By Stalin Rajangam
At a village called Thirunalkondacheri in Kuttalam Taluk near Mayiladuthurai in Nagapattinam district, a 100-year-old Dalit man Chellamuthu died earlier this month. In that village, the pathway leading to the cremation ground used by Dalits is not conducive for usage. So the Dalit family preferred to use the common pathway (common pathways are inaccessible to Dalits and this is the unwritten caste rule prevalent in Tamil Nadu).
Sensing that the caste-Hindus would not allow them to use the common pathway, the grandson of the deceased Dalit, Karthik, moved the High Court and got a favourable order that there is no legal bar to use the common pathway to undertake the funeral procession. Moreover it was stated in the order that the Nagapattinam district administration and police should take measures to ensure that the common path is accessible.
The government officials invited both the Dalits and caste-Hindus and held talks. However, the caste Hindus refused to accept the HC Order and reiterated that they will not allow the Dalits to carry the dead body through the common pathway. The officials instead of implementing the HC order took a stance to appease the caste-Hindus by creating a new pathway to carry the body. Dalits resisted this move and refused to take the body in the new pathway. The police did not pay heed so the Dalits attempted to self immolate themselves in protest.
Finally after arresting the protesting Dalits, the government machinery instead of implementing the law, went ahead and used the police to carry the dead body through the newly created path and buried it in the graveyard. So the government, which should protect the law, instead turned into a violator and wilfully engaged in contempt. This is the amount of respect shown by the villagers and officials towards an elderly villager who had lived for so many years in the village.
This incident is a classic example of how the government approaches caste-based issues. The caste-Hindus by refusing to accept the HC order have violated the law of the land but there was no action against them, on the other hand the Dalits who demanded the implementation of rule of law became victims of lathi charge, arrests and other police excesses.
For people who are outside of Tamil Nadu there exists a perception that Tamil Nadu is a progressive state, which questioned the hegemony of the Brahmins by enacting a law that ensures members of all castes to become priests. This is true. Going by this reasoning, the people, the government and political parties should have gained a sense of political maturity. However we would find that the image about Tamil Nadu that exists outside the state is not true if we delve deep into the local power relations in the state.
This Thirunalkondacheri incident is not an isolated incident that happened in some remote corner in Tamil Nadu but an expression of rage happening between different castes that one can encounter within the state. The dominant castes here are unable to digest the changes that have happened both at livelihood and political levels among the Dalits. This easily slips into a sense of stiffness, which is then communicated through violence against the Dalits. Allowing the Dalits to use the common pathway means endorsing their awareness which automatically translates as the dominant castes losing their grip of dominance in the local power structures and that is why they did not even mind violating the law. They believe that their traditional beliefs and caste pride are above law.
The distressing fact is that to encounter such caste based contentious issues there is no space or language or tools in the Tamil context. The earlier anit-caste dialectic questioned and stalled the domination of Brahmins but never translated into establishing the rights of the Dalits and this incident is yet another example of that lacuna. Moreover, it is the beneficiaries of the anti-Brahmin movement who are involved in denying the Dalits their rights.
The recent rise in cases of (dis)honour killings, caste based discrimination, anti-Dalit collective should be taken into account not only to assess this particular incident but also the palpable silence and refusal to speak on these forms of caste dynamics. Contemporary Tamil political language stands away from the previously held perspectives of social reformation and is based on immediate political gains. The current electoral politics to be precise is guided by the idea of caste majoritarianism, so both the ruling party and other political parties are careful not to involve in any act or decision making process that would antagonise the numerically powerful castes.
This is what has happened in the village, while solving conflicts at the local level the government that is run by the idea to satisfy the majority castes to gain votes has instead of implementing the law suppressed the Dalits who demanded its implementation.
During the 1990s in a village called Kudithangi which comes under this region, the dominant caste of Vanniyars in the same way refused to allow the Dalits carry the dead body of a Dalit, but then S.Ramadoss, the founder of Pattali Makkal Katchi and a prominent leader of the Vanniyars came forward and carried the body. We have that history, but it was the same Ramadoss who recently formed an anti-Dalit federation against the Dalits.
When the society for various reasons becomes caste-oriented both political parties and the government for their own needs and to fulfil their aspirations and most importantly to stay in power they learn to use caste. Many leaders who maintained a deafening silence on this incident were found issuing lengthy statements on the need to conduct jallikattu. Questioning and opposing caste is a challenging one and do not provide immediate gains whereas events like jallikattu which carry cultural and traditional aspects are both emotional and undemanding which provides immediate political benefits so they choose to address the latter.
(The writer is a Dalit scholar based in Tamil Nadu)
This article was also published in Tamil and you can read it here. Translation to English by D Karthikeyan.