In a Tamil Nadu village, Dalits flee certain death after a mob from the dominant caste destroys their homes because they decided to pull a temple car through the main road. By ILANGOVAN RAJASEKARAN

ON the night of August 15, when the country was celebrating 68 years of freedom, the Dalits of Seshasamudhram village in Tamil Nadu’s Villupuram district lost theirs to the machinations of caste politics, and the trauma of that horrific night continues to haunt them despite the efforts of the local administration to assuage their fears.

Some 150 Dalits, including the elderly, women and children, fled their homes in the village even as a 500-strong mob from the Vanniyar community (listed among the Most Backward Classes) ransacked their homes, mostly huts, and their measly belongings and torched them. In terms of severity, the attack perhaps parallelled the violence at Natham colony in Dharmapuri in 2012 following the elopement of a Dalit boy and a Vanniyar girl.

“The Dalits were so hapless and remained frozen in horror,” said a revenue officer who witnessed the arson at Seshasamudhram. The team of 30 police personnel on duty there was no match for the aggression by the dominant caste group, which has 1,300 households in the village. The Dalit families number 87.

When the mob could not find any Dalit in the colony, it turned its ire on the law enforcers with stones and petrol bombs (liquor bottles filled with petrol) hurled from roof-tops. Eight policemen and three Revenue Department employees were injured and were shifted to the Villupuram Government Medical College Hospital. (Chief Minister Jayalalithaa announced a solatium of Rs.50,000 each to the injured from the Chief Minister’s General Relief Fund).

“To prevent any casualty, we were able to evacuate the entire colony despite the raging violence and escort the residents, including a week-old baby girl and its mother and a pregnant woman, to the nearby fields,” said an Armed Reserve constable who was involved in the operation and sustained serious injuries on his head and face. The Dalits remained in the fields in pouring rain for three hours while the mob vented its anger on their houses.

Police reinforcements that arrived from Tiruvannamalai district fought pitched battles with the mob until dawn to bring the situation under control. Five huts, four motorcycles, three bicycles and a few haystacks were gutted in the arson and two houses were damaged. The people’s only possessions were their ration cards, voter identity cards, certificates and books and notebooks of children and the table fans, mixies and other articles distributed free by the State government, and they lost everything.

The Superintendent of Police (S.P.) of Villupuram, K.S. Narendran Nair, told Frontlinethat it was the timely decision of the police team that saved the Dalits. He said the police were caught unawares. “We failed to read the sinister designs in their [Vanniyars’] assurances at the peace committee meetings that they would cooperate with the administration for the peaceful conduct of the [Dalits’] car festival,” he said.

The car festival of the Dalit colony’s Mariamman temple was scheduled for August 16 and a team of 30 police personnel was posted in the village on “bandobust” duty. With the situation appearing normal, the police even lifted the prohibitory order under Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC), which they have promulgated routinely in the village in the Tamil month of Aadi since 2012 when the temple car was built. The temple car became a source of tension.

Matters took a turn for the worse this year when the Dalits threatened to embrace Buddhism if they were not allowed to take out the car. The Villupuram district administration convened two peace committee meetings, which were attended by a 100-strong group of Vanniyars and five members from the Dalit colony, and a consensus was reached that the Dalits could be allowed to pull their temple car during the festival.

The Dalits were happy; in the past they carried the idol either in a bullock cart or on their heads. “There was also no bar on taking our deity through the common path in the village before 2011,” said a Dalit resident. Since the dominant caste had accepted their right to celebrate, the Dalit colony residents thought that the car festival would pass off peacefully. They decked the car with garlands and flowers on August 15. While the entire Dalit colony was engaged in the preparations, the Vanniyars, mostly youth, left for nearby Kallakurichi town where Anbumani Ramadoss, MP from Dharmapuri and youth wing leader of the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), was participating in the party’s demonstration against the sale of liquor in the State.

“The Dalit colony has three lanes, which are surrounded by houses of Vanniyars. In fact, we have to go to their side to purchase even groceries and other provisions since shops, including the fair price shop, are located in their area,” said Anjalai, 56. (Now, after the violence, Dalits have requested the district administration to open a fair price shop in their colony.)

Petrol bomb attack

The trouble started around 9 p.m. on August 15. S. Balusamy, Village Assistant at Manchaputhur, who was on duty at the village, told Frontline that the stillness of the night was broken suddenly by a hail of stones and petrol-filled bottles from atop buildings adjacent to the Dalit colony.

The decorated temple car was the first target. A bottle with inflammable material hit the car and it caught fire. “Before we could realise what was happening, a mob of women and youths mostly in the age group of 17 to 25 began digging the main road while shouting that they would not allow the temple car to pass through the village main road,” he said.

The mob entered the colony and, finding no one there, destroyed huts and property. The mob then turned its attention on the policemen, who tried in vain to stop the raiders. Heavily outnumbered and with some of them suffering injuries, the police team had moved the Dalits to the fields and asked them to remain there until reinforcements arrived. “The night-long heavy rain saved us, and we escaped death by a whisker,” said Balusamy.

“When we came in with reinforcements, the village looked like a mini war zone with the gang continuing its violence,” said the S.P. The police resorted to a lathi-charge first and followed it up with tear gas bursts. “When both failed, we opened three rounds of fire in the air to disperse the violent mob. Later, we escorted the Dalits back to their colony,” said Narendran Nair, who sustained minor burns on his leg when his trousers caught fire after a flaming petrol-filled bottle hit him.

