From home to school, kids in Tamil Nadu are entrenched in caste supremacist ideas

Drilling caste identities into the psyche is an everyday reality in some districts of Tamil Nadu where students grow up in an environment which normalises it and helps cultivate a deep hatred towards their peers.
From home to school, kids in Tamil Nadu are entrenched in caste supremacist ideas
Representative Image of school children
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TNM travelled to Tirunelveli and its neighbouring districts to understand why the southern part of Tamil Nadu is a simmering hotspot for caste violence and why minors and young adults are getting caught up in the vicious identitarian politics of caste pride which goes against the egalitarian ethos of Dravidian anti-caste politics. This is the second story in a two-part series. Read the first story here 

Arun* sounds clearly vexed as he speaks about the recent murder of a young Dalit woman by a stalker in Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu. The massive support for the Dalit woman, and the anger against the stalker, was unwarranted, Arun believes. The 18-year-old girl was from the Devendra Kula Vellalar (SC) community while the stalker was a 17-year-old boy from the politically influential Nadar caste, categorised as Other Backward Class (OBC).

"They (Dalits) support each other a lot and even put WhatsApp statuses on her death for weeks. They are doing it because she was a Dalit woman," Arun said. He belongs to the Maravar (Thevar) community categorised as Most Backward Class in Tamil Nadu. Arun isn’t alone. 

In Tamil Nadu, the districts of Tirunelveli, Thoothukudi and Tenkasi continue to be simmering caste cauldrons. Here caste isn’t just a notion or a state of mind. It manifests itself as material reality arches at village entrances, statues and photos of caste icons in public places, installed with a competitive spirit. Symbols like flags are proudly displayed and lamp posts are painted with specific colours to let people know whose writ runs in the area.

TNM visited the Manapadai Veedu village in Tirunelveli district, eight kilometres from the main town, to understand the deep-rooted resentment that has not even spared schools. The village entrance was marked by a blue-coloured arch with photo of K Kamaraj, a former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, that proclaimed ‘Nadar ina irumbu kottai’ or iron fortress of Nadars, a caste predominant in districts of Tirunelveli, Kanyakumari, Thoothukudi and Virudhunagar.

An arch with caste identification in TIrunelveli district
An arch with caste identification in TIrunelveli district

In the village, each community had their own temple. The temple maintained by caste-Hindus was comparatively larger than the one in Dalit residential area in Manapadai Melur. The village residents also maintain separate community halls, decorated with caste-flag colours. The sign-boards installed at the entrance of the villages too were decorated with these colours. 

At Thiruvannadhapuram Pottal, six kilometres away from the Tirunelveli town, the acronym MRK was inscribed using a sharp object on a sign-board. MRK stands for Maravar Kottai (fortress of Maravars).

The bus shelter in Vadapalai village in Tirunelveli had red and green paint on it, the colours used by the Devendra Kula Vellalar groups. The residents in the district call all the dominant caste Hindu residential areas as MR Theru (Maravar Street).  

The bus shelter in Vadapalai village in Tirunelveli had red and green paint on it, the colours used by the Devendra Kula Vellalar groups
The bus shelter in Vadapalai village in Tirunelveli had red and green paint on it, the colours used by the Devendra Kula Vellalar groupsTNM Photo

Drilling caste identities into the psyche is an everyday reality here and it isn’t surprising that students who grow up in this environment normalise them and unquestioningly embrace symbols of segregation – coloured threads on wrists, ribbons on hair and tilaks on forehead – contributing to a divisive atmosphere even inside schools. 

Once the students hit teenage years, in the absence of secular avenues for commingling, they tend to segregate into caste identity-based peer groups. Access to mobile phones and social media echo chambers, which amplify identitarian messages, act as a sealing agent for their biases. TNM spoke to students in three districts to understand how casteism colours their world views and intertwines with their daily lives. 

The use of colour-coded wristbands by school students in these districts has been widely reported. The dreadful practice, which the state government tried to ban unsuccessfully, makes it easier for students to identify who’s a caste ally or not and form groups inside educational institutions, said Sai Krishna, a research scholar with the Manonmaniam Sundaram University (MSU). Social antagonism between caste groups inevitabily gets reflected inside schools and colleges. “In Tirunelveli, the exhibition of rancour is not necessarily between Maravars and Devendra Kula Vellalars. It can be Nadars vs Devendra Kula Vellalars or Konars vs Maravars,” said Sai Krishna, who is currently researching casteism among school students in Tirunelveli.

