Five years after caste violence ripped through the district, the police and its people are on edge again as a Vanniyar woman married a Dalit man.

As Priyanka weds Raj Kumar the threat of caste violence haunts Dharmapuri yet again
news Caste violence Friday, January 05, 2018 - 16:07

Nallampalli village in Dharmapuri district is shrouded in silence. The streets are conspicuously empty for a weekday afternoon – shops have tightly drawn their shutters and large bolts secure the houses. Keeping a keen eye on these streets is an enormous force of 650 police officers, brought in from four districts of the state.

Large vehicles, bearing the riot-control team, several ambulances and tempo vans are all stationed, ready to be pressed into service if required.  

Five years after caste violence tore through Dharmapuri and sent shock waves across Tamil Nadu, the district’s police and its people are on edge once more.

And the reason is hauntingly familiar – a woman from the Vanniyar community married a Dalit man.

History of violence

On 29 December, 2017, 20-year-old Priyanka Jagtheesan was supposed to come home from her hostel in Namakkal district, but she never made it back. The student of a private Arts and Science college in Tiruchengode, had eloped and married 22-year-old M Raj Kumar, who belongs to the Dalit community.

According to Raj Kumar's relatives, the couple, who hail from the same village, had attended a government school together. They reconnected later, after Raj Kumar discontinued his studies to pursue a career in volleyball. 

The families had allegedly warned their children against pursuing the relationship. Both fathers have formerly served in the Indian Army, but that did not stop them from emphasising on the divisions that exist in society. The dominant Vanniyar community in north Tamil Nadu, which has the backing of S Ramadoss' Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), is known for its clashes with Dalits in the region. 

In this instance, Priyanka's uncle was the President of the Panchayat for 18 villages in the district and the police claim he has links with the PMK. The party relies on its Vanniyar vote bank in the district. 

"We knew they were in love from 2013," admits 43-year-old Palaniammal, Raj Kumar's mother, who has now moved out of the village for security reasons. TNM contacted her relatives in Dharmapuri to track down the family and will keep their location undisclosed to ensure her safety. 

"We are not against a love marriage, but the social situation is what has made us rigid. I do not want my son to become another Ilavarasan," she laments.

Palaniammal's fears are not unwarranted.

Dharmapuri still bears the scars of violence that shook Dalit settlements in 2012 when Ilavarasan, a Dalit, married Divya, a Vanniyar. Her father allegedly committed suicide over his daughter's decision to live with a lower-caste man and the horrific violence that followed ended with 200 houses belonging to the lower caste community in Natham colony and nearby villages being burnt to the ground. A 1,500-strong mob of Vanniyar men went on a rampage and it took 1,000 police personnel to bring the situation under control. 

While Divya went back to live with her parents following the violence, Ilavarasan was found dead a year later. The police claimed he committed suicide, but Dalit families across Dharmapuri believe otherwise.

"Ilavarasan was murdered and I am scared my son’s life is under threat,” says Palaniammal.

When two adults get married

Nallampalli, like most villages in Tamil Nadu, is divided between Dalit and Other Backward Caste settlements. There are close to 200 Vanniyar families and 300 Dalit families here. Caste identities and political beliefs are flaunted brazenly in divided areas. In this instance, Priyanka lived on the Vanniyar street, while Raj Kumar's residence has posters of Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi Chief (VCK) Thol Thirumavalavan pasted liberally across its walls – VCK is viewed as a Dalit party.  

Soon after he learnt his daughter was missing, Priyanka's father filed a case of abduction against Raj Kumar. This, despite the fact she wrote a letter to the District Police Chief stating she was leaving home to marry her boyfriend as her parents would never approve of her decision. She also requested protection for herself and her family in the letter, which she not only signed but also left her thumb impression on.

Ignoring all this, on December 30, Priyanka’s brother, Vijay, allegedly went to the Dalit settlement, with two others, and beat up Raj Kumar's relatives. 

"Vijay even warned that he will cut our son into pieces and leaves his body in a sack on the road, even if he comes back ten years later," says Palaniammal, her voice breaking.

The police immediately arrested the troublemakers, but the damage was done. "We left the house immediately after that. We know that even if there is an attack on us, our neighbours won't come to help us. They will, in fact, blame us for any violence that erupts in the area," she adds. 

But was this skirmish enough to warrant the deployment of a sea of police officers?

"No," says Dharmapuri Superintendent of Police Pandi Gangadhar. "On December 31, we found men in the Dalit settlement preparing petrol bombs. We managed to stop them just in time. They could have either used it to attack another community or set fire to their own homes, resulting in massive chaos.” 

According to the SP, 400 police officers have been posted inside the village, while 250 others are stationed at the periphery. 

Large vehicles, bearing the riot-control team, ready to be pressed into service if required.  

"We have a history of caste violence here and the police needs to be prepared for any kind of untoward activity," he says. 

Thirty petrol bombs have reportedly been seized, and cases have been filed against the Dalit youth found making petrol bombs and Priyanka's relatives for the assault. 

When TNM attempted to visit Priyanka’s residence to understand her family’s stand on the issue, we were not allowed to enter the street. The police claimed that media activity in the village would increase tensions.

"The truth is that both families have no objections to the marriage now. They are ready to accept it. I have spoken to the girl's father, and he says all he wants is to be able to see her and talk to her again," says the SP. 

Then who is creating this tension?

"External forces are silently at play here," says the officer. 

A plan in motion

Since Ilavarasan's death, Nallampalli has seen at least four inter-caste marriages, locals say. The couples usually move to the Dalit settlement as they apparently find more acceptance there. Despite this, Raj Kumar and Priyanka's marriage has led to high levels of tension. 

The fact that PMK and VCK men have swung into action here may explain why.

"It is all about timing," says Thagadhoor Tamizhselvan, headquarters secretary of the VCK, who is in Dharmapuri to monitor the 'escalating tensions'. At his residence in Adhiyamankotai, members of the party are slowly trickling in and Nallampalli is the only subject of discussion here. "The violence last time, in 2012, took place ahead of the Parliamentary elections and the PMK won the Dharmapuri seat. And now, 2019 is set to see another round of elections and the planning has already begun," he alleges. 

When asked about the Dalit youth apprehended, however, he is quick to deny their involvement. "They are being framed by the police. It is common practice to arrest youth from both communities," he claims. 

PMK founder Ramadoss issued a press release soon after the arrests, condemning the 'abduction' of a Vanniyar woman. 

"The abduction of a woman from our community by Raj Kumar of another caste is the reason for all these problems," the PMK chief says in the release.

"The arrested youth were either trying to attack the area where Priyanka's family lives or burn their own settlements and blame the other community for it," he adds, referring to the allegations of PMK's involvement in the 2012 violence.

"To earn political mileage out of such acts has become the practice for some anti-social elements in Dharmapuri. They have been successful in the past, but have not succeeded this time around due to police intervention," he further claims.

Protection continues

The Vanniyar Ilaignar Sangam (Vanniyar Youth Association) called for a bandh and it was alleged that they even forcefully closed those shops that defied their call.

"They claim that they have nothing to do with the PMK, but we can't really take any chances," says the SP. "We are concerned about the frontal organisations of the parties and are holding talks with the leaders to ensure peace. We are taking a multi-pronged approach – in terms of police security and peace talks.” 

But how long will this massive police team be in place?

"We don't know yet," says the officer. "At this point, we have to be alert if the couple returns and even if they choose not to."