed groups. Though the latter are classified as Backward Castes and Most Backward castes in the case of northern Tamil Nadu, the BCs and MBCs are by far the most powerful social groups in the political and agrarian structures of rural Tamil Nadu. Both NGOs and the academic interpreters of the endemic caste violence in the countryside, conceptualize the growing social distance between Dalit castes and the BCs and MBCs as instances of “caste” conflict implying thereby that caste identities and loyalties are at the root of this problem. Such an interpretation while not inaccurate, skirts the more potent question pertaining to the structural linkages between the politically organized sections of the Backward landed communities and the violence directed against the Dalits in different parts of the Tamil region.Rural violence is not a new and novel feature. Medieval inscriptions record numerous instances of burning down of entire villages in the fifteenth century during clashes between the idankai and valankai groups. Caste hierarchy was reinforced through a range of measures that included dress codes, restrictions on the use of certain musical instruments, habitat ional exclusion by creating tindacheris in which particular social groups were sequestered, limited access to common areas such as the sacred space of the temple, educational institutions and the like. Indeed the social history of the Tamil region can be plotted along the axes of caste, community and sect, though the boundaries between the three conceptual categories were always fluid and permeable. In the nineteenth century we find identity formation crystallizing itself around the twin poles of caste and race with the ethno linguistic category of Dravidian glossing over the different castes and sub castes of the society. Uniting in the divided population in the name of language, the concept of Dravidian defined the Tamil identity in terms of the cultural practices of the dominant non Brahmin castes thereby excluding the dalits and other communities.Dalit intellectuals have in recent years mounted a serious challenge to the hegemonic claims relating to the libratory potential of the Aryan/Dravidian dichotomy in which the discourse on Dalit liberation and political praxis takes place. The literaey critic Raj Gauthaman in his excellent work entitled Dalit Parveyil Tamil Panpattu has shown that even in the earliest corpus of Tamil bardic poetry there is a stratum of communal and caste consciousness which effectively marginalized tribal groups which came to form the basis of dalit caste of the historical times. This interpretation alters the framework in which the emergence of caste consciousness is placed by conventional historians in that it situates caste in the context of autochthonous social trends. The importance of Raj Gouthamn’s work lies in his effort to reclaim the historical memory of the Dalits in order to assert an identity that is distinct from the one existing in the dominant Dravidian discourse. In his counter reading of Tamil literary and social history, Raj Gauthman is infact re interpreting the claims of Iyothee Das that Tamil cultural practices as depicted in the early bardic works are just as oppressive as that of the Aryan/Sanskrit other. He goes on to add that the ethic of valor and conquest enshrined in the puram genre of poems are mere ideological shibboleths to validate and legitimize the appropriation of agricultural surplus from the tribal sections of Tamil society, who he says were the ancestors of the present day dalit population. While this interpretation may not have all the sophistication of a well thought out historical thesis, it certainly points to a rupture in the dominant paradigm.In this paper we attempt an analysis of the violence in the Tamil region in which the caste conflict between the BCs and the Dalits are contextualized in terms of (a) the groups inv9lved and (b) the reaction of the state. We examine the frequent outbreak of social conflict in terms of the denial of the dominant discourse of the very basis of this conflict. We examine the issue of the Kilvenmani Massacre in terms of the response of the state as well as the social groups which took part in the massacre. I also examiner the response of Dalit intellectuals and political leaders such as Comrade Tirumavalavan to the growing instances of anti Dalit violence.On Christmas Day 1968, when C N Annadurai was the chief minister of Tamil Nadu, an incident took place that is regarded today as emblematic of caste relation in this part of India. A few days prior to this incident, a group of farm workers began agitating for more wages. 