The political discourse is controlled by the OBCs, who have little interest in the problems of the Dalits.

Dalits and Tamil Nationalism Why caste-killings dont trigger in-depth coverage in TNFile Image/PTI
news Opinion Tuesday, March 22, 2016 - 09:50

It might be surprising for many to be told that this news website, The News Minute, has been a lot more aggressive than the Tamil news media in covering the brutal slaying of Dalit youth Shankar.

Yes, barring The Hindu, which acquitted itself very well, even the English newspapers gave the ghastly incident very indifferent coverage. The less said about the Tamil newspapers the better, none of them have ever been very enthusiastic about caste-related issues. The Hindu in Tamil did it relatively better, with some good articles, but news-wise it has been pitiful.

The TV channels did highlight well, but their attention span is very limited anyway.

Why doesn’t honour-killing trigger in-depth coverage in Tamil Nadu? After all there have been innumerable postings on the Facebook after all, revealing a keen interest among certain sections.

The answer is simple – the political discourse is in effect controlled by the OBCs, who have little interest in the problems of the Dalits.

The so-called Dravidian movement, founded by the late Periyar E V Ramasamy, was essentially a struggle of the OBCs to dethrone the Brahmin hegemony.  The consequent empowerment of the intermediate non-Brahmin castes has made the situation of the Dalits evermore untenable.

Periyar himself was ambivalent towards them, sometimes saying without liberating the Dalits from thralldom, non-Brahmins themselves cannot become truly liberated, but he also regretted the reservation for the Dalits, saying while the interests of the minorities and the Dalits were sought to be protected by the new constitution, the OBCs were left to fend for themselves.

When the OBCs sealed their hold on power, it was the Dalits who had none to speak for them, though by and large they remained loyal to the Congress. They seemed to plump for MGR when he walked out of the DMK and some relief came their way, as power was centralized and regional caste satraps could not assert themselves much against MGR’s charisma.

Within a relatively more democratized DMK, district secretaries, mostly drawn from the intermediate castes, would seek to protect their own turf, ignoring the Dalits, even if not openly hostile to them.

Under Jayalalithaa but, while power is still centralized, the OBCs, especially the Thevars in the southern region and the Gounders in the west are a law unto themselves.

With the ascent of Ramadoss’s Pattali Makkal Katchi, the Vanniyars too have become a  vote-bank to be pampered and not antagonized, even when they are unfair to the Dalits.  

Predictably the intermediate caste assertion also morphed into Tamil nationalism over a period of time.

During Periyar’s times, it was called the Dravidian movement, embracing the people of the entire Madras presidency and its neighbouring southern regions. But since the non-Tamils cold-shouldered him, his self-respect campaigns against Brahmin domination became a vehicle of the Tamil non-Brahmins, barring the Dalits of course.

Still it was conceived of and appealed to its followers as a social reform movement. Tamil nationalism was only an undercurrent.

If the anti-Hindi agitation of 1965 and the DMK’s triumph two years later raised the Tamil quotient, it went up several notches when MGR walked out of the DMK.  Karunanidhi targeted his Keralite origins to shore up his own base, but in vain, as it turned out.

MGR himself was forced to establish his Tamil loyalty through all kinds of gestures.

But Tamil nationalism became full-blown only after the irruption of the ethnic strife in the neighbouring Sri Lanka.

Through all this process, it was the intermediate castes that continued to steer the discourse, indirectly ensuring the Dalit perspective was not articulated or remained sotto voce.

So much so, the problems of the Lankan Tamil Dalits were rarely mentioned, except by the Dalit enthusiasts themselves.  When the rebel group EPRLF, identified with the Tamil Dalits in the island and derisively referred to as the Eelathu Pallans (EPs), collaborated with the Indian government, it became still easier to make it look as if the Dalits were never to be trusted.

Thol Thirumavalavan, the Dalit leader, after his initial fiery denunciations of the intermediate castes, seemed to have sensed in Tamil nationalism a possible way of gaining acceptability by the mainstream.

So he started softening up on caste confrontations and became a strident champion of the LTTE. It did gain him a platform and he came to be feted, all right, but pro-Dalit initiatives began to take a backseat.

Thirumavalavan and Vanniyar leader Ramadoss, who too had jumped into the Tamil nationalist bandwagon, began to collaborate. It looked as if a new rainbow coalition was being born.

But when Ramadoss lost out politically for a variety of reasons, he ditched his partner and went after the Dalits aggressively, in effect orchestrating the deadly attacks in Dharmapuri a few years ago. He also got together under one umbrella the OBCs locking horns with the Dalits.

These days his anti-Dalit rhetoric is a lot more muted, but the damage has been done. We continue to witness honour killings all over, with monotonous regularity, the governments of the day turning a blind eye and major parties humming and hawing, never taking the issue head on.

Worse both Thirumavalavan of the Viduthalai Chiruthaikal and Dr Krishnasamy of the Pudhiya Thamizhakam, two key Dalit leaders, don’t take to the streets in a big way, demanding justice. They are busier with the state assembly elections fast approaching.

It might also be interesting to be told that in the salubrious Ooty hills, the non-Tamil Badagas are politically most powerful as they are numerically dominant, and are a landed community as well.

It is here a large percentage of hill country Tamils, a big chunk of them Dalits and repatriated from Sri Lanka, wound up, penniless. Having been conned out of the measly relief they received from the government, they went to the Nilgiris as the weather there was relatively more comfortable, and they became slaves in Badaga households.

It required intense struggles by various NGOs to throw off the Badaga yoke, but even now they remain essentially second class citizens -  barring perhaps in Dalit outfits, they don’t hold any office in any party.

That is, Tamil nationalism will ignore the Tamils themselves if it can help consolidate the political power of the OBCs. That is how hollow it is all.

A poster of a Tamil Nationalist organization protesting the recent hacking of Dalit man in TN

Latter day Tamil nationalists try to be a lot more inclusive, as you can see above in the campaign poster of a meeting got up to show solidarity with the hapless Kausalya. But essentially they are fringe groups, and hence a long, long way to go before the Tamil Nadu Dalits are treated honourably.

The CPM too has begun to champion the cause of the Dalits with some determination, but again it will be a while, if ever, before such initiatives become mainstream.

 

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