Needed A Tsunami
The Ugly Relic Of Varna System
16 February, 2005
Tsunami hit the coastal belt of India, one question that haunted me
was about the beaurocracy and caste prejudices. Tamilnadu, among all,
fascinated my imagination due to my deep respect for the leader of self-respect
movement EVR Periyar. This self-respect movement, I still feel, is needed
even in the northern part of India. One cannot understand Tamilnadu
in simplistic terms despite a huge success of the Self Respect Movement,
Tamilnadu, over the last few years became a hunting ground of the Hindutva
brigade, though by a different name. It also became a place to use the
contrast between the backwards and the Dalits. While every political
leader in India became victim of caste identity and hence Periyar was
no exception yet the vilification campaign against Periyar had hurt
all those rationalists who knew his philosophy was never castiest in
And yet when a Tsunami
hit Tamilnadu, this kind of contradiction became visible if you have
understood the caste system of Tamilnadu. I looked for my icon Periyar
and his disciples as what were they doing to eliminate this discrimination
against Dalits ? No, Periyar never wanted his followers to join the
power politics because his firm belief was that power corrupt people,
because he felt that those running after power will compromise it. Minorities
are always a suspect in democracy and Indias villages have Dalits
as minority without any rights to get heard. In constitution and in
Parliament we might have a very fair view of minority rights but in
the villages of India Might is right and minority does
not mean anything. Villages in Tamilnadu and Pondicherry are like their
northern counterpart, republic of the power elite. And in the entire
scheme of things, Dalits dont matter. For all those in power,
Dalits represent poor class, they did not loose anything.
Political parties, NGOs all went and swept in the Tsunami to reach the
sea beach. They were in a hurry to distribute their stuff as it was
the best marketing opportunity, as prime minister Manmohan Singh said.
In their search to reach the boats, they forgot that all these boats
dont necessarily belonged to the fishermen communities. There
are communities of Dalits who are involved in fishing work. Very few
bothered to visit other parts of the villages which were a few kilometers
away from the beach where people might not have died but where people
lost their houses and routine work.
It pains to narrate
here that how difficult it was for me to visit these areas and try to
locate people victim of this hidden apartheid. We have conquered everything
except our prejudices and false nationalism. When Asian Human Rights
Commission Hong Kong reported that the Dalits were being discriminated,
a number of NGOs a responded that everything was fine. Why should some
of them feel jittery when some one complains about malfunctioning? Why
our nationalism comes into picture when we expose the intention
of the authorities and society. I am giving a few stories about my visit
to Pondicherry and Tamilnadu and how Dalits were treated.
It is a village about 40 kilometer from Nagpattinam but part of Pondicherry.
In the village Karaikal Medu we saw the face of untouchability in a
more dangerous way. In this village of about 730 fishing families about
32 people died and 19 were missing. Most of the villagers who died were
fish vendors. Government of Pondicherry was quick to distribute a cash
of Rs 10,000 for rebuilding the houses and Rs 2000 for childrens
uniform and books. One lakh to those who died and Rs 5,000 for cremation
but not all have got the same.
The relief material
was being handled by fishfolks community organizations from the
community temple. Paramswamy, a local lad who could speak English comes
forward to assist me. Param has worked in Somalia and other places and
has been on leave for over a month. He is a captain. He and his associates
want to me to take a visit to their village. As I venture to see the
broken temple on the sea bank and ask them about Dalits, there is a
conspicuous silence. Please come ahead, we want you to visit our village.
Lot of people have died said Param. I insist to see the other village
adjacent and come to know later from speaking with the people that it
is a village of Vanniars. In this village about 32 people have died
and most of the locals have left the village to stay at community centers.
Some of them started working on their houses. I go to a bare-chested
man making his hut. I am sure that this man is a Dalit while I ask my
friends who is he. They are poor people, he reply. Poor
people, I am amazed as normally this is not the terminology that
we use in India for the Dalits. They move ahead while I focus myself
to this village much to the discomfort of my guides in the village.
They dont want me to take up the picture of poor people.
A few CPM workers are being seen to help erect the bamboo houses for
them. According to a CPM workers one hundred thirty two families have
not got any thing. They need immediate assistance. Children are playing
on the heap of the old cloths, so naively send by the charitable
people of India. These cloths have been rejected by the people. After
all, who would like to wear torn jeans and broad shoulder tops which
is not a part of the life of these women. We failed to understand the
cultural sensibilities of the people. Most of the people have gone to
nearby shelters but the local religious charitable organizations are
taking care of their own communities.
Issues of Dalits
The problem of the
Dalit bustee here seems to be overburdened. The lack of dynamic leadership
with in the community has made the community immobile. More over, the
insensitive nature of the caste system has also made them redundant.
