In Tamil Nadu
By K. Nagaraj
23 August 2005
press in India has rarely documented, in any detail and with any sensitivity,
the grinding poverty, the day-to-day deprivations and discriminations
and the all too frequent atrocities faced by the Dalits in this country.
The fortnightly published by The Hindu group, Frontline, has been a
rare exception in this regard. For more than a decade now, one of its
Correspondents, S.Viswanathan, has painstakingly chronicled these dimensions
of the Dalit situation in one of more modernised, progressive States
in the country, Tamil Nadu.
The articles written
by him on these issues sympathetic and sensitive have
now been put together as a book by Navayana Publishing in Chennai, a
novel publishing effort in highlighting the Dalit situation in the country.
It has been a very worthy enterprise. These chronicles, in their totality,
bring out a number of important aspects of the Dalit situation in Tamil
The first thing
that strikes a reader is the depth and range of deprivations and discriminations
Dalits have to face today: these are intense and acute, multiple and
overlapping. And these are deprivations and discriminations a Dalit
has to face in every aspect of his or her life. The Dalit condition
is unique in this sense: such `cradle to grave' deprivations and discriminations
have rarely been the lot of any other community in India.
The articles painstakingly
document these deprivations and discriminations in terms of livelihood
issues: Dalits are denied access to land; their legitimate and traditional
fishing rights in ponds are taken away; they are denied access to roads
and often their living space, the Cheri on the outer fringes of the
village, is encroached upon by the `caste Hindus'; their access to clean
drinking water is virtually non-existent and their wells are often poisoned
during anti-Dalit riots; the majority of Dalits are agricultural labourers
with low wages and long stretches of unemployment the list appears
to be unending.
However, these deprivations
and discriminations are not just economic; they are also social, cultural
and political. Illiteracy among Dalits is very high and this is exploited
in more ways than one. There are subtle often not so subtle
types of discrimination a Dalit student has to face in school; untouchability
is widespread, including the use of `two glasses' one for Dalits
and the other for `caste Hindus' in tea shops. There is a delicate
line of social behaviour, transgression of which brings in immediate
and often brutal reprisals. Smoking in front of `caste Hindus' or walking
in the main part of the village wearing chappals can invite violence.
But the most brutal forms of reprisal including `honour killings'
of the couple by `caste Hindus' seem to be reserved for inter-caste
marriages involving a Dalit.
are also political in nature. Often their right to vote is taken away
through violent means; in some cases there is violent reprisal
by the police because Dalits decide to boycott elections in protest.
In elected panchayats with reservations for Dalits, elections are either
not allowed to be held, or, when held elected Dalit panchayat members
are not allowed to function. In some cases, the denial of these rights
has taken the form of murder of Dalit panchayat members. Political rallies
by Dalits are not allowed to take off or severely restricted.
There is very little
solace for a Dalit in religion or even in death; various types of discriminations
continue in these spheres. The religious rights of the Dalit
to worship are often severely restricted. And the burial grounds
for Dalits often lack proper approach roads and attempts to reach these
grounds through land belonging to `caste Hindus' often invite reprisals.
The fact that Dalits
have to face such deprivation, discrimination, and violence in
all their intensity and range from `caste Hindus' is perhaps
explicable in terms of the central role caste plays in our society.
But these articles also bring out the role more often than not,
nefarious played by various organs of the state in this. The
police have often been brutal in their dealings with Dalits the
articles documents heart-rending accounts of such brutalities. The administration
has been insensitive, to say the least. Atrocities against Dalits and
instances of Dalit assertion are treated essentially as law and order
problems, not social ones. Viswanathan also records the devious ways
in which the administration tries to scuttle various programmes and
measures instituted by the State for the benefit of Dalits such
as reservations in jobs and poverty alleviation programmes. The inquiry
commissions set up by the State often end up blaming the victims: perhaps
the most notorious example of this is an inquiry Commission that did
a complete white-wash of police brutalities against striking workers,
mostly Dalits, of the Manjolai tea estate in Tirunelveli in July 1999.
