The Ashes of Dharampuri

December 10, 2012


Rajamma, a resident of Natham, looks at her burnt house with vacant eyes. The more she looks at it, the harder the tears fall. Every part of her house — each brick painstakingly collected — is a small fountain of memories for her, reminding her of the backbreaking work done by her late husband at the local landlord’s house.

Now, all that is in the past.

Three weeks ago hordes of dominant caste people armed to the teeth launched a pre-meditated attack on their colony, supposedly to avenge the ‘humiliation’ caused by the marriage of one of their girls to a boy from her community.

Like many others in the colony, Rajamma is a dalit. The perpetrators belonged to the powerful Vanniar caste. She knows that she was saved only because a youth from the colony alerted them about the attack allowing some people to rush into the nearby fields.

Burned houses, smashed household items, bicycles, motorbikes, television sets. Torn schoolbooks, records, certificates and ration cards. This was the scene immediately after the attack on the three dalit colonies of Natham, Kondampatti and Annanagar in Naikkankottai, Dharmapuri district, Tamil Nadu. Of the 500 houses in the three colonies, over 268 were damaged/burnt.

The attack was brought on by the suicide of a caste Hindu over the elopement of his daughter. The mob, armed with deadly weapons and petrol bombs, indulged in a four-hour-long rampage. They broke cupboards, stole gold jewellery and cash before setting the houses on fire.

Ironically, the date on which the attack happened was November 7, 2012. On this day in the late-’60s and early-’70s, Natham witnessed marches by small peasants and workers holding red flags, celebrating what is popularly known as ‘October Revolution Day’. Indeed, that stormy period is marked by the statues of two young men who laid down their lives in the raging revolutionary communist movement in the area. One of the martyrs was a Vanniar.

Things have definitely changed in Natham. One could say it’s the result of the assertion of identity politics coupled with economic changes. The Natham of 2012 is qualitatively different from the Natham of the 1970s. Forget revolutionary left politics, new parties based on particular identities have come on the scene, making the politics of egalitarianism infinitely more challenging.

Today, most able-bodied dalits from the colonies in Naikkankottai work in Bangalore either as construction workers, godown boys, collectors of used paper for recycling, etc. Their hard-earned money has served as solid investment in their native villages. A few have even become landholders. Gone too are the days when dalits were not in a position to send their children to school. In fact, dalit boys and girls have taken up education on a massive scale; they outnumber even the Vanniars at a few government schools. These material changes in the lifestyle of the dalits and their growing assertion have become irritants to the Vanniars, who have become accustomed to their secondary status.

Tensions had been mounting in the region for a number of months, and the marriage of Divya, the Vanniar daughter of G Nagarajan, with E Illayaraja, 23, who belonged to the Natham dalit colony, became a pretext to ‘teach the dalits a lesson’. As has been widely reported, a kangaroo court consisting of members of the dominant community instructed the dalits to send back the girl. Divya firmly refused to return to her parents’ house. Nagarajan committed suicide over this ‘humiliation’, enraging around 2,000 members of the said community who then attacked the dalit colonies.

It was not a spontaneous outburst of anger, as some people claim, but a planned attack. While one group of marauders set up roadblocks along the way to prevent the police and fire service from reaching the spot, another group went about systematically looting and burning houses. Nagarajan’s dead body was used to organise a road block, provoking community members to join in ‘retaliatory action’ against the dalits.

All reports on the mayhem point to a single fact: the large-scale burning of houses was a complete failure of the law and order machinery, despite early warnings of the incident. It has been widely reported how Divya and her husband — who was a new recruit with the Tamil Nadu police — had approached the higher authorities and demanded protection, fearing attacks by members of the bride’s community. But apart from giving verbal assurances and holding out promises, the police took no preventive action. Indeed, they must have known from independent sources that provocative speeches were being made by members of the dominant community, and that the situation would most likely spiral out of control.

Now that the state government has received flak both in the media and outside it, it has ‘swung into action’ and arrested a few of the 2,000-plus perpetrators of the crime. The police has been asked to keep a 24-hour vigil in the area. At the moment of writing, there are reports that the case has been transferred to the crime branch of the CID. It’s a different matter, of course, that the police has not bothered to lodge cases against the guilty police personnel, under Article 4 of the Prevention of Atrocities Against Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Act (1989), which specifically stipulates that government/police officials can be penalised if they are found wanting in their duty in case of dalit atrocities. Although two police personnel, including an inspector, have been suspended and the DSP shifted to the Salem range office, pending an inquiry into the alleged failure of the police to prevent the attack, even a layperson knows that according to the courts ‘suspension’ is not ‘punishment’ and that once the dust has settled the officials will be quietly reinstated. Also, while the case has been transferred to the crime branch of the CID police, it must be emphasised that this is no guarantee that all aspects of the case will be exposed. If people are not vigilant, senior officials of the investigating agencies — where the varna mindset still rules — will not hesitate to blame the dalits themselves for the arson, as happened some time ago in Gohana, around 75 km from the national capital.

