Voices Tuesday, July 21, 2015 - 05:30
Image courtesy: dalitnation.org By C Lakshmanan Tamil Nadu has many distinctions in terms of development indicators, compared to other states. In contrast, intra state comparisons between rural and urban, land owning and landless, organized and unorganized workers and the Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribes and others section of the population, provide an altogether different picture.  These have been highlighted in recently released socio-economic survey data. Further, social change or transformation espoused by the state’s anti-Brahmin politics is yet to translate into reality to the benefit of the people at bottom of the socio-economic structure. Even the traditional caste rigidity hasn’t changed in any substantial and meaningful sense. Hence, one has to understand the qualitative difference between anti-Brahmin politics and anti-caste politics, which remains only at the level of rhetoric. The manner in which Dalit aspirations are rumpled by the ruling class/caste in the state and the widespread prevalence of untouchability and violence against Dalits are a testimony to this fact.  The Dalits have gradually realized the betrayal of anti-Brahmin and Dravidian politics. As a result, they have begun to organise themselves, reconstruct their identity, assert their rights, alter caste customs and idioms and demand land and increased wages. They have begun claiming their independent identity outside the arena of anti-Brahmin politics. In the process they haverejuvenated their collectivity on the basis of their cultural moorings. This has resulted in a heavy backlash from different agencies in every state apparatus, particularly as the Dalits become conscious of their objective conditions and assert their rights over public space and their personal liberty. A decade ago writer S Viswanathan made emphatic an observation, “Numerous are the ways in which Dalits are tormented. They are murdered and maimed; women are raped; their children are abused and deprived of schooling; they are dispossessed of their property; their houses are torched; they are denied their legitimate rights; and their sources of livelihood are destroyed."  One can cite several examples of caste oppression in social and cultural expressions of the Dalits. The oppression that Dalits experience today is caused by the intermediary caste groups – vanguard of casteism and reserve army of the Hindutva. The equality and justice that the Dravidian movement fought for, and to a measure achieved, were limited to the Non-Brahmin dominant, intermediary castes. The response of the government of the time has been limited to the setting up of ‘judicial’ enquiry commissions to investigate causes for violence against Dalits and recommend measures to prevent such violence and create conducive atmosphere for peaceful co-existence of diverse social groups. Notable are Justice Panikkar Commission, 1956, Muthukalthur violence; Justice Ganapthy Pillai Commission 1969, Keezhavenmani violence; Justice Sadasivam Commission 1978, Villupuram violence; Justice RamamoorthyCommision, 1981, Sangarangulam violence; Justice Bashkar Commission, 1989, Bodi violence; Justice Gomathi Nayagam Commission, 1996, Kodiyangulam violence; Justice M. Kamatchi Commission, 1997, Thuraiyur Police Firing (Tirunelveli); Justice Mohan Commission 1997, Riots against Dalits in southern districts; Justice Nainar Sundaram Commission, 1997, Riots against Dalits in southern districts; Justice Murugesan Commission, 1998, Gundupatti violence; Justice Mohan Commission, 1999, Tamiraparani Massacre; Justice Sampath Commission 2011 and Justice Venkatachalam Commission.  Apart from these commissions there are other Commissions as well to investigate the series of violence against Dalits that took place during 1989-91 in the Southern districts of Tamil Nadu. These commissions were headed by mostly retired judges, who happen to be from dominant caste background, and had hardly any Dalits as a member or head of  a commission.  For each commission, the state spent average Rs 25 lakhs to Rs 1 crore for the investigation and sought recommendations for preventing atrocities and violence. It is regretful to note that these commissions’ reports were not placed in the state Legislative Assembly, state administrative meetings or meetings of bureaucrats to translate it into implementation. It is to be noted that Tamil Nadu has highest number of commissions on Violence against Dalits. These Commissions have been appointed by DMK and AIADMK regime and it is evident that both political parties handle atrocities on Dalit in similar manner. When compared to Tamil Nadu, states like Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra have had very few commissions on Dalit atrocities, such as Justice Punnayya Commission and Justice Gundewar Commission respectively. For instance, Maharashtra had only one commission which recommended that “Manohar Kadam, Officer in-charge, be held responsible for culpable homicide (of 10 Dalits in Ramabai Nagar, in 1997)”.  