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The Ashes of Dharampuri

December 10, 2012


Rajamma, a resident of Natham, looks at her burnt house with vacant eyes. The more she looks at it, the harder the tears fall. Every part of her house — each brick painstakingly collected — is a small fountain of memories for her, reminding her of the backbreaking work done by her late husband at the local landlord’s house.

Now, all that is in the past.

Three weeks ago hordes of dominant caste people armed to the teeth launched a pre-meditated attack on their colony, supposedly to avenge the ‘humiliation’ caused by the marriage of one of their girls to a boy from her community.

Like many others in the colony, Rajamma is a dalit. The perpetrators belonged to the powerful Vanniar caste. She knows that she was saved only because a youth from the colony alerted them about the attack allowing some people to rush into the nearby fields.

Burned houses, smashed household items, bicycles, motorbikes, television sets. Torn schoolbooks, records, certificates and ration cards. This was the scene immediately after the attack on the three dalit colonies of Natham, Kondampatti and Annanagar in Naikkankottai, Dharmapuri district, Tamil Nadu. Of the 500 houses in the three colonies, over 268 were damaged/burnt.

The attack was brought on by the suicide of a caste Hindu over the elopement of his daughter. The mob, armed with deadly weapons and petrol bombs, indulged in a four-hour-long rampage. They broke cupboards, stole gold jewellery and cash before setting the houses on fire.

Ironically, the date on which the attack happened was November 7, 2012. On this day in the late-’60s and early-’70s, Natham witnessed marches by small peasants and workers holding red flags, celebrating what is popularly known as ‘October Revolution Day’. Indeed, that stormy period is marked by the statues of two young men who laid down their lives in the raging revolutionary communist movement in the area. One of the martyrs was a Vanniar.

Things have definitely changed in Natham. One could say it’s the result of the assertion of identity politics coupled with economic changes. The Natham of 2012 is qualitatively different from the Natham of the 1970s. Forget revolutionary left politics, new parties based on particular identities have come on the scene, making the politics of egalitarianism infinitely more challenging.

Today, most able-bodied dalits from the colonies in Naikkankottai work in Bangalore either as construction workers, godown boys, collectors of used paper for recycling, etc. Their hard-earned money has served as solid investment in their native villages. A few have even become landholders. Gone too are the days when dalits were not in a position to send their children to school. In fact, dalit boys and girls have taken up education on a massive scale; they outnumber even the Vanniars at a few government schools. These material changes in the lifestyle of the dalits and their growing assertion have become irritants to the Vanniars, who have become accustomed to their secondary status.

Tensions had been mounting in the region for a number of months, and the marriage of Divya, the Vanniar daughter of G Nagarajan, with E Illayaraja, 23, who belonged to the Natham dalit colony, became a pretext to ‘teach the dalits a lesson’. As has been widely reported, a kangaroo court consisting of members of the dominant community instructed the dalits to send back the girl. Divya firmly refused to return to her parents’ house. Nagarajan committed suicide over this ‘humiliation’, enraging around 2,000 members of the said community who then attacked the dalit colonies.

It was not a spontaneous outburst of anger, as some people claim, but a planned attack. While one group of marauders set up roadblocks along the way to prevent the police and fire service from reaching the spot, another group went about systematically looting and burning houses. Nagarajan’s dead body was used to organise a road block, provoking community members to join in ‘retaliatory action’ against the dalits.

All reports on the mayhem point to a single fact: the large-scale burning of houses was a complete failure of the law and order machinery, despite early warnings of the incident. It has been widely reported how Divya and her husband — who was a new recruit with the Tamil Nadu police — had approached the higher authorities and demanded protection, fearing attacks by members of the bride’s community. But apart from giving verbal assurances and holding out promises, the police took no preventive action. Indeed, they must have known from independent sources that provocative speeches were being made by members of the dominant community, and that the situation would most likely spiral out of control.

Now that the state government has received flak both in the media and outside it, it has ‘swung into action’ and arrested a few of the 2,000-plus perpetrators of the crime. The police has been asked to keep a 24-hour vigil in the area. At the moment of writing, there are reports that the case has been transferred to the crime branch of the CID. It’s a different matter, of course, that the police has not bothered to lodge cases against the guilty police personnel, under Article 4 of the Prevention of Atrocities Against Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Act (1989), which specifically stipulates that government/police officials can be penalised if they are found wanting in their duty in case of dalit atrocities. Although two police personnel, including an inspector, have been suspended and the DSP shifted to the Salem range office, pending an inquiry into the alleged failure of the police to prevent the attack, even a layperson knows that according to the courts ‘suspension’ is not ‘punishment’ and that once the dust has settled the officials will be quietly reinstated. Also, while the case has been transferred to the crime branch of the CID police, it must be emphasised that this is no guarantee that all aspects of the case will be exposed. If people are not vigilant, senior officials of the investigating agencies — where the varna mindset still rules — will not hesitate to blame the dalits themselves for the arson, as happened some time ago in Gohana, around 75 km from the national capital.

