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Vanniyar-Dalit conflict of Dharmapuri: Fallout of caste-based politics in Tamil Nadu



Monday June 09, 2014

Violence against Dalit, Caste-based Politics, Tamil Nadu  
"PMK, based as it is amongst the high class ‘Vanniyakula Kshatriya’ community, had reared high political ambition so much so that it had once sought the bifurcation of the state of Tamil Nadu into South and North expecting that it could emerge as the ruling community in the north where it commands 50% of the vote bank in form of the Vanniyar community. It however failed to attract sufficient Vanniyar votes with Vanniyars being scattered among all the mainstream parties. Ramdoss had tried with the new inclusive strategy by adopting the North Indian concept of ‘bahujan’ and by presenting itself as the party of backward communities, Muslims and Dalits. Recently Ramdoss had revived his demand for a separate reservation for Vanniyars to consolidate them back within his fold."  

Basudev Mahapatra


The violence against the dalits of Naikkankottai in Tamil Nadu, on 7 November 2012, didn't only shock India but brought to fore, again, the urge of political leaders of Tamil Nadu, and India as well, to make political gains out of social disharmony, conflict, violence and the misery of people and communities. Even though caste-based conflict and atrocities are not new to the state of Tamil Nadu, what was shocking in the particular case was the very reason that led to a violent caste conflict, that again, in a place which remained the hub of naxalite (Maoist) movement in the state with almost all its residents - Dalits as well as non-Dalits - either directly participating as comrades or actively sympathetic to them.

An inter-caste marriage between a Dalit boy and Vanniyar girl, shown as the apparent cause of the violent caste conflict, was not convincing to be the reason of violence in the face of the fact that there had been literally hundreds of such marriages took place in the area in the past that, even, continued after the November 7 incident.


"As the imposing memorial of Comrades Appu and Balan, who were encountered by the police in 1979 right at the entrance of the village, seemed to assure, these people would not fall to their baser instincts to have caste conflicts like their counterparts elsewhere in the state," observed Dr Anand Teltumbde of Centre for Development, Planning and Research (CDPR), Mumbai who was part of the fact finding team that visited the place on November 21 and 22, 2012, to find the reasons that resulted in such an ugly incident, which would rank among the worst caste atrocities in the country.

The bare facts

The girl named Divya, 20, belonged to Chellankottai near Naikankottai. She was studying for her BSc (Nursing) in third year in a Dharamapuri college. The boy named Ilavarasan, 23, was from Natham, who studied up to 10th standard and was reportedly just selected in the state police. They had a love affair for some time but their parents feigned ignorance of this.

A proposal for Divya from the same (Vanniyar) caste where the boy employed with a salary of Rs 35,000 a month was quite the choice of Divya’s parents. But Divya did not agree and she declined marriage saying that she would not get married till her education is finished. As the boy was still prepared to wait till that, Divya and Ilavarasan secretly married, around 8 October. It slowly leaked to the village including the girl’s parents.

Although girl’s parents were not happy with the marriage as reportedly the boy did not have a good reputation, was not educated enough to be a match to Divya, did not have sound economic background, and was in the neighbouring locality (to be constant embarrassment), they did not have visible reaction. There were number of inter-caste marriages that happened in the village, both ways, which were accepted by both the sides.

But, now the issue was not as simple as earlier because of the caste meeting that took place about a month before the marriage in which Kaduvetti J. Guru, a local MLA belonging to Paattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) gave a call that inter-caste marriages should not be accepted and whosoever dared to defy the call should be done to death. Of late, the Vanniyars had been having this kind of campaign among them which impelled them to call a Panchayat meeting on November 3.

The meeting took place in the morning at the Comrade Appu-Balan’s memorial across the Dharamapuri-Thiruputur highroad that edged past the village. The meeting for the first time portended some ugly turn to the events with some people vociferously gave an ultimatum to the Dalits to restore the girl to her parents within two days else they would face dire consequence. “The whereabouts of the married couple was not known and they needed to find it out. They would consult the parents of the girl and boy, speak with the girl herself and decide the matter amicably. However, still the Panchayat decided to issue an ultimatum to Dalits to return the girl within two days,” said Chakkarai of Marwadi village, ex-Panchayat Board President and present Councillor on the Panchayat Union.