Unlike, north India, where Dalits might be poor but politically powerful
community, in the South they are being used by the powerful NGOs and
religious community organisations. The radical movement which made Dalit
powerful seems a story of past and the oppression level has grown In
the absence of Dalit mobility, the upper caste are using the space cleverly.
It is a country where death of a Dalit is not considered as death. Since
every one talks about fishermen and we have full sympathy with fisher
family, very few know that in Tamilnadu and other parts of the country,
Dalits are also fishermen but they fish mostly on the leased boats.
The issue of Dalits have been relegated because of various reasons.
One of that is the prevalent caste system where. A fairly large number
of fisher folks in Tamilnadu and Kerala belong to Christian community.
Apart from this, a big number of Christian folks have their upper caste
back ground resulting in common antipathy towards the Dalits. That is
one reason why a large number of organizations took offense to the reported
discrimination against Dalits.
According to information
provided to us by local activists here, 132 families of the villages
Karaikalmedu-aman kovipathu, have lost their livelihood. In all, about
32 people died. They all belong to Vanniar community who are landless
labours as well as fish workers.
The visibility of
anguish among the Dalits reflects the upper caste mindset. My friends
who took me to the village uncomfortable and not even willing to properly
interpret things for me. My driver is frustrated by my efforts to speak
to Dalits despite my linguistic problems.
One of the worst affected areas reported over 300 deaths in the
village of 1200 families. Known as Pattinachery, one could see the Tandav
of death here. Boats lying far away in the fields and influence of seawater.
Selain h/o Saraswati died in the Tsunami. She has nowhere to go. With
two sons and three daughters, they just got twelve thousand rupees only.
She is Dalit woman belonging to Setti community. Setti is originally
a community devoted to music and dance. Her life is now a challenge.
Food security is under severe threat. Saraswatis fear is palpable
from her face. She does not know what to do and what will happen to
her children. She had been eating at the community camps but the food
quality was too bad to consume and hence she shifted to a friends
The entire village
looks a ghost village. Most of the people are leaving. At village the
work of cleaning is being done by the Scavengers as usual. It was institution
of Varna system by the laws of manu. Now our national laws which may
not say it in so many words but the fact is the entire Safai work in
India is done by one community of Bhangis, Mehtars and all those who
claims to be Valmikis. Unfortunate part is that even in this tragedy
a state like Tamilnadu could not show its progressive signs. Even in
this tragedy, there is no local effort to over come the crime of untouchability.
This tragedy is exposed the ugly face of caste system in India.
towards Nagpattinam, and we reach Nagore. As we reach this temple town
famous for its Dargah, distribution of relief material is being handled
in a more crude way. Nagores famous Dargah is known for its miracles
where people from every walk of life come in and seek blessing.
As the relief material is being distributed, I could see good looking
women and men taking ample amount of material along with them. It pains
when we find the organizers of these relief camps trying to glorify
their activities and treating people in contempt.
I am still trying
to find the Dalit stories and my colleagues and driver particularly
is trying to avoid. I decided to walk through the railway station of
Nagore where a train saved the day for the Muslim population. And as
I venture to cross the railway line being constructed, I see a bustee
completed cut off from the rest of the area. Not through the landways
but through our social compulsion. Camera attracts and here also a large
number and a few of them starts coming. Rajlingam is a coolie with Indian
Railways and he takes me to his area. He could understand my pain of
reaching the Dalit area but his pain is more then my pain. I have found
the way. I move towards this area crossing the railway station of Nagore.
This area is Rail kel Puram, Nagore. Rajlingam informs me that he has
lost everything. The houses are collapsed and nobody has ventured in
to see their plight. Remember this area is not far away from the railway
station but stone throw.
Kannaiyan, 42 is
accompanying us. He has lost his mother in the Tsunami. His father is
already died long ago. His house is thoroughly gone. There is nothing
inside. He has two daughters and one son. His elder daughter is doing
B.Sc and younger one is in 10th. His son is doing 12th standard. He
does not know where to start. In pains he tells me that he has not got
a single pie so far. When the government of Tamilnadu was so prompt
in giving in relief to everyone, till my visit to this area on 10th
of January, there was no relief for him. Not even the formal one lakh
rupees or four thousand rupees for construction of house. Virtually,
no family is living here at the moment when I visit. After entering
in the already damaged house of Kannaiyan, I go out and try to see others
and since it is afternoon, many of them have come in. There were 43
families and more then 150 members in this village. They are not here
and living in a camps whose circumstances are miserable. None of the
families have got any assistance from the government. So far no political
leaders visited there. Strangely enough, not even customary rice has
been given to them.
