Caste Relations Go South

As atrocities soar, the legacy of Dalit empowerment in the southern states is being thrown away.



An unidentified man came to meet journalism student Huchangi Prasad at the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes hostel in Devanagare in central Karnatakaat dawn on 23 October. The stranger told Prasad that his mother was hospitalised following a heart attack and promised to take him to the hospital. True to cinematic cliches, there was an ambush midway by a mob of 10-odd men.

Prasad’s crime was that he had written a ‘controversial’ book about the caste system a year earlier, which had apparently come to the attention of lumpen Hindutva elements only now.

“The attackers pushed me around saying my writings were anti-Hindu because they talked about injustices of the caste system in Devanagere. They put kumkum all over my face. Then they pulled out knives and said they will cut off my fingers so that I will never write again,” says Prasad.

He managed to break free from the group and flee to the woods nearby. Hours later, when he was sure that the group had left, he returned to the hostel and later filed a police complaint.

The incident came merely three months after — and just 100 km from where — rationalist writer MM Kalburgi was murdered. The repeated attacks on Dalitsacross north India are now finding resonance in southern states such as Karnatakaand Tamil Nadu. Some political observers attribute this to the change of political atmosphere in the country under the new regime at the Centre.

According to statistics compiled by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), crimes against the SCs rose to 47,064 in 2014 from 39,408 in 2013. In 2012, there were 33,655 crimes against Dalits, about the same as in 2011. In addition, as many as 744 Dalits were murdered last year, up from 676 in 2013. In this national statistics, south India’s contribution is also seeing a steady increase.

While looking at the south Indian states in terms of caste practices, Tamil Naduand Karnataka are seen on similar planes. Overt and sometimes hidden discriminatory practices range from blatant use of double tumblers in hotels and tea shops to denial of entry in temples and honour killings. These ‘concealed untouchability’ practices have forced Dalits to withdraw from the public sphere to avoid humiliation.

The government’s assurances to guarantee employment and land for the Dalit community often end up as unfulfilled promises. Any demand for land or assertion of rights still invites trouble from the dominant communities. Often, the administration’s failure to punish the culprits, which is mostly made up of the dominant castes, has emboldened the culprits to heighten their attacks.

Mohammed Tahsin, a Bengaluru based social observer, says that the caste system is most vigorously practised in Dakshin Kannada, Udupi, Hassan, Mandya and Chitradurga where Brahminical hegemony is quite dominant. “Dalits continue to be segregated from the rest in villages across the state and dwell in separate colonies meant for them,” he says.

Dalits, who comprise 21 percent of the population of Tamil Nadu, continue to be at the receiving end of upper caste ire. The state figures in the top five where a high number of atrocities have been reported over the past five years.

Dravidian politics has not only failed the Dalits but also created a deep division between the OBCs and the Dalits. Anti- Brahminical sentiment of the past slowly gave away to explicit anti-Dalit sentiment. With Dravidian parties going soft on caste issues with an eye on the votes, the state has witnessed the mushrooming of several caste outfits, which aim to protect the ‘purity’ of dominant castes.

Kathir, managing director of Evidence, an organisation working for the political and civil rights of Dalits, tells Tehelka that no less than 230 types of ‘untouchabilities’ are practised in Tamil Nadu. “It is shocking that the government is still in denial over honour killings even after 73 cases were reported in the last three years,” he adds.

“The BJP in the state was careful not to eulogise the caste system, but ever since they came to power at the Centre, this started to change,” says Samuel Raj, general secretary, Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front (TNUEF). BJP president Amit Shah and S Gurumurthy, the president of Swadeshi Jagaran Manch, openly glorified caste at a recent public meeting in Madurai. This exaltation emboldens the fringe outfits, which in turn carry out discrimination with impunity.

Caste is being perpetuated by the young upwardly mobile middle class as is evidenced by the number of educated youngsters heading casteist organisations. One of them, murder accused Yuvaraj, was given a rousing reception by an adoring crowd upon surrendering to the police. Yuvaraj is accused of killing Dalit youth Gokul Raj, the alleged reason being his purported love affair with an upper caste girl.

“Earlier, the atrocities used to be condemned by all major political parties. Stalwarts such as Periyar, Singaravelar and Jeevanandham stood like rocks against the caste system. It is only the Left and the Dalit movements which raise these issues now,” says Raj.

C Lakshmanan, associate professor at Madras Institute of Developmental Studies (MIDS), Chennai, says that Dalit movements also wither away due to divisions manufactured by dominant castes for electoral gains. “One of the many stumbling blocks,” he says, “is the de-politicisation of issues by NGOs which diffuse the anger of the people and appropriate people’s issues for their own interests.”

Lakshmanan points the finger at an ‘insensitive’ educated Dalit middle class and says the political culture of giving away freebies diverts the attention of voters and makes them myopic.

In may, Chitralekha, a Dalit auto-rickshaw driver, concluded her 122-day dharna outside the Kannur district collectorate in Kerala. She was prevented from using the male-dominated auto stand at Edatt. “They were not able to accept that a woman auto-driver — that too a Dalit — was doing the same job as they do. Since then, they have been torturing me,” Chitralekha said at the time. Though the government initially promised support, it failed to provide her a proper rehabilitation package.

Close on the heels of the Chitralekha incident, another young Dalit woman entrepreneur, Soumya Devi, was denied a workplace in the startup village in Kochi promoted by the Kerala government.

Even though Kerala has some positive social indicators to flaunt, random incidents of atrocities against Dalits show that it has not broken free of caste divisions. Scholars and activists claim that the last few years have seen a spike in the number of attacks on Dalits in the state.

Rupesh Kumar, a noted writer and documentary filmmaker, tells Tehelka that while it is unfair to view Kerala with the same prism as other southern states when it comes to caste violence, discrimination is quite evident in the social structure of the state. “A school in Perambra village in Calicut, named the Government Welfare Lower Primary School, has become a ‘Dalit only’ school after the members of upper castes stopped enrolling their children,” he says. Enquiries by Tehelka found that the school had not received a single student outside the Paraya community for the past 10 years.

BRP Bhaskar, senior journalist and social commentator, says that hardly any cases of untouchability are being reported in Kerala at present. “However, social discrimination is being practised with greater sophistication than in other states,’’ he says. “The Dalit population remains divided among numerous organisations and the leadership is often content playing second fiddle to mainstream parties. The Dalits feel the Left parties have failed them but, as of now, the majority still vote for the Left. The Welfare Party of India and the Social Democratic Party of India, both of which have been floated by Muslim groups, are making sustained efforts to attract the Dalits to their fold.”

Meanwhile, there is low representation of Dalits in the power structure of the state. The Left and other progressive formations are accused of patronising them and being silent on Dalit identity politics which they see as a threat.

With inputs from Adarsh Onnatt

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