Even as the two-phase rural local body polls are underway in Tamil Nadu, Dalit residents of multiple villages in Coimbatore district have alleged rampant casteism during campaigning, questioning candidates on their plans to eradicate casteism.
Beginning from the pamphlets printed for campaigning that bear caste names to the segregated roads through which caste Hindu candidates travel to seek votes, Dalit communities have pointed to the systemic injustice prevalent in these parts, particularly against the Arunthathiyar community in the district. With these structures of caste in place for decades together, villagers also expressed their disappointment at the various DMK and AIADMK governments for working to preserve the repressive status quo.
TNM's investigation into these villages found that the discriminatory two-tumbler system was widely practiced, in addition to the presence of untouchability walls to segregate Dalits. Anti-caste activists and villagers also showed TNM a separate burial ground in Vilankurichi village in Coimbatore and the arduous path to it, designated for Dalits. The men and women seeking their vote, however, have neither addressed these long-standing issues nor promised solutions for the future.
‚ÄėOnly our votes are needed, not us‚Äô
Speaking to TNM, Periyar Mani, a social activist from the Kinathukadavu village, says that even as the local body polls are underway, dominant castes have come asking for votes only during elections. "Equality is bitter for them but our votes are sweet. We are not allowed to cut our hair at the same barber shop, use the same burial ground but during elections, we are being politely invited to cast our vote for them. All other times, they see caste but when it comes to important posts and representation in local government, they reach out to us. On other days, Dalits are not even allowed to drink tea at the same place as dominant castes,‚ÄĚ says Periyar Mani.
In Sathyamangalam, the absence of local government for over three years has meant no action on an untouchability wall that has been blocking access to a Dalit colony.
Gopal, a Dalit farmer, says that despite multiple complaints to authorities, the only path the residents of the colony have is an unstable canal. A state government response to an RTI points to 502 villages in the area practising untouchability.
"Even that canal cannot be accessed in the monsoon. There is no access to our own land because of an apartment complex. The drains have been closed. They (apartment owners) came to beat us. The RDO told them to allow our canals to function but we can't use it in the monsoon. We are mostly elderly people here. We are not able to go about our agricultural business, it affects our work. Even if we need to rush to the hospital for an emergency, we are unable to do so," he laments.
The residents have since approached the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and are unable to visit in person due to the cost and logistics involved. "We are trying our best. They keep threatening us with their security guards. The untouchability wall must be removed and access should be open to all,‚ÄĚ demands Gopal.
‚ÄėNo political representation in DMK, AIADMK‚Äô
Panneerselvam, president of the Samooga Neethi Katchi, alleges that in these local body polls, both the DMK and the AIADMK are denying opportunities to Arunthathiyar candidates, even in reserved constituencies.
He says, ‚ÄúIn a democracy, the ballot box is stronger than a bullet. Without the right to vote, democracy is meaningless. The elections that are taking place right now are supposed to validate the political participation of the people but even today, Dalits, especially Arunthathiyars are not in a position to participate in the polls.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúIf they are able to overcome all these odds and participate, the big parties deliberately bring in someone else and make them lose. The DMK, which promised compartmental reservation for Arunthathiyars, has not given a chance for any Arunthathiyar candidate. The AIADMK promised six percent reservation but they too have not given any political representation to Dalits. Even in reserved constituencies, they are not being given the opportunity to contest,‚ÄĚ he alleges, adding, ‚ÄúThe panchami lands of Dalits are all here but they are denied the opportunity to speak about this in the gram sabhas. Their lands have been grabbed and so has their education. Both parties are against Dalits contesting in elections.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄėWill our lives matter if there were no polls?‚Äô
In Ukaram village, it was found that restaurants were using steel tumblers for caste Hindus and paper cups for Dalits in a blatant act of discrimination.
‚ÄúThey (upper caste candidates) come, talk to us sweetly and go away seeking our votes but they deceptively give us one tumbler and use another for themselves,‚ÄĚ says Kittan, a farmer from Sathyamangalam, alleging casteism in political parties. ‚ÄúWe should not support them because they never do anything for us. All these practices are still in place. We are always segregated. They make us sit where people generally leave their footwear,‚ÄĚ he observes.
‚ÄúOnly if caste is annihilated will we be able to live,‚ÄĚ he asserts.
Holding up two campaign pamphlets, Surya from the same neighbourhood, shows the difference between two people campaigning to be village president and ward member in Uthandiyur village. He asks, "In one pamphlet, it only mentions the name of the upper caste woman candidate but in the other, it denotes the Dalit woman candidate's caste. All of us are people so why is there such a difference? Are we merely political pawns? So if there's no elections, can our lives simply be ended?‚ÄĚ
(Edited by Manasa Rao)