Posted On September 21, 2023

Last week, the DMK marked the death anniversary of Sekaran, who was murdered in 1957. His death continues to reverberate in contemporary Tamil Nadu, illustrating the divisions between the backward Thevar community and Dalits in the southern part of the state.

Written by Arun Janardhanan

As in other parts of India, caste often casts a long shadow on Tamil Nadu politics. But amid it all, the memory of Immanuel Sekaran shines a particularly bright light, especially in the southern part of the state.

A Dalit icon whose death anniversary was observed by the ruling DMK last week, Sekaran’s was a life of quiet but profound resistance. At 18 years old, he participated in the Quit India movement with his father Vedanayagam and was imprisoned for three months. Then, in 1945, he joined the British Indian Army as a havildar and by the time he left the military, he had mastered multiple languages such as English, Russian, Malayalam, Hindi, Telugu, and Kannada.

But Sekaran’s story, the one for which he is still remembered, kicks off following his return to his native Ramanathapuram district.

Faced with the injustice meted out to Scheduled Caste (SC) groups such as Devendra Kula Vellalars and Adi Dravidars, Sekaran became their champion. His stories in Tamil literature capture his fight against caste discrimination — against the double-tumbler system in tea shops, a marker of caste bigotry, and the restrictions on Dalits on wearing footwear or using umbrellas.

Sekaran’s activism had tragic consequences. In September 1957, he went to a peace meeting also attended by noted Tamil politician and Forward Bloc leader Muthuramalinga Thevar, a close associate of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. The following day, he was murdered by unidentified men. Sekaran was 32 years old.

Thevars are a socially and politically powerful Hindu community that comes under the Most Backward Classes (MBC) category and has been associated with acts of violence against Dalits in south Tamil Nadu. A widely accepted narrative about Sekaran’s death is that he was killed because forward caste men at the peace meeting were angered by the perceived slight he showed by sitting cross-legged in front of them. His murder sparked the Muthukulathur riots in the Madurai-Ramanathapuram region — one of the worst caste riots in the history of Tamil Nadu — and a special session of the Assembly was convened in November to mourn his passing.

Sekaran’s life and death were inextricably linked to the politics of the time. Back then, the Dalit votes were with the Congress and Sekaran was the counterforce that the party deployed to contain the influence of the Thevars. Their dominance in the region had come in conflict with the Congress, particularly Chief Minister K Karmraj who was from the Nadar community that is another influential MBC group like the Thevars.

In the broader arena of Tamil politics, Sekaran’s memory continues to serve as a counter-narrative to figures such as Muthuramalinga Thevar who, despite being a leader of national stature, has been reduced to a caste leader by Thevar groups.

Unlike Kamaraj, when M G Ramachandran (MGR) rose to stardom, especially through movies such as Madurai Veeran (1956), he became a Thevar icon. The majority of Thevars, captivated by MGR, drifted towards the DMK and subsequently the AIADMK, the party MGR founded. In 1984, when was hospitalised and bed-ridden, MGR was elected from the Thevar stronghold of Andipatti in Theni district.

Historically, the stretch between September 10 and October 30, when the death anniversaries of Sekaran and Thevar are observed, has been a period when south Tamil Nadu remains on the edge. Even now, the police remain on high alert during this period because of apprehensions of turmoil and permissions for public meetings are usually not granted.

According to former Madras High Court judge K Chandru, social justice is possible only when MBCs and Dalits unite. Justice Chandru, who had close associations with both sides as a student leader and lawyer from the 1960s, says Thevar and Sekaran’s legacies should transcend caste boundaries. “Leaders like Sekaran and Thevar shouldn’t be pigeonholed as caste icons, they should be seen as symbols of the state’s rich history and its battle against oppression.”

BJP and DMK’s balancing act

Amid the political manoeuvrings in Tamil Nadu, the BJP might be one party that has strategically courted both Thevars and Dalits. After Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s 2015 social engineering initiative, the party appointed Nainar Nagenthiran, a former AIADMK minister and a Thevar, as its state vice president. It is also in alliance with K Krishnasamy’s Puthiya Thamizhagam party that represents the Dalit Pallar community from the region, traditionally at odds with Thevars.

This flexibility showcases the nimbleness of the BJP’s tactic. While Thevars from the region predominantly align with AIADMK and remain devoted to former CM Jayalalithaa’s associate V K Sasikala, the DMK treads cautiously on this. During a recent incident in Tirunelveli that saw Thevar students attack their Dalit peers, the DMK acted swiftly and deputed Finance Minister Thangam Thennarasu who is a Thevar to visit the victims. One of the DMK’s allies is Dalit leader Thol Thirumavalavan of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi.