On December 12, 26-year-old Krishnamurthy, a resident of Pinjanur in Cuddalore district chanced upon a gathering of village elders near his residence. A member of the Adi Dravidar community, he became suspicious of the manner in which the crowd, consisting of members from his caste and the dominant Udaiyar caste, dispersed when he suddenly arrived.
"When I made some enquiries, my biggest fears came true. They had gathered to discuss the auctioning of the Panchayat chief and deputy posts," he tells TNM. "The two posts were given to members of the dominant Udaiyar caste for the price of Rs.16 lakh whereas the Dalits get Rs.8 lakh and the other community Rs.8 lakh. The money was given to build two separate Mariamman temples for the communities," he alleges.
The auction for the Panchayat posts comes ahead of the rural body elections which will be held in two-phases on December 27 and 30. The auction, in effect, reduces the election to a mere formality, with the winner decided in advance.
This the third such instance to be reported from the district of Cuddalore alone in Tamil Nadu. Other such incidents have been reported in Ramanathapuram, Pudukkottai, Virudhunagar and Thanjavur. At Nadukuppam in Cuddalore, a video of the auctioning which quotes amounts as high as Rs 50 lakh, went viral earlier this month. Here too, the money collected was to be used for the completion and renovation of the Sri Draupadiamman temple and for the betterment of the village.
'Using religion to manipulate'
Krishnamurthy, who is an advocate by profession, is amongst the youth in the district who have been vocal against this 'sale of democracy'. He points out that caste and religion is largely used as an influencing factor to buy votes.
"In all these auctions, you will notice that money being given is for temples. Our village does not even have a physical building for noon meals for children to be made. The school itself has a roof that is leaking and we haven't had proper water supply since November. But all that is never a concern," he points out. "These village elders play on people's religious beliefs. While they better existing temples, they agree to build one for the Dalit community which won't be allowed into the functioning places of worship," he adds.
Sources in the AIADMK, who spoke to TNM on the condition of anonymity agree with this.
"We are aware that this is practice at the Panchayat level. But the party itself is not actively involved in the process. The practice has begun over the last two decades because of a gap in the government's ability to meet the requirements of these villages," says a leader. "While we look at basic amenities such as roads or electricity, the villagers want temples, community halls and restoration of ponds that we don't do for every village. Therefore, they pick people with the resources to do this," he admits.
Practice over a century old
The practice, according to villagers, experts and government sources dates back to the colonial era when a feudal system existed in the villages. The Tamil Nadu Panchayatâ€™s Act was enacted in April 1994 and it was in May 1996 that the first ordinary elections were held to all the rural and urban local bodies. According to C Lakshmanan of the Madras Institute of Developmental Sciences, the state has failed to ensure a transition from selection to election in its villages.
"As per feudal traditions there were village heads, who would be a landlord and/or member of the dominant caste who contributed to the development of the village. By development it could mean - temples, common wells or even roads in some cases. Such things brought them more power and control over people," he explains. "And even after a democratic process came into play, the power remains with these classes of people. Earlier the dominant caste automatically led the panchayat and the competition was between two to three men who were all affluent. And now, the same practice is actually continuing in the state, where they select (the panchayat) despite an election to keep the traditions the same. But those who remain left out in this process are oppressed castes, women and the landless," he adds.
The researcher points out that despite reservations for Dalits and women, the final decision lies with those who have traditionally held power, reducing those marginalised to rubber stamps.
3% decide fate of villagers
According to Professor Ramu Manivannan, Head of the Department of Politics and Public Administration at the University of Madras, the final decision on who heads the village is made by barely 3% of its population.
"It is a form of organised corruption." he says. "There is a bidding where 30 people decide the fate of 1000 residents of a village. that is barely even 3% of the population," he adds.
Krishnamurthy also alleges that the votes of villagers are sold due to the greed of a few.
"The dominant caste nominee Sekhar had already paid Rs 7 lakh before the elections got cancelled last time and has paid the rest now. Our anger is that for this money and for the promise of a temple, every villager has sold his vote. There over 900 residents in my village and the cost of our vote is barely even Rs.2000," he alleges. "And for opposing this practice and questioning the elders, I have received threats to my life from them," he adds.
In Virudhunagar, 27-year-old Satishkumar a resident of Kottipatti village, was beaten to death on December 11 for interfering in the auction process. Satishkumar was reportedly dissatisfied with the process and demanded that a member of his family be allowed to file nomination papers. Angered, other villagers beat him up, killing him on the spot.
However, district administrations throughout the state remain in denial.
District administration in denial
Both Pudukkottai and Cuddalore Collectors denied the existence of auctions in the state.
Cuddalore Collector V Anbuselvan told TNM, "We have made inquiries into all the complaints and so far we have received no evidence of any such illegal activities. In fact we have received over 20,000 nominations for 6039 posts going for polls. If it was a case of 'selection' why would there be so many nominees?" he asks.
The Collector further assures that free and fair elections will take place in the district.
However, villagers allege that the number of nominations is merely an eyewash.
"After I complained to the local authorities, Sekhar's wife was made to file a nomination and a member from the Dalit community was also made a dummy nominee," alleges Krishnamurthy. "Authorities only see what they want to."