Tuesday, October 07 1997

Thevar-Dalit caste wars haunt southern TN


TIRUNELVELI, OCT 6: Violence frequents Tachchanallur like an uninvited guest. When the village is back to normal after a murder, raids and exodus, another murder throws it back into the heart of casteist violence. And it happened again on September 24 when a Thevar hacked a Dalit to death.

What followed was an encore of the nightmare that haunts not just Thachchanallur but the southern Tamil Nadu districts of Tirunelveli and Tuticorin where the powerful Thevars and Dalits have been fighting for years.

Thevars set afire four Dalit houses, chased out about 50 Dalit families from nearby Karayiruppu village. Seventy Thevars were arrested. Their fellow men blocked traffic and attacked district collector Niranjan Mardi demanding their release.

Just a month before this latest bout of violence, it was the other way roundThevars were on the run and Dalits were chasing them. Dalits had set ablaze 20 Thevar houses in Urudayankudiyirippu and had chased around 100 Thevar families out of the village. What provoked them was the murder of Chelladurai, an AIADMK leader on August 9.

Every murder is a retaliation for an earlier murder. The cycle began long ago and continues.

Since 1995, as many as 66 persons have died in clashes between the two castes in these two districts. And in the last four months alone, 20 persons have been killed.

Thevars dominate illicit arrack manufacturing and money-lending. And in both, Dalits are the major consumers. The economics of arrack, interest and exploitation don't allow Dalits to get out of an ancient social trap.

Caste-based organisations have become stronger because of the failure of political parties to look beyond vote-banks. Villages such as Kodiankulam and Sivalapperi in Tuticorin district have banned all political activities, disillusioned villagers have removed the flags of political parties.

The reason is simple: Not a single MP or MLA bothered to visit the villages after the clashes.

Caste leaders have filled the vacuum and exploited the situation. According to the police, in a recorded funeral speech at Ottidanpatti last month, Devendrakula Vellalar Federation leader Krishnaswamy urged Dalits to liquidate Thevars, if they unleashed violence on them.

While Krishnaswamy says this is a wild allegation, within a week of his visit, school headmaster Muthukrishna Thevar was hacked to death by Dalits at nearby Naraikinaru.

Krishnaswamy alleges that most police officials are anti-Dalit. He thinks unless this police mentality changes, normalcy will not return and demands 90 per cent reservation for Dalits in police force.

He says Thevars have tried to hamper Dalits' economic growth. ``We have been suffering for the past several centuries. Unless we are given political and economic power, the struggle will continue.

This is the second phase of social engineering after Independence. Caste differences should be wiped out of the system for permanent peace,'' he says.Thevar Peravai leader Ramakrishnan says the police are afraid of Dalits and they take action only against Thevars.

``After the Nalumoolaikinaru incident in 1992 and Kodiankulam in 1995, in which police were accused of committing excesses against Dalits, they have become passive, probably to escape harassment,'' he says.

There are allegations against the police from both sides. Villagers say there is a nexus between illicit arrack traders and the police.

Two policemen had identified the distillery of an illicit arrack baron at Palkattilai with the help of a Dalit on June 8. Instead of booking the culprits, the police allegedly revealed the informant's name to the arrack baron. Pechimuthu, the informant's father, and his relative Sudalaimani were killed as the assailants could not find him.

With confidence among people in law enforcement agencies so low and scars of battles and the reasons of conflict remaining, Tirunelveli and Tuticorin are still perched atop a volcano of violence. And the villagers of Tachchanellur keep their fingers crossed, fearing it may erupt again any day.

Copyright © 1997 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.



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