1967 had been a particularly bad year for the region because of the sustained drought. The workers of the CPI felt that it was an opportune moment to organize the peasants, particularly the landless pallan and other castes in view of the collapse of the communist led insurrection in the Tanjavur district led by Jeevanandham and other leaders. A day prior to the Kilvenmani Incident one of the petty land owners was assaulted and killed, allegedly by the organized group of landless workers. An armed gang was sent to the cheri where the landless laborers resided. However they had by that time taken refuge in a barn along with their wives and children. In a gruesome act of retaliation the building was burnt down killing 44 men, women and 8 children. The DMK government which was in power in the state was reluctant to register the case and even the news of the horrific massacre reached the public only through the questions raised in the Assembly by the CPI MLA of the neighboring Nagapattinam constituency. Left and Secular liberal hagiography sees the Kilvemanni Massacre as a mere class oppressor versus worker issue. In fact the CPM has even appropriated for itself the memorial for the 44 victims of the December 25 Incident and is reluctant to admit the caste identity of the victims. In short, the incident itself has become a bone of contention between those who prefer to see it as the Dravidian Movements ambiguity with regard to the question of Dalit identity and human rights and those who view it in ideological terms.Social conflict is also predicated upon the very morphology and distribution of social groups across the territorial limits of the region. The great historian, Burton Stein has argued that the territorial segmentation, a structural feature of South Indian Tamil society, reinforces the dominance of certain groups in specific regions and sub-regions. The introduction of Panchayati Raj in this kind of a socio-political configuration through the 73rd Constitutional Amendment introduced yet another volatile arena of conflict and violence.II VIOLENCE AND THE STATEThe Kilvenmani Incident is just one of a whole litany of violent encounters between socially dominant landed groups and lower status landless and marginal social sodalities such as dalits. After Independence the Tamil region has seen episodes of violent upsurge against dalit societies in alarming propotions. Given below are a few of the more prominent incidents:Mudalukathur Massacre of 1957Melvalavu Massacre of July25,1997Gundupatti Incident of 1998Tambraparini River Massacre of July 23, 1999Kodiyankulam Incident of 31 August, 1995Thinniyan Incident of October 25, 2002In all these and other incidents the local dominant group was clearly involved in and complicit in acts of unspeakable cruelty and violation of human dignity, and in all these case there was hardly any action/reaction from the state. In one case however, the Tambraparini River Massacre, the then DMK regime was seen as the main instigator of the violence in which 17 people were killed.. The State appointed the Justice Mohan Commission of Inquiry and it camr to the magnificent conclusion that the “police were not at fault”and that the victime drowned because they “did not know how to swim”. The irony of the situation is that the very parties that soundly condemned the violence against the workers of the Majoli Tea Estate are today local allies of the very regime that perpetrated the massacre. Once again this reinforces the point I am arguing that there is considerable ambivalence with regard to the issue of state violence directed against the dalits. The Kudiyankulam Incident fared no better at the hands of the rival ADMK regime. The Gomathinayakam Inquiry declared the police innocent of any act of violence and thereby the state machinery that was deployed so ruthlessly against the dalits was absolved of all blame. It may be pointed out that even in the case of the Kilvenmani Massacre the state was at pains to absolve the perpetrators of any guilt. And the naidu landlord was declared innocent by the Madras high court after a lackadaisical trail. Shri Tirumavalavan,a noted dalit politician of the region has observed. “Only the explanation given by the court for releasing Gopalakrishana Naidu who committed such horrid murders is amusing and strange. It was: It is not possible to accept that a mirasdar who was very highly respected in the society could have involved directly in the murders”. He goes on to say that without a shred of evidence, and based on this conjecture, the court pronounced its judgement that day.From this we can say with some conviction that a general consensus with regard to violence against dalits had also infected the judiciary which by 1968 had come under the stress of Dravidian politics. The sad fact that the SC&ST Atrocities Suppression Act in Tamil Nadu has secured so far a single conviction shows that the administrative and political will to enforce compliance is lacking.The introduction of Panchayatiraj government at the local level through the 73rd Amendment has resulted in the opening of yet another level of inter societal violence and there is no let up in the intensity of the attacks. The position of the president of the village governing council inappropriately called the panchayat, after the gandhian metaphor for the Indian version of village democracy,is increasingly becoming a contested one between sections of the dominat castes groups and the dalit groups in the case of reserved seats. It is obvious that