Writing About Caste Violence in Southern Tamil Nadu
November 10, 2017
I moved from Tirunelveli to Erode in 1992 to become Reader in History at Manonmaniam Sundaranar University. I was struck by the frequency with which people in the area plunged into social violence. The flimsiest pretext seemed to be sufficient. I decided to study the underlying factor for social violence in Erode. The University Grants Commission (UGC) accepted my proposal and sanctioned me to do a Major Research Project.
As I began to work on the project ‘caste riots’ broke out between two largely agrarian communities – the Pallars (Dalits) and the Thevars. These riots took place in Tirunelveli and Thoothukudi districts, but later engulfed the entire area of south Tamil Nadu. I investigated these riots, and wrote about them for Economic and Political Weekly (‘Caste Clashes in South Tamil Nadu’, EPW, September 6, 1997) and in a book edited by Sabyasachi Bhattacharya and Yagati Chinna Rao (‘Caste Violence in South Tamil Nadu: A Study of the 1995 Conflict’, The Past as Outcaste: The Readings in Dalit History).
As I looked into the outbreaks in the early 1990s, I began to collect enormous amounts of archival material about caste violence in the past, particularly during the post-independence era. One of the features that struck me was the attitude of the police across the decades since 1947. During the 1957 violence, when the dominant caste Thevars attacked the Pallars, the police dealt with the perpetrators – mostly the Thevars – with sternness. But, during the 1985 riots, the police seemed to show a more pronounced anti-Dalit attitude. This was most conspicuously seen in Kodiyankulam. I was interested in these differences, in the way in which caste power shifts and what each riot means in each time.
The historian A. R. Venkatachalapathy (now of the Madras Institute of Development Studies, MIDS) was a colleague of mine at the Department of History at Manonmaniam Sundaranar University. He prodded me to write a full monograph on the dynamics of caste politics during the 1957 riots. The 1957 riots never die out. They are relieved at least once a year, on October 30, which happens to be the birth and death anniversary of Muthuramalinga Thevar. On Thevar Jayanthi, some Thevars hijack buses to take them to Pasumpon, the birthplace of Muthuramalinga Thevar in Ramanathapuram district. Muthuramalinga Thevar is a deified leader of the Mukulathore–Kallar-Maravar-Agamudayar-Community.
In 1957, a Dalit leader – Immanuel – dared to defy Muthuramalinga Thevar and paid for it with his life. After the Tirunelveli clashes in 1995, the Devendrars (Dalits) produced a new leader – Dr. K. Krishnaswamy – who led the Puthiya Tamilagam Party, the political outfit of the Devendrars. After this, the Pallars began to go on a pilgrimage to Paramakudi, where Immanuel was killed on September 11, 1957.
The Pallars of Ramanathapuram district, who had remained leaderless after Immanuel’s death, had begun to rally under John Pandian of Devendrarakula Vellalar Munnetra Sangam in the 1980s. Joined by their caste brethren from Tirunelveli and Thoothukudi districts, the Pallars began to pay obeisance to Immanuel on his remembrance day.
Between September (Immanuel’s day) and October (Muthuramalinga Thevar’s day), the police in the area had a troubled time. The local authorities banned private vehicles from taking people to the memorials for Immanuel and Muthuramalinga Thevar. Tension continued to simmer.
In 2012 the AIADMK government precipitated the situation by arresting John Pandian with the professed intention of preempting any untoward incident. This uncalled for preventive arrest raised the hackles of his ranks and prompted them to resort to road rokko. The police, faced with a serious law and order problem, resorted to firing to disperse the crowd. In the event, six innocent Pallar youths were killed.
This greatly troubled me. It seemed as if people neither understood the current tensions in southern Tamil Nadu between the Dalits and the Thevars, with the State an active player in the fomenting of violence nor did they understand the history of this tension. It is this that encouraged me to complete my research and publish the book.
As an activist for human rights associated with various non-governmental organizations, I could get easy access to the habitats of both the Thevars and the Devendrars. I visited many villages affected by the 1957 riots during 2010 and again in 2013. I went to Keelathooval, where allegedly five Thevars were taken to the village tank bed and shot by the police. The Thevars point to this as evidence of State violence against them. During my first field study, the police were not helpful. Wherever I went – whether to Paramakudi, Mudukulathur, Kamudhi, or Ramanathapuram – the police said, there are no records. My friend K. Vijay Kumar interceded with the Superintendent of Police (Ramanathapuram District), who was able to let me see the records.
After my two research visits, I can say with confidence that the new generation of Thevars and Dalits have taken to education with hope. There are many doctors, engineers, police inspectors, and magistrates from these two communities. This, of course, is not enough to dampen the tensions that exist between the communities. More is needed, a political movement to confront the inequalities in southern Tamil Nadu that hurt both communities in different ways, a social movement that creates pathways between the communities.
My book, which appeared a few months ago from LeftWord, Murder in Mudukulathur: Caste and Electoral Politics in Tamil Nadu – is a small contribution to opening up the history of the past not to relive the wounds and create new tension, but to read the wounds to find new ways to create new and better politics in the future.
First published in Left Word Blog.
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