Tamil Nadu, where the chair has a caste

first_imgFour policemen look at me suspiciously. They want to know my credentials and why I want to meet Kausalya, the 19-year-old widow of Sankar, the Dalit youth who was hacked to death by a gang of hired killers with sickles in Udumalpet in Tiruppur district on March 13. Sankar, 22 died while Kausalya who belongs to the Thevar community, considered comparatively superior in the caste hierarchy, escaped with several injuries on the head. The gang was allegedly hired by Kausalya’s parents because they were opposed to their daughter’s marriage to a Dalit.Kausalya, a diminutive girl, keeps her head covered to hide the injury marks. After Sankar’s death, she chose to stay at her father-in-law’s home. Her two brothers-in-law, one of them in college and the younger one in school and Sankar’s grandmother live in the one-room home. “I cannot live without him. I feel very lonely without Sankar,” says Kausalya, giving me a glimpse into her world.Kausalya’s parents are in prison. In caste-obsessed Tamil Nadu, being jailed for taking revenge on a Dalit is considered a badge of honour. Kausalya, in her moments of loneliness, broods over the futility of honour killings and wonders if blood must have a caste group. “Parents should have the heart to let go. Why isn’t anyone thinking like that? By killing like this, what is achieved? Look at our case. Sankar was killed, I am here and my parents are in jail,” she laments.As I speak to Kausalya, one cop slithers close, eavesdrops, taking notes on what I ask and what she replies. The cops are here just in case, killers are hired again by another member of the family to finish unfinished business – to kill Kausalya. They have killed her spirit and zest for life, what more is there to kill, I wonder.advertisementIntercaste Marriage Helper AssociationBut if you thought such barbaric killing in broad daylight would put the fear of the sickle in the hearts of young boys and girls, Dalits and non-Dalits and stop them from falling in love, you are wrong. I am told about the existence of an organisation called the Intercaste Marriage Helper Association in Coimbatore. Since January 1 this year, it has helped 80 boys and girls from different castes to get married. It is a blink-and-miss wedding, the runaway groom and bride are asked to take an oath, exchange garlands, sign necessary documents along with witnesses and they are declared man and wife.The Association’s office is run by K Ramakrishnan, whose photographs with slain LTTE chief V Prabhakaran and Periyar’s posters adorn the walls. I run into Manikandan who is about to get married to Prema, who is pursuing B.Sc in computer science. She tells me her parents objected because Manikankan is from a ‘lower’ caste and even complained to the police that Prema had run away from home with jewellery worth more than Rs 1 lakh. Manikandan admits he is scared that he could meet Sankar’s fate.Manikandan’s fear is understandable. Tamil Nadu is not the place for men and women, who dare to challenge the caste barrier. Dalit activist N Panneer Selvam says, “Half of those who do intercaste marriage run away from Tamil Nadu to stay safe and alive.”If they had not, they would have perhaps met the fate of 81 others who were killed in cases of honour killings in the last three years in Tamil Nadu. Each one of the murders was an attempt to show the Dalits their place. “If girl is from the upper caste and the boy is a Dalit, there will be a problem. If the girl is a Dalit, she is isolated within the family,” says K Ramakrishnan, President of the Intercaste Marriage helper association.Social boycott is a potent toolBut it is not as if every Dalit boy who marries a girl from a non-Dalit caste is killed. Social boycott is a potent tool used to kill emotionally. Shanti, a Brahmin girl married Ilaveni, a Dalit ten years ago. Her family shunned her. After she had two children, her mother came to visit her and was ostracised by the family as well. Now Shanti and Ilaveni take care of Shanti’s mother. “I faced many challenges. It’s now ten years.” says Shanti. “It’s definitely not wrong marrying a Dalit. I am, in fact, marrying a human, not an animal. These kind of family members who end up killing these people like animals must be punished.”The irony is that such caste discrimination and violence takes place in Tamil Nadu, the land of social reformer Periyar, who fought for a casteless society, from the late 1920s till his demise in 1973. Though Tamil Nadu was among the earliest states to witness an OBC-based movement, it would seem that the caste genie unleashed by the Dravidian movement is now out of control. In Tamil Nadu today, every caste group has a party. Political strength and the desire to show muscle leads to violence.advertisementIlaveni says, “The AIADMK or DMK say they are inspired by Periyar but I don’t think they have followed his principles or ideologies. If they had, such honor killings wouldn’t have taken place. Periyar wanted to