Research scholar Sai Krishna
Research scholar Sai Krishna

The differentiation spills over to even non-academic activities including playgrounds. “Even in schools, participation in sports and games is not class-wise. They would create teams based on caste and contest in sports events. In the event of Dalit students winning a match and getting the trophy, caste-based scuffles would often break out,” said Sai Krishna. With not enough Physical Education (PE) teachers and PT periods utilised to teach other subjects, sports have never been a priority in Tamil Nadu government schools.

The caste-based resentment runs deep. Students from intermediate castes like Mukkulathor and Nadars were not comfortable talking about Dalits, especially Devendra Kula Vellalars (Pallar). They have their own Instagram pages and Whatsapp groups to discuss their 'matters', said Arun* (name changed), who feels unsettled by social media activism of Dalit students. 

Praveen*, a college student from Tenkasi, said he was an anti-caste person but wanted the government to scrap the Scheduled Caste / Scheduled Tribes Prevention of Atrocities Act (SC/ST POA Act) and withdraw caste-based reservation. He felt that these provisions were being misused by Dalits and put others in ‘danger'. "They give false complaints under POA and put our community men behind bars," he said. Another student from the Mukkulathor community asked why there was so much media coverage on the Nanguneri issue despite such incidents happening almost everyday.  

Read: Online caste pride pages in Tamil Nadu and the influence they exert in real life 

Teens as victims and perpetrators of violent crime

Students in Tirunelveli and its neighbouring districts, in recent times, have been involved in several heinous crimes where Dalit teenagers have become targets. In July 2023, polytechnic students from Devendra Kula Vellalar community were hacked by school students from Maravar community. In August, Dalit teen siblings, a brother and sister, were hacked by students from the Maravar community at Nanguneri, an incident which hit national headlines because of the brutal nature of assault. 

In the neighbouring district of Thoothukudi, a Dalit student came under attack in Kalugumalai on August 17. The perpetrators included students from the Maravar community though the main accused was from Pandaram community.  

On October 2, an 18-year-old Dalit woman was stabbed to death in a godown in the main bazar in Tirunelveli by her stalker from Nadar community when she refused to accept his romantic advances. He belonged to the Nadar community. In all these brutal attacks against Dalits, the perpetrators were from politically and economically powerful communities and in the age group of 15 to 18.

A senior police officer TNM spoke to said that when crimes are committed by children, it isn’t enough that the police pin the blame on them alone. “While it is important to advise or warn certain groups, it is also vital that we look at who are the adults influencing these people. If action is taken against those people also, then people will remember that,” he said.

However, this is where the police often falter. Even in the Nanguneri case where the siblings were hacked, two people came to their house a few hours before the attack and asked them to take back the complaint against their classmates. Within a few hours, the classmates came and hacked the brother-sister duo. The police however, made no effort to trace these people or book them.

Watch: Nanguneri case: Attack on Dalit student by classmates leaves residents in shock

Radicalised by caste pride

Many students from intermediate castes, whom TNM spoke to, claimed they were anti-caste but their belief systems and community interactions reflected their social conditioning. While they would cheer and amplify posts on social media related to their community leaders they wouldn’t extend the same affection towards content that celebrates a Dalit icon like Immanuel Sekaran. 

Speeches and video clips that reinforce caste pride on social media and YouTube are fervently consumed by students. Recently, a video of KN Esakkiraja Thevar, president of Pasumpon Muthuramalinga Thevar (PMT) Pathukappu Iyakkam, asking Dalit leaders like Thol Thirumalavan not to visit Pasumpon to pay tribute to their caste icon received lot of support from students. Esakkiraja's YouTube channel PMT Media is a popular platform with millions of page views, frequented by students for updates on caste-based mobilisation. 

Scores of such social media pages that valourise caste leaders and leverage the political clout of communities can be found on Facebook and Instagram. The content spectrum includes speeches made by community leaders, reels with cinematic songs that present local leaders as larger-than-life figures and mass dialogues with political punches, which appeal to youngsters. These videos will be downloaded, trimmed and widely shared on WhatsApp groups.

