There Is an Urgent Need to Address How Caste Is Perceived in Tamil Nadu

Our cultural traits are so ingrained with caste-based differentiation that our behaviour and attitude reeks of casteism in the public sphere.

Ambedkar, in Annihilation of Caste, emphasised that democracy is not merely a form of governance, but essentially an attitude of respect and reverence towards fellowmen. After 76 years of independence, this attitude of respect and reverence has not only deteriorated, but poisoned the younger generation of students in Tamil Nadu. 

The recent incident in Nanguneri – where a group of dominant Marvar caste students attacked their classmate, who belonged to a Scheduled Caste, with a sickle, causing life threatening injuries – has once again revealed the venomous casteism in the land of social justice. 

The victim, Chinnadurai, one of the diligent students in his class, had been getting harassed by his classmates who belonged to the dominant caste. He was attacked the same night his mother had finally complained to the principal. The boy’s sister was also injured and his grandfather died while staging a protest after the attack. Chinnadurai and his sister are under treatment in hospital.

The fact finding report of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) and Dalit Intellectual Collective (DIC) has revealed the entrenched casteism in Nanguneri. People from the dominant caste, being landholders in this region, have made people from the Dalit community either move to other cities for employment or forced them to become subservient to them. 

Any attempts by Dalits to become self-employed, like by driving an auto rickshaw, are discouraged by the dominant caste. Even access to the public distribution system was made difficult for the community, according to the PUCL report. However, after this violent incident it was surreptitiously restored to their locality in the presence of Tamil Nadu assembly speaker and collector. 

The usury by dominant caste members at exorbitant interest rates has forced many Dalits to lose their land to them as they failed to pay the money back. DIC’s extensive report highlighted the prevalent glorification of caste indicative images and symbols in public places and institutions that explicitly polarise people based on their caste. This hostile environment, coupled with violence, has caused the landholding of Dalits to reduce considerably as many have migrated out of Nanguneri. 

The violent caste consciousness among the school children reflects the prevailing “habitus”, which was defined by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu as people’s embodied traits and behaviours which are learned through socialisation. 

Our cultural traits are so ingrained with such caste-based differentiation that our behaviour and attitude reeks of casteism in the public sphere. And by extension, existing social inequality, violence and discrimination are considered natural without any compunction. 

Even in the private sphere, caste consciousness is so strong that according to the third National Family Health Survey (NFHS-3), only 2.59% of marriages in Tamil Nadu were inter-caste, which is very low compared to many other states. Further, the NFHS-5 conducted between 2019-2021 showed that the state has the highest number of consanguineous marriages at 28% compared to national average of 11%. In consanguineous marriages, the husband and wife are related by blood, belonging to the same community. It is shocking to see such caste consciousness even among politicians from Dravidian political parties (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIDMK)) that were formed on the basis of social justice and elimination of caste-based discrimination.

In 1997, six Dalits, including two Dalit leaders of Melavaluvu panchayat, were hacked to death in daylight, near Madurai in Tamil Nadu. Seventeen people were sentenced to life in 2001. But three men were released on remission by the DMK during the Anna birth centenary celebrations in 2008 and the remaining 13 (one died) were released by AIADMK in 2019 during MGR birth celebrations for their ‘good’ conduct. 

In 2020, DMK organising secretary and Rajya Sabha MP R.S. Bharathi made a controversial comment when he called the elevation of judges belonging to scheduled caste communities “alms” provided by former chief minister M. Karunanidhi. While he was briefly arrested, DMK failed to as much as condemn his anti-Dalit statement. 

In the same year, DMK MPs Dayanidhi Maran and TR Baalu, while being denied permission to meet the party’s chief secretary shouted “Are we Dalits to be treated like this?”. Fearing arrest under the SC/ST Act, both of them sought anticipatory bail immediately. The non-Dalits and non-Brahmins being the backbone of Dravidian parties, we find such casteist, hate-filled statements from both AIADMK and DMK leaders regularly.

In March 2022, DMK minister R.S. Rajakanappan was shifted from the transport ministry and handed the backward classes welfare portfolio after harassing a block development officer who belonged to the Dalit community. 

Such embodied traits give confidence and institutional support for indulging in violent crimes against Dalits, as we witnessed in the Nanguneri incident. The National Crimes Record Bureau (NCRB) data shows increasing violence against Dalits in Tamil Nadu. Between 2019 and 2021, reported cases of such violence in the state increased by nearly 20%, compared to the national average of 9.7%.

Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) and communist parties have been demanding a law against honour killings without success, as it might dent the party in power’s dominant caste vote bank. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI(M) MLA M. Chinnadurai’s demand for the release of a white paper by the government on the Scheduled Castes Sub Plan (SCSP) and Tribal Sub Plan (TSP) expenditure shows the lack of transparency in government spending on SC/ST communities.

The landlessness among the Dalits in Nanguneri is not an isolated incident as Dalits hold only 7.8% of farmlands in Tamil Nadu according to Tamil Nadu State Agricultural Department’s report, ‘Salient Statistics on Agriculture , 2019’. Panchami land, which was distributed to Dalits by the British government, is in the hands of the dominant caste and DMK, which promised its recovery in its 2016 election manifesto, has conveniently skipped it in the 2021 version. 

DMK constituted a committee headed by former Madras high court judge Maruthamuthu in 2011 to examine issues related to Panchami lands. This committee was dissolved when AIADMK came to power. According to the DIC report, very few Dalits in Nanguneri are in government employment and a majority of them work as labourers. In 2000, a white paper titled “Reservation in Government Employment for the Adi-Dravidars, Scheduled Tribes, Backward Classes, Most Backward Classes and De-Notified Communities” was released by then chief minister Karunanidhi, which showed that SC/ST and Most Backward Classes’ (MBC) representation in government jobs was way below the constitutionally mandated percentage. The All India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE) 2020-21 also reaffirmed the underrepresentation of Dalits in government and private sector without any change from the year 2000.

Trying to bring in superfluous changes at the school level cannot be a solution to this caste-filled habitus in Tamil Nadu. The Dravidian political ideology needs to relook and reorient itself in bringing about transformation at every level, including its own party structure and its leaders. There is an urgent need to critically evaluate political parties’ caste-based candidate selection and vote bank politics. Such incidents are bound to repeat if there are no structural changes to how caste is perceived in Tamil Nadu.

Venkatanarayanan S. is an associate professor and head of the of Political Science and History department at Christ University, Bengaluru.