Monday, March 06, 2006

Tamil Nadu's Dalit saga

:: NAVAYANA :: - Publishing for Social Change - C T Kurien :: Frontine - November 18, 2005.: What both Viswanathan and Gorringe bring out is that paradoxical though it may appear, it is precisely the legal inclusion of the Dalits and the progress that they have made and continue make that constitute the Dalit problem today.

"Viswanathan's work consists of some 50 pieces published in Frontline from 1995 to 2004, which regular readers may recall. These pieces, which included the chilling accounts of the Melavalavu murders of 1997 and the Tirunelveli massacre of 1999, were the attempt of a dedicated journalist to bring to the notice of the public the atrocities against Dalits in Tamil Nadu in the 1990s and the early part of the present decade and the many ways Dalits have been responding to the situation. The collection comes with an Introduction by Ravikumar. It deals briefly with the question of the origins of the groups of people referred to as Dalits, the anti-Brahmin movement in Dravidian land and the ascendancy of non-brahmins, and the present attitude of the leading political parties towards Dalits.

The first Dalit graduate from a village in Madurai district walked home at the end of the term passing through the upper-caste area of his village wearing shoes and trousers. Perceiving this to be a challenge to their authority, Backward Caste youths set upon him and beat him to death" (Untouchable Citizens, page 185). Two young people, both students at Annamalai University, fell in love and married. The young man was a Dalit. The young woman's family, belonging to the Vanniar caste, above Dalits in the caste hierarchy, objected to the marriage and the couple was found dead under suspicious circumstances (Dalits in Dravidian Land). In July 1998, soon after K.R. Narayanan took over as President, a group of Dalit youths attempted to celebrate the fact of a Dalit becoming the First Citizen of the country. Caste Hindus objected and a clash followed, finally resulting in twenty Dalit huts being torched and over a hundred dwellings of Dalits being damaged (Dalits in Dravidian Land, page 99). On Independence day 2003, the Dalit panchayat president of a village in one of the southern districts of Tamil Nadu was "assaulted and humiliated in public because he `dared' to unfurl the national flag at the panchayat's official function (Dalits in Dravidian Land, page 279).

Dalits themselves are not a homogeneous group. In a caste-ridden social order, Dalits too have their caste divisions, and arising from them hierarchical ordering too. Understandably, the distinctions arising from these tend to be region-specific, which makes it difficult to have a Dalit movement for the State as a whole. Gorringe notes that there are over 70 different Dalit organisations in Tamil Nadu. The largest is the DPI. The second largest is the Puthiya Thamizhagam (PT) with Krishnasamy as the leader, which, however, was the first to be started as Devendra Kula Vellalar Federation. The two represent two different Dalit castes and are active in two different regions of the State.

The Dravidian parties - the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam - may be willing to accommodate Dalits to some extent but view Dalit movements and parties as a challenge to their monopoly of power in the State. In the fluid "alliance politics" of Tamil Nadu, Dalit parties have not yet become positively attractive to any of the major players.

Viswanathan's report and Gorringe's analysis of the condition of Dalits in Tamil Nadu make significant contribution to one's understanding of a persisting social and political problem that is the reality of one out of five in the population. I strongly recommend a study of the two volumes."

Dalits in Dravidian Land - Frontline reports on anti-Dalit violence in Tamil Nadu (1995 - 2004).
S. Vishwanathan, Navayana Publishing, 2005; pages 318 (paperback), Rs 300.

Untouchable Citizens - Dalit Movements and Democratisation in Tamil Nadu
Hugo Gorringe, Sage Publications, New Delhi, 2005; pages 397, Rs. 750.

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