December 10, 2012


Rajamma, a resident of Natham, looks at her burnt house with vacant eyes. The more she looks at it, the harder the tears fall. Every part of her house — each brick painstakingly collected — is a small fountain of memories for her, reminding her of the backbreaking work done by her late husband at the local landlord’s house.

Now, all that is in the past.

Three weeks ago hordes of dominant caste people armed to the teeth launched a pre-meditated attack on their colony, supposedly to avenge the ‘humiliation’ caused by the marriage of one of their girls to a boy from her community.

Like many others in the colony, Rajamma is a dalit. The perpetrators belonged to the powerful Vanniar caste. She knows that she was saved only because a youth from the colony alerted them about the attack allowing some people to rush into the nearby fields.

Burned houses, smashed household items, bicycles, motorbikes, television sets. Torn schoolbooks, records, certificates and ration cards. This was the scene immediately after the attack on the three dalit colonies of Natham, Kondampatti and Annanagar in Naikkankottai, Dharmapuri district, Tamil Nadu. Of the 500 houses in the three colonies, over 268 were damaged/burnt.

The attack was brought on by the suicide of a caste Hindu over the elopement of his daughter. The mob, armed with deadly weapons and petrol bombs, indulged in a four-hour-long rampage. They broke cupboards, stole gold jewellery and cash before setting the houses on fire.

Ironically, the date on which the attack happened was November 7, 2012. On this day in the late-’60s and early-’70s, Natham witnessed marches by small peasants and workers holding red flags, celebrating what is popularly known as ‘October Revolution Day’. Indeed, that stormy period is marked by the statues of two young men who laid down their lives in the raging revolutionary communist movement in the area. One of the martyrs was a Vanniar.

Things have definitely changed in Natham. One could say it’s the result of the assertion of identity politics coupled with economic changes. The Natham of 2012 is qualitatively different from the Natham of the 1970s. Forget revolutionary left politics, new parties based on particular identities have come on the scene, making the politics of egalitarianism infinitely more challenging.

Today, most able-bodied dalits from the colonies in Naikkankottai work in Bangalore either as construction workers, godown boys, collectors of used paper for recycling, etc. Their hard-earned money has served as solid investment in their native villages. A few have even become landholders. Gone too are the days when dalits were not in a position to send their children to school. In fact, dalit boys and girls have taken up education on a massive scale; they outnumber even the Vanniars at a few government schools. These material changes in the lifestyle of the dalits and their growing assertion have become irritants to the Vanniars, who have become accustomed to their secondary status.

Tensions had been mounting in the region for a number of months, and the marriage of Divya, the Vanniar daughter of G Nagarajan, with E Illayaraja, 23, who belonged to the Natham dalit colony, became a pretext to ‘teach the dalits a lesson’. As has been widely reported, a kangaroo court consisting of members of the dominant community instructed the dalits to send back the girl. Divya firmly refused to return to her parents’ house. Nagarajan committed suicide over this ‘humiliation’, enraging around 2,000 members of the said community who then attacked the dalit colonies.

It was not a spontaneous outburst of anger, as some people claim, but a planned attack. While one group of marauders set up roadblocks along the way to prevent the police and fire service from reaching the spot, another group went about systematically looting and burning houses. Nagarajan’s dead body was used to organise a road block, provoking community members to join in ‘retaliatory action’ against the dalits.

All reports on the mayhem point to a single fact: the large-scale burning of houses was a complete failure of the law and order machinery, despite early warnings of the incident. It has been widely reported how Divya and her husband — who was a new recruit with the Tamil Nadu police — had approached the higher authorities and demanded protection, fearing attacks by members of the bride’s community. But apart from giving verbal assurances and holding out promises, the police took no preventive action. Indeed, they must have known from independent sources that provocative speeches were being made by members of the dominant community, and that the situation would most likely spiral out of control.

