Interview | 'Being Part of Alliances Will Help Bring Dalits Into Mainstream': Thirumavalavan

The VCK leader speaks on winning two general constituencies in Tamil Nadu and how the victory was made possible because of the party's stand on various general issues for over decades.

Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) has created history. In the just concluded elections to the Tamil Nadu’s state assembly, the VCK contested in six constituencies as part of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK)-led alliance and has won four. Significantly, among the four are two general constituencies.

For an Ambedkarite party that had resolutely stayed in the path of social justice and anti-Sanatana politics, the victory in general constituencies mean a larger acceptance. Behind this small yet very important victory is the three-decade labour put in by its phenomenal leader Thol Thirumavalavan. From his determination to fight on a separate symbol even as part of ‘grand alliances’ to his consistency in seeking general constituencies, Thirumavalavan combines the vision of social justice and political acumen to chart a new course in the state.

In this elaborate interview, he explains why the victory is essential.

This is the first time the VCK has won in general constituencies…

Yes, in 2006 we contested in two general constituencies but couldn’t win. In 2016, as part of Makkal Nala Kootani [People’s Welfare Front – third front comprising the Left, DMDK and MDMK], we did contest in some general constituencies but couldn’t win. Every time we were part of a bigger alliance, we have sought seats in general constituencies.

In 2001, we were part of the DMK alliance but the party denied our request for general constituencies fearing that we will lose. We had asked for general constituencies in Pondicherry too. In 2004 Lok Sabha elections, we forged alliance with smaller parties and our non-Dalit candidate in Pondicherry polled 25,000 votes. In 2006, we had asked for constituencies in the south but the AIADMK (All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) refused. We have been consistently refused general constituencies too. However, this time it was not the case.

We demanded two general constituencies, which we were allotted. There were of course discussions about the choice of constituencies. But the message is this: ‘We have been trying since 2001 and this time, it has been a successful attempt.’

Also read: How the VCK Emerged as More Than ‘Just a Dalit Party’ in the Tamil Nadu Elections

You have won in two general constituencies. Why do you think this victory is important?

The caste elements in Tamil Nadu have always tried to confine us to the Dalit identity. As a party, the VCK has been at the forefront in all issues concerning the welfare of the people and not just the electoral issues. We have been at the forefront of several people’s struggles like the Sri Lankan Tamils issue and the Cauvery water crisis. We held a statewide demonstration against the CAA [Citizenship (Amendment) Act] when it was introduced.

Before the Lok Sabha elections, we have had a rally and a conference called ‘Desam Kaappom’ (Save the Country) in Tiruchi. VCK has protested against the demonetisation move, and in Pondicherry we had held a conference that called for protection of the Constitution. We have had district-level protests against the farm laws. We have been very vocal about the OBC reservation.

We have transgressed the caste identity imposed on us and have consistently fought for general causes in public fronts. Despite such spontaneous reaction to various general issues, despite our involvement in general causes, we have been labelled as a ‘caste party’. The idea is to prevent us from getting recognition at a larger level. The idea is to sow the seeds of hatred against us among the non-Dalits.

When you sow the seeds of hatred against us among the non-Dalits, you don’t just isolate VCK as a party. But you also stop Dalits from transforming into a formidable political force. They are afraid that if Dalits emerge as a political force, if they gain access to power by getting elected as MLAs and MPs, the Dalits will dismantle the social order. It is this fear that enables the communal and casteist elements to target us.

Do you think the VCK alone is subject to such targets?

There are other Ambedkarite movements, but the elements that target us neither spread any slander [about those movements] like they do for us, nor do they make any complaints about them. Because those movements do not raise their voices in general fora which also means that they would not emerge as a political force. So, they do not find such movements intimidating.

VCK is marching towards a political identity that is inclusive of all of the society. Our struggle is to mainstream the Dalits. Dalits have been socially isolated. Our fight is against the political isolation of Dalits. It intimidates them.

But alliances are often forged for narrow political gains. How will they help fight political isolation of Dalits?

The idea is to get Dalits politically mainstreamed. Which means it is important to be part of larger alliances. In fact, we are not part of alliances just for votes. We believe that alliances will help bring the Dalits into the political mainstream. Alliances give an opportunity for Dalits and non-Dalits to work together on the ground. It is mandatory to seek votes for each other and do field work together. Electoral politics is not just about winning in the seats you are contesting in. You will have to work for alliance partners. In doing so, an isolated community will be able to mainstream themselves. We are part of alliances also because it will pave way for such mainstreaming.

