The continuing spectre of hate

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Nightmare Over 200 Dalit houses were torched in Dharmapuri on 7 November 2012
Nightmare Over 200 Dalit houses were torched in Dharmapuri on 7 November 2012. Photo: Tehelka Archives

What happens when you marry outside your caste? Two years after the most infamous inter-caste marriage in the country, which led to more than 200 Dalit houses being torched, Dharmapuri in Tamil Nadu is still on the edge. Little did the couple know that exercising personal freedom would lead to a spectre of violence, which would continue to haunt their villages for months to come.

Body language and demeanor in public spaces say a lot and the existing acrimony between caste Hindus and Dalits in the area can be felt even today when travelling via public transport. Dalits in the region have to submit to caste Hindus to avoid getting picked on.

“Before Independence, private bus owners used to print at the back of tickets that Dalits and people with contagious diseases are not allowed in the buses. Dalits who travelled with tickets were thrown out of the buses. After the 2012 violence in Dharmapuri, casteist forces have succeeded in constructing a similar image of Dalits as people with ‘contagious’ diseases,” says K Ragupathi, a professor at a local college.

While historical tensions have existed between the land-owning Vanniyar caste and the Paraiyar (Dalit) caste, things took a turn for the worse in October 2012 after a Vanniyar girl eloped with a Paraiyar boy, named Ilavarasan, following her family’s objection to their marriage. Fearing social humiliation, the girl’s father killed himself. A day later, on 7 November, a mob of caste Hindus rampaged through Dalit settlements in Dharmapuri. More than 200 Dalit houses were torched and over 1,500 people were rendered homeless overnight.

Former health minister Anbumani Ramadoss’ party, the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), saw this as an opportunity to consolidate its Vanniyar vote and jumped into the fray. Today, it is the PMK that keeps the fear and distrust alive among the two communities. The presence of the police in the region has only added to the distrust and fuelled rumours about the next wave of violence.

“The Vanniyars in the riot-affected villages were psychologically tied to their land. When the agrarian crisis hit these villages, the landless Dalits migrated to urban areas in search of better livelihood. As a result, they generated savings and reinvested a part of the savings in houses and bought land in Dharmapuri. This improved socioeconomic status of the Dalits and left the Vanniyars more insecure. In effect, the PMK capitalised on this and provoked them into participating in the caste violence in Dharmapuri,” says Venkatesh Athreya, a well-known economist.

In a direct continuum, a campaign centered on portraying Dalits as a poisonous group keen on polluting caste Hindus by marrying their women has become the new commonsense. With the PMK trying to make most of the existing tensions, irresponsible statements by its leaders has led to further ostracisation of Dalits in Dharmapuri. Dalits are accused of luring upper-caste women to perpetrate their caste design. This is in addition to targeting them as possible Maoists.

For instance, in July this year, Michael Raj, a civil services aspirant, was dragged from his home late in the night on suspicions of being a Maoist. “My crime was that I helped fellow Dalits to fill up the official forms to get government compensation soon after the violence,” says Raj. “I was sleeping when 25 policemen came to my uncle’s house and arrested me. They then accused me of being trained in arms. They physically assaulted me and threatened to kill me and torture my parents if I did not give in to their claims.”

Raj was stripped and tortured. “They mocked me as they hit me. They said they were looking at the naked body of the future district collector,” he says. After one round of inflicting pain all over his body, including his genitals, the policemen applied medicine on his wounds to avoid swelling, before torturing him again. “In between the torture, a cop told me that I was being tortured for assisting illiterate victims of the Dharmapuri violence in filling their compensation forms,” adds Raj.

According to Dalits and human rights activists, the local police was actively engaged in targeting assertive and educated Dalit youngsters by framing them in fabricated cases. Currently, six Dalit-youth from the area face charges under the National Security Act (NSA).

“Cops are targeting educated Dalit youth from violence-hit areas and branding them as anti-nationals. Provisions like the nsa are being slapped against innocent Dalit youth in Dharmapuri. The state government is trying to create terror among Dalits using the police,” alleges Dilli Babu, the CPM MLA from Dharmapuri district.

When TEHELKA contacted Dharmapuri SP Asra Garg he maintained that Maoist groups were active in the Dalit colony. Further, he denied allegations of custodial torture as well. However, the fact that Michael Raj was given bail owing to the absence of evidence punctures Garg’s claims.

“After the 2012 violence in Dharmapuri, castiest forces have been actively trying to divide Dalits and non-Dalits. This polarisation is resulting in subtle forms of discrimination. For example, when a senior Dalit government officer moved into a house in a non-Dalit area, he was socially boycotted,” says Aadhavan, a Tamil fiction writer.

Instead of restoring normalcy and establishing law and order in the region, the state government has played a mute spectator and at times even fuelled the divide. One glaring example of this is Ilavarasan’s death. Even when forensic experts raised serious doubts about the official claim of his alleged suicide, no effort was made to investigate that angle.

“In my alternative forensic report I established that the injury to Ilavarasan’s head could not be due to a train collision. There is a strong possibility that he was murdered and later left on the railway track,” says Dr P Chandra Sekharan, former director of the Tamil Nadu State Forensic Department.

At a time when efforts are put to faciliatate Ambedkar’s dream of annihilating caste, such instances of atrocities raise serious questions about the prevailing inequalities in our democracy. Even more so when Michael Raj asks: “Is it a crime to be a Dalit in this country?” Is anybody listening?

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