It would be opportune here to share portions of the chargesheet filed by the CBI which was asked to look into the 2005 attack and arson in Gohana. According to a newspaper report, the CBI chargesheet ‘revealed that some people in Valmiki Basti had set their houses on fire themselves, allegedly for compensation’. The chargesheet talks of the CBI’s observation that ‘extensive burning was observed in 19 out of 28 houses. Of these, nine houses were inspected thoroughly and it appeared that in these houses “simulated arsoning” was carried out, which are yet “to get compensation”.

To recap, Gohana witnessed the burning of 50-60 houses belonging to the Valmiki community on August 31, 2005. A 1,500-2,000-strong mob of upper-caste people, belonging largely to the Jat community, attacked the houses in a systematic manner. They came fully armed with spears, batons, axes, petrol and kerosene. They broke TV sets, refrigerators, washing machines, looted valuables and burst LPG cylinders. The marauders even brought mini trucks with them to ferry the loot from the houses.

One can’t help but notice a common aspect in the two incidents. The mob in Natham and other dalit colonies were particular about damaging cycles on which children went to school (they even tore up schoolbooks, records, and certificates). The Gohana mob too saw to it that textbooks and certificates belonging to dalits were systematically burnt. The act was symbolic; dominant castes in the south as well as north have rightly understood that the roots of the dalits’ growing assertion lie in the simple fact that the light of knowledge has ultimately reached the dalits.

Special mention must be made here of demands made by a fact-finding team comprising 18 human rights activists and journalists from Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Pondicherry who toured the affected dalit colonies, met with many victims and tried to assess the actual damage. Demanding hefty compensation to rebuild houses, it asked that special courts be established in Natham itself as the dalits would not be able to travel far to attend trials (The Hindu, November 16, 2012).

Very few people are even aware that this is possible, under the 1989 Prevention of Atrocities Against Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Act. The judgment delivered in the case of dalit atrocities in Tsundur (Andhra Pradesh) a few years ago, in which dalits won after a long struggle, point to the real scope and possibilities under the Act. This was the first time in the nearly 20-year-old trajectory of the Act that special courts were set up at the scene of the offence. The victims were spared from travelling long distances to depose in the courts and face harassment on the way at the hands of the dominant castes.

The streets of Tsundur that day witnessed the death of eight people — all of them dalits — when a 400-strong armed mob of Reddys, a landlord caste that has dominated politics in Andhra Pradesh since Independence, attacked dalits to ‘teach them a lesson’ (1991). Under the judgment of the special court (2007), 21 of the accused were given sentences of life imprisonment and 35 were asked to serve one-year rigorous imprisonment.

It must be appreciated that the dalits of Tsundur were so united that they did not accept any summons from the courts, or even visit courts located far from the village. They demanded that the court should come to them. The government had to concede to their demand and set up a special court in the premises of a school. The dalits also demanded that they be given a public prosecutor and judge with a positive track record in dealing with cases of dalit atrocities. After a lot of dilly-dallying, the government complied with this demand too.

The victory was historic in another sense too. It has become the norm in cases like these that as time passes, people, including the victims and their families, lose interest in continuing the fight for justice. They come under pressure or are coerced into changing their statement in the courts, etc. Nothing of that sort happened in the struggle for justice in Tsundur. The significance of the Tsundur struggle was that the people leading the campaign were successful in keeping everyone mobilised over the years.

So, can Natham do a Tsundur? A great possibility and an historic challenge is open to all.

( First published in Infochange News & Features)


Inter-caste marriage sparks riot in Tamil Nadu, 148 dalit houses torched

K A Shaji, V Senthil Kumaran & Karthick S, TNN | Nov 9, 2012

Inter-caste marriage sparks riot in Tamil Nadu district, 148 dalit houses torched
Though 300 policemen were present, they failed to control the mob after being grossly outnumbered. The arson and looting continued till 9.30pm when additional police forces arrived on the scene.
DHARMAPURI: Outraged by the suicide of a man who felt humiliated after his daughter married a dalit boy in secret, a mob of non-dalits went on the rampage in three villages of Dharmapuri district, looting and burning houses of dalits late on Wednesday, police said.