The senior police officer TNM spoke to also said that unless there was constant watch on such social media pages and influencers, pulling children out of the caste vortex is difficult. “A new caste video lands on their phone everyday. Schools are breeding places for caste pride. The government has to educate, but that isn’t enough,” the officer said.

Youngsters doing wheeling on Thevar Jayanti Celebration
Youngsters doing wheeling on Thevar Jayanti Celebration (Credit: @Ponnar73/Twitter)

He also pointed towards casteism within the police force which needs to be addressed. “We need to expedite investigations. The problem is that one crime happens, there is attention on it for 10 days and then we move on. If the police deal with one crime sternly, go into the root cause and address people, it can have an impact. Officers have to earn the trust of people. It is also important to transfer those police officers who have allegiance to their own castes,” he said.

Movies and the schism of caste

A student from the Maravar community in Tirunelveli said doesn’t like to watch movies by Mari Selvaraj, known to make films that speak about the plight of Dalits in the state. “But I like Pa Ranjith movies,” he said. The student felt that Mari Selvaraj’s movies create problems between Dalits and non-Dalits. 

“We have never come across any Dalit leader treated badly like the one portrayed in Mamannan. Mari Selvaraj makes movies only to appease Dalit audiences,” said the student.

Pariyerum Perumal, a 2018 film by Mari, mirrored caste fanaticism in Tirunelveli district. The movie Karnan was loosely based on the 1995 caste riots that took place in Kodiyankulam in Thoothukudi. After Mamannan was released, a compilation of edited clips lionising Rathnavel, the Upper Caste antagonist in the film, was celebrated and widely shared by dominant caste groups on social media.

Students in these districts also keenly support specific actors and directors because of their caste locations. While movies of Vikram have huge fanfare among students from the community of Devendra Kula Vellalars, those from caste Hindu background carry photos of actors Karthik aka Murali Karthikeyan Muthuraman, Vijayakanth, and Sasikumar. While Karthik is from Thevar community, Sasikumar is a Konar. Vijayakanath, an actor turned politician, hails from the Telugu-speaking Kamma Naidu community. 

Helpless and complicit teachers

Often not in a position to make decisions or implement solutions to end caste-related divisiveness inside campuses, because of the complexity and volatile nature of conflicts, teachers struggle to address them. A government school teacher from Tirunelveli said at least one caste-related issue is reported every week inside schools in the district and once a month on buses.

“The mindset of parents and community members play an important role in normalising caste discrimination,” he said. The children grow up watching people who discriminate against Dalits lead happy lives without facing consequences. “The students consider them as role models,” he said.

A government school teacher from Tenkasi, associated with Tamil Nadu High & Higher Secondary Graduate Teachers Association, said casteism was normal among students in Class 10 and upwards but now even young children are expressing caste-based resentment. “We now receive complaints from students even in 6th and 7th standards,” said the teacher.

The attitude displayed by caste Hindu teachers in dealing with such issues also plays a role. “They often let students who are involved in such conflicts go scot free,” said a teacher. Open display of caste pride and participation in conflicts is lower among girl students compared to boys though they may not be immune from it, according to teachers.

Murugan Kannan, a Tirunelveli-based Dalit rights activist, said violent crimes involving teenage students are happening not only in educational institutions. “Violent attacks leading to macabre murders have also taken place when girls from Mukkulathor community had a relationship with youngsters from non-Mukkulathor community,” Murugan said.

Understanding the history of the region is important if one needs to delve deeper into the fault lines between Dalits and dominant castes in the region.

A history of Dalit assertion

In Tamil Nadu, like in other parts of India, Dalit assertion was met with resistance from dominant castes, often resulting in riots and murder. This aspect of Dalit assertion was pronounced in Tirunelveli, which became a hotbed of caste violence. The history of Dalit assertion in Tamil Nadu dates back to Mudukulathur riots when Dalit leader Immanuel Sekaran was killed in Paramakudi of Ramanathapuram district in 1957. 

But the Muthukulathur riots did not have much impact in Tirunelveli, where the Thevar community continued their arrogant ways even in the 1980s.

“In Tirunelveli, land was traditionally under the possession of privileged castes like Brahmins and Pillais and Maravars would lease it for cultivation. Devendra Kula Vellalars, the landless Dalits, worked as agriculture labourers in the land,” said KA Manikumar, a retired history professor and researcher, who has written extensively about the caste conflicts in southern districts. 

