Prohibition and freebies may be on all party manifestos, but the real underlying strategy of the 2016 assembly elections is backward caste consolidation.

Young men scream as PMK's Anbumani Ramadoss steps on to the stage. Credit: Rohini Mohan

Young men scream as PMK’s Anbumani Ramadoss steps on to the stage. Credit: Rohini Mohan

Dharmapuri: Divya comes to the door rubbing her eyes on an unbearably hot April afternoon in her village of Sellangottai in Dharmapuri district in north Tamil Nadu. The TV is on at a high volume and dialogues from a ‘90s Tamil comedy fill the four-room house. “Sorry, did you call many times?” she asks. She is wearing a faded pink and purple nightie, a typical home-dress for middle class women, not a hair out of place in her tight braid. The only sign of a broken nap is her small black bindi that’s moved to the upper left of her forehead. Before opening the door, she quickly scans the street behind me. “No one saw you, right? You came alone?”

It is Divya’s third year living as a fugitive, hiding from parts of her family, an endlessly inquisitive media and residents of her own village, members of the agrarian Vanniyar caste. She wants to buy me a soda, but cannot leave the house.

“People stare. Or scold me. Or someone will take a photo,” the 24-year-old says. “I have to sit in the room inside all day, waiting for my brother to return from college, and then my mother from her job at the bank.”

She doesn’t turn the TV off; the sound is a sort of fortress, to ward off neighbours as much as to keep out “thoughts and memories”. Thrice during our conversation, she jumps nervously at passing shadows.

The series of events that have led to Divya’s social imprisonment are well known in Tamil Nadu: her inter-caste marriage with Ilavarasan, a Dalit boy who lived less than a kilometre away; the engineered rage of the Patali Makkal Katchi (PMK), a largely Vanniyar political party, against this “polluted marriage”; and her humiliated father’s alleged suicide that in turn led to Vanniyar mobs torching three Dalit villages on November 7, 2012. Reeling with guilt and grief over her father’s death, Divya had gone home to her mother, which caste groups jubilantly declared as her rejection of Ilavarasan. As a legal case plodded on in court, Ilavarasan was found dead near a railway track. The court declared it a suicide, but his mother Krishnaveni alleges murder.

“My son wanted to live,” Krishnaveni says. “The suicide note could have been forced.”

Krishnaveni, Ilavarasan's mother, refuses to believe her son committed suicide and alleges murder. Credit: Rohini Mohan

Krishnaveni, Ilavarasan’s mother, refuses to believe her son committed suicide and alleges murder. Credit: Rohini Mohan

Divya doesn’t know what to think. “I wasn’t even allowed out to see Ila’s body,” she says.

Today, more than 90 Vanniyar men have been charged under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act (SC/ST Act), previously coexisting Dalit and Vanniyar villages are irreconcilably alienated, and nearly every new inter-caste couple in the area must go into hiding. In May 2014, rallying against inter-caste marriage with a doorstep-campaign, a once-struggling PMK won a parliamentary seat in the Vanniyar-dominated Dharmapuri constituency. That member of parliament, former union health minister Anbumani Ramadoss, is now the PMK’s suave chief ministerial aspirant in the 2016 assembly election, contesting from the Pennagaram constituency in the same district.

Caste affiliations brings in votes

Caste has been the substance of politics in Tamil Nadu, but not in its current form. Electorally, politicians shied away from looking at it directly. As a movement born to displace Brahmin hegemony and Aryan-Hindi elitism, Dravidian politics needed non-Brahmin unity. Even while reservation policies were formulated and fixed at 69%, the highest in the country (for Dalits, tribals, minorities and the largest chunk for backward castes), it was done strategically on the basis of Tamilian identity, Dravidar cultural heritage and social justice, not caste pride. “Votes were won with cadre strength, ideology, personality, and oratory,” says V. Arasu, retired professor at Madras University. “Dalits were marginalised then too, but direct caste battles were not common. It wouldn’t work in an electorate brought up on abusing the caste system.”

