Dravidian politics is playing to the tunes of anti-Dalit groups leading to perpetuation and escalation of honour killings and other atrocities against the community
The recent murder of a Dalit engineering graduate Gokul Raj in Namakkal, has taken the number of honour killings in Tamil Naduthis year to an appalling figure of 16. Gokul was beheaded and his private parts were cut off. The state government has been in a state of denial about the situation.
Earlier this year, the then chief minister of Tamil Nadu O Panneerselvam denied the occurrence of ‘honour killing’ in the state. While making such a statement, Panneerselvam conveniently forgot that 44 cases of honour killings were reported in the state in 2013 and 2014. When confronted with the statistics, the shrewd politician termed them as suicides.
Tamil Nadu, according to statistics, has even surpassed Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, the two states which have earned the dubious distinction of being honour killing capitals of the country. Panneerselvam, who later relinquished the post to his mentor J Jayalalithaa, also dismissed the need of a separate legislation to prevent such murders although as many as 22 other states and union territories have demanded it from the Centre.
Anti-Dalit sentiment is growing in the state with various casteist leaders belonging to Vanniyar community in the northern region, Thevar and Nadar community in the southern region and Gounder community in the western region dominating the discourse. These leaders are fast undermining the ideology of the state’s famous anti-caste crusader, Periyar.
In stark contrast to the stand taken by the Tamil Nadu government, National Commission for Scheduled Castes (ncsc) Chairman PL Punia described the situation of Dalits in the state as “unsatisfactory”. He pointed out that Tamil Naduis among the top five states in the country where a high number of cases of atrocities against Dalits are filed, with a majority of them being closed, citing lack of evidence. He said that cases such as the death of Gokul should not be treated as mere cases of murder.
The tacit silence maintained by the Dravidian parties emboldens the atrocities against Dalits by various dominant caste (OBC) movements in the state. With Gokul Raj’s murder, honour killings, once seen as a menace only in the southern regions of Tamil Nadu, are now threatening to be a feature in other parts of the state as well, especially in the Kongu region in the west. The reason for the perceived calm in the region is that Arundhatiyars (most backward among Dalits) are heavily oppressed by the Gounders, leaving no question of retaliation unlike the Dalits in the southern region.
Gokul was last seen talking to Swati from his village who was reportedly his lover. Swati belonged to the dominant Gounder community. According to the confession made by some of the arrested, Gokul was picked up by the members of an anti-Dalit group, Dheeran Chinnamalai Gounder Piravi, at the behest of its local leader Yuvraj, who is still at large. Yuvraj allegedly strangulated Gokul to death and threw his dead body on the railway tracks.
Yuvraj was involved in campaigns against inter-caste love and marriages since 2012. He was viewed as a messiah by the majoritarian caste-obsessed sections of the society. His role in the murder has allegedly been downplayed by the police as the entire administrative class is made up of the dominant castes.
“Unlike the honour killings that happened in the past which were all done by family members, Gokul’s murder is an organised murder by a caste movement, similar to the khap panchayats in north India,” says Kathir, executive director of Evidence, an organisation working among Dalits. The gruesome nature of honour killings is maintained in this case as well. “By beheading, the murderers may have intended to give a message to the Dalit boys that they would not have an identity of their own if they fall in love with upper caste women. The chopping off of the private parts also indicates that no Dalit youth can have physical intimacy with an upper caste woman,” added Kathir.
Many such anti-Dalit groups exist in the state in the pretext of protecting culture and keeping the caste pride intact. It all began with S Ramadoss, who consolidated Vanniyars and formed his party Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) in 1989. After he failed miserably in electoral politics, Ramadoss started spewing anti-Dalit venom. He even demanded a ban on marriages between Dalits and caste-Hindus and a dilution of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. His partymen accused Dalit youths of fomenting social tension by filing false complaints under the Act and ensnaring girls from other castes by wearing jeans, T-shirts and fancy sunglasses.
If in the beginning of Dravidian politics anti-Dalit activities were implicit, it has become very explicit these days with the advent of numerous caste movements which were inspired by the pmk. Having tasted success with the prominent Ilavarasan Divya case and the subsequent caste conflicts in Dharmapuri, these anti- Dalit fringe outfits play cultural police by distributing anti-Dalit pamphlets and conducting anti-Dalit conferences. “To counter the Dalit upsurge, the dominant castes invent images from the past to celebrate annual festivals and mobilise large crowds. Thriving on the silence of the changing governments, these groups use these festivals not just to protect their caste identity and maintain the hegemony but also to intimidate Dalits,” says Dalit writer Stalin. “Altogether there are around 200 such small movements of the major caste groups like Vanniyar, Thevars, Nadars and Gounders alone,” he added. Existence of such groups not only shames but also questions the values of radical and progressive politics of the state.
Tamil Nadu’s political and economic power currently revolves around casteist forces. Whoever mobilises caste successfully gains control in the structures of the State, which in turn perpetuates caste. “Since 1950, there have been 15 judicial enquiry commissions set up to look into atrocities against Dalits. But none of these commissions have recommended severe punishments for the culprits. All of them invariably directly or indirectly blame the Dalits for the violence or ‘crossing the boundary’,’’ says C Lakshmanan, assistant professor of Madras Institute of Development Studies, who headed a fact-finding team in Gokul’s case. If the State had adhered to the rule of law irrespective of caste and community, then this would not have happened.
Ramadoss is projecting himself as the chief ministerial candidate in the upcoming election, signalling trouble for the Dalits in the state. His claims are not without substance as the dmk is reeling under corruption charges and rumours of serious health issues are doing the rounds about Jayalalithaa.
“With anti-Dalit politics being set in motion, Tamil Nadu is setting a trend in Dalitatrocities. With the murder of a Dalit man in the neighbouring Karnataka for giving a love letter, it is quite clear that south Indian states started taking cue from here when it comes to Dalit atrocities,” added Lakshmanan. As long as the Dalits continue to be denied social and political inclusion, the situation is not going to change.
With 16 cases of reported honour killings this year, how is the government going to explain its denial and stony silence over the issue for so long? Why is the government turning a blind eye towards these brutal murders and other atrocities even while ncsc takes cognizance of these issues? How many more lives do we need to lose before the government finally wakes up?