The 2,500-strong mob set ablaze 148 houses in Natham, Anna Nagar and Kondampatti villages. They claimed that the “humiliation” caused by the marriage and the refusal of the dalits to send the woman back home had resulted in the suicide of G Nagarajan (48). The mob looted valuables before setting the houses on fire.

Though 300 policemen were present, they failed to control the mob after being grossly outnumbered. The arson and looting continued till 9.30pm when additional police forces arrived on the scene.

Talking to TOI on Thursday, IG (west zone) T P Sundaramoorthy said the situation was brought under control after an additional 1,000 personnel were deployed and more than 90 people arrested. Cases had been registered against 210 others, he said.

Nagarajan ended his life at his residence in Sellankottai, not far from the Natham dalit colony, on Wednesday evening. The autopsy was delayed because of frequent power cuts, and the body was handed over to his relatives only on Thursday evening. Later, police said, a group of dalits set fire to two houses belonging to non-dalits in Natham.

Govt announces compensation 

Announcing compensation of 50,000 to each family that lost its house and belongings, chief minister J Jayalalithaa said on Thursday that severe action would be taken against those responsible for the violence. In a statement, she said police had rushed to the spot and were taking necessary measures. She instructed the district authorities to extend all help to the affected in the violence.

Police said Nagarajan’s daughter Divya, 20, eloped with dalit youth Ilavarasan, 23, about a month ago, and they got married in a temple. As the non-dalits threatened them against entering Ilavarasan’s house in the Natham dalit colony, the couple approached the Salem police, seeking protection.

Meanwhile, the non-dalits conducted a ‘kangaroo’ court and directed the dalit family to return the woman on Wednesday. But Divya refused to obey them and made it clear that she would continue to live with Ilavarasan. Dharmapuri SP Asra Garg said the kangaroo court was held at Nayakkankottai village last week and the police were searching for those who took part in it and orchestrated the violence.

Fire tenders were not able to reach the villages in time because huge trees had been cut down on the roads to block them. Services of the Rapid Action Force had been requested to maintain law and order, he said.Dharmapuri collector R Lilly said the homeless had been put up in three government schools.

Politics stoking caste fire

In a state that boasts of being progressive, caste divide is rearing its ugly head once again. The violence that rocked Natham in Dharmapuri district on Wednesday has reversed a recent positive trend in the northern districts of Tamil Nadu, once a hotbed of simmering caste tension between Vanniyars and dalits.

Activists point out that this is the first big caste violence in the last two decades in Dharmapuri. The last decade had seen leaders of the dominant communities in the region, the Vanniyars and the dalits, campaigning together for communal harmony.

“Tamil Nadu is a land of reformation. Usually, political and social leaders of the state advocate inter-caste marriages and successive state governments have encouraged progressive development. But in recent months, this positive trend has changed and a few caste leaders have been openly campaigning against inter-caste marriages,” said writer-politician D Ravikumar, state secertary of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi, a dalit party with a presence in the north. “They have indirectly encouraged killings in the name of honour and even ignited violence. This should be stopped through progressive initiatives,” he said.

Caste leaders have gone one regressive step further to warn activists against encouraging the union between couples of different castes and even issuing diktats against love marriages. PMK MLA J Guru, who heads the Vanniyar Sangam, the first avatar of the PMK, shocked progressive groups when he issued an open threat at a community meeting, forbidding inter-caste unions. Similarly, the Kongu Vellala Goundergal Peravai, which claims to represent the community, issued advertisements in newspapers calling a meeting of community members to oppose inter-caste marriages and launched a campaign against it.

Activists point out that the violence in Dhamrapuri had occurred in a hamlet which used to have a strong presence of the left movement. “The district was once the headquarters of the ‘naxalbari’ movement. Hence caste violence in such a place has come as a surprise,” said a police officer.

Well-known Tamil writer Manushaputhiran pointed out that political parties have been using caste as a tool to improve their prospects. “Caste feeling is not only a cultural issue now. Caste parties have been using it as a powerful political tool as well,” he said.

While there is a lack of cooperation between dalit and non-dalit leaders in southern Tamil Nadu to end the divide, PMK leader S Ramadoss and Dalit leader Thol Tirumavalavan made some efforts for communal amity in the northern belt. Ramadoss unveiled dalit leader Ambedkar’s statue in many places and the VCK in turn honoured him by awarding him the Ambedkar Award.

The caste tension between Vanniyars and dalits was seen to have ended in the early 2000 because of this truce between the two leaders, who came together under the umbrella of Tamil Protection Movement. But the bonhomie did not last and Ramadoss recently declared that his party would align only with caste parties for elections in the future.



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