After visiting several
houses, I go to a nearby dharmshala (inn) in front of the Railway station
where these 150 people including children were dumped. See the situation,
mosquitoes; there was fear of outbreak of epidemic. They are not given
any food here. They have to venture out somewhere in isolation to have
food. Children cry and suffocate. None of the social groups are there
in this house, which is overcrowded. Children dont have space
to play and even cry. Womens are sitting in dark and complain
that there is nothing to eat and difficult to sleep in the night.
has been one of the most affected regions. About 5 kilometer from this
town is a village called Devanpattinam. Most of the village on the seashore
has been wiped off and Swami Chidananda, who had descended
from the Himalaya was there to promise that he would build the entire
village. As the work was going, fishermen had erected several makeshift
huts. Guruji along with famous disciple Vivek Oberai promised people
to construct houses. So far nothing is given except for some community
kitchen. The swami was moving around with a few foreign disciples with
camera in hand. Not all of the villagers decided to move. Others who
were just standing in front of their houses could not understand why
Swami left them. More then 200 families were still sleeping in open.
As I speak to one young girl who is sitting in on the ruins of her house,
Swami is not promising house. He is promising huts without any
floor, kitchen or toilet. Bharati who is pondering about her future
complained of the poor quality of rice. Her brother comes in and complain
that the community food is worth dogs. I am having severe stomach ache
now. They have lost three boats. Sea is their life but they cannot go
elsewhere. We dont know any other work. People appreciate
Swamis concern but say that it was not enough. They were having
problem of sanitation. I could see many other religious organization
venturing in these areas including Sadhu Vasvani church.
the evening the Swamis side of the ashram remain full of light
while darkness visits the fisher folks houses and huts. That is complete
contrast and perhaps they did not have time to see.
end here. It was reported by several people to me that Swamis
kitchen are on fire. When I try to venture in, the local followers of
Swami stop me and wanted me to meet him. I avoid meeting Swami who is
engaged with his close confidents and since it was evening time no point
for glamorizing a work which I have already seen. What perturbs me most
is that there were allegedly 6 community kitchens opened by the Swami
in this area. As usual we were being informed that it is just the fishing
community who is the victim of Tsunami while it is blatant lie. When
some of the fishermen saw Dalits eating in the community kitchen they
became so violent that Swami has to intervene. He was forced to start
a separate kitchen for Dalits. Even in such a situation, we did not
have the courage to challenge the status quo.
More then 52 people
died in this village and yet such racism has not died from the minds
of the people.
Pannannthittu, P.O. Chidambaram
of Cuddalore district was one of the most damaged areas. As I return
from MG Tat area, I saw a small hoarding Dalits and went
to speak to the people. In the absence of any translator, I could realize
those sitting were making a protest against the discrimination. We decided
to visit the Dalit bustee against the wish of my driver. This village
falls under Panchayat Killai where 60 people have been enrolled as fishermen.
25 of them lost their boats and nets. These Dalits normally get subleased
boats from the fisher folks and work on them. They also work as sharecroppers.
The entire village is pitch dark with no electricity. I move along with
other friends who want me to see their homes. Some are in the gutter
and the sand lying on the floor with women imploring to get some relief.
I am taken to nearby river which flows in the sea. This village has
a population 500. A total of 150 families live here. To confirm my fears,
I saw vehicle with red siren coming and passing through the village
and not even daring to stop on the way. I move in dark to see the houses,
people narrate and every one want me to be in their houses. Finally
on the road when a corner shop has a lamp, these folks bring their torn
nets to show the loss.
As I venture out
of this village, a deep sense of guilt persist in my mind about our
antipathy towards the Dalits. Are we just ignorant of Dalits or we deliberately
consider them non-issue.
the brunt of the Tsunami. The havoc created there have signs all over
the city. It is difficult to ask which community people died as it would
amount to be seen as castiest. But as things stand in Tamilnadu, we
need to ask this question as how many of the Dalits died. Whether the
government, civil society consider them human being or not.
I am standing on
the sea beach where people are cremating their owns. Women coming with
offerings, young lads being shaved off and put in front of the unknown
god who could not control Tsunami. Interestingly, Brahmins are bouncing
back to work in this tragedy, in a state which threw them away several
years back. A few people complain to me of their future and ask me to
visit the locality. As I move amidst the debris being cleared by the
municipal corporation, I am informed by a local that they have found
the body of a small child. This is on 9th January which is nearly 15
days later the Tsunami. Inside the street, several women were sitting
and asking for the assistance. With a camera in my hand, they ask the
municipal sweeper to uncover the child. I am not interested in seeing
it, I tell them. This guy does it with his hand. I soon realize that
these people are not locals and locals are not interested to touch even
their owns. I start questioning them and to my shock, I am told that
they work as sweeper in Madurai which was about 250 kilometer away from
Nagpattinam and were getting Rs 35/- per day for this work. There is
no social security for them. No other facility. One does not know whether
they are given separate meals or not. Secondly, calamities like this
also give us an opportunity to forget prejudices and work as human being.
