The sleepy town of Tiruchengode has seen several caste-related controversies and violence in the past couple of years.

Casting votes for caste In Tiruchengode hope for a Dalit MLA and better toilets
news TN 2016 Saturday, April 23, 2016 - 00:27

It’s a fairly steep climb up to a large colony at the foothills of the Ardhanareeshwarar temple at Tiruchengode. Some are slumped on their plastic chairs outside their homes, the heat playing touch-and-go on their faces. “This whole area is a Vanniyar colony, Dalit area is in the centre,” a woman says. 

The sleepy town of Tiruchengode has seen several caste-related controversies and violence in the past couple of years. DMDK’s Sampath Kumar is the sitting MLA of this constituency and was elected to power when DMDK was in an alliance with the AIADMK in 2011. The area’s population is concentrated in transport businesses, and has over a lakh registered voters. Sampathkumar defeated the Congress by a margin of over 23,000 votes. Tiruchengode has largely been an AIADMK stronghold. This time, Pon Saraswathi will be contesting, and while she hasn't begun her canvassing yet, many pledge their loyalty with the AIADMK. 

Many in Ambedkar colony, which has a population of 15,000 people, say they had voted for Sampath Kumar as he was in an alliance with the AIADMK then and had contested under the two leaves symbol. A few blocks from the local temple, a bright green row of stalls glean in the light. “The government had also built a toilet for us, but it’s more for them than us,” Kasturi, a daily wage labourer, says. A fight had broken out between the two groups over the toilet, but it was settled that the Vanniyars would continue to use it and forbid Dalits from stepping foot in the community toilets.

“Ironically, this area is called Ambedkar colony, but we face segregation almost everyday,” Selvan, a worker at the temple, says. Perumal Murugan and Gokulraj continue to haunt them, but for them trying to move on from the labels is the most important. “How can we move on when caste is there when we simply want to go to the toilet? All the schemes go to waste then.” The Ambedkar bust stands, three paths forking from it, and Selvan recounts another fight. “They have refused to lay the road opposite the statue just because they don’t want us Dalits to walk that road. They told us it is to prevent conflicts with Vanniyars, but I think it’s just to spite us.”

 When asked about intercaste marriages, they all heave sighs and flash an apologetic smile. “We end up discouraging Dalits and Vanniyars who fall in love from getting married, and we don’t want to. But we also don’t want another huge conflict. When they want to marry despite our disapproval, we pack them off and ask them to leave quietly,” Selvan says. Kasturi intervenes, “We have nothing against inter-caste marriages, we are just exhausted and don’t want another big caste fight. We have enough over water and toilets, imagine what will happen then?” 

Selvan is quick to offer a solution, and many in the locality hail him as a good leader. He blushes at a compliment and confesses he’s a Thiruma fan. “Our MLA did something smart. He divided certain large wards to provide better representation for people who form the majority of that ward. I feel, if he does that for us, we will be able to elect a Dalit councillor who understands our problems.” The recent councilor elections were predictably won by the Vanniyar because they enjoyed a majority in the ward. “Everyone says politics cannot change our fate, but maybe this one move can.” Kasturi laughs and agrees, “Maybe we can build better roads and have that toilet to ourselves.” 

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