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Still Riven By Caste? By A Joseph and Divya Karthikeyan

A tiny Dalit hamlet in southern Tamil Nadu is protesting against what they call unprovoked “upper caste” provocation and humiliation

“We don’t have to listen to Pallars (Dalit community)”, boomed the voice of Inspector – and his five constables.

For years now, an Ambedkar statue in Thalaiyuthu town of Tirunelveli district in Tamil Nadu has stood at the centre of all the Dalit colonies in the area, and residents mark the statue with a streetlight that has never gone out until now. For them, it has been a matter of pride, joy and preservation – something to call their own.

The residents were in the middle of celebrating the harvest festival of Pongal, and the Ambedkar statue has usually played a primary part in their festivities.

At 10:30 pm on January 15, while the revelry was at its hilt, an inspector of the local police station along with constables arrived, and instructed the group to turn off the light. The community vehemently refused to do so.

Dalit residents argue with the police on the night of January 15; video shared with The Lede by a youth who shot it on his mobile phone

The inspector then threatened them, saying post 10 pm the light must be off. Sensing the commotion, the residents put out the light, but not without a protest.

At 1 am, 40 policemen arrived at the scene, along with a police patrol vehicle. “The men ran to hide at the nearby forest, while the women and children woke up to policemen who abused and sexually assaulted them,” says Sudha R, one of the women affected by the atrocity.

The residents have sat in protest all night and continue to do so. “We are no longer safe here, because everyone in law enforcement is of a higher caste. That is the problem. We don’t have a representative in power,” she says.

Sudhakar is one of the protestors. He has not eaten since last night and now has an FIR filed against him. But more than his own plight, he is disappointed with the media for not covering this issue extensively.

Residents say the inspector Jean Kumar, who is of the Nadar caste, has been creating a ruckus since his appointment last year. The Dalit residents have been afraid to walk on the road post 5 pm and college students are constantly harassed with caste expletives. “The Nadar community has never intervened. They mind their own business. Currently, FIRs have been filed against 200 of us, and the issue is getting bigger and bigger,” Sudhakar told The Lede. The Inspector refused to comment, and constables maintained that the incident never happened in the first place.

“The inspector has also sexually harassed many women, and threatened them with a lathi charge. For him, it is an insult to his community that we Pallars are going to college, getting good government jobs, and rising. But we have lived with this,” continued Sudhakar.

As for support for their protest, only a local CPI leader has arrived at the village to offer a shoulder for the protesting villagers.

“This is not a major incident because there are bigger incidents happening across the country,” said C Ponnaiyan, spokesperson of ruling AIADMK (All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) to The Lede when asked about what the government intends to do about this. “Tamil Nadu is not so bad in terms of other states, but yes, political parties must talk about this. The AIADMK speaks about the larger issues, not small incidents like these.”

TK Rajendran, Tamil Nadu DGP told The Lede – “There are three options – they can go to court, or the SC/ST commission, or complain to the SI. But we must be wary of these complaints and probe into them. The commission however, is very active. They immediately go the spot and investigate. So there are options available.”

Hotbed Of Caste Clashes

In Tirunelveli, caste clashes are not uncommon. For decades, the Paraiyar and Pallar communities, both sub-castes of Dalits, have had to bear the brunt of the dominant Nadar and Thevar communities in the district. Nadars and Thevars are classified as Backward Classes in Tamil Nadu, equivalent to the Other Backward Castes or OBCs in India.

In 1995, one of the first caste clashes to be reported was in Gangaikondan village. A fight between two schoolboys blew out of proportion, leading to violence between the Thevar and Pallar castes. 13 lives were lost and much of this was attributed to the assertion of the Dalit community in the area.

In 2013, Gopalasamudram, a village 25 kilometres away from Tirunelveli town saw caste animosity, again, due to a scuffle in a school. The Pannai Venkatarama Iyer High School was celebrating Thevar Jayanti, a festival to mark the anniversary of Muthuramalinga Thevar, a revered leader of the dominant caste.

While handing out chocolates, children from the Dalit community refused to take it, leading to the children being thrown out of the school by force.

In 2014, Sivalarkulam village saw a family function disrupted by stone pelting, allegedly by Thevar men. This triggered the death of three Pallars, one woman and two men. One of the men was with the woman on a bike when they were hacked to death.

In 2016, a man belonging to the Thevar community hacked to death a Dalit woman. The victim was the sister of a Dalit boy who had eloped with the murderer’s daughter. No police complaint was filed, said Dalit rights activist V Kathir who runs a non-profit called Evidence.

For activists and politicians who aim to prevent caste tensions, the future is grim. In the same year, Mariappan, a CPI (M) member was decapitated due to his involvement in a court case where he was fighting a case between a dominant caste and a Dalit community.

The National Crime Records Bureau shows Tamil Nadu reporting consistently high numbers of crimes against Scheduled Castes. In the latest 2016 records, crimes against SCs stand at 1291 cases. In 2015, 1736 crimes were recorded. In 2014 and 2013, 1494 and 1854 crimes were recorded in the state.

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