With what analysts call the gradual corrosion of these ideals or as political analyst Stalin Rajangam says, “the unravelling of its inherent flaws,” caste began to rear its head. It still didn’t have a foothold, until the Divya-Ilavarasan case, which set off a dangerous political trend of creating and then consolidating intense caste affiliations for votes. Since the strategy worked for a small party like the PMK in 2014, other backward caste (OBC) groups have followed suit. The PMK in the north and a multitude of Gounder parties in the west are stoking backward caste insecurities by demonising Dalits, who make up about 20% of the population. These parties demand reservation, industry and agriculture development, but to really win supporters, they frame inter-caste relationships as a ‘love jihad’ by Dalits.

Divya’s life today is evidence of the irresponsibility of this sort of politics. “I just liked a boy, and look what it’s become,” she says. A college-educated woman brought up in a left-leaning household, she did not see any of this coming. “A matter of two families exploded when all these outsiders got involved,” she says. “Who are they? Why do they get to choose our life and death?” In the frenzy that’s lasted four years, she has lost two men she loved, any job prospects or plans for higher education and most of all, her personal agency – for reasons she can list, but still cannot grasp. As her younger brother comes home from college, Divya drops her voice, “He doesn’t like me to express myself. Even he has caste fever now”.

Divya is not blind to caste – “you can’t but know these brackets in our society” – but identity does not imply hierarchy to her. As caste politics takes centre stage in Tamil Nadu, and Dalit homes and lives are under attack, so is this intuitive understanding of equality.

“Crossing the line”

A few feet away from Divya’s house in Sellangottai, is Natham colony, Ilavarasan’s village and one of the three that Vanniyar mobs burned down in the 2012 riots. Most of the houses have been rebuilt, using the hard-won compensation of Rs. 2.78 lakhs per household paid by the state government led by the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK). Few men are visible when I go there – many are away working at construction sites in nearby Bangalore, some are asleep indoors to avoid the blistering afternoon heat and others have gone campaigning with a candidate from Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK), a party representing the Dalits. Madhayan, a 30-year-old Dalit, admits that not everyone who has gone campaigning is a VCK supporter. “People vote for several parties here. They’re just showing crowd support, otherwise a Dalit candidate can look so desolate in an election in these parts,” he says.

Vanniyars are the dominant community in the parched district of Dharmapuri, followed by the Reddys, and then by the Dalits, especially Parayar and Arundatiyar. Vanniyars are one of the poorer land-owing communities in the state, with relatively smaller tracts of land (one to five acres) than other agrarian communities. Dalits in the area – numerically larger, but overwhelmingly landless – traditionally worked on Vanniyar farms, growing crops like tapioca, millets, turmeric and mangoes. In the ‘80s, Dharmapuri was also the heart of the Naxal movement in the state.

A Dalit family has done rough repairs to its burned house. Credit: Rohini Mohan

A Dalit family has done rough repairs to its burned house. Credit: Rohini Mohan

“Except for land ownership, these castes were economically alike, and both Vanniyar and Dalit villages had united struggles against the state for land redistribution,” says political analyst A. Marx who worked on a fact-finding report on the riots. In 2002, a sweeping police operation uprooted the Naxal movement from the region.

Socially, little changed. Durairaja (name changed), a Bangalore worker on a break at home says there was “a leftist sentiment in general” and that even though old structures of caste remained, unlike in other parts of the state, discrimination was rare. Until recently, even inter-caste marriages were common. Opposite Ilavarasan’s home, Chinnathambi lives with his Vanniyar wife, both over 80 years old. “My children and grandchildren are married now, and no one said a word,” says the elderly man.

A younger inter-caste couple, Hari and Gowri, also live in the same village. Gowri’s Vanniyar parents did not support her relationship, so she eloped. “It’s common in villages. You don’t discuss all this. You leave home if you fall in love and the worst that would happen is your family disowns you. But in time, after a baby or something, they’d come around unless some jobless uncles meddled,” says Gowri. “In some parts of the state, they will chase you with axes but not here.” Their neighbour who wished to remain anonymous recalled that “there was nothing shocking about my Vanniyar friends eating in my house, or us playing cricket all day together”.

