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The fire lit by Senkodi: Prema Revathi

September 22, 2011

Senkodi, a 20 year old woman, part of Makkal Mandram a commune in Kancheepuram immolated herself outside the collector’s office on the 29th of August in Kancheepuram. She left a letter saying that it was in solidarity with the campaign against the death penalty awarded to Perarivalan, Murugan and Santhan in the case relating to Rajiv Gandhi’s killing. Growing up in the commune Senkodi was part of the struggles that were around her such as those for land and other rights of marginalised communities. Much has been written about her both maligning her and her comrades as well as hailing her ‘martyrdom’. Below is a piece that brings into question the reasons for her death and the reactions to it. It is translated as accurately as possible in language and tone from it’s original Tamil version. It is a piece written to raise questions within progressive spaces in tamilnadu, but can be easily read into similar contexts.

Guest post by PREMA REVATHI
Translated from the Tamil by Ponni 

The human heart is a strange creature. The utter helplessness and pathos I felt after I heard of the death of Senkodi reminded me of lines I had heard ages ago which stuck with me;

“Shine a light on the nations of this earth, oh red flag[i]!”

These lines kept coming back to me in waves.

The grand dream of revolutionary change exists today in an empty, directionless, leaderless void as an old dream that pricks like a thorn. This dream slaps me in the face in the lonely nights of political beliefs and lives.

While a million words continue to be written about Senkodi, her shining face and the questions her eyes ask us haunts us. In a political world filled with talks of blood and kinship, the friends at Makkal Mandram who brought up Senkodi without blood or kinship and with human dignity; who carved out a human being who believed in another better world; who was brought up with an ethos of struggle; who cherished her every move as she grew up; today stand devastated after losing her to a raging fire. I have no words to console them. I only hope that the politics and the ethics they chose to live their lives by and the children who surround them will give them the strength to get past this devastating sorrow.

During Senkodi’s last rites I saw in Tamilnadu what we had not witnessed for years; the coming together of different political groups; left groups, Dalit groups and tamil nationalist groups. We needed such a death to come together. We needed such a demand to enter the doors of Makkal Mandram. Senkodi has now been buried. Who knows if we will see another gathering like this again for years to come?

To the Tamil Nationalists

Senkodi is from the Irula community. I don’t know if you know this community upon mention. They are the indigenous people of the tamil land who still undertake long struggles to secure their most basic needs. This is not the case with the Irula community alone but most oppressed indigenous and nomadic communities. They continue the struggle to get a scheduled tribe certificate for the past decade. This certificate that is needed for accessing opportunities in education and employment among other things has been denied to them and Comrade Kalyani and other friends in the Kanchi Makkal Mandram and some other groups have been continuing the struggle for the caste certificate.

Has a campaign such as this ever taken centre stage within tamil nationalist politics? Apart from Periyar Dravida Kazhagam, has anyone else taken such struggles up? Senkodi urges all Tamil nationalists groups to think about this.

A Dalit woman who stands for the freedom of her community, her gender and that of the world has given her life in a campaign that is deemed to be one of tamil nationalism. What is the response of the politics of tamil nationalism to the reality of the lives of women such as Senkodi; to those in communities similar to that which Senkodi hailed from; to Dalits who are oppressed by the violence of caste; to women who struggle to keep intact their dignity and freedom which is being smashed into oblivion repeatedly by the patriarchal oppression meted out to them in the name of culture and language? What are those who stand for tamil nationalism going to do about these realities and concerns?

Will the complete ignorance and invisibility of these peoples in your grand emotional orations be burnt to cinders in the fire that Senkodi lit? Will you now understand that freedom of all humans can ONLY happen through the breaking down of ALL hierarchies and divisions?

To Dalit groups

Where is that vibrant fervor of the Dalit politics of our land which rose as a voice from those who literally had nothing to lose; who refused to be oppressed and fought back; which stood at that ethical vantage point where the personal and political and the private and the public come together?  Which direction is that Dalit politics going in today?

What is that Dalit politics which roots itself in the history of a fervor that arose from the courage of the common person’s anti-authoritarianism telling us today?

