Monday, Dec 11, 2023

An Unfolding Dalit Movement In Tamil Nadu Has Escaped Nation’s Attention

An Unfolding Dalit Movement In Tamil Nadu Has Escaped Nation’s Attention

Poet and activist Meena Kandasamy visits ground zero of the grassroots movement down South to understand the caste divide in the state.

An Unfolding Dalit Movement In Tamil Nadu Has Escaped Nation’s Attention

Sometimes, a photograph arr­ests your attention and holds you in its thrall. Right at the moment of your first encounter with the image, you feel it is iconic. You gaze at it in the knowledge this is a picture that captures a poi­nt in space and time, a picture that is simultaneously history and the future, one that marks the shape of things to come. It heralds the arrival of something new. It pulls together something timeless.

I was in Belgium when I first spotted that sun-drenched photograph on Twitter—a proud wom­an wearing a bright blue sari, holding high a fra­med portrait of B.R. Ambedkar, and behind her, other women carrying a red-and-blue flagpole painted in the colours of Viduthalai Chiru­thaigal Katchi (Liberation Panthers Party, i.e., VCK) in their arms decked in bangles. It was Sep­tember 5. Peering from behind the sea of heads and four VCK flags were two young children. There were two middle-aged men, both onlookers. Bang at the centre of the picture, without app­earing to intrude into it, was a young man in a pink shirt beating a drum with an intense, faraway look in his eyes.

In this celebratory moment, he was there but not quite. Like a war-drum, his instrument spoke for him—it kept count, never tiring. You could hear the thrum of the Panther slogans. The energy of the image of a brave, unfazed woman carrying Ambedkar’s image would make you sit up and applaud. She was looking directly at the camera, as if she was beckoning us to come and witness her heroism.

Caste conflict in India’s southern state of Tamil Nadu is not new. In fact, it is one of the homegrounds of political assertion of lower castes in India. Over the decades, though, as each Bahujan layer has inhaled a whiff of political freedom, they have predictably peeled off from the base and floated above, to attach with the upper caste layers, leaving behind the Dalits at the bottom. An electoral ally of the ruling DMK in the state, VCK has, over the years, come to become the focal point of Dalit assertion, inevitably leading to tensions.

I was not created for pleasure (details): Stitching on cloth

Of late, across rural Tamil Nadu, this tension has coalesced into an emerging social boycott of Dalits by all other castes who come higher in the social hierarchy. With rural Dalits being lar­gely landless, this has pushed them to the wall, and elicited a pushback—in the form of a desire to assert Dalit presence in public spaces thro­ugh the hoisting of the VCK flag and prominent display of Ambedkar’s photo—something, it wou­ld appear, the oppressor castes are loath to allow. Sometimes even at the cost of their own public displays of caste pride. Talk about cutt­ing off one’s nose to spite one’s face.

On that sultry September morning, Dalit wom­en of Pudu Viraalippati, a tiny village in Ala­thur, Perambalur district, who bear the bru­nt of the everyday marginalisation, braved the threats of caste Hindus and arrest-warnings of police to claim their democratic right to hoist the VCK flag.  

When I returned to India, I went to meet these courageous women.

The VCK flag, which has come to symbolise the aspirations of many, was first introduced on April 14, 1990 in Madurai by Thol. Thirumaval­avan, the founder-president of the-then DPI (Dal­it Panthers of India). It has a white, five-pointed star at the centre of a blue-and-red str­iped rectangle. The blue is dedicated to the ide­­als of Ambedkar, the red—unique among Dal­it political flags in India—signals the party’s commitment to Marxism and the revolutionary path, while each of the five corners of the star represent a core demand—caste annihilation, women’s liberation, proletarian liberation, Tam­il nationalism and anti-imperialist strug­gle.

The VCK flag welcomes us into Pudu Viraali­ppatti on September 25. It stands right across the bus stand—the only flag in the horizon.

Three weeks after their heroic face-off with police and oppressor caste protesters, I meet the Dalit women of Pudu Viraalippatti in the early evening, after they have returned from the fields. It’s a busy hour for them, when they cook rice for dinner. But they have agreed to accommodate this interview. The entire village gathers at the Mariamman temple in the cheri (Dalit locality), where women do most of the talking.