The first thing the administration did after the violence was to re-impose Section 144 in the village. Collector M. Lakshmi visited the village the next day and assured the Dalits of all help. She distributed Rs.5,000 in cash, 10 kg of rice, a dhoti and a saree to each family. The damaged temple car was moved to the police station at Sankarapuram, and combing operations began in order to rid the village of lumpen elements.

The police have arrested 85 people so far, including 18 women and seven juveniles, all from the Vanniyar caste. Cases have been registered under various sections of the Indian Penal Code, and under the Tamil Nadu Public Property (Prevention of Damage and Loss) Act, 1992, and Section 3 (ii) of the Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities Act), 1989.

Eerie silence 

The village remained eerily silent when Frontline visited it on August 18. When this correspondent attempted to enter the village, he was stopped at the “Alamaram bus stop” some five kilometres away from it. The officer in charge said that since “Section 144” had been imposed in the area no one should enter the village. He served this correspondent a copy of the order.

When this correspondent insisted on entering the village, he was eventually allowed, but on foot from “Alamaram bus stop”. “Our intention is not to stop anyone. The situation might be exploited by vested interests. We will relax the regulations soon,” the Collector told this correspondent later.

The Dalits are living in fear. “We have to live with them [Vanniyars] and work with them. How can we lead a normal peaceful life once again?” asked Chinnapillai.

Almost all the men from Vanniyar households had left the village fearing police reprisal. Only a few of their elderly women and children remained in the houses. The Vanniyar women whom the correspondent met accused the police of targeting them.

Asked about the violence they unleashed against the Dalits, they charged the media with spreading falsehood against their caste. “Who broke the peace in the village? We did not,” said a woman whose husband and son had fled.

“It is police versus Vanniyars now,” said a Vanniyar man who has sought asylum in a house of his relative in a nearby village. Many Vanniyar households in the surrounding villages have offered shelter to the men of their caste from Seshasamudhram.

With the law enforcers maintaining a tight vigil, the Dalits have begun reconstructing their lives. “I have lost everything. What am I to do now?” asked Saravanan, whose mud house was destroyed. A father of two children, he wept inconsolably during the inquiry by P. Ramasamy, Director in Charge, Tamil Nadu wing of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes (NCSC).

The Director in Charge spent nearly an hour in the village on August 18, meeting the Dalit families and inspecting the scale of destruction. Ramasamy asked the administration to expedite rehabilitation measures. “The State should initiate immediate steps to instil confidence among the victims,” he said. The Commission later told Frontline that it had recommended, under the provisions of the SC/ST Act, a compensation of Rs.90,000 each to the seven families whose houses had been gutted.

The District Collector said the administration was waiting for the charge sheet to be filed on the incident by the police’s Social Justice wing, which is conducting an inquiry. “Based on it we will provide succour to the victims under the provisions of the SC/ST Act,” she said.

Sinister twist

Narendran Nair said the police, after a preliminary investigation, had zeroed in on village panchayat president Subramanian, who is a Vanniyar and a member of the Desiya Murpokku Dravidar Kazhagam (DMDK), as the main instigator. The Collector endorsed this view. “His irresponsible act for cheap political gains has led to such a serious law and order problem. He has divided the people of the village on caste lines,” the Collector said. Subramanian has been missing since the incident. “He unfurled the national flag in the panchayat office on August 15,” said Mariappan, a cattle broker in the locality. In the last round of local body elections, Subramanian and another Vanniyar youth, a cadre of the PMK, whose social base is the Vanniyar community, had contested for the panchayat president’s post. Subramanian, residents claimed, thought that his rival had the edge since he belonged to the PMK, despite the fact that panchayat elections were not officially fought on party lines. “Hence he struck upon the idea of roping in the 300-odd Dalit votes by promising the Dalits that he would fulfil their long-time wish to have a wooden car (chariot) for their temple. The Dalits voted for him en masse and he emerged the winner.”

He kept his word and contributed a sum of Rs.50,000 for the temple car, which cost Rs.2 lakh to build. The rest of the money was borne by the Dalit households. The car, known in local Tamil as “Sagadai”, was ready in 2012. The president even presided over its trial run that year. But well aware of the resentment against him among the Vanniyars as a “caste betrayer”, Subramanian devised a plan to win back his people’s support, it is alleged.

“This time he decided to cheat the Dalits who had made him the president,” said S. Kannan of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) in the village. “He has been slyly sowing the seeds of animosity between Dalits and Vanniyars since 2012 on the issue of pulling the temple car,” said Kannan. He added that Subramanian misguided the local police and revenue officials, too, by claiming that if the car was pulled, there would be a serious law and order problem.

In this manner, he had ensured the postponement of the car festival from 2012. “But the settlement that the two groups arrived at in the peace committee meetings came as a shock to him. In a desperate bid to stall the car festival, he and his accomplices, including a ward member and a retired school headmaster, instigated youths and women to resort to violence against the Dalits,” said a senior revenue official.

The violence led to widespread criticism from all quarters. Political parties such as the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Communist Party of India, the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the Manithaneya Makkal Katchi, Puthiya Thamilagam and the VCK, strongly condemned it, while the two big Dravidian parties, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, chose to remain silent. The PMK founder-leader, Dr S. Ramadoss, blamed the police for unleashing terror on Vanniyar women and children, while BJP State secretary Tamilisai Sounderrajan made an offer to build a new temple car, which, according to Kannan, the Dalits rejected.