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Dalit Issues

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    What Happens Next? In yet another effort to keep the lowest in their place in the caste hierarchy, groups of Vanniyar henchmen vandalized about 700 Dalit
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 9, 2005
      What Happens Next?

      In yet another effort to keep the lowest in their place in the caste
      hierarchy, groups of Vanniyar henchmen vandalized about 700 Dalit
      homes in Villapuram District, Tamilnadu. The choice of January 26th,
      Republic Day, is very symbolic. It is a clear message to the
      Outcastes of India that the Constitution of India, written under the
      guidance of their paramount leader, Dr. Ambedkar, and celebrated
      every January 26th, is under heavy pressure. The reason: the
      protection and affirmative action stipulated in the Constitution for
      the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes of India is being called
      up. The reaction to the beginning realization of their basic civil
      rights by Dalits is revolt and repression from those higher up in the
      hierarchy. The recent elections in India seem to confirm this.

      What is "Dalit"?

      The outcastes of India have had many names: pariahs, untouchables,
      unseeables...As the probable descendants of the original Dravidian
      and tribals of the sub-continent, they have suffered from millennia
      of a form of collective slavery and socio-econoic apartheid. Mohandas
      K. Gandhi, the father of free India, attempted a rehabilitation of
      what he renamed the Harijans - children of God. But this was within
      the framework of the Hindu hierarchy and did not go to the root of
      discrimination. So for the 50 years of India's independence,
      the "untouchable" question concerning one-fifth of the population has
      been an unattended issue on the agenda of democratization. The
      renewed interest in the life and works of Ambedkar is an _expression
      of the issue finding its way back into the mainstream agenda. The
      past decade has also witnessed the growing use of the term 'Dalit' to
      denote the former "untouchables". With the root meaning of "we, the
      oppressed" this seems to be the name that this group seems most
      comfortable with. For even though well-intended, Gandhi's term also
      had the slangish connotation of "father unknown" and as such a
      condescending undertone.

      Claiming the common fruit

      Traveling along many of the tarmac roads in the south Indian state of
      Tamilnadu, one is struck by the numerous and beautiful tamarind trees
      offering a cooling shade on a hot journey. These knotty-barked broad-
      leaves are common property, belonging to the road. And traditionally,
      the tamarinds in the villages are part of the commons. The small,
      yellowish fruits are much valued, since the powder extracted is an
      important part of Indian spice box. So the trees along the roads are
      numbered and carefully monitored. The contracts on the fruits are now
      up for bids at public auctions. For the rural poor, the harvesting
      and selling of the fruits can be an important source of income for
      the household.

      Until recently, the firm social and economic hold of caste Hindus
      over the Dalits has been sufficient to exclude the latter from
      bidding on the common fruit. Now that Dalit awareness and organizing
      is on the rise, Dalits have started making more economic claims,
      expressing interest in putting in bids for the tamarind contracts.
      The Vanniyars, a numerous "backward" caste in this part of Tamilnadu,
      countered this by arranging that the public auctioning be held
      without the possibility for Dalit participation. Being slighted in
      what they saw as an obvious miscarriage of due process, some Dalits
      started harvesting some of the common fruit. They were attacked by
      some Vanniyars. Tensions rose on both sides and a new spiral of
      conflict started.

      Removing the poor

      On the day of the celebration of the constitution that has attempted
      to provide protection and affirmative action for the Dalits, a
      Vanniyar sena (private army) raided the village of Valuthavoor in
      Villapuram District. According to Mr. S. Martine, civil rights lawyer
      and himself a Dalit leader, the attacking Vanniyars came from seven
      villages. This in itself is a sign of a planned, coordinated
      activity, not just a spontaneous outburst.

      -The village was vandalized by the Vanniyars. Roofs pulled off,
      moveable property such as kitchen utensils and radios smashed. This
      is a large Dalit village and all of the 700 families ran off, fearing
      for their safety. Some were physically injured and some of the women
      were feared to have been molested.

      -After this, the Panthers mobilized, organizing mass protests and at
      least one physical attack, on a local bus-owner who had apparently
      organized transportation for the Vanniyars who attacked the village.
      And rumor has it that he had been bragging about how he helped 'put
      the Dalits in place". The Dalit Panthers, first appearing in Bombay
      way back in the 1960s, have been experiencing a new surge of activity
      in Tamilnadu. A volatile, youthful movement, the Panthers are
      especially active in providing defense for Dalits under the
      slogan "if you beat us, we beat you" - a clear warning to anyone
      considering molesting Dalits. Many of the Panthers see the protection
      of Dalit girls and women as a special mission. For all too long Dalit
      women have been seen by many caste Hindus as fair game for
      molestation and rape. When this now happens, the rule seems to be
      that Panthers mete out sexual retribution in such instances in a very
      direct, concrete manner. Mr. Martine has many experiences as a lawyer
      in trying to bring these cases to court instead.

