|500 Dalit Homes Burnt… And A News BlipA love marriage. A suicide. And three ravaged villages. Imran Khan reports on a deadly reprisal against Dalits in Tamil Nadu that should have made it to national news
THE AFTERMATH of the caste violence in Dharmapuri district of northern Tamil Nadu has rendered thousands of Dalits homeless and living in constant fear of another possible attack. On 7 November, a mob of 2,500 backward-caste Vanniyars had burnt and looted around 500 houses of Dalits, claiming to avenge the death of a Vanniyar who committed suicide after his daughter married a Dalit. Adding to the fear is a statement by Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) MLA Kaduvetti Guru, who heads the Vanniyar Sangam, forbidding inter-caste marriages. Locals and even the police officials posted in the area say the attack was premeditated and done with the connivance of pro-Vanniyar sections of the police and cadres of the PMK.
Between 5 pm and 10 pm on 7 November, every single house of the three hamlets of Nathamkottai, Kondampatti and Annanagar was burnt down. “Around 4:30 pm, the police started doing the rounds, asking us to run for our lives as a mob of Vanniyars was on its way to attack us,” says Paulina, 30, a Dalit Christian and mother of three, who ran to the nearby fields to save herself, along with other women, children and the elderly. There were few men in the villages at the time as most of them work as labourers in the construction sector in Bengaluru and Coimbatore, or in the garment-manufacturing sweatshops in Tirupur. Now, Paulina stays in a temporary community shelter set up a stone’s throw away from the charred remains of her oneroom house. “They even took away the cash and jewellery we had left behind,” she adds.
Madiwayan, 36, works as a scrap-dealer in Bengaluru and was not in the village at the time of the attack. His parents were hiding in the nearby fields when the irate mob arrived. “It took me over a decade to save Rs 24 lakh, which I spent on building my house. They burnt it to the ground and also looted Rs 2 lakh that I had kept to buy some land nearby,” he says.
Usha, wife of Periyaswamy, a cook in the local government hospital, says the police was unable to stop the mob. “The police came back only around 1 am and announced over the loudspeakers that those who had fled the village should come back.” The women returned the same night, followed by the children and the elderly the next morning.
The genesis of the recent violence is traced to the marriage of a Dalit man, Ilavarasan, 23, from Nathamkottai, with a Vanniyar woman, Divya, 20. As Divya’s father, 48-year-old R Nagarajan of Sallinkottai village, disapproved of their relationship, the couple had got married in secret a month ago. Nagarajan asked his daughter to return home, but she refused. Then, a meeting of the Vanniyar community was held, where it was decided that Divya must return to her father’s house. When she did not relent despite the community’s pressure, her father allegedly felt humiliated and committed suicide on 6 November.
The Dalits of the three hamlets attacked by the Vanniyar mob allege that the father’s suicide was used as a pretext to whip up caste sentiments and fuel anger over inter-caste marriages. “There are more than seven inter-caste couples in our village. My wife Radha is a Vanniyar. We haven’t seen any violence in the 12 years of our marriage. The Vanniyars are just angry that we do not work in their fields for meagre wages,” says NC Armugham, 36, who runs a grocery store in Bengaluru. Agrees Palaaiswamy, 40, who works as a newspaper vendor in Bengaluru. “Even a month after the couple had eloped, Nagarajan did not seem particularly upset,” he says. “We suspect his community must have pressured him to take this extreme step.”
The attack has left the Dalits of the three hamlets economically devastated. A fact-finding team of People’s Watch, a Chennai-based NGO, which visited the area on 11-12 November along with the state representative of the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights for RTE in Tamil Nadu, estimates the total economic loss caused by the attack to be around Rs 12 crore. According to this report, 215 families were affected in Nathamkottai, 152 in Kondampatti and 36 in Annanagar. The Jayalalitha government has offered Rs 50,000 as compensation to the victims.
“Violence of this kind would not have happened without the active support of the police,” says Henri Tiphagne, Executive Director of People’s Watch. “We found that the Vanniyars used more than 150 petrol bombs. It looks like a planned attack, instigated by the PMK, though Vanniyars from other parties also participated in it.” So far, the police has arrested 92 Vanniyars and filed cases against 218 more.
PMK State Council Member Senthil denies any party hand in the violence. “Our party has worked for the upliftment of Dalits and it played no role in the incident,” he says. “Our position on inter-caste love marriages is that boys and girls less than 20 years old should not be allowed to get married as they cannot support themselves independently. Most end up getting divorced within six months. We are also campaigning for raising the marriageable age for girls to 21,” he adds. At best, this is an absurd argument. Moreover, in the case of Divya and Ilavarasan, neither was below 20. It is as if all the violence could be justified on the ground that Divya missed the PMK cut-off by a year.
ACCORDING TO the 2011 National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) report, Tamil Nadu ranks eighth among the states in the number of attacks on Dalits, with more than 1,400 reported incidents. A lot of this violence is rooted in the conflict between the backward castes and the Dalits. Though categorised as backward caste, the Vanniyars have traditionally been landholders who employed Dalits to work in their fields. In recent times, however, the Dalits have been migrating to the cities to work as daily wage labourers and their economic condition has improved slightly. Tiphagne says this newfound mobility of the Dalits has not gone down well with the Vanniyars, and this anger fuels violence.
“Notably, this violence has occurred in hamlets where the Left movement once used to have a strong presence. In fact, Dharmapuri district was once the headquarters of the Naxalite movement in Tamil Nadu,” says Dalit intellectual Anand Teltumbde. “It is revealing that with the Naxalite movement on the wane, casteism has raised its ugly head. Vanniyars and Dalits are not very different in terms of economic status, but the fact that they have clashed violently many times shows the continuing power of the caste system.”
According to Thol Thirumavalavan, president of the Dalit party Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK), the PMK orchestrated the riots in Dharmapuri to check the “economic rise of the Dalits” and counter “its own declining popularity among the Vanniyars”.
Regarding the connivance of the local police, Dharmapuri SP Asra Garg told TEHELKA: “Based on initial inquiries, three officers posted in the area — Inspector V Jegannathan, Sub-Inspector Perumal and Head Constable Singaravelu — were found guilty of dereliction of duty and have been placed under suspension.” Jegannathan, in charge of Kaaramangalam police station (Nathamkottai comes under this jurisdiction), was earlier convicted in a case dating back to 1992, in which more than 100 people were injured and at least 18 women reportedly raped in Vachatti, a tribal hamlet in Dharmapuri district. Jegannathan was among 268 officials from the forest, revenue and police departments who had gone on a rampage in the garb of locating illegally felled sandalwood. In September 2011, a local court convicted 215 of them, including Jegannathan, who has challenged the court’s order in the Madras High Court.
“Despite the simmering tension in the area, the local police failed to deploy adequate personnel for our protection. It is unbelievable that the police had no clue when 2,500 Vanniyars were being mobilised for the attack. The mob included people from villages 20 km away. They came with 150 litres of petrol and 200 litres of kerosene in mini-trucks. They also cut down trees and blocked the road to prevent fire tenders from reaching on time,” says Shakthi, president of the Nathamkottai Gram Panchayat.
Imran Khan is a Senior Correspondent with Tehelka.