A supporter turns around to show this logo that says Vanniyakula Kshatriyar. Credit: Rohini Mohan

A PMK supporter turns around to show this logo that says Vanniyakula Kshatriyar. Credit: Rohini Mohan

Come evening, young Vanniyar men thronging a PMK public meeting describe the same idyllic coexistence with Dalits in the region – cricket, shared meals, friendships, festivals. “But then they started to cross the line,” says 20-year-old Mariyappan from Nochikottai, swiftly blaming the beginning of caste violence on the Dalits. “Look how stylishly the young guys dress, with jean pants and shades, to seduce our girls.” When I point to his own jeans, he becomes bashful. “We have always worn it, but these people are flaunting their new wealth.” His friend Murugan joins in, wearing a canary yellow T-shirt emblazoned with a roaring lion, crossed swords and the words ‘Vanniyakula Kshatriyar’ (Vanniyar warriors). “Intercaste marriage is a strategy by Thirumavalavan (a Dalit leader from the VCK) to make Dalits take our wealth,” he says with conviction. “You tell me, if they purposely take our girls, should we keep quiet? We will defend ourselves!”

An older man intervenes quickly, pulling Murugan’s raised hand down, “But that doesn’t mean we burned their villages, okay? That was done by outsiders we don’t know.”

These accusations, arguments and defences were near-identical to observations made some years ago by S. Ramadoss, the 77-year-old founder of the PMK. In the late ’80s, he led violent agitations to wrest a 20% most backward castes (MBCs) quota from the other backward caste category for the Vanniyars. He founded the PMK in 1989, building it through demographic experiments. He tried to form a caste-based coalition with Devendrars, an upwardly mobile scheduled caste in the south. “Then, sensing the growth of the VCK in northern TN, Ramadoss joined hands with them in the name of Tamil nationalism,” says Dalit history researcher Karthikeyan Damodaran. In 2002, he made a widely criticised demand that Vanniyar-dominated districts be carved out into a separate state. He then joined hands with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in 2004, negotiating the health ministry portfolio at the Centre and a Rajya Sabha seat for his son Anbumani. In 2009, he went with the AIADMK, but was back with the DMK and VCK in 2011.

“Through these decades, as Vijaykanth’s party made inroads in the Vanniyar-dominated areas, the PMK started to lose bargaining authority with the DMK and AIADMK,” says Rajangam. “So he started to use a cultural, emotive issue to quickly mobilise his community.”

Ramadoss tried to consolidate all intermediate castes under the issue of alleged misuse of the SC/ST Act. Caste grudges were already simmering when Divya married Ilavarasan on October 14, 2012 and began to live with his family in Natham colony. A month later, her father drank heavily and hanged himself from a fan, leading Vanniyar youth to loot and burn 268 Dalit homes. After this, Ramadoss started to rally against inter-caste marriage as well.

In the lead up to 2014 parliamentary elections, the elder Ramadoss held 27 public meetings over 14 months across Tamil Nadu to officially mobilise all intermediate castes under what he called a “non-Dalit federation”. Referring to “a rising Dalit brazenness,” he demanded a ban on inter-caste marriages and amendments to prevent the misuse of the SC/ST Act. He accused Dalit youth of “wearing jeans, T-shirts and fancy sunglasses” to lure girls from other castes with “bogus professions of love”. He cited statistics from the party’s own confidential surveys of broken marriages to claim that these weddings were born out of caste design and not love. Meanwhile, in a public meeting, another senior PMK leader, Kaaduvetti Guru, reportedly goaded Vanniyar men to chop off the hands of any man touching a Vanniyar woman.

Today, as the PMK contests the assembly elections alone in all 234 constituencies in the state, the party has had an image makeover. It now offers the youngest chief ministerial candidate, also the one who is most educated. With his Obama-like logo, slogan of Change-Progress-Anbumani and a professional manifesto for economic development, the younger Ramadoss is attempting to sidestep identity politics. After a two-day campaign in his Pennagaram constituency, he addresses the caste question evasively, “I’m not saying we’re perfect, but we have to put this caste image in the past. We want to work for all communities. I speak to my young supporters every chance I get – I tell them, we need to think about modernity, progress.”