a great deal of government contracts are routed through the Panchayats and hence the competition for the post. The murder of Leelavathi, a councilor of Madurai by DMK workers was direct fallout of the war over government funds and local development that ruffled the feathers of vested interests. In this case too the response of the then DMK government was luke warm and no one was either arrested or prosecuted for the murder.Certain features of Dravidian political culture are deeply implicated in the rise of anti-dalit violence in parts of the state. Competitive electoral politics between the DMK and AIDMK has resulted in a situation wherein the two major formations account for nearly 56% of the votes polled, with an average electoral strength ranging from24% to 26% for each of the two parties. This polarized electorate has made it possible for weak political actors like the Congress and the BJP to forge alliances with the two giants of Dravidian politics. Further, the social morphology of the Tamil region, already alluded to with dominant castes and communities concentrated in specific regions of Tamil Nadu such as the vanniyars in the north, the mukkulathors in the south and specific zones in which the kallars and maravars are numerically dominant in areas of Madurai, Puddukkotttai and Ramanathapuram, has provided a fertile soil for the proliferation of caste and clan based political parties. We may add here while the political rhetoric of such parties in couched in the language of egalitarianism with regard to the elites in the areas where they operate, the practice of social and personal discrimination is prevalent in the context of dalit groups. Social domination and the resultant caste violence is predicated upon the situational strategy of asserting equality towards the upper castes and enforcing the ‘inferior” status of the lower castes, particularly that of dalits. Dravidian political ideology has not been able to bridge the yawning chasm between the imagined ideal of social justice and equality and the appalling reality of caste division and hierarchy that operates at the local panchayat levels.The social scene of village Tamil Nadu is riven with the visible symbols of identity and oppression. The flourishing industry of human rights activism has already documented the existence of the “two tumbler” system in most parts of rural Tamil Nadu. The enforcement of the two tumbler system in parts of Madurai and Ramanathapuram and in the vanniyar dominated regions of South Arcot and Dharmapuri districts is a constant source of tension and violence. Along with this there are other visible markers of status that are enforced. In the habitation areas of the dominant castes the dalits are forbidden to wear footwear and the men folk are made to tie their upper cloth round their waists. Such conventions become the cause of violence, when educated youth resist such display of deference to the higher castes they invite serious retribution. The temple festival is yet another arena that generates conflict. In fact the southern districts see a spate of violence particularly during the annual festivals of the amman shrines or clan temples. Status assertions vis-à-vis the higher castes and its negation is another reason for the outbreak of conflict and in such conflicts the local police and the administration side with the dominant groups. Given the highly politicized nature of the society with caste factionalism and party based rivalries any local issue can become the starting point of a caste conflict.The Ministry of Home Affairs in its Annual Report for the year 1996-97 has reported 282 violent castes conflicts in Tamil Nadu, and out of this figure 238 or 84% involved conflict between dalit groups and powerful landed groups such as the Maravars, the Kallars (often clubbed together as Thevars), Nadars, Vanniyars and Pallans and other SC communities. The table given below from the Justice Mohan Inquiry Report provides an index of caste violence in contemporary Tamil Nadu:DistrictNumber of violent anti-dalit incidentsNumber killed in clashesMadurai189 3Theni41NA NADindigulNANA NAVirudhanagar38212 24 Ramanathapuram182 NASivagangaiNANA NATirunelveli6014 NATudikudi11 Nil III PANCHAYAT ELECTIONS AND VIOLENCEThe violence unleashed against Dalit aspirants to the post of President of the Panchayat is symptomatic of the larger issue of dalit empowerment under the Dravidian political dispensation. A problem that considerably complicate the issue is that the Tamil communities referred to as Adi-dravidas are themselves divided along lines of hierarchy and there is ethnographic and anecdotal information to show that the practice of social exclusion permeates even to the door step of communities that bear the brunt of anti-dalit violence. Thus arundhitiyars are generally regarded with a degree of socil distance by other members of the dalit communities. In the case of panchayats that are revered for the SC communities the dominant landed groups are quite willing to support an arunditiyar candidate and make him virtually a rubber stamp of the