Pabnava to Natham: Whatever Happened to the Struggle for Annihilation of Caste!
Dalit residents of Pabnava, district Kaithal, Haryana would never be able to forget this year’s birth anniversary of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar. The intervening nights of April 13 and 14 would forever remain etched on their minds. They still shiver when they remember how a four hundred strong mob of the local landowning community called Ror Marathas, armed with spears, batons and other sharp edged weapons, attacked the basti and ransacked more than 200 houses and left 6 dalits injured. It was supposedly to avenge the ‘dishonour’ wrought on them by a dalit youth who had dared to marry one of ‘their girls’.
To quote Raji, one of the victims, ‘..they came like a tornado’.
One could easily notice simmering tension in the village since a few days, as news had come in that Meena (21) daughter of an influential Ror Maratha from the village called Pirthi Singh had married a dalit boy Suryakant s/o Mahendra Pal and had eloped with him. They had married on 9 th April in the high court of Punjab and Haryna and had sought protection from the administration. As per the instructions of the court they were staying in the district protection home, Kaithal. The news that the couple was staying at Kaithal reached the village on 12 th April. The very next day the Rors held a community Panchayat to deliberate on the matter.
For the 5,000 strong Ror Marathas, with control over most of the landholdings in the area, it was ‘unpardonable’ that one amongst the 300 Chamar families who mostly depended upon the Rors for their regular livelihood, had dared to marry one of their daughters. And to avenge this insult they had given an ultimatum to the dalits to return the girl within two days or face the consequences. Apart from the Rors and Chamars, the village has 200 Balmiki families, around 200 OBC households and a few Brahmin households.
The attack was organised the very night when the caste Panchayat(council) realised that neither Meena would return to her parents house nor would Suryakant is ready to rethink on the matter. The connivance of a section of the local police in precipitating violence against Dalits was also noted by the Chairman of the SC Commission, when he visited the village. He was told how the police had released a local goon under the pressure from the mob who further helped fuel violence.
A fact finding team – comprising of members of PUCL, NCDHR, HRLN and others representing different civil society groups which visited the village has made several recommendations (http://www.epw.in/web-exclusives/atrocities-against-dalits-pabnava-incident.html) to ameliorate the situation and punish the guilty. Demanding that relevant sub-section of SC and ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, be invoked in the FIR and calling for arrest of the remaining 27 culprits who have been roaming freely in the village, they have also proposed that the properties of the accused should be attached under and that the accused should be excommunicated from the village as per the provisions of the same Act. Apart from imposing collective fine on them for aiding and abetting the violence, they have also demanded that the deputy superintendent of police Taken Raj be booked under section 4 of the SC/ST (POA) Act, 1989 for his willful negligence in not providing protection to the dalits before the incident.
Close watchers of the unfolding human rights situation in Haryana would vouch that developments in Pabnava are no exception. In fact, since one and half decades the state has been always in the news for growing atrocities against dalits and other marginalised sections of society.
May it be the case of Duleena (Jhajjar) where five dalits were lynched for the ‘crime’ of carrying corpse of a dead cow in the presence of police and other government officials (2002) or the manner in which dalits in Harsoula (Kaithal) were forced to leave the village by the dominant caste people (2003) for their growing assertion or the burning of hundreds of dalit houses in Gohana (Sonepat) supposedly to avenge the death of Jat boy in scuffle with boys or the gruesome attack on Dalits in Mirchpur -where 17 year old dalit girl and her sixty year old father – and looting and arson of their houses, one can record n number of incidents where one can see how perpetrators keep evading the arms of law – thanks to the active or tacit connivance of law enforcement authorities
The marriage of Meena and Suryakant – which precipitated an attack by the dominant Ror Marathas – reminds one of a similar but rather more organised attack on dalit hamlets deep south, around five months before Pabnava. The big difference between Pabnava and Natham was not only in the scale of attack and social-political formations involved in it but also the fact that it continues to reverberate even today.
As a recap of the events one can underline that it occurred on November 7, 2012 when three dalit colonies of Natham, Kondampatti and Annanagar in Naikkankottai, Dharmapuri district, Tamil Nadu faced organised attack at the hands of Vanniars. Of the 500 houses in the three colonies, over 268 were damaged /burnt. 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. It need be noted here as well that it was not a spontaneous outburst of anger, but a planned attack.
Much like Pabnava 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 Illavarasan, 23, who belonged to the Natham dalit colony, became a pretext to ‘teach the dalits a lesson’. A kangaroo court consisting of members of the Vanniar 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.
All reports on the mayhem pointed to a single fact. Apart from giving verbal assurances and holding out promises, the police took no preventive action.
We know that events have moved in a ‘fast forward’ mode during the intervening period. Vanniar Sangham – caste organisation of Vanniars coupled with PMK ( Patttali Makkal Katchi) the political outfit launched by Ramadoss took the issue of this particular marriage in a big way and tried to weave an anti dalit coalition of backward castes in the area claiming how dalit youth are weaning away our ‘daughters’ . They also demanded dilution of SC-ST Prevention of Atrocities Act (1989) calling that it is ‘misused’ by the state. It was their own way of fighting political irrelevance in the state politics.