Young Vanniyar men crowded close to the stage at Anbumani’s public meeting present a different picture. They carefully deny any involvement in the 2012 burning or accusations of threatening Dalits, but passionately talk of “naadaga kaadal” (love drama) by Dalits, words the senior Ramadoss uses. As mellifluous campaign songs express disdain for freebies and corrupt Dravidian leaders, they blame state policies for favouring lower castes in job opportunity. Twenty-four-year-old Prabhu H., who has an undergraduate degree in education, offers his degree and joblessness as proof of “Dalits stealing our jobs”.

“They have 20% reservation, they have become so rich by cornering all the jobs, they will steal our women, our land and next our heads,” he says.

He is one of the few young men at the rally who is not drunk, having quit after Anbumani announced prohibition as the PMK’s first move if he came to power. Other young men too refer to joblessness and struggling agriculture (due to high wages demanded by labourers, in this case Dalits). As the largest group in the MBCs, Vanniyars take the lion’s share of the quota, but many supporters hunkered down to present now-popular calculations of the “dammathundu (miniscule) quota left for them after having to share it with 108 others.

When Anbumani arrives to much jubilation and promises to provide five lakh jobs in the government for the educated youth, they are delirious with joy. But as activist Satish Kumar, a native of the region, explains, parties that kindle caste pride have not addressed the core, complex issues that plague the communities and contribute to the disenchantment among their youth.

The struggle to survive

Economist M Vijayabaskar from the Madras Institute of Development Studies has researched the changes in the socioeconomic status of backward castes in the state and finds that although caste violence has existed for long, the drivers of this violence and key perpetrators are different today. “The anxiety resides today not in the upper or even backward castes, but the intermediate castes that are numerically and regionally dominant, like Vanniyars and Thevars,” he says.

Economically, these groups are only marginally above Dalits. In parts like the north and west, Dalit and intermediate caste youth go to college, both private and government-run. At 40%, the state tops the country in youth with higher education, but 90 lakh youth are without jobs, 13.5% of them postgraduates. “Available jobs in industry today are highly temporary and casual in nature, so there’s no real stability,” says Vijayabaskar. “There is a growing feeling among backward castes, especially the ones moving away from agriculture, that the jobs available are not commiserate to their investment in education.”

Reeling with an acute agrarian crisis (agriculture’s contribution to the state GDP has fallen to less than 7%) and increasingly fragmented landholding (the average is two acres today, about 90% are small and marginal farmers), the cultivating class, both Dalit and OBCs, struggle to make ends meet. At the same time, says Vijayabaskar, certain welfare policies of the state – like universalisation of food distribution, and to a lesser extent rural employment guarantee, have had a significant impact on rural social relations. In the past two decades, the Dalit community has also migrated heavily to cities like Chennai, Tirupur and Bangalore. “The old control that the feudal class could exert on Dalits through food and wages has changed recently,” he says. Rajangam adds, “The emergence of Dalit parties has also given them psychological energy to challenge dominant castes.”

Nearly 92% of Dalits in Tamil Nadu live in rural areas, and Dalit incomes in Tamil Nadu are still about 24% lower than OBC incomes, a gap that’s twice the country average. But many backward caste youth believe Dalits are eating into their public sector jobs. “What they don’t see is that it is the better-off Dalits from cities that might be taking these jobs, not their neighbours in villages,” says social historian V. Geetha. Caste majoritarianism stokes this rage further.

In Natham colony, hundreds of women sit under the shade of trees, taking a break from digging water-harvesting ponds under the national rural employment guarantee scheme. “It’s been four years since the incident,” says 40-year-old Mookamma, “None of them calls us to work on their farms anymore.” Twenty-one-year-old Tharani adds, “They did call some of us few months ago to harvest tapioca, but when two of us went, they said ‘look, you’re so desperate, you have to come to us for work’. We don’t need any more humiliation, so we stopped going.”