It would be opportune here to share portions of the chargesheet filed by the CBI which was asked to look into the 2005 attack and arson in Gohana. According to a newspaper report, the CBI chargesheet ‘revealed that some people in Valmiki Basti had set their houses on fire themselves, allegedly for compensation’. The chargesheet talks of the CBI’s observation that ‘extensive burning was observed in 19 out of 28 houses. Of these, nine houses were inspected thoroughly and it appeared that in these houses “simulated arsoning” was carried out, which are yet “to get compensation”.

To recap, Gohana witnessed the burning of 50-60 houses belonging to the Valmiki community on August 31, 2005. A 1,500-2,000-strong mob of upper-caste people, belonging largely to the Jat community, attacked the houses in a systematic manner. They came fully armed with spears, batons, axes, petrol and kerosene. They broke TV sets, refrigerators, washing machines, looted valuables and burst LPG cylinders. The marauders even brought mini trucks with them to ferry the loot from the houses. 

One can’t help but notice a common aspect in the two incidents. The mob in Natham and other dalit colonies were particular about damaging cycles on which children went to school (they even tore up schoolbooks, records, and certificates). The Gohana mob too saw to it that textbooks and certificates belonging to dalits were systematically burnt. The act was symbolic; dominant castes in the south as well as north have rightly understood that the roots of the dalits’ growing assertion lie in the simple fact that the light of knowledge has ultimately reached the dalits.

Special mention must be made here of demands made by a fact-finding team comprising 18 human rights activists and journalists from Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Pondicherry who toured the affected dalit colonies, met with many victims and tried to assess the actual damage. Demanding hefty compensation to rebuild houses, it asked that special courts be established in Natham itself as the dalits would not be able to travel far to attend trials (The Hindu, November 16, 2012).

Very few people are even aware that this is possible, under the 1989 Prevention of Atrocities Against Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Act. The judgment delivered in the case of dalit atrocities in Tsundur (Andhra Pradesh) a few years ago, in which dalits won after a long struggle, point to the real scope and possibilities under the Act. This was the first time in the nearly 20-year-old trajectory of the Act that special courts were set up at the scene of the offence. The victims were spared from travelling long distances to depose in the courts and face harassment on the way at the hands of the dominant castes.

The streets of Tsundur that day witnessed the death of eight people — all of them dalits — when a 400-strong armed mob of Reddys, a landlord caste that has dominated politics in Andhra Pradesh since Independence, attacked dalits to ‘teach them a lesson’ (1991). Under the judgment of the special court (2007), 21 of the accused were given sentences of life imprisonment and 35 were asked to serve one-year rigorous imprisonment.

It must be appreciated that the dalits of Tsundur were so united that they did not accept any summons from the courts, or even visit courts located far from the village. They demanded that the court should come to them. The government had to concede to their demand and set up a special court in the premises of a school. The dalits also demanded that they be given a public prosecutor and judge with a positive track record in dealing with cases of dalit atrocities. After a lot of dilly-dallying, the government complied with this demand too.

The victory was historic in another sense too. It has become the norm in cases like these that as time passes, people, including the victims and their families, lose interest in continuing the fight for justice. They come under pressure or are coerced into changing their statement in the courts, etc. Nothing of that sort happened in the struggle for justice in Tsundur. The significance of the Tsundur struggle was that the people leading the campaign were successful in keeping everyone mobilised over the years.

So, can Natham do a Tsundur? A great possibility and an historic challenge is open to all.

( First published in Infochange News & Features)

10 Comments leave one →
  1. Trivikram permalink
    December 12, 2012 3:23 PM

    Well written Mr Subash Ghatade. The references to Tsundur and Gohana are definitely an eye opener. I just have one regret though, with the following line – “The act was symbolic; dominant castes in the south as well as north have rightly understood that the roots of the dalits’ growing assertion lie in the simple fact that the light of knowledge has ultimately reached the dalits”

    What do you mean by Dominant Caste ? Is it a dominance brought on by numbers ? Or by social status ? Or the penchant for discrimination and violence ?

