The immediate provocation for the violence was the holding of a temple car festival, but the real issue is of social discrimination.

Nine days after she had delivered her second child, 23-year-old Banu was recuperating at her grandmother’s house in the ‘colony’ – the Dalit neighbourhood of Seshasamudram village – on August 15. But all that she can recall now is a mob attacking the front door with crow bars, stones and petrol bombs. “I was holding the door from inside to prevent them from breaking open. We just shut our mouths. They wanted to burn us down,” recalls Banu’s grandmother, still shaking with horror.

But, Banu and her grandmother are grateful that their house, a corner house on the main road, was next to a Vanniar’s. “Our neighbour was concerned that their house will also catch fire. They spared us,” she says.

These horrific events unfolded in Seshasamudram as Indians were celebrating 68 years of independence. The Vanniars of Seshasamudram village in Villupuram district wanted to prevent the Dalit community from asserting their right to take the temple-car procession through the main road of the village. As a last resort, they burned down the temple-car along with seven Dalit houses completely, went on a rampage destroying property, livestock and injuring many, including seven policemen on duty.

Police estimate that a 200-strong mob attacked the Dalit colony on Saturday evening as the Dalits were preparing for the temple festival scheduled on Sunday. “The attack was well-planned,” says Rajamanikkam, a middle-aged Dalit. The mob had cut off electricity supply by vandalising the transformer in the village. Armed with stones, crow bars, sticks, sickles and beer bottles filled with petrol, they simultaneously took positions on the top of terraces overlooking the colony.

Once the lights went off, they started throwing stones and petrol bombs inside the colony from atop, taking the police by surprise. Another group moved inside the colony and swiftly broke the tube lights and bulbs. They then systematically set the Dalits’ huts on fire.

“I saw men slamming our goats on the floor and running away with them. They wanted to destroy our property,” says middle-aged Vennila, who says that if not for the police, they would have lost more. “They took blows on our behalf,” she said.

Seeds of conflict

The seeds of this specific conflict were sown by Subramanian, a Vanniar, who belongs to Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhakam (DMDK). The Dalits say that he promised them that he will help them conduct the temple festival – a long-standing desire of Dalits –if they voted for him in the panchayat elections. “We supported him. After he won, we even paraded him pompously on a chariot,” said a local. With Subramanian contributing over one lakh towards the festival, each Dalit household had contributed Rs. 3500.

The Dalits had planned to take the deity on a temple-car around the Mariamman temple, which is situated on a small compound inside the colony. The total distance of this proposed procession could not be more than 175 metres, but the disputed stretch – the main road used by both Vanniars and Dalits – is less than 50 meters.

Severe opposition grew within the Vanniar community for conceding to the Dalit demand. The Dalits claim that Subramanian flipped and reneged on his promise after he realised that it would be disastrous for his political career to be portrayed as the ‘Vanniar who succumbed to Dalit pressure’. The Vanniars, who outnumber the Dalit families by at least 10 to one, soon swore to not allow the Dalits to go ahead with the plan.

In an effort to avoid another caste clash like what Dharmapuri witnessed in 2012, the local officials – Collector and others – had called for ‘peace talks’ involving all stake holders. This year, the Dalits were given the go-ahead to organise the temple car festival and were promised police protection.

As the deadlock continued, the tension between the two communities escalated, leading up to the festival on Sunday prompting the local administration to deploy a 40-man police force to conduct the festival without any drama.

On Saturday evening, they were taken by surprise when a 200-odd strong mob (some say 500), many of whom, Dalits claim, had returned from a meeting organised by Dr. S. Ramadoss’ Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) in Kallakurichi.

“The women carried the stones in their sarees and took it to the terraces overlooking the colony so that their men can attack us. The men had bought petrol from the local shop run by a Chettiar, filled it in beer bottles and threw it inside,” says 45-year-old Arumugam, who works as a daily wage labourer.

“We were totally outnumbered,” says the inspector who has been stationed in the village to maintain calm. “Even school-going kids were throwing stones,” he says with disbelief.

As the violence continued into the night, the Dalits say that the Vanniars would have set the entire village on fire if not for a spell of heavy rain. For the rest of the night, the Dalits stayed without any protection as the police reinforcements arrived only on Sunday morning.

The morning after revealed that at least seven Dalit huts were completely destroyed and at least 7 policemen were injured by the mob including the Villupuram SP, Narendra Nair. Most people in the colony had lost their hard-earned property – some almost everything.

Saravanan, who works as a daily wage labourer in Kerala, managed to flee with his three-month old child in the nick of time, leaving all his official documents, clothes, gold and wads of cash, which he had saved up to build a house. “We don’t have a ration card, voters ID…no bonafides are with me. We haven’t changed clothes for the last 5 days,” he says.

Vanniars’ woes

But Vanniars also have their tales of woe. On Sunday morning, hundreds of policemen swooped into Vanniar side of village and indulged in a series of ‘shock and awe’ raids, arresting Vanniar men. “It didn’t matter who they were as long as they were Vanniar men. Even those who had just attended a funeral or were visiting a relative were forced out of the house and loaded into the van,” says Thaiyal Nayagi, a Vanniar coolie worker.

“Bikes, motors and tractors were broken. Even cows and bulls weren’t spared. If we resisted them or if the men weren’t there at home, they threatened to arrest us as well,” says 37-year-old Rajalakshmi.

It was evident that the Vanniar men of Seshasamudram were missing. The police say that the men might have fled the village or were hiding in the sugarcane fields nearby. Several houses on the two main streets – Raja street and Pullaiyar Koil street – of the village remained locked.

The immediate provocation for the violence was the holding of a temple car festival, but the real issue is of social discrimination against the Dalits and the caste-bias of the Vanniar community.

“It’s becoming difficult to live in this village,” says Solaiamma, who, she says, is old enough to be the mother of young men who took part in the attack but still that didn’t stop them from chasing her away.

“The first house that was burnt down was that of the man who married a Vanniar girl from another village. But how could they even destroy the temple-car of Amman,” she asks with tears in her eyes.

More than a dozen Vanniar women made it clear that they will never agree to let the Dalits take the temple-car through the main road. “When no Vanniar will ever pray or agree to do the ‘arthi’ to the deity, why should it be taken through this road? Let them do whatever they want inside their colony,” they said in unison.

The Dalits are dejected. “Please tell the government to relocate us to another place where there are no caste Hindus. We have been told that the police will not provide protection forever and that they will teach us a lesson,” says Unnamalai (40), who lives in the colony.

Camaraderie between the two working class castes is impossible as long as one caste insists on retaining hereditary social privileges. While most Dalits in the village say that the government must give them relief and help them relocate, the Vanniar women say that the ‘solution’ to the problem lies in Dalits giving up their demand.

Thaiyal Nayagi, who forcefully spoke about how Dalits are crossing the red lines on a daily basis and threatening the closely knit Vanniar community, says: “They rudely ask us, ‘Is the blood running in your veins different from that running in mine?’ Should we just give up on everything and invite them into our living room?”

With such strong casteist feelings, another bout of violence in another place on another issue is waiting to happen.