The viral video of a 55-year-old Dalit man’s body being dropped from a bridge to the cremation ground below as Caste Hindus refused to allow the body to be carried through their fields in Vellore district, Tamil Nadu, has again brought the nation’s focus to the persisting caste discrimination of Dalits in India.
Such incidents are not new, nor are they confined to a few states. Across the country, the horror of caste discrimination continues to blight the lives of entire communities.
In Tamil Nadu the never-ending feud between Dalits and the powerful Vanniyar community has often led to caste clashes breaking out in the northern parts of the state. The Dalits, who weren’t well-organised until a few decades ago, now have numerous political parties to espouse their cause. One such party has been the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) or the Liberation Panthers Party, headed by Thol Tirumavalavan, now a Member of Parliament. As competition for the Dalit vote got more intense among the various parties, the need to be seen as ‘aggressive’ to claim their rights has grown.
The inequity of caste is very real in thousands of villages across Tamil Nadu. The Dalits often aren’t allowed to sit at the same table with caste Hindus at restaurants, the two-tumbler system still endures in a few places and Dalits are not allowed to carry the bodies of their dead through the streets where Caste Hindus reside. Inter-caste marriages are very much a no-no and ‘honour killings’ have been frequent over the last few years, with some of the killers even being hailed by their communities. In several villages even today, the Dalits are only allowed to settle among their own in colonies that are located a little away from the main village.
Tamil Nadu witnessed the rise of the Dravidian movement over the last 75 years. While essentially an anti-Brahmin movement, the intermediate castes who gained prominence thanks to the Dravidian movement, in effect, became the ‘new Brahmins’. They organised themselves into powerful vote-banks, ensured adequate representation in the Assembly and in government jobs and continued to perpetuate the caste excesses on those they considered lower than them in the caste pecking order.
Today there are over a dozen such well-organised communities whom no political party in Tamil Nadu dare offend for fear of losing votes. In southern Tamil Nadu, the Thevars and the Nadars are well organised communities and vote-banks. In the north the Vanniyars, in the west the Gounders and in many parts of the state the Naidus, Reddiars, Chettiars and many other communities have managed to create a strong political voice for their kinsmen. The two main political parties in Tamil Nadu, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) often soft pedal caste atrocities looking first at which community perpetuated them and what vote-bank was at stake if they took a strong stand. This has further emboldened these caste groupings and the oppression continues.
While across India the situation is not too different, the possibility of a state such as Tamil Nadu leaving its caste bias behind was thought likely even a few years ago. A high literacy rate, the development of Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities with bustling economies and the initial impetus provided by the Dravidian movement were all thought to be able to help the state rid itself of its caste fixation. Sadly that has not happened.
Instead, aided by political parties through acts of omission and commission, the inequity continues. Naming the oppressor community and shaming them is hardly ever done for fear of provoking the powerful communities and leading to further clashes. Instead, political parties use a hold-all term ‘Brahminism’ to be responsible, continuing to target the miniscule 3 per cent Brahmin population of the state that has not been involved in any caste clash in decades.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that has started to make inroads into Tamil Nadu tried to woo the Dalits. One of its strongest supporters in the state is Dr Krishnasami, a Dalit leader who runs his own party, the Puthia Tamizhagam or New Tamil Nadu Party. However, even the BJP has not forcefully come out to condemn all incidents of caste discrimination with the expected fervour. It too does not want to alienate the powerful intermediate castes in Tamil Nadu.
If the situation is to be controlled, the political leadership needs to speak out, and unequivocally, in condemnation of caste discrimination. The leaders who the people look up to and vote into office are the ones who can change mindsets. Right now though, they are busy wooing caste vote-banks.
Sumanth Raman is a Chennai-based television anchor and political analyst. Views are personal.Subscribe to Moneycontrol Pro and gain access to curated market data, trading recommendations, stock analysis, investment ideas and insights from market gurus. Now, get Moneycontrol PRO for 1 year at Rs 289. Use code FREEDOM.