We have seen such situations in many parts of the country but Tamilnadu
disappointed because it is land of Periyar, which all those who believe
in social justice, respect.
It is not that we
only had the Hindus crying against the Dalits. Very few Christians except
for John Dayal and All India Catholic Union, admitted that there was
a violation of human rights of the Dalits. Definitely, certain Dalit
rights groups in South like NCDHR spoke about the discrimination against
Dalits. It is not important here to name them but certainly caste consideration
also comes in the mind of Christian Church when they speak. Perhaps
some of them did not want to take on the government when they mentioned
that everything was superb. Ofcourse, the government was
prompt but Dalits did not benefit from this promptness and secondly
such racial discrimination really needs social Tsunamis to be thoroughly
Thieves and liars
we were on our way to Valankini, a famous Christian town. This town
saw a very big chunk of tourist being swept away in the Tsunami waves.
The beautiful church of Our Lady of Hope, witnessed severe
assault from the Tsunami.
But the people there
did not get any help. In my quest for Dalit villages, I got stopped
mid way to meet a group of women, who were going to Valankini. I asked
my colleague to inform me what they want. They were Dalit women of nearby
villages wanting assistance, he informed. Unfortunately, it was difficult
for me to understand. I asked a little girl what she does and she said
that she would want to study further. They did not get anything. They
have lost their household items and wanted that the authorities visit
When I was speaking
to this crowd of 50 odd women who were virtually surrounding me, a big
Tata Safari passed by and stopped in front of me. A man came out holding
his press card from a National Television channel.
Can I help you, he said and asked By the way, who you are
and what are you looking for? I am here for an investigation looking
whether the relief is going to right people or whether Dalits are getting
fair treatment or not and I am facing language problem. Ok, I
will translate things for you, he offered. After a while, when the women
started screaming and telling him the story, this guy suggested that
these women were telling a lie and want to grab this opportunity.
I dont need to speak to them. Instead, I should visit the collectors
office, to gather all the information that I needed, he
suggested. I told this TV fellow to go and do his business. I
am aware the press collect information from the collectors and superintendents
offices but I dont gather information from them. That is the difference.
We see the peoples perspective while you report national
perspective. You therefore become embedded. And please dont say
that these people are telling a lie. Nobody like begging unless he is
forced to, I said. And even if they are lieing, I am sure they have
nothing. Should we need one Tsunami to remember those who we have betrayed,
The press people
went away, I spoke with the women further. There was pain and anguish
in her face. I assured them that we would report it all over the world.
On my return from
Nagpattinam to Chennai via Pondicherry, a number of places I saw big
photographs and statue of Ambedkar and yet I felt pained to see nothing
at the ground. The fiserfolks refused to inform about Dalits and the
villages were clearly demarcated.
famous Marina beach, I got a glimpse of who are thieves and who are
liars. It was around 1.30 pm when near a check post I saw people moving
with the new material in motorbikes, cars and tempos. I move towards
the shattered huts on the beach and find people sitting on their ruins.
We have got nothing, sir says a young man who could speak
Hindi. I asked him, please tell me what is your problem. Do you stay
here? Yes, I am an immigrant from Bihar, a Muslim by name and have got
nothing except for the Rs 4,000/- . The thing is that most of those
who fell to Tsunami were just living on rent. No fishermen live here.
They have leased their boats and houses and most of the workers are
living here have not got anything. The trouble with the agencies is
that they are giving relief to those who have identity cards but how
can those who dont have land in their name have the cards. Therefore,
most of the relief has been appropriated by those who have these facilities
at their home, those who did not die but those who are dieing to take
the benefits of others. Tsunami therefore became an opportunity for
the statusquoists to put their right wing agenda. Those on the margins
remained on the margins while those preaching godliness still doing
the same strengthening their verna system and notoriety of religion.
Religious people are all moving around with their Gods but refusing
to accept that the God became helpless. That their Gods and His
chelas are unable to challenge the status quo, who we wanted to demolish.
Tsunami, on whose destruction we all are crying, have not been able
to demolish the most powerful and destructive system of caste in India.
Perhaps, we need a stronger Tsunami to destroy the ugly relic of caste
system and racial discrimination from our society.