      -But getting the local police and magistrates to take action is often
      very difficult, since they are often either part of or dependent upon
      the local dominant caste or castes. In the case of the Valuthavoor
      raid, the local police and politicians seem to have either been
      involved or at least informed....not even the opposition parties have
      taken up the matter, much less protested. And this includes even the
      CPI(M) , the Marxist Communist Party, which just sees these matters
      as a "caste issue" not a "class issue". Probably because they are so
      close to the Vanniyars, itself a backward caste, with many members as
      poor as most Dalits.

      The lack of interest by politicians is even more remarkable
      considering the fact that these events took place in the midst of a
      national election campaign, with the outgoing United Front government
      and the Congress unable to put up an center-left bulwark against the
      rising tide of the BJP/RSS combine. The Bharatiya Janata Party
      (Indian Peoples' Party) is the party of Hindu restoration, a party
      using the symbolism of the majority religion of India to pursue its
      vision of a nuclear-armed 'Hindutva', a Hindu super-state. Some still
      have the inherited dream of restoring a "Mother India" stretching
      from the Kyber Pass to Rangoon. The organizational core of the Hindu
      Right is its "sturmabteilung," the RSS. This is a uniformed,
      paramilitary organization, black flags and all, with such dubious
      accomplishments as the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi in 1948.
      Specifically targeted as their enemies by the RSS are Muslims,
      Dalits, women's movements, Communists and regional separatists.

      The BJP has been doing well at the polls. This is the result of
      several factors and trends. The RSS family of organizations is well-
      organized, pursuing a long-term goal, in which the capture of
      political power is just one step towards the restoration. The BJP is
      a more moderate interface into the political scene. For moderate
      Hindus, intellectuals and others worried about decaying social values
      and negative Western influence (often equated), the BJP offers a
      renewed vigor to the meaning of Indian nationalism, swadeshi. This
      family of Hindu organizations is not merely a a conservative,
      backward-looking set but very much into shaping technologies to their
      use. For example, the BJP was the first Indian political party out on
      the World-Wide-Web and the RSS publishes extensively on the Internet.

      The advance of the Hindu Right is also a reflection of the break-down
      and confusion of the democratic, secular forces. "Secular" in India
      is a term under renewed debate. At minimum, it means a state based on
      universal, non-religious principles. In political practice, it has
      meant minority protection, the major minority being the some 120
      million Muslims in India who have everything to fear from the
      realization of Hindutva. But the other minorities, not in the least
      the Dalits, have been protected by the Congress strategy of building
      a minority coalition as an electoral base. With the demise of both
      the Congress and the Nehru dynasty as the dominant party and family
      in Indian politics, the center-left has yet to arrive at the
      reconstruction of a new coalition that can offer a viable
      democratization alternative to the re-brahminization of the Hindu
      Right. For many Indians, "viable" means going beyond a purely Western
      model of political democracy that has become corrupted by elitism and
      crass materialism, both in theory and in practice.

      Due to the electoral system (first-past-the post in single-member
      constituencies), the BJP has captured a near majority of seats in the
      national Parliament, the Lok Sabha, with only 25% of the popular vote
      in the elections held in February 1998. This is very much a
      reflection of the inability of the democratic forces to combine into
      a comprehensive popular front. The election results in Tamilnadu show
      that the restoration of the Hindu hierarchy is gaining ground even in
      south India. For the first time, the BJP allied with a state party,
      the Anna-DMK, has made serious inroads into the otherwise very Tamil-
      oriented electorate of the State. The BJP and its predecessors have
      usually been seen as representatives of north Indian cultural

      Shaking off the slave mentality

      Martine, who started breaking stone in the quarries when he was eight
      years old, often expresses himself in terms of the need for Dalits
      themselves to get up off their knees, shake off the slave mentality
      and get hold of the tools of freedom: organization and education.
      After a quarter century of organizational, social and legal work he
      does note some positive changes.

      -It is no longer possible for an individual landlord to publicly flog
      a Dalit worker and get away with it. But only ten years ago this was
      still possible. And individual discrimination, while still very
      prevalent, is fading into the background. Instead, the strategy of
      the higher castes is to destroy Dalit property - a reflection of the
      fact that Dalits ARE starting to build up an economic base.

      -Part of the background to the Vanniyar attack on Valuthavoor village
      was a wage struggle carried on by Dalit agricultural workers. Those
      Vanniyar landowners who hire wage labor are worried about this,
      especially if and when Vanniyar field workers and other non-Dalits
      join with Dalits in strikes and wage struggles. This has happened
      elsewhere in the State and it frightens the big farmers.

      -Using the existing judicial system can be difficult, sometimes
      impossible. The aftermath of the Valuthavoor raid was that 27
      Vanniyars and 7 Dalits were arrested. However, the Vanniyars arrested
      were not those accused or pointed out by the Dalit victims. Instead,
      they demanded their release and the arrest of those actually
      responsible and involved, Martine explains.

      -Another Dalit demand was for the payment of the relief stipulated in
      the SC/ST Atrocities Act of 1989. Without the arrest of those accused
      and the payment due under the Act, the Dalits have refused to
      participate in a "peace committee" set up by local officials.