local vested interests. Thus the differences within the dalit communities are exploited by the dominant landed backward caste groups, supported by the political parties across the Dravidian spectrum. Shri P Jaggaiyyan, an arunditttiyar who was elected to the Presidentship of Nakkalamuthanpatti in Tirunelveli was killed by the dominant Maravar group when he refused to let his Vice President, a Maravar himself, to preside over the Panchayat meetings. This case has not been solved and the DMK regime is currently trying to arrange a compromise. Similarly, Shri M Servanan, President of Maruthankinaru village Panchayat was killed when he refused to allow the husband of the Panchyat vice president, a kallar, to act as [president in all but name. In this case also no arrest has been made. In Tirulelveli 10 Panchyat presidents have complained to the Government about threat to their lives, and all of them are arundittiyars. The State Government is yet to act. In the case of Shri Chinnan, President of Vakarai village in Dindigul district, even as President he could not occupy his chair and made to sit on a stool when the meetings were conducted. The compromise worked out by the state government when the dalit presidents complain of being threatened or humiliated involved getting the president accept his own subordination to the Vice President from the dominant castes. This unfortunate aspect of Panchayat Raj in Tamil Nadu needs to be investigated further. In the report of Vishwanathan in Frontline of May 5, 2007 is the following observation and it is certainly woth quoting: “The ill treatment meted out to elected dalit panchayat presidents indicates that untouchability is still practiced in Tamil Nadu villages, 60 years after the constitution abolished it.”. We may add that 40 of those 60 years were under the rule of parties representing the forces of landed castes classified in the argot of Tamil Nadu as BCs and MBCs. Therefore we may be right in being cynical about the claims that these parties represent the forces of equality and social justice. It is well worth exploring whether the competitive electoral politics in India, with its first-past-the-winning-post system servers to increase rather than decrease caste tension and its consequent violence.The most horrific case of anti dalit violence engendered by the Panchayat election is the Melavalavu massacre of the dalit president and 6 of his associates on June 29, 1997.Melavalavu was a maravar dominated village that was reserved for the SC caste. Dalits who had earlier filed their nomination for the post of the President of the Panchyat had withdrawn their nomination when intimidated by the locally dominant groups who were also patronized by the ADMK. In spite of booth capturing and other acts of electoral malpractice, Shri K Murugesan was elected President. As has become routine in Tamil Nadu he was prevented from taking charge of his office and offered a representation to the government. A small police picket was posted at the village. Shri M Karunanidhi the Chief Minister of the state was informed of the threat to the lives of dalit presidents but no action was taken. On a bus on the way to Madurai Shri K Murugesan and 6 of his followers were killed in a brutal manner.In the violence that followed several buses of the state transport corporation were burnt. The real cause for tension in the region was the decision of the Government to name a road transport corporation after Shri Veeran Sundranarlingam, a noted dalit leader. In the mayhem that followed caste violence was unleashed all across the southern districts.These instances show quite clearly that caste tension is simmering under the surface and that the political parties exploit cast in order to create disturbances that can be used to generate cast blocs and thereby consolidate the political base.IV ConclusionIn this paper we have argued that contrary to popular perception, the political mobilization in the Tamil region takes place along caste lines and the Backward caste that form the backbone of the political support base for the 2 dravidian parties are not above using violence in order to generate electoral gains. We have also documented that the social morphology of the state with its layered and concentrated distribution of dominant castes allows for the exploitation of caste as a political resource. It may be said that the shift to proportional representation will considerably reduce the dependence of political parties on organized violence as a strategy for capturing political power.We have examined the several instances of caste violence starting from the Kilvanmani Incident of December 25, 1968 to the more recent instances of such violence and have shown that there is little possibility of anti dalit violence declining as it is predicated upon the very logic of the political parties that compete for power. In a larger theoretical sense we can even argue that the post colonial nation state is in reality an engine of destruction in which innocent lives are lost.

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