Dharmapuri violence: Why are Dalits unsafe in Dravidian Tamil Nadu?

Dharmapuri violence: Why are Dalits unsafe in Dravidian Tamil Nadu?
by G Pramod Kumar Nov 11, 2012

The latest incident of anti-Dalit violence in Tamil Nadu, in which 268 houses of three colonies in Dharmapuri district were torched, is yet another instance of the violent oppression practiced by certain politically influential caste-Hindu groups in the state.

The genesis of this violence, in which there was no reported casualty because the residents had left their homes fearing the attack, is stated to be the marriage between a Dalit boy and a caste-Hindu girl; but activists say it is just a ruse for a pre-planned attack.
According to media reports, the marriage incensed the girl's family and her community. The girl's father wanted her to be returned by the Dalit boy's family; but when it didn't happen, he allegedly committed suicide out of shame. His community subsequently unleashed violence on the streets that finally led to the destruction of the colonies.

Reportedly, the boy's family had sought police support, still the entire community had to bear the brunt of caste-brutality.

The incident also throws light on the outrageous practice of honour-killing — although in this case it is a suicide — that gets reported in the state from time to time.


Screengrab from a YouTube video on the violence in Dharmapuri.

Dharmapuri, where the latest incident occurred, and South Arcot regularly witness anti-Dalit violence by a politically dominant group of caste-Hindus, while in parts of Madurai, Ramanathapuram and southern parts of the state, they come under attack by another group. In both the regions, they are easy targets of violent caste and political dominance.
Although the state doesn't top the list in the country for violence against scheduled castes and scheduled tribes going by the data of the National Crime Records Bureau, repeated attacks against Dalits in certain pockets of Tamil Nadu are certainly unbecoming of a state that has any rule of law.

As sociologist Gail Omvedt once asked, "Why has Tamil Nadu, once so apparently progressive in its… anti-caste movements, become today the scene of such great violence against Dalits?"

One of the reasons cited for the impunity with which these attacks are carried out is the political influence of the caste-Hindu perpetrators and the neglect of the Dravidian parties who once fought against Brahmin domination and wrested power from them.
It's not without reason or evidence that Dalit activists accuse Dravidian parties of either collusion or failure in checking attacks on them or punishing culprits. They charge that the police had a role in the major incidents at places such as Villupram (1978), Kodiyankulam (1995), Melavalavu (1997), Gundupatti (1998) and Thamiraparnai (1999) and the Dravidian parties were complicit. Many of the commissions and investigations into such violence often reached nowhere.

Since the first major incident in Kilvenmani in east Thanjavur in 1968, almost at the same time when DMK first assumed power in the state, in which 42 Dalit labourers were killed an example of blatant caste-discrimination in a school in Krishnagiri district in September, the perpetrators have gone largely unpunished.

Researchers point to the fact that landed non-Brahmin castes, which dominated the Dravidian parties, have been antagonistic to Dalit interests and Brahmin rivals. "From the 1960s onward, the Dravidian parties unabashedly courted the powerful and populous BC castes, who were at once Dalits' most immediate oppressors and the foundation of the Dravidian parties' social and political dominance in rural Tamil Nadu," says socio-cultural anthropologist Nathaniel Roberts, who has studied the issue in considerable detail (Nathaniel Roberts, 2010, Language, Violence and the State: Writing Tamil Dalits, South Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal.)

Interestingly, although close to 20 percent of the state's population are Dalits, the Dalit movement has not been able to harness the numbers for effective political leverage. Without a major Dalit formation, Dalit votes have been divided between the two prominent Dravidian parties. The Viruthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK), perhaps the first major Dalit political party in the state, has not been able to hold its own and had to alternate between DMK and the AIADMK in general elections. Its leader Pol Thirumavalavan, an elegant orator, is an MP and is often seen seated with Sonia Gandhi and UPA bigwigs, but it is always the Dravidian party leaders who peddle power.

At the local level, ever since Dalits started winning elections, they have come under intensified attacks. In the last few years, a Dalit panchayat president was killed when he refused to agree with a caste-Hindu vice president acting as president, while in another case, the president was killed when he refused to let the husband of a caste-Hindu vice president control the panchayat. In yet another case, a panchayat president was made to sit on the floor because he was Dalit. Reportedly in Tirunelveli district alone, about 10 Panchayat presidents had complained to the governments that their lives were under threat.

Senior journalist S Vishwanathan, who had extensively written on anti-Dalit violence in the state noted in an article in Frontline (5 May 2007): "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."

Despite the visibility, human rights, Dalit activism and legal safeguards, the archaic and violent domination of caste-Hindus continue with absolute impunity in Tamil Nadu. The vested interests and political domination of middle-level castes and inability of the Dalit vote bank to stick together, perpetuate the situation when constitutional safeguards do not work.

With deep-rooted socio-economic vested interests by the dominant castes and a lack of any social movement worth the name, the road to emancipation appears to be political. For it to work, the Dalit vote-bank needs to devise an electoral strategy, perhaps smarter than the VCK's ideological position that combines Tamil nationalism and Dalit rights, to amplify its strength and tip the balance in their favour.

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