Freedom has a different meaning for everyone. That may be the reason why some members of Vanniyar community chose 15 August, Independence Day, to torch Dalit houses at Seshasamudram village in Tamil Nadu’s Villupuram district. They manhandled many from the Arunthathiyar community of Dalits, who the Vanniyars consider to be inferior. Though the immediate provocation for the violence was the holding of a temple car festival, the real issue is continuing arrogance and hostility of Vanniyars toward the lower strata of the society.
In Tamil Nadu, caste hierarchy also exists between backward classes and most backward classes. The political outfit of Vanniyars, Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), which is a part of the ruling NDA government at the Centre, found the occasion to settle old scores with the Dalits. They dug up roads to prevent the temple car from moving and started pelting stones and petrol bombs at Dalits, including women and children who had peacefully assembled for the festival. Seven houses were totally gutted in the attack and over 40 Dalits were beaten up. The police also came under the attack and district police superintendent Narendran Nair was injured.
It has been a week since the incident and police are yet to arrest those who masterminded the attack. Vote bank politics and potential alliances with the BJP and PMK in the upcoming assembly polls has stopped the ruling AIADMK and opposition DMK from taking up the Dalit cause.
The village has been gripped by an eerie silence since that day — when schools had assemblies with leaders exhorting social solidarity and communal amity. “On 15 August 1947, while the whole world was celebrating Indian Independence, Periyar, the great visionary had the foresight to call it a day of mourning for the Tamils. He stated that the Independence was nothing but a transfer of power from the British to the Brahmins and Baniyas,” says Stalin Rajangam, Dalit writer and activist. “Years later, when India was celebrating its 68th Independence Day, Hindus have unleashed terror in yet another village in Periyar’s home state.”
The local community says the major issue of contention between Vanniyars and Dalits was the right of the latter to enter a five-foot wide public road. Hindus live on the northern side of the village, while Dalits live in the southern side. “The Hindus have unleashed violence apart from engaging in looting, torching and destruction including that of livestock. We heard them screaming to finish us off,” recalls P Sambath, a local Dalit.
The so called inheritors of Periyar, the AIADMK and DMK chose to remain silent over the attack on Dalits. It exposes the double standards as well as corroding values of the two parties which, for so long, stood for social justice. DMK patriarch, M Karunanidhi who had always claim credits for the 3 percent reservations for the Arunthathiyar community, has not commented on the brutal violence unleashed upon them. Meanwhile, CM J Jayalalithaa has termed the incident as a “clash between two communities”. With elections fast approaching, both the major parties are evidently apprehensive of invoking the wrath of the casteist forces.
Arunthathiyars alleged that the Vanniyars turned violent after they returned from a meeting organised by PMK in Kallakurichi. S Ramadoss, party supremo and father of its chief ministerial candidate Anmbumani Ramadoss, is known for his hate speeches against the Dalits. DSP S Muralidharan who was posted at Seshasamudram village tells Tehelka that the casteist tension was simmering for some time in the area.
“A violent mob including women and children armed with petrol bombs and weapons attacked the procession without any provocation. As we were expecting backlash, the policemen were prepared enough to fight back and thus averted causalities,” says Muralidharan.
Slowly, life is getting back to normal. But the police force deployed in the area and the continuing prohibitory orders keep the men away from the village. Many Vanniyar men are said to be hiding in the nearby sugarcane fields.
“It used to be a Dalit dominated village. But in the last decade Vanniyars started settling in the village. Gradually, they restricted Dalits from entering the seven temples in the village,” says Sinthanai Selvan, general secretary of Viduthalai Chiruthikal Katchi (VCK). “When Dalits constructed their own temple, Vanniyars did not allow them to celebrate the festival. How could they live in such a hostile atmosphere, which poses threats to their lives? Where do the Dalits of this village go?” asks Selvan angrily.