Unmasking Tamil Nadu's 'Progressive' Facade: A Dalit Activist's Perspective

From escalating violence against scheduled castes to the persistence of the ‘Devadasi’ system under different guises, the image of Tamil Nadu as a state deflecting criticisms and reports of crimes against the community appears to be a veneer. The Dravidian parties, purportedly symbols of representation, have merely facilitated the transfer of powers among dominant castes, leading to prolonged suffering for Dalit communities.
Unmasking Tamil Nadu's 'Progressive' Facade: A Dalit Activist's Perspective

Chennai - Tamil Nadu, a southern state, is often lauded as a progressive state, touting various welfare schemes by the Madras High Court and Dravidian governments. Some might argue there are few reported cases of atrocities arising from the state. However, the reality on the ground paints a different picture.

The Mooknayak engaged in a conversation with Shalin Maria Lawrence, a Dalit activist and member of the Dalit Intellectual Collective, shedding light on the challenges faced by the community in the state. The dialogue unravelled a grim truth unknown to the general public.

Shalin commented on labelling Tamil Nadu a welfare state rather than a ‘progressive’ one. "Welfare measures like compensation or free bus tickets have always been present, but I hesitate to term the state 'progressive' as true progress is only realized when everyone feels safe here."

The activist lamented the lack of support for the community, expressing, "All Dalit voices have been muzzled. When we attempt to speak up, leaders suppress our voices, employing caste slurs against us. Speaking against our issues is incredibly difficult. Why isn’t caste given importance? Many people are losing their lives because of it! Numerous RTI and Dalit activists have perished in the state. In the last two years, 25 activists have lost their lives without any affirmative action taken."

"On November 2nd, six upper-caste individuals assaulted, publicly shamed, and humiliated two Scheduled Caste men in the Tirunelveli district. 'This week, 6 upper-caste men humiliated 2 Dalit individuals. The mental anguish we endure in this state is unparalleled. Even discussing it causes tremors. A Scheduled Caste (SC) woman is still unable to assume the role of panchayat president in Tirupattur district.'"

"This is far from being a progressive state. Everything is a facade. The state cannot even maintain a proper statue of Baba Saheb Ambedkar. The statues are either shattered or defaced. The state, inappropriately, evokes the name of Periyar."

Regarding the persistence of age-old customs and class divisions, Shalin remarked, "Dalits are impoverished here. I hail from a slum. We all dwell in a slum. People are being evicted from the slums because they are situated in the heart of Chennai. They are relocating us 30-40 km beyond the city limits, devoid of healthcare centers or schools. The state harbors numerous Dalit child laborers and bonded laborers. Dalit women are still ensnared in the ‘Devadasi system.’ They claim the system has been abolished, but it endures under different names. In areas like Vellore near Ranipet, the system persists. Even in the northern regions of the state, Dalit women are coerced into prostitution. They proclaim the system has been eradicated, yet it lingers."

The activist added, "Once, someone questioned why I criticized my state. I live in this state as a Dalit. My voice should be heard."

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Atrocities Against Dalit Communities Concealed

Shalin exposed, "Tamil Nadu leads in manual scavenging fatalities. Less than 2% of inter-caste marriages occur here. Honor killings have reached an alarmingly high rate." In June 2023, M Venkatesan, Chairman of the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis, disclosed that 225 lives were lost in the state due to manual scavenging between 1993 and 2023.

"Institutional violence still pervades villages, as does caste-based violence. We've been addressing this for a long time, yet no action has been taken. Untouchability is practiced in numerous villages. The government neither takes action nor conducts awareness programs. They enable these caste-based groups. The OBC castes serve as instruments for political parties."

Shalin referred to a viral video from January this year. The footage showed Manickam, the union secretary of the DMK and a Panchayat leader, using highly offensive language to intimidate a young Dalit individual. He repeatedly interrogated the young man about his presence in a temple maintained by the Vanniyar community in Salem. Manickam was not apprehended. "We had to fight to file an FIR, but nothing transpired. He is now at large. Although initially suspended, he has been reinstated in the party and resumed his previous position."