Even the NREGA work these days is divided by caste. “They do one week, then we do one week,” says Tharani. Fear is an everyday reality for them. “We’re always scared we’ll get burned if we say something,” says Shanta. Her neighbour’s son fell in love with a Vanniyar girl six months ago and the whole family has since fled.

Dalit women take a lunch break during their NREGA work. Credit: Rohini Mohan

Dalit women take a lunch break during their NREGA work. Credit: Rohini Mohan

In the meanwhile, the PMK’s 4.4% vote share in 2014 has infected the rest of the state. Trying to replicate Ramadoss’ formula of caste consolidation, the many Kongu Vellala Gounder parties in west Tamil Nadu, representing a community of largely well-off businessmen, have also launched tirades against inter-caste marriage, the low-hanging fruit in the perennial tree of caste grouses.

G.K. Nagaraj, founder of the Kongunadu Jananayaga Katchi, which has allied with the BJP for the state polls, says, “Caste is a traditional system, we can’t simply allow our girls who are used to luxuries and a certain culture, to marry someone from slums”.

As his statement betrays, caste hierarchies are deep in Kongunadu and amplified tensions are overflowing into anti-Dalit violence. Every region now has a tragic love story that feeds into the caste machinations: in Udumalpet of Tirupur district, Dalit boy Shankar was hacked to death for marrying Thevar girl Kausalya; in Thiruchengode in Namakkal, 23-year-old Dalit V. Gokulraj was allegedly murdered for falling in love with Gounder girl Swathi.

The VCK’s Thol Thirumavalavan admits that ever since the PMK blamed him for egging on Dalit youth to trap other caste women, “even mainstream Dravidian parties seemed to exhibit a Dalit aversion, at least at the levels of district leadership”. The VCK is part of a six-party third front comprising the Communist Party of India, Communist Party of India (Marxist), Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, Tamil Manila Congress and Vijaykanth’s Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam. “There is no point allying with the mainstream parties anymore, since in a way, it is their marginalisation of Dalits in the Dravidian framework that has brought us to this juncture,” he says.

As the two older Dravidian parties struggle with a depleting cadre base, and depend on sub-regional allies to shore up votes, these tiny backward caste parties have become disproportionately important. Their arrival and the fear of split votes in a likely fractured mandate has everyone adopting similar methods. So while the DMK and AIADMK haven’t allied with the PMK, their way of beating them is to also field Vanniyar candidates. In four of the five constituencies in PMK stronghold Dharmapuri (the fifth is reserved for scheduled castes, or Dalits), all parties – left, right, Tamil nationalist, Dravidian – have fielded Vanniyars. Similar decisions have been made all over the state, in part habit, and in part the only strategy they have left. “As long as politics is a numerical game in Tamil Nadu, this will continue,” says Rajangam.

The narrative around inter-caste marriages and caste consolidation depends on the demonising of Dalit men, but it has also inadvertently led to the infantalising of backward caste women. Nearly all speeches against Dalit youth also invoke the image of an innocent, naïve girl who falls prey to trappings like jeans and sunglasses. “Women are more educated today than most backward caste men, thanks to college availability, and education as a prestige investment for agrarian castes. More are employed than ever before, but their place in the social structure hasn’t changed,” says Geetha. They’re still spoken of as wayward toddlers.

Of her community’s fear of broken inter-caste marriages ruining their girls’ lives, Divya says they’re caught in a social trap. “Many girls don’t even think of marriage when they like a classmate or fellow traveller. But then the threats of getting you married off start, and you make the only independent decision you can and elope. Do these parties not see that failed marriages are partly their own doing? How many relationships can survive when everybody around you, every single person you used to once know and trust, wants it to fail?” Many in the community are trying to find Divya a Vanniyar husband today. “In this kind of atmosphere, everyone acts like I’m important, that it is my future they’re protecting, but the truth is no one cares what I really want. Caste has gobbled me up.”