Patriarchal and Anti-Dalit Offensive in Tamil Nadu

For the past few months, Tamil Nadu has been witnessing an orchestrated political offensive against the rights of Dalits. There have been several instances of mob violence against Dalits, including the attack on Dalit colonies in Dharmapuri district in November 2012 and the attack on a Dalit colony in Marakkanam in April 2013. Along with the physical assault, however, the present offensive against Dalits is marked by an ideological offensive against inter-caste marriage, specifically, marriage of non-Dalit women with Dalit men, and against the supposed ‘misuse’ of the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act by Dalits. The offensive underlines the inseparable relationship between casteism and patriarchy: the control of women’s freedom and sexual/marital choices is a crucial element in maintaining the caste hierarchy. It is no coincidence that the attacks on the rights and freedom of Dalits are accompanied by attacks on the rights and freedom of women.

The Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) is the party that has been spearheading the ongoing offensive. The PMK is a party with a base primarily among the backward Vanniar caste. The PMK hopes that by whipping up frenzy against inter-caste marriage and Dalits, it can consolidate the Vanniar community (whose loyalties are currently scattered across various parties) and forge a broader ‘backward’ alliance, making inroads into the base of the DMK and AIADMK.

In November 2012, the attack on Dalits in Dharmapuri was orchestrated on the pretext of the marriage of a Vanniar woman Divya with a Dalit man Elavarasan. A kangaroo court of the backward castes was held which demanded that the couple separate. In a planned move, politically motivated men from the Vanniar community taunted Divya’s father until, egged on by them, he committed suicide. His funeral procession was promptly used to launch the attack on the Dalit Natham colony. 350 Dalit homes were looted and then torched, forcing the Dalits to flee to the forest. Schoolbags, books, and cycles of school-going children were burnt – sending the clear message that Dalits should not aspire to education. The social mobility and prosperity of the Dalits was the target.

The role of the police in the Dharmapuri incident reeked of bias. The police refrained from acting or getting additional force to the spot for four full hours. The SP of the district was the same officer who headed the Madurai police at the time of the Paramakudi massacre of Dalits.

It has been pointed out that inter-caste marriages are fairly common in the region. Tamil Nadu is the land of Periyar who had vocally advocated inter-caste marriages and women’s freedom. The marriage of Divya and Elavarasan was therefore not a ‘spontaneous’ trigger of caste violence. Some months before the incident, local PMK MLA Kaduvetti J Guru, who heads the Vanniyar Sangam had publicly warned that Dalit men who married Vanniar women would have their hands and heads chopped off. Clearly, there was a premeditated campaign against Dalits and women’s rights, predating the actual marriage.

After the Dharmapuri incident, PMK founder S Ramadoss said of Dalit youth, “They wear jeans, T-shirts and fancy sunglasses to lure girls from other communities,” alleging that backward caste women who married Dalit men subsequently suffered desertion, exploitation and harassment. He advocated “Keeping a vigil on girls and ensuring that they do not fall prey to love is the duty of parents and elders in the family as well as community”, and raising of the age of marriage for women to 21!

Several months later, in April 2013, the PMK had given a call for a Vanniar rally at Mahabalipuram celebrating the Chiththirai (1st month of the Tamil New Year) full moon day festival. Vanniars from all over North Tamil Nadu were mobilized in a charged atmosphere, and there was a planned attack on a Dalit colony in Marakkanam en route to Mahabalipuram. Again, Dalit homes were torched, again the police did not act in any preventive way to protect the Dalits, though there was a clear danger that such violence might occur. In fact, the police arrived on the spot two hours after the attack began. The destruction would have been much greater but for the fact that Dalit youth organized to resist the violence, holding a road blockade.

The AIADMK Government headed by Jayalalithaa has taken a posture of opposition to the PMK’s anti-Dalit campaign, with senior PMK leaders being arrested and booked in cases following the Marakkanam attack. But this posture is very superficial. The Government has failed to acknowledge its own complicity in failing to provide protection to the Dalits both at Dharmapuri and Marakkanam, and in the collusion of the police force in allowing the mobs to commit carnage without any interference. For a whole year, the PMK carried out its aggressive anti-Dalit mobilization and provocative speeches, and yet the Government failed to take adequate protective measures for Dalits even when a massive PMK rally was to take place.

The entire episode also highlighted the superficiality of ‘Tamil nationalist’ and Dravidian politics in Tamil Nadu, which is marked by empty symbolism, opportunism, and a lack of grounding in any firm democratic commitment. The Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (Liberation Panthers Party) headed by Thol Thirumavalavan is projecting itself as the champion of the Dalit cause against the PMK offensive. But till recently, the VCK and the PMK were closely allied with each other, with S Ramadoss garlanding Amkedkar statues, and the VCK conferring honorific titles of ‘Tamil Kudithaangi’ (Upholder of the Tamil People) and ‘Ambedkar Sudar’ (Ambedkar Flame) on Dr. Ramadoss. On the question of women’s rights and freedom, none of Tamil Nadu’s Dravidian parties – DMK, AIADMK – or the VCK or PMK – acknowledge the radical writings of Periyar on the subject. Rather, their rhetoric is full of imagery of the ‘Tamil Mother’ and chaste Tamil femininity. Hearing them, one would never guess that Periyar, the founding figure of the Dravidian movement, earthily denounced the very notion of chastity as a feminine virtue, and argued vehemently for women’s complete sexual freedom as well as freedom from the compulsions of motherhood and domestic drudgery.

The unhappy postscript to the Dharmapuri incident is that Divya has told the High Court that she wishes to separate from her husband Elavarasan. In spite of the pressure, however, she made no allegations or complaints against him. She declared that he was a good man, but that the situation had made it impossible for her to continue in the marriage. She sought to live with her mother for the time being.

Dharmapuri used to be a Naxalite stronghold some 30 years ago. The village where the incident occurred is one where the statues of CPI(ML) leaders Appu and Balan still hold pride of place. The fact that vested interests are able to whip up sentiment against inter-caste marriage and Dalits in such a village is testimony to the social consequences of the repression and decline of the revolutionary Left movement. It is also a reminder for us in the revolutionary Left movement, of how the agenda of challenging the structures of caste and gender oppression is as much part of the struggle as issues of wages and land for the landless poor.

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