      The "Scheduled Caste/ Scheduled Tribes Atrocities Act" is one example
      of the many suburb pieces of progressive legislation in India that
      are on the books for protection and affirmative action. "Scheduled"
      in Indian terminology means "on the list" (schedule) created in the
      British census in the beginning of the century as a preliminary to,
      among other things, the introduction of separate constituencies
      for "separate communities". Under the Act, victims of atrocities are
      entitled to relief from the government even prior to court decisions
      and investigations. But like so many other rights that are in the law
      book, relief available under the Act has been blocked by the
      reluctance of local officials in signing the order. But this time, it
      may not be the simple matter of expected baksish (bribe) that is
      blocking implementation.

      The culture of silence

      Oppression, be it racial, caste, gender, class or whatever, thrives
      best in silence. What those involved in caste repression least want
      is publicity. So silence has to be maintained. According to Martine,
      there was only one, very brief notice about the Valuthavoor raid in a
      local Tamil newspaper, basically that the police were doing their job
      to restore communal harmony.

      Oppression does not want the kind of publicity given to such events
      as the 1968 Kilavimeni massacre in southern Tamilnadu when 43 Dalit
      men, women and children were burned alive in their huts during the
      midst of wage struggle. This level of violence gave, and still gives
      in the academic literature, a national and international exposure
      unwanted by the culture of silence. So keeping the level of violence
      just below what is "newsworthy" is part of the new strategy of
      oppression. This also means avoiding those acts that automatically
      get reported in the police and bureaucratic hierarchies: police
      firings, violent deaths, and payments of relief funds...

      But sometimes, things blow their way into front-page news.

      Coimbatore exploding

      Starting on February 14, 1998, a series of home-made bombs blasted
      the south Tamil city of Coimbatore. The toll: at least 50 dead and
      hundreds injured. The apparent target was the president of the BJP,
      L.K. Advani who was scheduled to arrive in the city that day.

      Subsequent police raids and round-ups of the usual suspects uncovered
      a network of clandestine bomb-making sites. The reports released
      pointed toward Muslim extremists. The press and politicians were
      quick to point the finger at "the foreign hand" behind it all, that
      is, Pakistan. That many Indians of the Islamic faith were becoming
      terrified at the prospect of a Hindutva government was not given much

      Southern Tamilnadu had been the scene of severe caste conflicts in
      1997. Again, largely unreported.

      -In the south, Martine explains, meaning southern Tamilnadu, the
      conflict is more of a political struggle to keep the Dalits away from
      political power. The anti-Dalit actions, led by the dominant caste of
      Thevars down there, are for this purpose. Up here, the Periyar Dalits
      are not as politically aware.
      What is feared is that the Dalits may organize and mobilize enough to
      make serious impacts on State politics, as is occurring in India's
      most populous State, Uttar Pradesh in the north. And what is feared
      by civil rights activists like Martine and others is that impatient
      Panthers might start considering armed struggle as a means of
      becoming "newsworthy". This has worked for the Tamil Tigers, the
      guerrillas in Sri Lanka, with bases and support networks in
      Tamilnadu. So it is something of a race against time, of bringing
      national and international attention onto the plight of the Dalits
      before such violence starts.

      The continuing confrontation

      Indians like heroes. One way of expressing this is to erect statues.
      In recent years, statutes of Ambedkar have begun to dot the roadsides
      and road-crossings. The heroes are honored with garlands of flowers,
      sometimes coconuts are smashed at their feet. But on February 20, the
      Dalit inhabitants of Tindivanam awoke shocked to see that their
      Ambedkar statue had been disgraced with a garland of chappals
      (sandals) - a classic method of defamation. Demonstrations broke out,
      busses in the nearby bus terminal were vandalized. In order to make
      this a newsworthy event, roads were blocked by demonstrators,
      including the new National Highway running through Tindivanam and the
      new East Coast Road running from Chennai (Madras) to Pondicherry and

      The regional press did pick up on this, but without making any
      connection to the ongoing caste conflict in the district or why this
      happened right now. And in keeping with "caste censorship" the term
      Dalit was not used, and, of course, not that there might be an
      organization called the Panthers. Instead, the euphemism "Ambedkar
      groups" was used in the disinformation process. In my thirty years of
      working with grassroot groups in Tamilnadu, I have never heard anyone
      refer to themselves (or others) as an Ambedkar Group, but as Dalit
      Movement, Dalit Liberation Front, Christian Dalit Movement and the
      like, but never as an Ambedkar group.

      What next?

      What happens next depends on several things. First, the course of
      caste conflicts will be affected by the ability of civil rights
      groups such as the Tamilnad Peoples' Watch to break the culture of
      silence around ongoing oppression. If this silence is not broken by
      words, there is a risk that it may be broken by bullets. And the
      tremendous capacity for repression by the Indian state will come down
      on those already suffering the most.

      If the BJP becomes secure in power in New Delhi, then caste and
      communal polarization will increase. As several Indian analysts are
      already pointing out, this would probably mean that several Muslim
      defense organizations would increase their presence and probably go
      for heavier weapons. And there is a danger that this might spill over
      into the arena of inter-caste conflict, giving India yet another push
      down the road toward a shooting society.

      Subash Chelliah
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