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A Dalit Beaten Up in Tamil Nadu

The upper class hindus have struck again in Tamil nadu. This time it is in the Satharasankottai village in Sivaganga district of Tamil Nadu against a Dalit agricultural worker. Velu, the victim this time, was subjected to brutal violence only because he dared to question what authority the elite in the village panchayat had to import machines to desilt the water body against the norm that such works be carried out by farm labourers who are now out of employment due to the drought conditions. The social elite, were in no mood to let a Dalit assert his rights.

Velu was thrashed, then dragged to the bus stand and let off only after his kin assured the "powers that be" that he shall not defy them henceforth. The people, predominantly belonging to the intermediate castes, stood watching when Velu was being beaten up.

The violence in Satharasankottai, cannot be seen as merely an angry reaction by local politicians hand-in-glove with a civil contractor. Instead, the attack against Velu stems from the same attitude that led to the grisly killing of seven Dalits, including the panchayat president, at Melavalavu in Madurai district (not very far from Satharasankottai) in June 1997. Such acts are common news now a days in Tamil Nadu. In many incidents with the involvement of the members belonging to the Other Backward Castes.

The trajectory of violence against the Dalits in the southern districts of Tamil Nadu, for instance, has followed a pattern since the violence unleashed against the residents in Kodiyangulam (a predominantly Dalit village) in September 1995. The fact that the law enforcing machinery in all those instances (in Kodiyangulam as well as in the violence that engulfed the region) was accused of having remained passive or even participated in the attacks reflects how deep the caste-based oppressive regime had percolated into the system both within the administration and in civil society in the region.
It is this distortion in the mindset that has led to a situation where several village panchayats in and around Madurai — Pappapatti, Keeripatti and Nattamangalam — have been denied elected representatives since October 1996. These village panchayats fall in the category where the post of president is reserved for Scheduled Castes and the social elite in these villages has managed to ensure that the Dalits did not dare file nominations. The killings in Melavalavu, where the panchayat president, vice-president and five others were literally beheaded because they dared to defy the "norm" set by the village elders (who belong to the intermediate castes) and went ahead and contested the October 1996 elections to the panchayat, are a case in point to show how powerful the feudal vestiges are in this region.

While the response of the civil administration to the Satharasankottai incident — cases have been registered against five persons under various provisions including the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 — has been adequate in the immediate context, the imperative for the political establishment is to launch a campaign against the mindset that leads the social elite to consider it their right to lord it over the Dalits.

Such incidents, are the basis for the Dalits to decide to convert themselves to other religions. The Tamil Nadu Government needs to direct its energies to ensuring security and dignity for the Dalits rather than enacting a law imposing deterrents on those who decide to convert to another religion, possibly to escape the punishing social framework.