Since we do this, parties like PMK (Paattali Makkal Katchi) and BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) have constantly hurled slander against us – they have called the VCK as a party against non-Dalits, as anti-women and more. But we prevailed, we held our ground. We fought for general issues. This change [winning general constituencies] did not happen in a day. It is the result of three-decade of politics.

I am also including the first decade of the VCK when we had abstained from electoral politics. Even then, as a party which stayed away from elections for a decade, we spoke up and fought for the cause of the Sri Lankan Tamils. Over the 25 years, we have spoken for general issues, we have spoken for students, for labourers and for federal rights.

Yes, the VCK has been very vocal on federal rights too.

After a long gap, it was the VCK which raised its voice for federal rights. Federal rights were an important issue in the DMK during Annadurai’s and Kalaignar Karunanidhi’s days. VCK has held a conference for state federal rights. That’s why I say: ‘The victory in two general constituencies was made possible because we have been vocal on various general issues for over 25 years now. I see this victory as a recognition accorded to the VCK by people of all sections, especially the democratic forces.’

Also read: Perumal Murugan: ‘The Limits of Freedom Now Are Exactly as They Were in the Past’

But wasn’t contesting on separate symbol a hurdle? One theory was that the VCK had very little time to reach its symbol to the people. That could perhaps explain the loss in two constituencies?

We have often been advised by both the AIADMK and the DMK [when in their alliances] to contest on their symbols. This had happened in 2006, 2011 and 2014. In 2019, when I contested for the Lok Sabha elections, many people outside of the DMK too advised me to contest on the DMK symbol. But we wanted to be consistent. I would call my stand, consistent and not adamant.

We are not worried about victories and losses, we were more concerned about winning the goodwill of all sections, of maintaining our individuality. We believe that it will help in the long run. Otherwise, it will be reduced to electoral adjustments. We cannot be doing electoral adjustments for temporary benefits. For us, this is an opportunity with far-reaching impact.

It was also important to protect our individual identity. Today, we have realised how far we have been recognised by the people. We have won two reserved constituencies and two general constituencies. When Dalits and non-Dalits work together in the political arena, the harmony is reflected in society too. Today, we have made it clear that it is possible to stand in electoral ground not just for votes but for issues too.

Thol Thirumavalavan at the VCK protests against the Manusmriti in Tamil Nadu on October 24, 2020. Photo: Special Arrangement

It has also been propagated that the VCK in alliance meant a dent in non-Dalit votes…

It was one of the many slanders that we had faced. It was repeatedly said that if Thirumavalavan is in alliance, the non-Dalits wouldn’t vote for that alliance. It was a well-planned slander. The truth is out at the end of every election.

I would say that there has been mutual transfer of votes. In 2011, the PMK and the VCK contested in DMK alliance. PMK founder Ramadoss acknowledged that Dalits had voted for the party since VCK was in alliance. If that could happen to a party that is seen as our arch-rival, what truth does this slander hold? The brief camaraderie that existed between the PMK and the VCK after that election reflected on the ground.

In Northern Tamil Nadu, the caste atrocity did not happen as much as it used to. It was common for violence to be unleashed on Dalits for flimsy reasons – like hoisting a flag. But when there was a political understanding, it led to harmony at a social level. This is exactly what we are striving for. This is exactly why we persevere. An alliance is not about winning four or five seats. It is an opportunity to work together in 234 seats. We contested in six seats but the VCK cadres, the Dalits worked on ground in 228 seats for our alliance partners and with their cadres. There have been interactions, debates and conversations leading to camaraderie. The forced enmity between Dalits and non-Dalits disappears there. We see alliances also as an opportunity to nurture this kind of social harmony. It is not acceptable to criticise us as compromising for a few seats.

Also read: Thol Thirumavalavan Has a Way for Dravidian Parties To Keep BJP at Bay

What is the next step for VCK?

We need to expand ourselves electorally across Tamil Nadu. We need to strengthen ourselves enough to contest in more seats. We will work on expanding our agenda so as to earn the goodwill of people from all sections. VCK has never believed in an identity as a caste party nor indulged in any action that will earn the hatred of other sections of the society. We will continue to be so. We will of course continue to fight for Dalits because Dalits face violence and oppression in the name of caste.

We believe that this violence and oppression should stop. We fight for that. But our fights, our struggles will never assume the dimension of hate for other sections. We have never done that; we will never do that. But we will expose and oppose the fringe elements and political groups that are responsible for the atrocities against Dalits. We do not hate non-Dalits, nor consider them our enemies. We will although continue to expose those who try to dominate in the name of caste or religion. We will make this even more clear in future. I believe only by doing so, we could reach out to the people of other sections and earn their goodwill and support.

I am confident we will be able to achieve it. It is this confidence that fuelled my determination to contest on separate symbol.