Now that the state government has received flak both in the media and outside it, it has ‘swung into action’ and arrested a few of the 2,000-plus perpetrators of the crime. The police has been asked to keep a 24-hour vigil in the area. At the moment of writing, there are reports that the case has been transferred to the crime branch of the CID. It’s a different matter, of course, that the police has not bothered to lodge cases against the guilty police personnel, under Article 4 of the Prevention of Atrocities Against Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Act (1989), which specifically stipulates that government/police officials can be penalised if they are found wanting in their duty in case of dalit atrocities. Although two police personnel, including an inspector, have been suspended and the DSP shifted to the Salem range office, pending an inquiry into the alleged failure of the police to prevent the attack, even a layperson knows that according to the courts ‘suspension’ is not ‘punishment’ and that once the dust has settled the officials will be quietly reinstated. Also, while the case has been transferred to the crime branch of the CID police, it must be emphasised that this is no guarantee that all aspects of the case will be exposed. If people are not vigilant, senior officials of the investigating agencies — where the varna mindset still rules — will not hesitate to blame the dalits themselves for the arson, as happened some time ago in Gohana, around 75 km from the national capital.

It would be opportune here to share portions of the chargesheet filed by the CBI which was asked to look into the 2005 attack and arson in Gohana. According to a newspaper report, the CBI chargesheet ‘revealed that some people in Valmiki Basti had set their houses on fire themselves, allegedly for compensation’. The chargesheet talks of the CBI’s observation that ‘extensive burning was observed in 19 out of 28 houses. Of these, nine houses were inspected thoroughly and it appeared that in these houses “simulated arsoning” was carried out, which are yet “to get compensation”.

To recap, Gohana witnessed the burning of 50-60 houses belonging to the Valmiki community on August 31, 2005. A 1,500-2,000-strong mob of upper-caste people, belonging largely to the Jat community, attacked the houses in a systematic manner. They came fully armed with spears, batons, axes, petrol and kerosene. They broke TV sets, refrigerators, washing machines, looted valuables and burst LPG cylinders. The marauders even brought mini trucks with them to ferry the loot from the houses.

One can’t help but notice a common aspect in the two incidents. The mob in Natham and other dalit colonies were particular about damaging cycles on which children went to school (they even tore up schoolbooks, records, and certificates). The Gohana mob too saw to it that textbooks and certificates belonging to dalits were systematically burnt. The act was symbolic; dominant castes in the south as well as north have rightly understood that the roots of the dalits’ growing assertion lie in the simple fact that the light of knowledge has ultimately reached the dalits.

Special mention must be made here of demands made by a fact-finding team comprising 18 human rights activists and journalists from Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Pondicherry who toured the affected dalit colonies, met with many victims and tried to assess the actual damage. Demanding hefty compensation to rebuild houses, it asked that special courts be established in Natham itself as the dalits would not be able to travel far to attend trials (The Hindu, November 16, 2012).

Very few people are even aware that this is possible, under the 1989 Prevention of Atrocities Against Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Act. The judgment delivered in the case of dalit atrocities in Tsundur (Andhra Pradesh) a few years ago, in which dalits won after a long struggle, point to the real scope and possibilities under the Act. This was the first time in the nearly 20-year-old trajectory of the Act that special courts were set up at the scene of the offence. The victims were spared from travelling long distances to depose in the courts and face harassment on the way at the hands of the dominant castes.

The streets of Tsundur that day witnessed the death of eight people — all of them dalits — when a 400-strong armed mob of Reddys, a landlord caste that has dominated politics in Andhra Pradesh since Independence, attacked dalits to ‘teach them a lesson’ (1991). Under the judgment of the special court (2007), 21 of the accused were given sentences of life imprisonment and 35 were asked to serve one-year rigorous imprisonment.

It must be appreciated that the dalits of Tsundur were so united that they did not accept any summons from the courts, or even visit courts located far from the village. They demanded that the court should come to them. The government had to concede to their demand and set up a special court in the premises of a school. The dalits also demanded that they be given a public prosecutor and judge with a positive track record in dealing with cases of dalit atrocities. After a lot of dilly-dallying, the government complied with this demand too.

The victory was historic in another sense too. It has become the norm in cases like these that as time passes, people, including the victims and their families, lose interest in continuing the fight for justice. They come under pressure or are coerced into changing their statement in the courts, etc. Nothing of that sort happened in the struggle for justice in Tsundur. The significance of the Tsundur struggle was that the people leading the campaign were successful in keeping everyone mobilised over the years.

So, can Natham do a Tsundur? A great possibility and an historic challenge is open to all.

( First published in Infochange News & Features)