caste prejudices and practices provide the basis for these discriminations
and atrocities faced by Dalits, the Frontline articles also document
another side to the picture. While the story has been one of deprivations
and discriminations, it is also a story of Dalit assertion. And such
assertion often has invited reprisals often brutal by
`caste Hindus' and the State. The bases and forms of such assertion
by Dalits have been varied and many. It has often been the result of
out-migration, particularly to the Gulf countries, by Dalits in search
of skilled jobs. It has taken the form of land struggles; struggles
for better wages and working conditions, as by the Manjolai estate workers.
It has often taken the form of conversion to Islam. Perhaps most importantly,
it has taken the form of political mobilisation and involvement.
in considerable detail the trajectory of Dalit politics in Tamil Nadu,
and his assessment is sober and reasoned. While recognising the specificities
of the Dalit situation or even the uniqueness of it in terms
of the depth and range of deprivations and discriminations faced by
Dalits he constantly attempts to situate the Dalit problem within
the larger socio-economic and political contexts. He recognises the
fact that the `caste Hindus' who are often in the forefront of violence
against Dalits like sections of Thevars in southern Tamil Nadu
and Vanniars in the northern regions hardly belong to the ruling
classes and have only a marginally higher socio-economic status than
Dalits. And it is the poor belonging to all the communities and castes
who suffer during episodes of violence. Given this reality, isolating
the Dalits from the rest of the deprived is hardly a solution. Viswanathan's
attempt in these Frontline articles is to identify the foundational
basis of deprivation in general and unite all the deprived sections
on such a basis even while recognising that the Dalits are the most
deprived in every sense of the term and hence, their problems would
need special emphasis and attention. He constantly keeps going back
in these articles to the foundational role played by the land question,
the question of livelihood, and the need to have a socio-cultural movement
against the caste system. In this he is squarely within the Marxist
tradition and highlights the positive role the Left parties have played
in the Dalit politics in Tamil Nadu. So, the diatribe against the Left
parties in the introduction to the book by Ravikumar, one of the publishers
of the book, appears particularly incongruous.
Role of the Dravidian
What about the role
of the Dravidian movement and the Dravidian parties, the DMK and the
AIADMK? The title of the book, `Dalits in Dravidian Land,' as well as
large parts of the introduction seem to indicate that the Dravidian
movement and the Dravidian parties have to share a large part of the
blame for the situation of the Dalits in the State today. The Dravidian
parties certainly have a lot to answer for in this regard: the articles
clearly chronicle the fact that violence by state organs was a regular
feature all through the rule of these two parties in Tamil Nadu. But
one also would have to recognise the fact that the Dravidian movement
in the State provided socio-political and cultural space for the deprived
sections to assert themselves. While it is undeniable that the gainers
in this process were largely the middle castes, the assertion by the
deprived including the Dalits could hardly be divorced
from this movement.
This is a book that
tells us what an intelligent, committed, sober and self-effacing
journalist can do to highlight gross injustices and deprivations
prevalent in our midst. At a time when glossy, trivial, P3 journalism
is making heavy inroads into the Indian print media, we should thank
Frontline and Viswanathan for keeping this tradition alive; and Navayana
for putting all the articles in one place.
2000 - 2005 The Hindu
Dalits in Dravidian
Land: Frontline reports on anti-dalit violence in Tamil Nadu (19952004).
By S. Viswanathan, Rs 300 (USD 25); 356 pages, ISBN: 81-89059-05-X,
pb with 34 B&W photographs.
The book is available
in leading bookstores across the country. In Delhi, contact: West Land
Books: 011-51718453, 011-29840113
For the southern states, contact West Land Books in Chennai at 044-30580417,
To avail discount
on bulk orders contact:
Navayana Publishing at 91-94440-61256, firstname.lastname@example.org
Navayana Publishing, 54, 1st Floor, Savarirayalu Street, Pondicherry