Dalits in Tamil Nadu:
The dalit question in Tamil Nadu cries out for a new political imagination in the left and the dalit parties
The oppression, social humiliation and exploitation of the dalit and tribal communities in Tamil Nadu contradict the accepted image of the state as having made impressive social and economic advances over the years. The abominable practice of untouchability, social, economic and ligious segregation of dalits, violent upper caste reaction to any assertion, state complicity in such attacks, all this in addition to exploitation in the economic realm, these are the predicaments faced by dalits across the state, in rural and in urban areas. This is a state that has taken pride in its record of strong anti-caste and rationalist movements that catapulted lower-caste political outfit ts to state power more than four decades ago. The anti-upper-caste movements led by the Dravidian parties before and after Independence resulted in the state embarking upon various measures to subvert upper-caste domination in all spheres of public life, but sadly, the liberation of dalits is yet to make any signifi cant advance. Dalits, particularly in the villages, are subjected to severe social repression by the landowning middle and upper castes. They are prevented from accessing places of religious worship, forced to stay in segregated areas, made to endure untouchability and various other forms of social humiliation. Besides, the unlawful practice of manual scavenging continues to persist in many places. Reports from Rajapalayam in southern Tamil Nadu in early July talked about how a school was boycotted by members of a middle caste community because it employed two dalit women, one as a cook and, the other, as her help in the mid-day meal centre. Instead of rejecting their objections, the block development offi cer in the village transferred the dalit workers from the school. Not long ago, elected dalit panchayats in reserved areas were not allowed to function as caste Hindus boycotted them. It took the intervention of political movements to redress the situation. While in some places – such as in Uthapuram in Madurai district – temple entry movements led by dalits have been successful
following prolonged political interventions and community meetings. Elsewhere, in places like Cuddalore in mid-June, caste Hindus have not taken kindly to dalit demands to take part in religious processions and festivities. The plight of tribal communities is also as bad or even worse. A probe by the state’s revenue department recently found that Irula workers were made to work as bonded labourers in a village in Thanjavur district. Despite political mobilisation by various groups, for instance, the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK), which has its bases in
north-central parts of Tamil Nadu, and the Puthiya Tamizhagam in the southern parts, and active work by communist organisations, the process of progressive social change has been very slow.
Sadly, the dalit parties seem to confi ne themselves to “identity politics”, something that also fi nds a prominent place in the dalit fronts of the dominant Dravidian political parties. While
such activism may have given a sense of empowerment to dalits, the lack of substantive content has been a serious shortcoming. News of the VCK leader Thol Thirumavalavan demanding donations of gold on his birthday reminds one of the political practice of the Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati who also used symbolism to project dalit assertion but could not do enough to address dalit issues when in power. Left parties such as the Communist Party of India (Marxist), especially their mass organisation, the Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front, which has done a lot of work in highlighting issues of untouchability and the problems of sub-dalit communities such as the Arunthathiyars, have also participated in temple entry movements. Their sustained work in highlighting these issues, mobilising dalits to protest, and forcing the state government to take remedial actions has paid some dividends. Yet, dalit emancipation and empowerment will get a boost only if these initiatives result in dalits assuming leadership positions in the left parties at various levels, not just remaining foot soldiers. Caste prejudice and oppression against dalits cannot be overcome unless there is a fresh political imagination within the left and the dalit parties. In the left, “caste” must no longer be viewed as a matter of the superstructure alone. Moreover, the left must accept that there is a lot to learn from Phule and Ambedkar. Likewise, the dalit parties too need a fresh political imagination wherein the ideas of Marx and Lenin are not irrelevant to the understanding of Indian society
Economic & Political Weekly EPW July 21, 2012 Vol XLVII No 29