There are places where Dalits are still barred, such as the Droupadi Amman Temple near Melpadi in Tamil Nadu’s Villupuram district, yet the Dalit activist believes the government remains inert.

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Discrimination Against Grassroots Dalit Leaders

Addressing Dalit political leaders, Shalin stated, "Dalit panchayat presidents have been enduring extensive violence. I've been documenting that. Human rights activist Kadhir has been vocal about it, but the government remains inactive." A report from the Madurai-based non-governmental organization called Evidence, focusing on the rights of Dalits and Tribal communities in Tamil Nadu, chronicled the tribulations of 114 Dalit panchayat presidents in the state. This extensive study, conducted by a 17-member team across 19 districts in March 2023, revealed that these officials face 30 different forms of discrimination while executing their responsibilities in local governance. These discriminatory practices range from being denied basic amenities such as chairs and permission to hoist national flags to exclusion from participating in temple festivals and unwarranted interference in their work.

Released on April 20th, 2023, the report emphasizes that the situation is even more severe for women presidents, who often face physical assaults from members of dominant castes, with four of them additionally reporting instances of sexual harassment.

Unmasking Tamil Nadu's 'Progressive' Facade: A Dalit Activist's Perspective
Dalit bodies demand demolition of water tank contaminated with human waste

"Where is our dignity?" questions Lawrence

"Water contaminated with human waste was provided to Dalit communities. The government turned a blind eye. There was a lot of drama, but everyone wanted to blame the Dalit victims. DMK spokesperson Saravanan Annadurai alleged political propaganda. How can they do this? Where is our dignity?" Shalin inquired. On December 24, in Vengavayal village of Tamil Nadu's Pudukkottai district, five Dalit children fell ill and required hospitalization. After an investigation by villagers, they discovered that the communal water tank, the source of drinking water for Dalit households, had been contaminated with human feces.

"Last year, there were an average of 500 violent acts against Dalit communities. However, this year, the number has already surpassed 550. This is due to the perpetrators being exempt from consequences. The State Vigilance Committee fails to convene properly. They are tasked with identifying villages where discrimination occurs, yet such activities have not been initiated. The Chief Minister heads the committee but has yet to take any action."

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History of Caste-based Politics in Tamil Nadu

Shalin remarked, "Tamil Nadu had a Dravidian movement initially led by Dalit icons like Ayothithasa Pandithar. However, it eventually fell into the hands of OBCs [Other Backward Classes]. The entire movement became a capitalistic institution that turned feudal castes against brahmins, not even Brahminism. They consistently spearheaded a movement opposing brahmins and Brahminism to a certain extent, transferring power from Congress Brahmins to the DMK [Dravida Munnetra Kazhaga]. Subsequently, Maruthur Gopalan Ramachandran formed the AIADMK [All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam]. The Dravidian parties have ruled the state for over 70 years."

"It was a shift of power from upper castes to other backward classes. The Bahujan politics of North Indian states cannot be equated with Tamil Nadu. Except for Jayalalitha and M.G.R, almost all chief ministers have belonged to the OBC community. They have never prioritized Dalit politics or lives here."

Lawrence continued, "We're in the age of the internet, so everyone is receiving news. However, that doesn't imply things are happening right now. Atrocities have been occurring for a long time, but the frequency is increasing now. This is due to the impunity provided by the state. Activists highlighted these atrocities when AIADMK was in power and continue to do so under the governance of DMK, yet nothing has changed. Parties have handed power to OBC castes, particularly the Reddy, Nadda, Thevar, and Gounder communities. They openly engage in discrimination against Dalits. Many MLAs and MPs attend caste group meetings where they publicly express 'caste pride.'"

"Analyzing the last legislative election, 65% of the Dalit community voted for DMK. We are also their vote bank. However, they only prioritize Vanniyar or Naddas. As a unified OBC front, that's what matters to the parties. They wield the privilege to toy with Dalit lives because they have impunity."

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