Those commissions identified the culprits for the violence and recommended action and also reconciliation programmes. And also those commissions’ reports and recommendations have been widely discussed in the Legislative Assembly as well as in the public forum, which resulted in policy formulations to prevent atrocities on marginalised. In contrast, Tamil Nadu had more than 15 commissions of enquiry on violence against Dalits, which hardly found and punished any one for the culpable homicides whether it is Villupuram case in 1980s, Tamiraparani of late 1990s and Paramakudi of 2010. Indeed it is painful to note that then chief minister of Tamil Nadu made a public statement that he cannot take any action against district police officer because he belongs to dominant caste of the state. It is interesting to hear state administrations concern about officers’ caste than their transgression (Death of River, documentary film, 1999). In Paramakudi police firing, in which more than six Dalits had been killed, the Sampath Commission (2010) appreciated the police officers for firing that prevented major caste violence. In 2013, speaking at the Madras Institute of Development Studies, Justice K. Chandru remarked, “not just the enquiry commissions’ reports but even the orders delivered by the high court were not implemented in some cases by the governments”. Further he observed that “the Madras High Court had directed state government to ensure the participation of Dalits in pulling of the Kandadevi temple car and performing other rituals. Many Dalits were stopped and arrested before they could reach the temple. Then a small group of Dalits was taken to the spot and photographs taken as if to show that they were pulling the temple car. That’s how the then Tamil Nadu governments established that the court order was being implemented”. Activist Haragopal said in 2013 that “most of the enquiry commission reports mostly ended up as unworkable as the state governments tried to circumvent the court orders through camouflage and deceit”. Further he observed that “whenever the oppressed class fought for rights, the protesters were termed as Naxals and in my three decades of closely studying social issues, I have seen several incidents of poor protesters being punished by not just the dominant caste people but even the state machinery”. Data on crimes against Dalits in Tamil Nadu show an increasing trend: The total number of cases for trial for crimes against Scheduled Castes by courts in Tamil Nadu was 3659 in 2011, 4039 in 2012 and 4630 in 2013. Cases of atrocities on the Scheduled Castes registered under the Prevention of Atrocity (PoA) Act were 829 in 2005, 1064 in 2007 and 1194 in 2008. These figures are, however, a gross understatement. It is only under exceptional circumstances that a Dalit musters courage to complain against his caste-Hindu tormentors, says Anand Teltumbde. Further, as the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes noted, atrocities against SCs and STs have increased in absolute numbers and have assumed newer forms, some of which perhaps the PoA Act is not currently equipped to address such as case of “Honour” killing. Madurai based organisation, Evidence is meticulously collecting data on these kinds of violence for public concern. Society ought to be judged fundamentally by the quality of social relations. Our colossal political vacuum understandably leaves much deeper socio-political issues of how citizens relate to each other in shared public spaces. Baseline ethical value of any democracy should be the absence of discrimination. Justice is about how we treat each other. One should take interest in taking moral and ethical positions about transforming social relationships. As Pratap Bhanu Mehta argued, the texture of social relations between marginalized communities and others is deeply debilitating for marginalized groups in ways one cannot imagine. Therefore, the challenge of combating discrimination and violence against the marginalised is challenging. The state abdicates its responsibility for basic security of Dalits. It is not only indifferent to, but also appears most times actively protecting perpetrators of atrocities and tacitly promoting them. Indeed, it is time to rethink to what extent the contemporary society is fed by casteist rituals and tradition and to what extent by modern institutions. In a society undergoing rapid change in social norms, how do we ensure that these evolving progressive norms are not truncated by regressive violence? This is not just a matter for law. On equally serious note, how do we explain the fact that politicians, judges and police officials are not doing anything to diminish the enormity of the crimes being committed. The writer is an Assistant Professor at Madras Institute of Development Studies, Chennai.  

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