Five policemen stand guard outside the house at the far end of the Dalit colony in the village. From inside the dark single-room house emerges a young woman. “I am C Kausalya, Sankar’s wife,” she says.
Just two months ago, Sankar was hacked to death in Udumalpet town for marrying Kausalya, 19, who belongs to the Thevar caste, a powerful OBC group in Tamil Nadu. Sankar died on the way to hospital. Kausalya survived, after 36 stitches to her head. The assailants were alleged to have been hired by Kausalya’a family. Eleven people, including her parents and her mother’s brother, and eight others are in Kovai prison.
Tamil Nadu was the first state in the country to rebel against caste. Periyar’s movement for social justice gave birth to the Dravidian movement, which in turn led to the state’s two main political formations, the DMK and the AIADMK, that have ruled the state by turn since 1967. The state’s quota of 69 per cent seats in education for Dalits and backward castes is the highest. Today, however, crimes against Dalits in Tamil Nadu are among the highest in India, with the caste narrative moving from the anti-Brahmanism of the first half of the 20th century to an anti-Dalit consolidation by the state’s predominant intermediate castes. With strong political backing from parties such as Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), backward castes such as Thevars and Vanniyars have clashed repeatedly and violently with Dalits, unable to come to terms with the fact that new generations of Dalits are educated, more assertive, and a challenge to entrenched hierarchies.
PMK leader Anbumani Ramadoss, aspiring to be the next chief minister, bristles at the suggestion that his party represents only Vanniyars. “How can you say we are a communal party? We are fighting for the welfare of all sections of society. There are 46 reserved constituencies but the PMK has put up 48 Dalit candidates. Which other party has done that,” he asks.
With the two main Dravidian outfits wooing dominant backward castes and with no Mayawati-like Dalit leader, votes of the community, about 22 per cent of Tamil Nadu’s population, is split. The silence on issues affecting Dalits is deafening. It is also in contrast to the loud caste assertions in daily life.
The Viduthalai Chiruthaikal Katchi (VCK), or Dalit Panthers, is in the People’s Welfare Front (PWF) along with Vijayakanth’s DMDK, Vaiko’s MDMK, G K Vasan’s Tamil Manila Congress, the CPI and CPM. VCK leader Thol Thirumavalavan, who is contesting in Kattumannarkovil reserved constituency in Chidambaram, garlands Ambedkar statues wherever he goes, but stays off Dalit issues in speeches.
At a small hamlet in the constituency, he canvasses for PWF, asking people to “vote for change, vote for PWF”. Later, he tells The Indian Express that the main Dravidian parties have “betrayed” Dalits. “Jayalalithaa never condemns caste atrocities. DMK sometimes does under pressure from us, but never on its own. How can they? They need the support of caste Hindus to run their parties,” he says. The PMK’s objective, he says, has been to consolidate all non-Dalit intermediate castes against the Dalits.
Not surprisingly, Sankar’s killing is not a talking point in this election. No candidate in Madathukulam constituency, in which his village falls, has visited the home where the young widow now lives with her dead husband’s father, two brothers and an ageing grandmother.
“It’s a family issue, it is not relevant to the election,” says Ramesh Ramalingam in nearby Karatholuvu. From western Tamil Nadu’s dominant Kongu Vellalar Gounder caste, Ramalingam says Sankar’s murder shocked the entire area, but “is over now”. Ramalingam also says he would not blame either the boy or the girl, and that Kausalya’s parents should have let their daughter go peacefully. “There was no need to kill. But the parents cannot be blamed either — every person is born to a caste (and)…when the daughter does something unacceptable like this, in a moment of anger, parents can do anything,” he says.
Were his daughter to choose to marry a Dalit, he says, “I would say you can go anywhere and live as you choose. Just don’t come in front of my eyes. I would cut off all ties with her. However educated the boy, whatever his money power, only community matters”.
With her two young brothers-in-law sitting next to her, Kausalya speaks confidently. “I am not bothered about caste because I am educated. Sankar told me he is a Dalit. I told him I did not care. I only wanted to be with him,” says Kausalya, speaking in Tamil and English. She had also learnt Japanese in college, hoping to get a placement in a Japanese company. “I want to educate Sankar’s brothers, so that they can get ahead in life. People say Dalits will always live like this,” she says, pointing to the obvious poverty of her surroundings, “but with education, this can change. I can contribute in my own small way.”
In Thirumavalavan’s constituency, the Dalit youngsters waiting for their leader say that in this election, it’s the PWF that will come to power. Many of them have Bachelor’s degrees, and one even has a PhD, but only a few have jobs.