I listen, learn, and I am left enraged—Dalits, numbering 200 households, are vastly outnumbered by the 800-strong oppressor castes—Nai­dus, Chettiars, Vellalars. As primarily landless farm labour or small land-holders, they are inevitably dependent on caste Hindus for their livelihood. Even children of oppressor castes call Dalit elders by name, without the customary suffix of respect. Dalits are still not allowed to enter the Nallendraswamy Perumal Koil, a temple that comes within purview of the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Board; nor have they ever been able to take any of the 15 acres of land belonging to the temple on annual lease for farming. There are no sanit­ation facilities—children have to walk a kilome­tre to relieve themselves. For older children, the bus to the nearest government school at Chetti­kulam comes at 6.30 am, and again at 9.30 am, so they leave home at six in the morning and return by six in the evening. Several faint at school because they haven’t been able to eat breakfast. Children of oppressor castes escape this fate—the fathers own bikes to drop and pick them up. In most cases, their children are enrolled in private schools. Out of the 95 Dal­it families who were allocated land pattas in 1995 under the Panchami land scheme, 37 have no access to reach their plots. Dalit men insist segregation exists even in the common cemet­ary, and that caste Hindus enjoy more facilities.

Pudu Viraalip­patti, September 5 The picture of Dalit women that inspired this piece

Of late, Dalits have discarded their vacillating political affiliations with one or other Dravidian giants, and embraced VCK. It’s the inevitable resistance against ongoing atrocities, unchalle­nged for centuries. In the aftermath of the Pan­t­hers hoisting their flag, the oppressor castes have doubled down on their hatred. No sooner than the blue-red flag had gone up the pole, that caste Hindus of Pudu Viraalippatti stopped employing Dalits on their lands. The aim is to deprive Dalits of their livelihood.

The demand of Dalits on the commons, to hoist the VCK flag they have made their own, has its roots in cultural connections of the space to their everyday practices. “In our marriages, this is the spot from which we welc­o­me the bride in a procession. At the summer festival Chithirai Thiruvizha, this is from where we bid farewell to the men who set out on a rabbit hunt. That land belongs to no one. It’s ours as much as anyone else’s,” says Chitra, one of the women who led the flag hoisting procession.

The VCK flag is no stranger to Pudu Viraalip­patti. Back in the late 1990s—when VCK was known as DPI and was a people’s movement, not an electoral party—a flag had been hoisted on a bamboo pole. Details of how it eventually disappeared are hazy, lost from public memory in a tangle of competing narratives. This year, when local VCK functionaries Kannadasan and Nithyavalavan (names changed) wanted to org­anise a tree-planting, sweet distribution and flag-hoisting ceremony to celebrate the birthday of the party’s founder-president Thiruma­valavan on August 17, police refused them per­m­ission, reportedly saying that the VCK flag could cause communal tension.

Afterwards, the first peace committee meeting, with representatives from VCK and caste Hindus, took place at the taluk office on Sept­em­ber 3. It was inconclusive—caste Hindus reiterated they wouldn’t allow the VCK flag to be hoisted, while VCK stood firm in its decision to go ahead with its celebrations.

So opposed to the VCK symbol and visibility were the oppressor castes, that they even offe­r­ed to take down their Dravidian flags (DMK, AIA­DMK). This argument was used by the tehsildar, who tried to convince the Panthers to give up their demand on grounds of equivalence.

And that’s how the ideological core of mainstream parties unravels at local level, where caste tensions are sharpest, according to the Dalit women I spoke with. Instead of confronting caste directly, they strike a compromise with its most poisonous elements.

Earlier, on September 4, before VCK could take out its flag procession, police had warned activists they would be arrested as they lacked necessary permits to go ahead with the cerem­ony. When it was pointed out that none of the flags already flying at the spot had those perm­i­ts, they said they will remove all flags.

Early on the morning of September 5, around 20-30 cops were deployed in the village. Within a few hours, revenue officer Aruganantham, ins­pector Jeyaraman and DSP Sanjeev Kumar rea­c­hed the spot. Over 200 upper caste resi­d­e­nts including 40 women, armed with stones, congregated near the site and shouted abuses and death threats at the Dalits. They threw sand in the air and uttered curses wishing the Dalits evil.