Coming under tremendous community pressure Divya – and perhaps with a guilt feeling that she has been a cause of her father’s suicide – has finally returned to her mother and Ilavarsan who was hoping against hope that his love would ultimately triumph has died an unnatural death.
His body was found on a railway track few days back and as of now the focus of the debate is whether it was a ‘suicide’ as claimed by the police or a ‘murder’ which has been dressed up as suicide.
As of now after his cremation which took place after his second autopsy ordered by the court, one thing can be said with certainty that the theory about his ‘death by suicide’ looks more and more unreliable. While circumstantial evidence pointed towards something ‘fishy’ in the matter many related facts about his unnatural death have also come to the fore. Neither the driver of Kurla Express under which Ilavarsan has supposedly committed suicide informed the next station about it nor did driver of any other train which passed on the same route do it. In the railway manual it is mandatory for the drivers to do it.
It was not for nothing that the first autopsy was rejected by the high courts itself. A video recording of his first autopsy also makes it clear that there was deliberate negligence on part of the people who matter and in this manner crucial evidence has been lost. Although the Tamil Nadu Forensic Science Laboratory has ‘confirmed that the handwriting in the suicide note is that of Ilavarasan only’ the story of the recovery of the said suicide note is itself unreliable which according to police was ‘taken away from the body by a resident who was at the scene before the Railway Police could reach there’ which was delivered to the police after four days of Ilavarasan’s death. Can anyone believe the story that the said note was found with a stranger. To believe the police version, we will have to imagine a resident- with whom the alleged suicide note was found – when sees a dead body of a stranger, first searches for his pockets, takes out the ‘suicide note’ and either ‘disappears’ or at best ‘forgets about it’.
It is a different matter that officially it will always be maintained – for a long time at least – that he committed suicide. Despite enough indications that there are holes in this theory, an alternate narrative about his demise would never be told. Powers that be would rather prefer to appease the ‘feelings/emotions’ of dominant Vanniars rather than inviting further trouble from them. Now when Ilavarsan is no more and ‘their girl’ back to her mother, they are feeling vindicated and the government would not like to deprive them of their sense of ‘victory’. Sick people.
Undoubtedly, Tamil Nadu, a state which prides itself on its more than hundred year old history of anti caste struggle and social reform, and which seemed pioneer in very many ways, today appears a pale shadow of itself. What happened to its long history of anti-Brahminical struggle, espousal of atheism by a section of its leadership and the painstaking efforts put in by a battery of social reformers. Why the continuing marginalisation of Dalits in a state that has always played up its social reforms legacy. e.g. The legendary Jyothee Thass, writer, journalist, social reformer, Buddhist Scholar and Sidha Physician who was born in 1845 in a Paraiyar family is considered a pioneer of not only the anti-Brahmin movement but Dravid movement as well. And we have Rettamalai Srinivasan, who went to Round Table Conference in the early 30s, M.C. Raja, Periyar Naicker and several others.
One of India’s most industrialised states, which had taken lead in implementation of reservation policy quite earlier, dalits, accounting for a fifth of the over 7 crore population, still find assimilation into mainstream society a struggle.
C Lakshmanan, assistant professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies, who had recently organised a seminar to look at the history of various commissions which were set up to look into cases of dalit atrocities points out a very startling fact. According to him not a single person has been punished for atrocities against Dalits in the last 70 years, though a dozen or so enquiry commissions have been set up. To top it all, not even one member of these commissions has been a Dalit.
One can look at other studies to see ongoing discrimination in day to day life faced by the dalits.. According to an NGO Evidence still no entry of dalits in temples in 12 districts, n number of cases of dalit panchayat leaders not allowed to function or 460 tea shops in Madurai still following two-tumbler system (one for non-Dalits and another for Dalits).
Perhaps the deep rooted caste prejudices prevalent in the populace were best underlined at the time of Tsunami when dalits were discriminated against by the backward castes – while both the communities had found themselves in similar situation. A newspaper had reported :
‘Tsunami can’t wash this away : hatred for Dalits : In Ground Zero, Dalits thrown out of relief camps, cut out of food, water supplies, toilets, …’.The main news in one of the leading newspapers revealed it all. The centuries old prejudice against the ‘lower communities’ was perfectly intact despite an unprecedented tragedy called Tsunami. The report had details of the way Nagapattinam, one of the worst affected district in Tamilnadu, was coping with the changed situation. (Indian Express, 7 th January 2005)
Pabnava of Haryana and Natham of Tamilnadu, separated from each other by hundreds of kilometers, peopled by communities speaking different languages and cultures, is it possible to connect one with the other. Should one claim that they are examples of India’s much celebrated ‘Unity in Diversity’?
