A Dalit In The Congress
30 September, 2005
important Dalit leader L Elayaperumal died at the age of 82 on September
9 in Chidambaram, Tamil Nadu. What BP Mandal did for the OBC-shudras,
Elayaperumal did for the Dalits way back in 1969. However, given that
Elayaperumal was a Dalit in the Congress, his report was never implemented.
Not all his efforts went unrewarded, though. Born as Lakshmanan Elayaperumal
in a middle class family on 26 June 1924 in Kattumannarkoil, near Chidambaram,
Elayaperumal studied in a high school where Dalit students were forced
to drink water from a separate pot, painted in bold letters "pariah
pot". Elayaperumal would secretly break the pots. One day the headmaster
caught him, he boldly rationalised his action. Since then, the segregation
of pots was abolished in the school.
Elayaperumal joined the army in 1945. Returning to Kattumannarkoil in
1946, he was involved in an unexpected struggle. Coming across a Dalit
who had been severely beaten by his mirasdar for not going to work for
two days, Elayaperumal took the victim to the police station but the
police refused to register a case against the landlord. Soon, thousands
of Dalits gathered. Finally the collector ordered the landlord to pay
Rs 100 as compensation.
This made him a leader of the untouchables. Many struggles in and around
Chidambaram with focus on education and fair wages for landless labourers,
the abolition of "degrading jobs" imposed on Dalits-drum beating,
removing dead animals, crematorium work was taken up. He campaigned
against beef-eating in 1946. Infuriated, the Hindus foisted a false
case against him and he was imprisoned for six months. After independence,
he was awarded a gold medal in recognition of his social service.
He was elected to the first Parliament in 1952 on a Congress ticket
from Chidambaram. He was a disciple of Swami Sahajananda, a Shaivite
scholar and prominent Dalit leader. In 1910, Sahajananda started a school
for untouchable children in Chidambaram. He established the Nandanar
Educational Society in 1916. After his death Elayaperumal took over.
Elayaperumal was appointed the Chairman of the first ever national committee
to inquire the educational and economic condition of the untouchables.
He toured extensively, and submitted his report 'Untouchability: Economic
and Educational Development of Scheduled Castes' offering valuable recommendations
for the uplift of the untouchables.
The report stressed the importance of 'separate settlements'. "Caste
repression is severe where the Dalit population is less in number,"
he argued. Where Dalits are in a minority, the Government should bring
them together, administrative and police powers should be given to Dalit
officers in such areas, he suggested. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi did
not even table the report in Parliament. The Union Government implemented
the Mandal Commission report but the Elayaperumal Committee report was
consigned to the dustbin.
Elayaperumal quit the Congress in 1970 when it failed to protest the
DMK Government's move to open liquor shops in the State. Rejoining the
Congress at Kamaraj's behest, Elayaperumal was elected to Parliament
thrice and to the Tamil Nadu Assembly once. He became the state Congress
president in 1979. The Congress won the maximum Parliament seats from
Tamil Nadu in the 1980 general elections under his leadership. He bargained
for 50 per cent of the Assembly seats with the DMK in the subsequent
He once again pressured the Indira Gandhi Government to implement his
committee report but in vain. He quit the party in disgust and floated
the Indian Human Rights Party focusing on Dalit issues. In 1987, the
Vanniars, staged a week long rasta-roko agitation for reservation in
Government jobs, burning more than 1,500 Dalit houses. Elayaperumal
rushed to the affected areas forcing the Government to book the culprits.
Elayaperumal rejoined the Congress in 2003. His demands for the implementation
of his report and the upgradation of the Nandanar Girls Higher Secondary
School into a women's college remain unfulfilled. Elayaperumal died
a Congressman, but not one Congress leader condoled his death.
(The writer is the founder of www.navayana.org)