eradicate caste system but these parties have forgotten what is important. Their priorities are misplaced.”Why love affairs are on the riseSC/STs form 20 per cent of Tamil Nadu’s population. With the number of Dalit boys pursuing higher education on the rise, interactions with girls from the intermediary castes, like the Gounders and the Thevars, have led to love affairs. Many alliances have ended in bloodshed. Like Ilavarasan who was killed for marrying a Vanniyar girl in Dharmapuri in 2013 and Gokulraj who was killed merely for speaking to a Gounder girl in Tiruchengode in 2015. Which is why S Balasundaram of the PUCL fumes, remembering what O Panneerselvam, the former Chief minister of Tamil Nadu said in the assembly.”One year back in the state assembly, O Panneerselvam said there is no honour killing in Tamil Nadu. More than 80 honour killings happened in Tamil Nadu but the government is not worried about it. In many cases, the police have registered not as murder but suicide,” says Balasundaram.The aggressors are the Gounders in the West, Thevars in the south and Vanniyars in North Tamil Nadu. All of them backward castes, politically powerful, occupying every step of the ladder in all the political parties in Tamil Nadu. In Tamil Nadu, the chair tragically has become a caste.That also explains why when Sankar was killed, no major political party opened its mouth except for cursory platitudes over law and order. “Neither DMK chief Karunanidhi nor CM Jayalalithaa opened their mouth against the so-called honour killing rather the dishonour killing of Sankar because both of them are fearing the votes of Gounders and historically Dalits never voted in an en masse bloc. They always split into various factions but this intermediary caste generally to a large extent vote en masse and fearing the vote bank politics, these two leaders are keeping quiet. This is a very dangerous trend in the run up to the elections,” explains R Mani, political analyst.Modus operandi of Dalit boysA few years back, PMK leader Dr S Ramadoss, a Vanniyar, said that Dalit boys dress up like Romeos, to impress Vanniyar, Thevar and Gounder girls, most of who are economically affluent. It is an opinion many in the intermediary castes endorse. Like CK Nagaraj, founder of the Kongu Jana Nayaka Party, who is fighting this election in alliance with the BJP and is strongly opposed to intercaste marriages.advertisement”Follow her for a month or two. Make her fall in love. Take her away. She will either come with money or gold or her parents will be ready to pay any amount of money to take the girl back,” is how CK Nagaraj describes the modus operandi of the Dalit boys.At election time, such extreme views can cost votes. Hence the BJP chooses to be politically correct than sorry. Vanathi Srinivasan, the BJP candidate in Coimbatore says alliance partners have their own agenda and police and need not be endorsed by the BJP.Dalits complain that the political parties and the police force are dominated by the backward castes and they allege that deeprooted anti-Dalit sentiment reflects while handling cases of intercaste marriages and honour killings. They point out how a Gounder youth Yuvraj, the prime accused in the murder of Dalit youth Gokulraj, was allowed to surrender before the police, almost like a movie star.”When we go to the police station, nobody speaks to us with respect. They don’t address us properly, we are made to sit in one corner. Sometimes when I think about it, I hate living here in this state. I sometimes wish I could die. I have often felt sad for being born a Dalit,” rues Vadivelu, a Dalit in Coimbatore.To guard against the possibility of influential parents harming the couple, the police are roped in during the wedding. But that does little to assuage the feelings of deep insult that members of non-Dalit communities feel. Nagaraj calls such a match a “great insult”for the family.”They cannot walk outside on the street. If there is one more daughter, no one will to marry her,” he says.Even those not so well off, put a premium on caste honour. Muthuswamy Gounder, who works as a watchman at the Mariamman temple in Coimbatore, says if his son married a Dalit girl, he will cease to be a father to his son.”How can I feel happy if my son is ruined? I will feel angry only. But I will say to hell with them and not allow them into my home,” says Muthuswamy Gounder.Caste on their wristCaste is cast in stone in Tamil Nadu and people wear it on their sleeve. And in the case of school children in Tirunelveli, even on their wrist. Till November last year, the Thevars, Nadars, Yadavs sported red, yellow, blue and saffron wrist bands, while Dalits wore green, black or white. The intention was to identify the Dalits and make them internalise who they are. The Chief Education officer subsequently warned schools to stop the practise.In Coimbatore, I meet two motor mechanics – Senthil, a Dalit and Kanakraj, a Gounder. Friendship is a bond they share but they emphasise that they