Coming to Haryana, incidents like Pabnava reflecting growing atrocities on dalits are explained as an outcome of a society which perpetuates material deprivation of a large section of the dalits and the structural asymmetries inherent the system. An added explanation is also offered which underlines the fact that the region does not have a strong tradition of anti-caste movement or struggle for empowerment of women. To buttress one’s point it is also argued how the state has emerged as a centre of what is popularly known as ‘honour callings’ – where parents and other near and dear ones with due support from the community engage in extreme form of violence against their own supposedly for exercising their right to choice and choose their life partner which is understood as an act bringing dishonour to the family, community. Criminalisation of love happens not only in the case of a relation between dominant and dominated caste but even within caste or gotra as well.
If someone were to extend the same logic to Natham/Dharampuri or Tamil Nadu, this argument about ‘absence of any history of radical egalitarian movement ‘does not hold good at all. As already mentioned it has galaxy of leaders – who were engaged in plethora of activities, campaigns, publications, movements – to awaken the masses from deep slumber and who were active since later half of 19 th century. If Haryana without a strong tradition of social-cultural movements or Tamil Nadu with a enviable tradition of radical movements challenging caste, patriarchy and even religion seem to imitate each other as regards situation of dalits or when it comes to the issue of choice exercised by a girl in choosing her life partner, we definitely need to go beyond the existing explanations.
Just when the issue of Vanniar girl Divya’s marriage to a Paraiyar boy Ilavarsan was discussed and the vehement reaction by the dominant Vanniars was making headlines, came the news about a Paraiyar girls’s Gokila’s marriage to a Arundhatiyar boy Karthikeyan. Incensed over this marriage by a Paraiyar girl to a ‘lower’ caste, parents of Gokila tried to convince her but when she refused to do so, she was herself brutally killed by her parents. It may be mentioned here that paraiyars are those who beat drum and Arunthahtiyars are leather workers, who are also sweepers/scavengers in Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka. Pallars and Paraiyars in Tamil Nadu look down upon Arunthathiyars. It was worth noting that none of the Dalit formations – apart from those representing the interests of the Arunthathiyars raised questions about this death or condemned the act. The village where this incident said to have happened has a strong presence of Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) cadres and they kept silence over the issue.
In a comment on a blog a writer while condemning the death of Illavarsan ( Paraiyar) posed questions about this :
In Tamil Nadu there are so many places, where there are untouchability between dalit castes, and since arunthathiyar’s are sweepers/scavengers, they are even more treated badly by the dalit castes, Paraiyar and Pallars.
My entire point here, is to ask, if people say its a caste violence, then why they are not seeing Gokila’s murder as caste murder. Sadly arunthathiyar’s issue never get into any debates.
How much different Paraiyars are, comparing with caste hindus, ..sincerely if all of you support inter-caste marriage then come forward and say we will not oppose or at least we would support paraiyar girls marrying arunthathiyars.
Deliberating on the issue Ravi Chandran adds
“Dalit movement and intellectuals keep on saying that Dharmapuri is an example of caste violence, but they fail to see the gender violence behind the tragedy which had transformed into caste violence. Certainly every community seems to want to control its population numbers and they see women (marrying outside the community) as a threat and also as easy targets for their male chauvinism.There are many such incidents where Arunthathiyar men marrying Paraiyar women were murdered or their sisters were sexually assaulted.
The manner in which dalits ‘copy’ their oppressor/dominant castes is visible also from areas which are infamous for medieval sounding decisions of the caste/community councils. Take Haryana again, which remains in the news for its Khap Panchayats of the Jats, has also witnessed ‘judgements’ by the community councils of the dalit castes (Balmiki, Ravidas etc.) which have ‘punished’ couples marrying of their own will with other dalit castes..
While organisations like Vanniar Sangham or PMK should be condemned for the frenzy they created in the state and appropriate action be taken against them, it is also a time for introspection for the dalit formations as well as over the state of affairs. One feels that it is time they revisit their approach which is key to usher us into a casteless society.
In its editorial ‘Fighting Caste Fighting Patriarchy’ Economic and Political Weekly, (Vol – XLVIII No. 29, July 20, 2013) has raised two important points. According to it
“The limiting of social justice to identity assertion has seen the continuation of age-old caste antagonisms, rather than their gradual erosion. It is tragic and ironic to witness the revival of such fatal casteism in a state which pioneered powerful anti-caste movements in south Asia.” Secondly “Ilavarasan’s tragic death is an indication that progressive forces need to come out more forcefully against the intermeshing of caste and patriarchy. Whether it is the middle class families of India’s growing cities, or the Khap panchayats of rural north India or criminal politicians, it is becoming clear that caste cannot be fought without fighting patriarchy.”
One feels that while fighting for justice for Ilavarsan and for justice in Pabnava case, it is high time that we deliberate on all these and related issues which are of key importance for the further evolution of the dalit movement