Dalits fearing some untoward occurrence requested police protection, which was granted by posting some 20 policemen at the village on 5 November.

On 7 November, when Divya’s father, Nagaraj learnt of the girl’s resolve that she would not come back, he committed suicide in mysterious circumstances. Instead of taking the case as a consequence of the ultimatum thrown in the meeting, Nagaraj’s dead body was rather used by those who threatened in the caste meeting, to mobilize Vanniyars to attack the three Dalit colonies, Natham, Anna Nagar and Konampatti. The attack was unique; in sense it spared people of any bodily harm but looted their property. All 268 houses were looted and then set on fire. Valuable assets such as motorbikes, cycles, refrigerators, television sets, almirahs were damaged and torched. All of their inmates were reduced to penury as all their savings were either looted or burnt to ashes.

James, an activist of the Anti-Imperialist Movement, said the team of activists that the 20 odd policemen deployed after a written complaint by the dalits disappeared from the scene before the mob attacked the colonies warning the people of Natham colony of the imminent attack by Vanniyars and advising to vacate their houses.

The government had only set up temporary sheds for them and erected pandals for kitchen. Each family was given Rs 50,000 as compensation.

The Attack was pre-planned

No one who is conversant with the facts about the incident, including police, doubts that the incident was pre-planned. The Panchayat meeting of 3rd November, wherein a threat was issued by some Vanniyar people, was just a precursor. The suicide of Nagaraj might be used to give an impression that the mob fury was just a spontaneous reaction, but it was not. The mobilization in such large numbers within minutes, the police forewarning Dalits in the three hamlets, blocking of roads by felling trees to keep the police away, the pattern of attack that no bodily harm to the inmates of the colonies be done but their property be looted and destroyed, all these proved that it was not a spontaneous act. The attacking mobs moreover did not have people from the neighbouring hamlet. Many of the Dalit victims told us specifically that they could not recognize people in the mob, which meant that the people from distant villages were commissioned to attack.


Caste History or False Ego!

The Vanniyars who concentrate in the districts of North Tamil Nadu, were agricultural labourers and from the second half of the nineteenth century promoted themselves as the Padayachis (soldiers) and in the second stage raised themselves as Vahannikula (fire race) Kshatriyas abbreviated to be Vanniyars. Their ancient history is rather connected with the great Buddhist society existed up to the tenth century in Tamil Nadu. Their absorption into the Brahmanic society is phased over a period of last 400 years. As per historian Sadasivan, Vanniyars are the only people who formulated an ideology and wrote a history of achieving their perversion. As early as 1870 they had brought out a book to prove that they were descendent of Agnikula Rajputs and that they were in the remotest past, the shepherd kings of Egypt. In 1891, to convince the census authority, a Vanniyar named T Aiyakkana Naicker wrote another book entitled Vannikulavillakam (the light of the fire race) to establish that Vanniyars were Khatris. Another thesis Varna-Darpana (mirror of varna) published in 1907 sought to elevate the Pallis (another name of Vanniyars) as the descendent of the Pallavas of Kanchipuram. With the revival of Brahmanism, the Buddhist people were deprived of their land and forced to serfdom to cultivate the same land of which they themselves were peasant proprietors. The destiny of Vanniyars also changed in process. Their name Palli is Pali in origin, was associated with the Buddhist social life signifying the sanctified or the sacred.

Reason for the Attack

It is commonly understood that the incident was triggered off by the inter-caste marriage between a Dalit boy and a Vanniyar girl. But it does not gel well with the history of this district where such inter-caste marriages were not very uncommon. Every hamlet had such inter-caste marriages with normalized relations between the families. Inter-caste marriage could germinate discomfort still but could not be the cause of such organized fury. There had to be some other reason. That reason is to be traced to the disintegration of the PMK, the party of Vanniyars founded by Dr S Ramdoss in 1989. He had earlier founded the Vanniyar Sangham in 1980. PMK, based as it is amongst the high class ‘Vanniyakula Kshatriya’ community, had reared high political ambition so much so that it had once sought the bifurcation of the state of Tamil Nadu into South and North expecting that it could emerge as the ruling community in the north where it commands 50% of the vote bank in form of the Vanniyar community. It however failed to attract sufficient Vanniyar votes with Vanniyars being scattered among all the mainstream parties. Ramdoss had tried with the new inclusive strategy by adopting the North Indian concept of ‘bahujan’ and by presenting itself as the party of backward communities, Muslims and Dalits. However, it could not overcome the fact that the Vanniyars had been violent adversaries of Dalits. Over the years, the drifting of Vanniyars away from PMK went on increasing.