know the boundaries that caste has set for them. Senthil emphasises a Dalit boy marrying a Gounder girl is not right, inviting concurrence from Kanakraj who adds, “friendship is one thing but that is where we stop.”With all indications that Tamil Nadu could see a close contest, every vote is important. At the AIADMK office in Madathukulam constituency, I meet MLA C Shanmugavelu, who also served as Tamil Nadu’s Industry minister in 2011. The political grapevine suggests that he was not given the ticket this time because of the shoddy handling of Kausalya-Sankar case, which was highlighted by the national media, unlike other honour killings that get buried silently. Shanmugavelu denies his party despite being dominated by Thevars and Gounders, is anti-Dalit. At election time, he like all members of his ilk, sees communities as vote banks and says all Dalit votes come into his party’s kitty.Shanmugavelu is not off the mark. Dalits never had a strong political voice to represent them in Tamil Nadu so their votes scattered all over the place are mopped up by the two Dravidian parties, paying lip service to the Dalit cause.”They are focusing on being representatives of intermediate castes. They are not worried about Dalits as they feel Dalit votes can be bought,” says Balasundaram.Like Ponguttem, who lives a stone’s throw away from Kausalya’s home in the Dalit colony in Udumalpet. She says she feels bad for the young widow but at election time, free white goods win the battle over self-respect. “I have Amma mixie, Amma grinder and Amma fan. I am happy with all that. My vote also will go to Amma,” says Ponguttem.Mindset of slave and masterDalits admit the mindset is one of slave and master. Where there are demarcated spaces, especially on social occasions like temple festivals that are considered the most important part of the village calendar and Dalits have often demanded their right to enter these temples, their right to worship and take part in the temple festivals. The dominant OBCs in the same village have often opposed this.”The reason Dalits aren’t able to stand up against those upper caste members is that most of them own lands, we are coolie class, we can’t do anything against them. It’s the question of our earning and survival. We are struggling for half a meal a day,” says Selvan, a Dalit.Films reinforce caste equationsPopular Tamil films have reinforced the caste equations, deepening the fissures. For instance, the popular song `Potri Paadadi Penne’ in the 1992 superhit Tamil film `Thevar Magan’ starring Kamal Haasan, spoke about praising the land touched by Thevar’s feet. The caste chauvinism and machismo masquerading as entertainment even triggered caste clashes in college hostels at that time.Filmmaker Che Guvera says, “The Thevar community who were oppressing Dalits in south Tamil Nadu will force them to play the song ‘potri paadadi penne, thevar kaal adi manney’. Dalits were forced to play that song in their marriages and funerals to praise the Thevar. Even in funerals, they had to, they were so oppressed.”Analysts point out that reserved constituencies, that were meant to be a vehicle of Dalit emancipation … are anything but that. Senkotaiyan of the Dalit Liberation Party says, “In any reserved constituency in entire Tamil Nadu, whoever has got a seat, he must go to the upper castes and say – I will not speak anything against you, If you do any wrong to any Dalit, I will ensure there is no FIR filed. Whatever you say, I will follow, I will not go against you. Only then, will they get a vote from those upper community members.”Which is why there are voices of protest emerging. Roshan, a Dalit is contesting the election in Coimbatore, just to make a point that the scheduled castes now want to reclaim spaces outside their reserved constituencies. “If you give us tickets in reserved category seats, how does it matter? Give us tickets in general category seats and make us feel proud,” says the 37-year-old photographer.In March, just a day after Sankar was killed, a report was released that said Tiruppur was India’s number one city in terms of job coverage. That 44 per cent of Tiruppur’s population was employed, mostly in the textile units in the town. The timing of the report was most ironic and showed that economic opportunity and prosperity did little to kill the dark underbelly of caste violence. A case of two Indias in one Tamil Nadu. This even as textile unit owners said caste was not a factor when it came to employability.The flip side however is that with money came a sense of pride in one’s caste identity. Poet Sripathy Padmanabha suggests that people should not use the caste name as their surname.As Tamil Nadu goes to polls on May 16, the Dalits are watching the wheel of democracy turn once again. Yet another occasion when they realise that they are just an ordinary cog in the wheel, with no access to the levers of control. (With inputs from Pratiba Raman)last_img

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