In the 19th century, Christian missionaries started schools for oppressed communities and this helped Devendra Kula Vellalars gain education along with Nadars, said Manikumar.

“Later, members from the community entered government jobs. Many youngsters migrated to foreign countries to earn better livelihoods,” he said. In the late 70s and early 80s, large patches of land changed hands from the land-owning Pillai community, who moved away from agriculture and were accustomed to urban lifestyles, to Thevars. During the period, Devendra Kula Vellalars also acquired small land parcels from the Pillai community,” said Manikumar.

The land ownership and affluence changed the power dynamics and Devendra Kula Vellalars started to retaliate against caste atrocities. “In the 1995 caste riots, they attacked Thevars back as they were no longer subservient,” noted Manikumar.

“If we’re no longer your low-wage employees or doing designated traditional occupations that were forced on us by this feudal society, why are you still attacking us for no reason?” was their argument.

The 1995 caste conflict was a watershed moment for Devendrakula Vellalars. Their agitation led to formation of political outfits including Dr Krishnaswamy’s Devendra Kula Vellalar Federation, which is now a political partyPuthiya Tamilagam. Another leader from the same community, John Pandian, founded Devendra Kula Vellalar Sangam (Now Tamilaga Munnetra Kazhagam).

Apart from these outfits, Thiyagi Immanuel Peravai (named after the martyr) also added to the community’s political activism. Dr Krishnaswamy was elected to the Tamil Nadu assembly from the Ottapidaram constituency (Thoothukudi) in 1996. 

Caste groups and community organisations play a huge role in Tamil Nadu politics and the Dravidian parties often have to listen to their diktats. The region now has hundreds of small-time caste-based outfits and the students actively take part in their activities. 

“There are at least 100 caste organisations in Tirunelveli that help people come together to discuss community-related issues. While one taluk in Tirunelveli may have a Devendra Kula Vellalar Koottamaippu another will have Devendra Kula Vellalar Makkal Sabhai,” said a Dalit student. The students, based on caste affiliation, actively interact with their social media handles and also volunteer for them.

Juveniles in conflict with law and the Constitution

The lives of juveniles who commit crimes after getting entangled in caste conflicts takes a turn for the worse. Their education is disrupted and some of them run the risk of turning into repeat offenders unless they are provided adequate counselling, said Assistant Prof Sivakumar, Department of Criminology at MSU.  

Sivakumar said that even inside juvenile homes, these teenagers in conflict with law find kinship among their community members. “In revenge attacks, the perpetrators need not necessarily have direct conflict with victims. They commit crimes on behalf of others whom they have met inside a juvenile home,” said Sivakumar, who worked as a counsellor in Tirunelveli juvenile home for eight years. 

“In this part of the state, parents and caste leaders from dominant castes encourage the youngsters and support them if they are involved in crimes. It is not only these juveniles in conflict with the law who need counselling but their parents too. They live in the illusion that assaulting someone is bravery and serving prison time is an honour they do for their community,” Sivakumar said.    

A police officer confirmed that in prisons and juvenile homes, there were segregations based on caste.

In 2019, a 17-year-old juvenile arrested for the murder of a Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI) worker, later became involved in the murder of a BJP functionary in Tirunelveli district . Another juvenile offender, a student from Maravar community, arrested for the murder of a student from Devendra Kula Vellalar community in Tirunelveli was apprehended on charges of attempt to murder in 2023.

The state government has now constituted a one-man committee under Justice Chandru, a retired Madras High Court judge, to recommend measures to create a secular atmosphere without communal and caste differences among the students in educational institutions. The committee has invited suggestions from the public to make a change in the situation.

C Lakshmanan, retired Madras Institute of Development Studies (MIDS) professor and convenor of Dalits Intellectual Collective, said both the Dravidian political fronts, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) have failed to create an environment for the students in the educational institutions where they can be influenced by the politics of social justice and democracy, and instil values of tolerance and secularism. 

“When DMK assumed office in 2021, we urged the government to introduce the ideologies of Ambedkar, Periyar, and Iyothee Thass among the school and college students because it would help the students to understand the true values of social justice,” Lakshmanan said. 

“It is only when these teachings reach students, that they will change. Instead what is happening here? Children are encouraged to do hero worship and they are not stopped from wearing caste symbols,” he said.

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