Recently Ramdoss had revived his demand for a separate reservation for Vanniyars to consolidate them back within his fold. Even our findings revealed that the Vanniyars reflected political heterogeneity. It was imperative therefore for the PMK to consolidate the Vanniyars. This would have been the reason why, about two months before the incident, the PMK MLA, also the head of the Vanniyar Sangam, Kaduvetti Jayankondam Guru publicly announced that the inter-caste marriages of Vanniyar girls would not be accepted.

This announcement only led to the suicide of Nagaraj and the violence in its aftermath. As a responsible public figure Guru or Ramdoss shouldn’t have made such blatant anti-constitutional statement that they would not accept inter-caste marriages and anybody violating the unconstitutional announcement be done with death. It seemed quite evident to the team that the statements made with an political intent had severe brunt on the innocent dalits and the family of Nagaraj.

Such a caste-based approach by the political leadership reminded of the Khap Panchayats in Harayana and a few other parts of north India worried over maintaining their caste purity. It was intriguing that Ramadoss kept silence over this incident for almost a fortnight. When he broke it, he came out against inter-caste marriages, thus encouraging caste-based violence by the Vanniyars community.

Partisan Role of Police

It is unbelievable that the development of communal tension in the area since Guru’s unlawful public utterances were not known to the Police. The Panchayat meeting of 3 November was a direct signal that communal clash was imminent. The fact that police protection was arranged for those hamlets confirmed that police knew all these developments. What was warranted was close monitoring of the area to avoid any outburst that would go violent. However, when the attack actually materialized, the police instead of resisting it went on canvassing to Dalits, on behalf of marauders, to vacate their homes and vanish from the scene. There is no evidence that they tried to dissuade the mob from committing crime, leave apart resisting which was supposed to be their job.

As the attack begun, the additional mobilization of police, which in view of the distances involved could be accomplished within a matter of less than an hour, could have contained the damage. But the additional police force arrived there after some four hours when everything was done. It is rumoured that the Vanniyars in Police force directly or indirectly helped the marauders.

While we would hate to take such conspiracy theory in face value, it is a stark reality that the police failure has been primarily responsible for the incident. It cannot be interpreted as mere ‘dereliction of duty’ by some petty policemen but it points at the failure of the police administration and needs to be squarely owned up by the Police Superintendent (SP) himself. The Police Chief, instead of owning up the failure, has suspended a police inspector (Perumal) and a Deputy Superintendent (Gopi) and some constables. May be, they deserve punishment. But it is not enough to restrict the action to these minions; and it should reach the top where the rot begins.

Actions sought

1. The root cause for this incident needs to be located in the statements of Kudavatti J Guru and subsequent endorsements of PMK Supremo Ramdoss against the inter-caste marriages. These statements being unconstitutional, these persons should be brought into book under charges of whipping inter-caste hatred and disharmony, instigating violence and criminal conspiracy under appropriate articles.

2. All the persons who threatened Dalits of dire consequences, in the meeting of 3rd November, and subsequently led the violent mobs to execute the violent operation should be arrested and charged for violence against the Dalits under the Atrocity Act.

3. Police negligence in ignoring the signals of imminent communal conflict and taking preventive action cannot be camouflaged by suspension of a few low level policemen. An independent inquiry into this aspect needs to be conducted so as to locate the fault and punish the officials responsible for the same.

4. A detailed survey of the Dalit hamlets to assess the actual loss the people suffered should be conducted and the government should compensate them in full. In addition, the victims are liable for compensation for the trauma and mental agony they suffered because of gross failure of the government in ensuring their safety.

5. The incident has created a acrimonious divide between the Vanniyars and Dalits, which means that Dalits would not get farm jobs on Vanniyar farms anymore. The government should expeditiously create self employment opportunities and arrange for training of Dalits in the affected and surrounding hamlets.


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