    I am hindu by religion, Iyer by birth. I can honestly say that I am in no dominant position whatsoever. Not dominant by numbers, not dominant by social status or by the penchant for discrimination and violence.

    I am glad to know that Dalits are witnessing upward mobility aided by education and self enlightenment. I am happy, elated and excited about this phenomenon. I tend to have nationalistic feelings by virtue of which I feel that without Dalit empowerment our country is not going anywhere. Infact the opposite is true. The more we suppress Dalits or SC/STs , the more fragmented our country will become, as it should be. It would be such a sad state of affiars if India became a super power inspite of dalit suppression. I grew up in a chaste tamil iyer family and have many friends from the same background and none of our parents taught us to discriminate against Dalits or SC/ STs etc. Infact my dad is a bharathiyar fan and taught us “Jadhi illayadi papa” and all of that. Reading your article and many such pieces on Dalit emancipation in The Hindu, Indian Express etc, I somehow get the idea that Dalit Suppression is an evil propogated by hinduism.

    Why can you or others just say “Jats attacked Dalits” or Vanniyars attacked Dalits” ? Whe “Caste Hindu” angle ? By using the phrase “Caste Hindu”, you are offending everyone ? Dont you think ?

    Also I happen to think that this caste based violence has nothing to do with religion. It is purely a labour issue. Where these Jats and Vanniyars had slaves before Dalit emanicpation, now they have to treat them as equals and pay them. There is no one to lord over anymore. Isnt that the real problem behind these alleged “Caste Violence” ?

    • Kumarpushp permalink
      December 15, 2012 7:04 PM

      we have to annhilate the hinduism because hinduism is the mothet of all dalit oppression .vanniyar ,yadav and other OBCs are only branches.166 million dalits should learn the lesson from pakistan ,before independence muslims were not allowed to join any government jobs and they were working in lowere paid government jobs. I have about 20 pakistani friends who belongs to Punjab and sindh and told the stroy of there father and forefather how hindus were blocking their progress ,once they got separate country they got nuclear boms to defend there property but otherside dalits donot have petrol bombs to save there abru and haryana ,five dalits were roasted alive in in front of SP,SSP and 200 police men but hindu led police did not fire a single bullets to kill hindus because they wanted to protect their barbaric cousins and same thing has been repeated in dharam puri where SP and SSP with 200 police men were there but hindu led police did not fire single bullet to kill hindus and barbaric people had looted all dalits peperties and at the end they burnt the question comes in front of dalits where is Bharat mata .dalits donot have any bharat mata and so why to shed tears for bharat mata.time has come 160 million dalits should join togeter and ask for separate electorate which is first step towards the separate settlement.hindus has got money and medias that why they are ruling dalits,muslims and christians.

      • 4thaugust1932 permalink
        December 16, 2012 4:59 PM

        As per 4th August 1932 Round Table Conference Resolution, Forward Caste people should be living/working in India only on H1B type visa.

      • Trivikram permalink
        December 17, 2012 1:24 PM

        Kumarpushp, Do you just type whatever comes to your head ? , or is there an intermediary step called “thinking” where you filter out the crap and let only the meaningful thoughts reach the audience ? With your line of thought, you are not going anywhere buddy. Status quo remains.

      • malaydeb permalink
        December 17, 2012 4:46 PM

        You are a very simple man. Your perception of India’s social and economic history is a symbol of enlightenment. You will hardly find another forum to share these pearls of wisdom. Keep writing here and keep enlightening us.

      • Avinash permalink
        December 17, 2012 11:28 PM

        @ Kumarpushp, this is what happens to the “dalits” in Pakistan:

  2. Somnath permalink
    December 16, 2012 6:04 PM

    As long as identity politics is not trumped by one of aspirations, these incidents will keep recurring. In large swathes of India, identity politics is on it’s last legs. The peddlers of these politics therefore are worried, and trying ever more dangerous tricks to keep the embers alive. Note mayawati’s attempts on reservations in promotions.

    The issue is not at all of so called upper versus lower castes. Most of the attacks on Dalits originate from the middle castes. The new dominant castes are actually the OBCs. And it is all about a share of the economic pie.

    Kumarpushp, vituperation will bring nothing to your community. Focus rather on education, especially in english and math – that is what will turn the fortunes of poor Dalits. don’t take my word for it, Chandrabhan Prasad does it more eloquently.

    The idea of India


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