How caste names have stoked tensions and violence

Whats in a name Tamil Nadus stormy past with caste names on street corners and institutions
news Caste Friday, September 02, 2016 - 12:40

Recently, the Madras High Court closed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) petition that sought a direction to the Tamil Nadu government to remove caste names prefixed and suffixed to the names of government and government-aided educational institutions in the state.

According to The Hindu, the petitioner’s contention was that several go­v­e­rnment-run or -aided educational institutions in the state continue to have caste na­mes. The petitioner su­bmitted a brief list of schools which included ‘Chikkaiah Naicker College’, ‘Yadava College’, ‘Government Kallar Higher Secondary School,’ ‘Nadar Saraswathi HSS and Sri Krishna Iyer Government Higher Secondary School.’ Some of the institutions might have been named after the persons who constructed or donated land for the schools. Some others were named after leaders.

The government sh­ou­ld strive to remove the ca­ste system, without le­tting it infiltrate the mi­n­ds of students, the petitioner said.

The state government submitted that aided private colleges were maintained solely by private trusts and agencies, and most of them were minority institutions. The government was in no way involved in the process of naming of aided colleges. The government also said it was not running any college under a particular caste or community name. First Bench of Chief Justice SK Kaul and Justice R Mahadevan urged the petitioner to approach the relevant department of the government accordingly.

Whatever the outcome of the petitioner’s efforts, the plea is a stark reminder of Tamil Nadu’s violent history with caste names.

It’s not just educational institutions – roads, districts and state transport corporations once bore names of caste leaders.

When the DMK first came to power in 1967, its first act was to rename Madras state as Tamil Nadu. Between 1967-1976, the party also created three transport corporations after the three great Tamil empires—Cheran, Cholan and Pandian.

In Outlook, Paneerselvan writes how during his first term as chief Mini­ster in 1979, MG Ra­mach­an­dran had ordered the rem­oval of caste surnames from street names. So for instance, a Balakrishna Mudaliar Street became just Balakrishna Street.  But this did not apply to universities, districts and transport corporations, which were named after prominent leaders.

But again, the advent of Jayalalithaa as chief minister in 1991-1996 witnessed a disturbing trend—many districts were renamed after a prominent caste leader from the dominant community, obviously done with the vote-bank in mind.

For instance, when the AIADMK government bifurcated Trichy district, the Mutharayar-dominated area was named Mutharayar district. The Vanniar-dominated Villupuram was carved out as Ramaswamy Padayachiar, where Padayachiar is a caste prefix for Vanniyars.

But it took a bus depot in Srivilliputhur to stoke tensions. In late April 1997, when the government announced the creation of a new transport corporation in Virudhunagar district in the name of a Dalit soldier of Veerapandi Kattaboman's army (the Veeran Sundaralingam Transport Corporation, VSTC) Thevars, the higher caste-Hindu OBC community, opposed the proposal. Caste riots broke out in southern Tamil Nadu. By now, Karunanidhi was in power, and he decided to revoke all names in government institutions named after caste-leaders.

Christodas Gandhi in Human Rights Watch writes, “The problem arose only when a Dalit name was accepted. If a Dalit leader is being projected as equal to an OBC leader, there’s a problem. Dalits cannot get their due here. The solution was to remove caste names because no political party in TN can be seen as neglecting the intermediate OBC constituency, you cannot do anything at the cost of that.” 

After the riots, at the government-convened all-party meeting held in the first week of June, most of the political parties, barring the AIADMK faction led by Jayalalithaa, favoured the removal of all names. 

To date, caste names are seen on street corners. Goplakrishna Narayanaswamy Chetty Road is now GN Chetty Road. Chamiers Road remains Pasumpon Muthuramalinga Thevar Salai. But some streets, like Brahmin Street in Saidapet, remain just ‘Street’. 


The pattern of abuse: Southern district clashes in Tamil Nadu and the state’sresponse by Christodas Gandhi, Human Rights Watch

Name of The Game by A S Panneerselvan, Outlook

PIL plea to remove caste names attached to govt. institutions closed by The Hindu 

Madurai street with caste name draws public ire by The New Indian Express 

All in the name of heritage


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