Caste discrimination and caste-based crimes are surging across Tamil Nadu, even after the new Panchayati Raj Act of Tamil Nadu, 1994 has come into place, which gives Dalits the opportunity to enter the echelons of power. Caste discrimination is camouflaged as a cultural practice in a state where Periyar devoted his entire life to create an egalitarian society free from untouchability. Merely walking down an upper-caste neighbourhood is a life-threatening exercise for most Dalits here.
While the country is celebrating the 125th birth anniversary of Ambedkar. who presided over the constitutional Assembly, Tamil Nadu’s caste situation remains diametrically opposite to the one perceived by social reformers such as Periyar and Annadurai.
Though Ambedkar is revered, caste-based untouchability continues to be a stark reality despite the progressive moorings of Tamil leaders, who attempt to appease caste and communal feelings to keep their vote banks intact. Rationality and social justice, which were once the hallmark of Tamil political and social life, are now on the wane. For their gain, caste-based political parties keep the discriminatory system intact.
According to a government report released in 2006, discriminatory practices are prevalent against Dalits in 221 gram panchayats, and in 160 cases, the discrimination is of a subtler variety, while Madurai, Dindigul, Theni, Salem, Sivaganga, Erode, Perambalur and Cuddalore districts have a high incidence of caste-based discrimination. It is inferred that 36 forms of discrimination have been adopted against Dalits by the dominant communities.
To drive this point home, in June 2014, it came to light that 214 Dalit students (Arundhathiyar community) were not allowed to sit inside their classrooms in a government primary school located in a remote village in Madurai district. The Untouchability Eradication Front (UEF) in the district intervened and brought the issue to the notice of the district education officer, following which the headmaster was suspended, recalls T Sellakkanu, secretary, district UEF, Madurai.
However, the dominant caste groups have devised their own ways to capture and preserve power. Constitutional provisions, including Articles 15(2), 17, 29(2), 35, 244 and 371(A) meant to promote eradication of caste-based discrimination, have played a minimal role. Dalit villagers are ostracised by caste Hindus, which includes denial of rights of passage, use of common public utilities and even simple lifestyle practices such as wearing footwear or watches.
Though untouchability was officially banned when India adopted its Constitution in 1950, discrimination against Dalits remained so pervasive that the government passed the SCs and STs (Prevention of Atrocities) Act in 1989. Still multiple forms of caste discrimination overtly and covertly exist all over Tamil Nadu, in the land of the Self-Respect Movement.
Anti-Brahmin movements and untouchability eradication movements in the past by the backward castes were highly successful in uprooting Brahminical supremacy. However, in a role reversal of sorts, the backward castes stepped into the Brahmins’ shoes and turned into oppressors of Dalits. The SCs and STs
continue to put up with untouchability and caste discrimination by Vanniars, Thevars, Gounders, Chettiars and Naidus. “The same backward castes and Most Backward Castes who fought for their rights are now denying Dalits their identity,” says Kathir, a human rights activist in Madurai. “In 2014, all the atrocities against Dalits were committed by non-Dalit backward castes and not Brahmins.”