by N Sathiya Moorthy
The death of Dalit youth Elavarasan under controversial circumstances in western Tamil Nadu’s Dharmapuri district, preceded by months of street-violence, media attention and court cases has brought to fore the ugly face of casteism in Dravidian Tamil Nadu, known better for the ‘social justice movement’ of the 20th century.
Coupled with another episode nearer to the State capital of Chennai in between, where the cadres of the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), backed by the Vanniar community, which tops the list of ‘Most Backward Class’ (MBC) in terms of numbers in the State, they have potential for violence and voter-loyalty in an election year.
That Elavaran’s marrying a Vanniar girl Divya had caused her father to commit suicide late last year was an extension of ‘honour killing’ that is prevalent elsewhere in the country under similar circumstances. The enraged Vanniar community in the area targeted the Dalit ‘colonies’, leading to destruction and disquiet. It took the State Government and the district police weeks to restore normalcy of an eerie kind. When things were quietening, Divya made a dash to the Madras High Court with her mother earlier this year, wanting to part with her husband. She reiterated her position this month before the court and the media, gathered outside, amidst charges of the mother-daughter duo being pressured by Vanniar community leaders and local PMK organisers, in the name of the girl’s dead father and larger social peace in the area.
The High Court which has since ordered police protection to the two after Elavarasan’s suicide did not seem to have taken cognisance of the possibilities of political/casteist play when Divya went to the court, wanting to be separated from her husband. It is another matter how the High Court, which is not the forum for judicial separation, nor is a few months of marriage adequate enough to consider such separation, did not direct Divya to move the appropriate subordinate judicial authority in the matter. Nor did Elavarasan seem to have got judicial/legal advice to move such courts for the ‘restitution of conjugal rights’. The State Government, alive to the possibilities, too seemed to have looked the other way, hoping that the end of the marriage could after all bring an end to the caste tension and violence in the region.
Impact on general elections?
It is sad that what is essentially a communal incident, rooted in centuries-old social history, castes should influence politics and elections in the contemporary, 21st century milieu. With the Lok Sabha elections due within a few months anyway, the chances of the Elavarasan episode influencing voter-behaviour, particularly in the western and northern districts, cannot be ruled out. Despite denominational differences within the larger Dalit community in the southern districts, and also the replacement of the Vanniar community mostly with the equally conservative and even more militant Mukkulathore community over there, the chances are that casteism could become central to poll politics in the State in the coming year. More serious and even more relevant issues could be pushed to the back.
Between the long run of the Elavarasan episode – even if he is dead, the issue may refuse to die – was the incident involving Vanniar-centric PMK cadres attacking Dalits in their homestead while returning from the annual youth conference in the coastal resort-town of Mahabalipuram, near Chennai, in April. It became a full-blown political issue after the police arrested PMK founder Dr S Ramadoss and other senior party leaders, including his one-time Minister-son Dr S Anbumani, on charges of provoking violence. In electoral terms, the two episodes could lead to the re-emergence of an anti-Dalit vote-bank, cutting across caste and party lines, in many, if not all parts of the State. Sadly, it would then mean that politics, rather than seeking to unite the community, would have once again divided it.
Forgotten ‘social justice’
It is even more sad that in Tamil Nadu, known for its ‘social justice’ movement, dating back to the days of the Justice Party in the first quarter of the previous century, came to be muddled in caste politics towards the end of the very same century. In between was the era of ‘social justice’ in which the Dravidian parties, particularly the DMK offshoot of the Justice Party, focussed on anti-Brahminism as the major part of its socio-political plank, identifying Brahmins with the ‘Aryans from the North’ with their Sanskritised dialect of Tamil – and by extension, the Indian National Congress. If the emergence of the INC under Gandhiji’s leadership rendered the Justice Party irrelevant, the freedom movement’s ability to bring the upper castes and the ‘Harijans’ on the same political plank meant that the intermediary castes ended up encouraging the inevitable birth of the Dravidar Kazhagam (DK) under ‘Periyar’ E V Ramaswami Naicker first, and its electoral offshoot in the DMK, post-Independence.
The emergence of a backward class leader in the late K Kamaraj as the popular Congress Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu may have stalled the electoral progress of the Dravidian political ideology for a time, but his exit from regional politics in favour of the national scene as the INC president under the ‘Kamaraj Plan’ of Jawaharlal Nehru meant that the DMK ended up fast-tracking its access to elected power in 1967. It is incidental that no national party has been able to come anywhere near the divided Dravidian polity (meaning the DMK and the breakaway AIADMK) in terms of reach and identification with the local populace.
It was and is of no coincidence that personality politics in the DMK in particular and the electoral calculations of also the AIADMK meant that the ‘social re-engineering’ pioneered by the Justice Party and Periyar’s Dravidar Kazhagam ended up being the vehicles of caste politics. The emergence of the PMK in the nineties, and the consequent resurrection of Dalit political identity owed to the inability or the unwillingness of the DMK in the northern districts to promote a local Vanniar leader or leaders, that too in a region where the community was seen as backing the party for most parts. In the south, again for historic reasons, the Mukkulathore community backed the DMK first, and the AIADMK later, leading to the perception that successive Dravidian governments run by these two parties were not exactly ‘Dalit-friendly’.
Hidden behind such calculations is also the fact that when it comes to caste issues, all non-Dalit communities close ranks and ignore party diktats from the top. It was proved when PMK founder Ramadoss worked with Dalit Panthers leader Thol Thirumavalavan (since founder of the Vidudhalai Chiruthaigal Katchi, or VCK) in the mid-Nineties and drew a huge blank in successive elections. The message was clear.
That a popular community leader like Ramadoss, on whose directive Vanniar youth had stalled the arterial roads to the State capital for months together in the Nineties, would not vote for his PMK if he were to promote the Dalit cause simultaneously. The trend has remained, and major political parties, too have ‘learnt’ their ‘lessons’. The ‘Elavarasan episode’ is thus a product of an electoral malady for which the political class would only offer words, not pro-active solutions. Better or worse still, with greater educational opportunities and industrialisation nearer home, and overseas jobs, rewriting the face of caste equations in the State’s backyard, the problem has worsened, and the political will to address it squarely weakened.
(The writer is a Senior Fellow with Observer Research Foundation