History has told us repeatedly of the plight of staying away from everyday struggles and engaging only in gaining power within the state. History will continue to show us the fault lines of this plot.

While there has not even been a resolution to the issue of Arundhadhiyars[ii], how can a conversation on indigenous populations, nomads or women even begin?

In a society bound so firmly by caste, we know that it is the Dalits who will have to lead the war against this oppression. It has been many years since Ambedkar told us that this struggle cannot be confined to the manicured lawns of parliaments alone.

Senkodi did not fully consider this impending war while she took her life. Now where will we find that leadership?

To the leftists

We, who held the red flag and sang songs of freedom on the streets of this earth; what are we doing today? The flag is burning in front of our eyes. Our ideals are dying comrades! For how much longer are we going to watch idly while the hopes and dreams of a younger generation of revolutionaries are squashed at the hands of inane concerns of practicalities, changing laws and ‘protecting the party’?

Emotions alone can’t win us freedom. But an emotionless party cannot win anything, let alone freedom.

Who is giving the CPM the political dictat to be the protectors of national sovereignty and to live by the law of the land? It definitely cannot be Karl Marx!

Not addressing the issues of the most marginalized in our society and not evolving a revolutionary politics that goes beyond language and culture, within left politics, has created a political vacuum which is the context of the death of Senkodi and others like her. A momentary solution to momentary concerns is not revolutionary politics. In fact, it is not politics at all!

Many groups that work within the paradigms of Marxism and Maoist politics have put forth a broad canvas of questions and struggle around caste, class and gender. But these groups keep splintering like shards of glass that cannot be put back together. They split due to differences in political beliefs or in strategies; or for reasons completely incomprehensible to the proletariat that these groups hope to represent. In a world fraught with the multiple attacks of caste, class and gender based oppressions; we continue to divide our strength and the power of our struggles.

We function in ways diametrically opposite to the beliefs we committed to as we lay caught between the retrograde fears of the older generations that strive to maintain status quo and the non-rigorous,  presumptuousness and incomprehensible articulations of the younger generations.

The question of divisions can be asked of feminists too. I too am immeasurably frustrated with the politics of nationalism and its inevitable big brother – the discourses of tamil purity, chastity and motherhood and the essential dose of violence meted out on women’s bodies that this discourse needs. However, we cannot underestimate the strength of this politics and the effect it has had on thousands of young men and women. While this conversation maybe painful, it is inevitable. We of all people, who are moved by realities and struggles in faraway places, sometimes ignore the questions that move many in our immediate context.


I am not writing all this with the over confidence of having all the answers. I don’t have the answers. These are thoughts that have emerged from the desperate ponderings of whether Senkodi’s death or our struggles becoming fields of suicide may have been avoided if our politics had taken another form or direction. Senkodi has awakened me with many a difficult questions. But I refuse to flatten this awakening by calling it courage. An immeasurable sadness chokes me as I think of her. This should not be appropriated into a politics that has no place for misery or tears. Our movements must make space for love, courage, sacrifice, hope, tears, frustration, desire, elegies for our leaders, music, dance and struggle.

Senkodi lived through a long journey of being born into meager circumstances, escaping the constraints of normative family life which destroyed her childhood innocence  and joining and immersing herself in a life within a commune from the age of eight. It is a long and arduous journey that took her through many struggles of the mind and body. Many of us cannot even imagine such circumstances. The strength of Senkodi’s struggle throughout her life lays in the price she has paid for it. The exhaustion she felt in spite of her comfort with struggle is epitomized in her question “what is the point of continuing struggles in the name of  ‘identities’ alone?” This question is a slap on our faces.

While her sacrifice burns me from within, the overwhelming thought in my head is that Senkodi should not have died. A situation where young people have to burn themselves to put forth a demand must not continue. This is not just an emotional question but the political challenge that stands tall before us.

This note was written more as a personal note to myself about Senkodi. We present this to you in the public sphere as concerns shared not just by me but also other fellow travelers such as Geetha.V, A.Mangai and Ponni.

[i] The word “Senkodi” literally means “red flag”.

[ii] While this link has a introductory background to the issue, it is much more complicated. A lot of material is available online in English. The most rigorous of the writings still exist predominantly in Tamil.

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