Caste-based crimes continue unabated in Tamil Nadu during lockdown

Activists have recorded almost 25 caste-based crimes in Tamil Nadu during lockdown.
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Contrary to the belief that violence has reduced during the lockdown, anti-caste activists allege that caste-based violence has been on the uptick Tamil Nadu.

Instances of caste discrimination have been reported as a result of some linking the stigma associated with coronavirus to Dalit groups. Evidence, a Madurai-based NGO has recorded around 23 caste-related crimes during the lockdown period, including six murders and 3 (honour-related) caste killings in the state.

Villupuram district has seen attacks on Dalits over alleged fears that they may be ‘carriers of coronavirus’. When those from dominant castes oppose the entry into lanes used by them and Dalits resist, it leads to a clash between the two groups, says Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) Lok Sabha MP D Ravikumar who represents the Villupuram constituency.

“The stigma due to COVID-19 has been turned against Dalits as a social stigma,” he observes.

Referring to the cluster of cases at Chennai’s central fruit, flower and vegetable market, the MP says, “90% of the workforce are Dalits, so the outbreak has increased the stigma. When Dalits go to the water tank, ration shop and other public places, upper castes create tension. When Dalits resist, it leads to clashes. In these cases, action should be taken against people creating caste tensions immediately and the police should not be lenient,” says Ravikumar.

He believes that violence due to the coronavirus stigma will reduce once the lockdown is lifted.

However, Henri Tiphagne, founder and executive director of the Madurai-based human rights organisation People's Watch, disagrees with this assessment.

“Caste is caste. Even during the 2004 tsunami we saw caste, same as during Cyclone Ochki and now during the coronavirus outbreak. There is a break even for crimes, but there has been no leave for caste or untouchability even during natural disasters,” he says.

In a post on social media, Tamil film director Pa Ranjith, who has been vocal against caste, wrote, “Caste-based issues have yet again made us realize a painful lesson that no matter how many disasters come, the people will not throw away the barbarity of caste.”

The age-old suppression of forcing Dalits to perform sanitary work, continued even during the lockdown period. A 21-year-old worker of a sabudana factory and his uncle died of asphyxiation while cleaning the sewage tank in Salem last month.

Sanitary workers who have been on the frontline of the pandemic have also been subject to caste discrimination. In April, a sanitary worker in Chennai's Pallikaranai was abused by a Brahmin man who also threatened physical violence.

Dalits denied dignity in death

Dalit communities being denied dignity in death predates the outbreak of COVID-19. But the dire circumstances, created by the outbreak of the pandemic, have not changed casteist mindsets.

Many villages in Tamil Nadu have two burial grounds: one for intermediate castes and the other for Dalits. However, in some villages, burial grounds for Dalits are yet to be allotted.

38-year-old Shanmugam from the Arunthathiyar community (a Scheduled Caste community in Tamil Nadu) passed away at his home in Tiruppur district on April 22 due to seizures. Soon as the news of his death spread across the village, protesters gathered in large numbers.

Upon learning that there was no place left to bury his body, members of the Gounder community, gathered to deny a place near their burial ground. After a six-hour protest, he was laid to rest on the road.

“We tried reaching out to the police for help but they just said the road is a patta land and we cannot use it,” says a resident of the village. 

“Officials tell us to take our dead for electric cremation since we do not have a burial ground. But the electric cremation grounds are 25 km from our village and we need to take the body in an ambulance, which we cannot afford. Once the lockdown is lifted, we are planning to appeal to the National Commission for Scheduled Castes (NCSC) for allotting a burial ground,” says Senthil, an advocate and kin of the family.

“The lack of transportation has worsened our situation,” he adds.

30 Arunthathiyar families in Tiruppur district’s Palladam do not have a burial ground and their protest seeking allotment of a burial ground dates back 15 years. As protests failed to elicit any response, the Dalit community buries its dead in a pit near the main road.

As rain floods the pit each year, they make a new pit. As a result, the Arunthathiyars’ informal burial place has now reached the main road; they have no more place to bury the dead.

According to the residents of the village, the protest against burying the bodies intensified in the last 7 years after upper caste people started building their houses near the road. “We cannot question them because if we do they’ll abuse us with casteist slurs. Also we cannot oppose them since we work in the powerloom company owned by them,” says a resident. 

According to Senthil, the Gounders have a burial ground of 20-25 cents but the Arunthathiyars, who have been demanding a few cents of land, have not been allotted a place yet.

“The MLAs and administration belong to the Gounder community. They only help members of their caste. Even the Village Administrative Officer (VAO) doesn’t give a complaint against those men. All the issues are resolved within the panchayat, in which the head threatens the Arunthathiyars and they are forced to keep their mouth shut,” said Senthil.

Violence during lockdown

21-year-old Gowtham left his home in Pollachi in Coimbatore district on May 4, informing his mother that he would return within the hour. Three days later, all his mother saw was his corpse.

Gowtham belongs to the Chettiyar community, classified as Backward Caste (BC) in Tamil Nadu. He set out to meet his friend, a 13-year-old girl, from the Gavara Naicker community (classified as BC) at her house in the Suleeswaranpatti panchayat. While Gowtham was talking to the girl, the girl’s mother allegedly spotted them. Soon, family members gathered and locked the house with the duo inside, preventing Gowtham from leaving. According to the First Information Report (FIR), the girl’s father, brother and uncle rushed to the house and began attacking Gowtham with a wooden log and cricket bat, causing grievous head injury. The brutal attack went on for over an hour and the act was filmed by the family.

His friends admitted him to the Coimbatore Medical College Hospital and informed his family.  

Three days later, Gowtham succumbed to his injuries.

“We don’t even know who they are, but they have unleashed this attack on us because of our caste and class. When my sister went to the police station to file a complaint, the accused had told her, ‘We will come out of jail in a week, but we know your son will die for the amount of injuries we inflicted.’ What was the mistake done by the boy? He just went to see the girl. We don’t even know if that was friendship or a relationship,” says Thyagaraj, Gowtham’s uncle.

“Though in this case, both were from backward communities, there are still many other local dynamics at play including class and which caste is stronger in a locality,” says Kathir, from Evidence NGO.

‘SC/ST Act not being implemented’

Anti-caste activists say that strict implementation of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act will create fear among caste Hindus.

“Police and the administration have a good SC/ST Act that can be slapped against the perpetrators. However, the police are thinking that during lockdown days, caste violence won’t happen. Sometimes, police also act as casteists— only in some cases, police understand the severity of the issue,” says Henri Tiphagne.

Senthil says, “The SC/ST Act is not being slapped against caste Hindus, even if they indulge in an offence. The government should just ensure the smooth functioning of the National Commission for Scheduled Caste and the SC/ST Act.”

Lok Sabha MP Ravikumar says, “We need to conduct meetings to review the efficiency of the Act while implementing it at each and every stage. However, many states haven’t conducted any review meetings resulting in the fallout of the new laws.”

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