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Voicing their protests

VASANTHA SURYA examines the problems faced by the Dalits in Tamil Nadu as they come out against the humiliation and torture meted out to them.

S. JAMES

A Dalit woman carries her slippers as she leaves a polling booth.

ON Independence Day, a Dalit panchayat president, K. Rasu, of Chottathatti village in Sivaganga District, Tamil Nadu, was prevented from unfurling the national flag and publicly beaten with slippers by a person of a "higher" caste. Two months later, another Dalit, K. Azhagar, a puppet candidate for another panchayat presidentship, was forced by the Thevars of Pappapatti to resign immediately after being elected. The reserved seat would remain vacant as it has for seven years, thus allowing the continued de facto rule of the Thevars in the village.

Once in the forefront of anti-casteism, anti-untouchability, and movements for temple entry, Tamil Nadu is now in the news not only for the brazen denial of representation and political power to the 19.18 per cent of its population who are Dalits, but also for peculiarly vicious crimes and atrocities against them. A Dalit woman Muthumari of Keezh Urappanur had human excreta thrown on her because she resisted the sexual advances of C.Raja belonging to a "higher" caste. Two Dalits of Tiruchi District had human excrement stuffed into their mouths when they demanded repayment of loans. Often, the crimes also involve sexual assault, molestation and rape. A physical instructor in a school raped a 14 year-old Dalit girl in Thiruvannamalai.

These were among the 17 crimes brought to light at Virudhunagar on October 17 by the All-India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA) at a hearing convened by the National Commission on Women and the State Commission on Women. This is the culmination of a year of intense effort, with commendable work by grassroots investigators. U. Vasuki of AIDWA comments: "The decades-long struggle of the Dalits of southern Tamil Nadu is coming to a head."

Dr. Chandra of AIDWA confirms that Dalits in the eight southern districts who dare to step over the caste line are being punished in no uncertain terms with the age-old notion of untouchability and its arsenal of scurrility, obscenity and humiliation. The caste-line is constantly being drawn and redrawn. According to AIDWA's findings, based on extensive interviews, a questionnaire, and written statements made by Dalits both men and women, there are several villages where Dalits may not: wear chappals on main streets; ride on bicycles and scooters; drink from the same glasses as others at teashops; get their hair cut at the common barber shop; pour milk collected by them into the same drums at the government-run milk cooperative; draw water from common wells; ask for prasadam at temples without having caste epithets hurled at them; carry their dead to the cremation ground along streets where others live; take part in temple festivals or pull the temple-car; cremate their dead at the same burial grounds as other castes; marry into other castes; protest against rape and molestation; file cases with the police..

They remain extremely vulnerable economically. Most are coolie or construction labourers, the overwhelming majority being landless, others holding less than an acre.

But the mind-set has been slowly changing, as is evident from the hand-written accounts submitted by Dalit women to AIDWA. One girl said she was refused prasadam at a temple, and that the priest reviled her of belonging to a "low caste".

Battling simultaneously on several fronts, the Dalit population is at last finding a voice to speak out against stinging humiliation, torture and violence. While it is the castes immediately above them, like Thevars, Kallars and Maravars who are more often in direct conflict with Dalits for living space and political and economic opportunities, discrimination also comes from other castes like Vanniyars and Gounders. It appears that, for these non-Dalits, caste distinctions have to be made and their "superiority" in terms of "culture" and "customs" established for the sake of caste honour.

The forward castes, including Brahmins, seem to stay aloof from the "low caste" attack on the Dalits, and often press for "peaceful" solutions and compromises in local conflicts. Mythily Sivaraman has observed that the plea for communal "peace" results in "persuading" Dalits to surrender their just claims. But several significant markers of untouchability are left untouched. In a society like India, where symbolism plays a vital role in establishing social identity and conferring prestige and honour, these cultural markers have a searing psychological effect.

At the Virudhunagar hearing, while many senior policemen expressed their concern and reiterated their commitment to bring the perpetrators of atrocity to justice, many respondents claimed that local police often did not register FIRS. There is also a time lag between complaints and arrests. Corruption also plays a big role, and there are "negotiated" settlements, with money changing hands. When such incidents are brought to light, Dalits face further harassment. Dr. R. Chandra says that there is a marked reluctance to register cases of untouchability as such, under the relevant sections of the law.

While the recent anti-conversion law is patently anti-Dalit, it is also true that Dalits who convert to Christianity or Islam continue to be discriminated against within their new religious communities. Of course, they lose their reservation quotas as well. Not that those quotas have done much to empower those who do not convert: Though the panchayat presidentship in Pappapatti is a seat reserved for Dalits, reservation has not brought either the "puppet" candidate K. Azhagar or his fellow Dalit rival K. Muthan to power.

A thought-provoking aspect of the present slew of incidents is the role played by women — as victims, and as aggressors. An all-India team of lawyers discovered in May this year that Selvi, a woman Dalit panchayat president of Aandipatti, was expected to carry her chappals in her hands and walk barefoot through "caste Hindu" streets. Amazingly articulate, many of the unlettered Dalit women have themselves vividly described the subtle slurs and the vicious contempt shown by people of other castes.

But public outcry and media coverage seem now to be making a difference. Vijaya, the "caste Hindu" woman has been arrested under the Prevention of Atrocities against the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes Act for allegedly throwing excreta on Muthumari. She may, if found guilty, face up to seven years in prison, like her husband Raja, who Muthumari so bravely resisted.

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