With their backs to the wall, the Dalit women, along with a few of their men, led a procession from within the cheri to the main road, bearing a massive framed photo of Ambedkar on a hea­vy blue-red flagpole, chanting Panther slogans to the sound of festive drums. They managed to push past the police. Local VCK office-bearers, who wanted to avoid confrontation, did their best to exercise restraint and prevent escalation. Over the microphone, an office-bearer even extended an olive branch to the caste Hindu protestors: “Please join us. This is a par­ty for all. Our leader takes up your issues all the time. We were the first to fight for OBC reservation in medical seats. It will be a great honour if you relent and hoist this flag yourselves.”

But the pleas went unheeded. The oppressors staged a rasta roko in protest. To prevent a fracas, the Dalit activists retreated to their cheri, and by 4pm, party functionaries also left the village after planting 10 saplings.  

On September 6, two miscreants on bikes tore the Panthers’ flag and took it away. Dalit women immediately launched a sit-in, deman­ding arrest of the culprits. They also hoisted the flag again in the dark of the night. Although police made two arrests, the case was not filed under Prevention of Atrocities Against SC/ST Act.

Madurai, April 14, 1990 DPI activists with a poster of their party

At the subsequent peace committee meeting organised by the sub-collector on September 7, representatives of the oppressor castes (Naidu, Chettiar and Vellalar) again offered to take down their own flags. VCK representatives stood their ground. Upon receipt of notices from the panchayat president on September 8, stating that none of the flagpoles had requisite permission and that in the interests of maintaining communal harmony among the villa­ges, all parties were asked to remove their flag poles on their own volition, within a stipulated time period.

With consent from local DMK and AIADMK representatives, police uprooted the­ir respective flag poles the following day, bolst­ering the bureaucratic push for a no-flag policy, and to put pressure on VCK to remove their emblem. The women I spoke to said what appears as neutral is casteism-in-disguise—an effort to prevent and erase Dalit aspirations.

Pudu Viraalippatti’s Dalit women wore their bravery lightly when I met them. “On any other day, we’d have run away on seeing cops. But not on that day. We were willing to face whatever happened.” They were rankled by the attitude of the caste Hindu women, though. “Overnight, their friendship evaporated,” says Chitra, adding, “Our school friends stopped talking to us, even on the bus.” Her friend Lakshmi joins in, “This only means they had been acting all these years. Now we know their true nature.”

They sense there is a new caste diktat in place to ostracise them further, by avoiding any eng­agement. “When we met at a social function in another village, we tried to catch up. But they avoided us,” Chitra says. Another woman adds, “We don’t see them as enemies. They are doing as they are being told.”

Ambeth Gokul, an activist from the VCK’s Radical Students Front, points out that ruling classes have conveniently come together, as expected. He expresses his disappointment at the silence of democratic forces. “This is not a party issue, but one of democratic rights. Why is there an absence of dialogue from so-called progressive forces? If this does not engender debate, how can we convince the masses that debate, not confrontation, is the way forward?”

Positioning itself as a party for all in the last few years, VCK has given some ammunition to Dalits of the village in challenging segregation and discrimination. A common refrain among many Dalits I met was: “Why do caste Hindus look at VCK as a caste party? Our party and our leader regularly raises issues of OBCs. Why then should we remove our flag? It’s their flag as well.” However, in the absence of other parties coming out in support of VCK, the Panth­ers are left facing the brunt on their own.  

In a way, what VCK has been facing in Tamil Nadu over the past few decades, has parallels with what communists faced in the 1950s. The red flag was seen as an affront to feudalism and caste hierarchy, the labouring classes standing up for their rights, a threat by the ruling caste/class elite. Which is why the lack of alacrity amo­ng Tamil Nadu’s parliamentary Left in extending solidarity to the Panthers, leaves a lot to be desired. The silence of mainstream parties on the question of the right to hoist a party flag—something that should concern everyone—is perturbing. I left with a sense of foreboding about India’s democracy experiment coming off at the seams.

(This appeared in the print edition as "The Five-Pointed Star of Dravid")

Meena Kandasamy poet, writer, feminist and dalit activist