THE vicious caste feud between Thevars (Mukkulathars), a backward caste formation that includes three sub-sects, and Devendra Kulla Vellars, a scheduled caste, in Tamil Nadu's southern districts goes beyond a mere law and order problem—it's a social crisis. The latest bout of violence was triggered off in the last week of April when some anti-socials vandalised a four-feet statue of Thevar icon Muthuramalinga, installed in a private property at Kandamanur village, 60 km south-west of Madurai. The Thevars blamed it on the Dalits and torched several haystacks. In a chain reaction, the Dalits then set fire to two houses belonging to Thevars, who retaliated and destroyed some Dalit property. In the end, the police resorted to firing to disperse angry mobs, killing two Dalits.
The police rounded up Krishnaswamy, MLA and president, Federation of Devendra Kulla Vellars, saying that his inflammatory speeches were largely responsible for sparking off the violence. The worst-hit are the five districts of Madurai, Vaigai Azhagu Muthukone, Kamarajar, Nellai Kattabomman and Chidambaranar.
Though the relationship between the two communities have never been cordial and they battled each other in the first-ever caste riot in the state, the Mudakalathur riot of 1957, the cracks have widened with time. And political parties have done their bit to foment the crisis. During Jayalalitha's five-year stint, she pitted the Thevars against the Dalits. This led to frequent clashes; particularly violent was the Kodiyunkulam incident in 1995.
This May-Day, when the ruling DMK-TMC government rechristened the state-owned Pandian Transport Corporation as the Pandian and Sundaralingam (a well-known Dalit leader) Transport Corporation, the Thevars resisted the move. As the first set of buses entered Thevar-dominated villages, they set several on fire and attacked the drivers. To assuage the Dalits, the government released Krishnaswamy on conditional bail—that he should not enter the troubled Vaigai Azhagu Muthukone district.
Krishnaswamy blames the police for this round of agitation: "The atrocities against the Dalits were institutionalised during the previous AIADMK regime. While there is a change in the political dispensation, there seems to be no change in the behaviour of the police." There is perhaps an element of truth in Krishnaswamy's assertion.
During the Jayalalitha regime, her aide Sasikala Natarajan astutely promoted her caste—Mukkula-thar. In the southern districts, the majority of the police force hails from that caste and, often, they are unable to overcome caste affiliations. Says Murugeswari, president of the Kandamanur panchayat (the first woman and Dalit president of the village): "While both parties have indulged in violence, there is an essential difference. Dalits are fighting for their rights and the Thevars are fighting to retain their hegemony. It will be cruel to equate the fight for livelihood to the arson to retain power on the basis of birth".
THEVARS are not willing to accept that argument. They claim that the Dalits are being looked after better by the government—"they get jobs and usurp our lands. " Fact is, over the last three decades, there has been a discreet shift in the land-owning pattern in south Tamil Nadu. The ascendancy of the DMK has brought forth a sizeable migration to urban areas. With more and more backward castes opting for jobs in towns and cities, farming has been virtually taken over by the Dalits. Unlike the backward castes, which have trooped to urban areas en masse, at least one member of the Dalit family opted to retain his base in the agricultural sector. "The preferential reservation helped both the backward castes as well as Dalits to get jobs. But by retaining their hold on the villages, the Dalits started expressing their desire to break away from age-old conventions by using their newly-found economic freedom," observes a professor of Madurai Kamaraj University.
The state government is in a bind. While the Thevars view Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi as anti-Thevar for his actions against Sasikala and her family, the Dalits have never trusted the DMK. "The DMK was, and is, seen as the representative of intermediate castes," observes a CPI leader. The Thevars are not willing to relent on the bus-naming issue and want Sundaralin-gam deleted from the corporation's tag. They are determined to continue the fight till the government gives in.
The Thevars are being mobilised by former bureaucrats and police officers, including Pon Paramaguru, former director-general of police, who now heads the all-powerful Thevar Peravai. He is trying to assimilate them under one umbrella and has successfully weaned away a chunk of Thevar youths from various political parties. In the Sivakasi area, even ruling party cadres have now switched loyalty to this apolitical, caste-based organisation.
As a result, caste awareness is high, often raising its head in petty situations. "How do you expect us to travel in a bus named after a Dalit?" is a common refrain in most Thevar-dominated areas. "It is a personal affront to our manhood," they declare.
The Thevars are also perturbed at the fact that the Dalits are no longer willing to take everything lying down and, in many places, have struck back with a vengeance. In this round of attrition, both the Thevars and Dalits lost considerable amount of property; in the past, the Dalits have always suffered more than the Thevars whenever there was a clash.
As the government turned out its entire law and order machinery in the districts, both Thevars and Dalits insisted the police would not be able to solve the problem. "The attempt to look at the crisis as an administrative problem will only aggravate the situation," says one activist.
According to M.S.S. Pandian, an academic with the Madras Institute of Development Studies, the long stint in power has eroded the DMK's ability to understand ground-level politics and, that, it now has all the trappings of an elitist party. "The present conflict between the backward castes and the Dalits is an unintended consequence of the Dravidian movement. The government or the party does not have the political imagination to resolve a complicated conflict such as this," says Pandian. Karunanidhi has deputed his commercial taxes minister, Thangapandian, a Thevar, to talk to community leaders, and make them see reason in naming a transport corporation after a Dalit. Karunanidhi even delved into ancient Tamil literature to drive home his point: "In our texts there is a reference to a tiger and a deer drinking water from the same pond. Today, it is unfortunate that not even a deer is able to drink water with another deer. Both the backward castes and the Dalits should understand that this acrimony is suicidal." But platitudes may not do the trick. For, as things stand, the suicidal streak is only becoming more darkly visible.