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July 26, 1999
'Dalit stir' may divide TN voters
N Sathiya Moorthy in Tirunelveli
With the recovery of 14 bodies, starting with that of a two-year-old child, from the depths of the Tamiraparani river, a 'dalit stir' in the southern district town of Tirunelveli has the potential of dividing Tamil Nadu voters on caste lines.
As the Tamil Maanila Congress had joined hands with the dalit-strong Puthiya Thamizhagam in Friday's aborted demonstration in front of the Tirunelveli district collectorate, the issue has attained political respectability that was lacking earlier.
Trouble started when the police, called in in very large numbers, stopped a demonstration being led by PT founder K Krishnaswamy and TMC leader S Balakrishnan, en route to the district collectorate.
They were demanding the government takeover of a private tea garden in Mancholai in the district, and also disbursement of four months of salary dues for an earlier strike period.
With Dr Krishnaswamy establishing his political sway over the devendrakula vellalar segment of the local dalits after the 'Kodiyamkulam incident' of 1993, when All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazagham chief J Jayalalitha was the chief minister, he had spread his wings to unorganised and disorganised segments of dalit labour, of which 'Mancholai issue' was the first - and the only one, thus far.
But it rang alarm bells even in distant Coimbatore, where the United Planters Association of South India reacted sharply to Dr Krishnaswamy's intervention two years ago.
With this stroke, Dr Krishnaswamy's purpose had been achieved. Without any effort on his part, the PT had arrived in the western districts around Coimbatore, where dalits were alleged to be held as bonded labour by the rich backward class community of kongu velallar, or gounders.
In between, through a calculated and well-orchestrated move, Dr Krishsnaswamy had spread his influence to other southern districts, taking one taluk and one issue, at a time. So much so, PT candidates, by contesting alone, caused a split in the anti-Jayalalitha votes in the southern districts, thus ensuring victory for the Bharatiya Janata Party-AIADMK alliance in last year's Lok Sabha polls.
What made the difference to Friday's violence was the possible over-reaction of the police, who had been conditioned to fear for the worst when Dr Krishnaswamy and PT volunteers were around.
Even as their leaders were arguing with the police officials to let them meet District Collector K Danavel, to present a memorandum, overzealous volunteers tried to circumvent the police cordon by crossing over the shallow segments of the Thampiraparani, which was flowing full, otherwise.
Some of the demonstrators also thew stones at the cops, from a safe distance. "We weren't sure, when the stones would end and country-bombs would take their place," said a policeman, a day after the event. "That being the general mood, the police reacted sharply, and caned the advancing crowds from the river-side, and fired in the sky, later."
Worse still, according to Munusamy, a demonstrator, "The police started pelting stones at us." This version is supported by independent witnesses, to go into which the state government has since ordered an inquiry.
The police action set off an equally panicky reaction in the crowd, who ran for their lives. In the melee, people trampled on each other, slipped into the deeper segments of the river - and drowned. While other volunteers, the media and police women rescued many more, at least 14 bodies had been fished out by the end of the day.
"It happened all of a sudden," recalls a Tamil newspaper reporter. "We had expected trouble in front of the collectorate, and even the police seemed prepared for it. But worse things happened on the wings, and unwittingly, the police became the cause."
While questions remained, whether the Puthiya Thamizhagam and Dr Krishnaswamy should have made a public issue of what primarily was a labour dispute, it has now thrown up possibilities that could divide the state's vote banks on caste lines, and may also obliterate the electoral divide caused by political parties.
With State Labour Minister A Rehman Khan himself seized of the labour disputes raised by the PT, and Dr Krishnaswamy too named in the FIR on the murder of a Mancholai estate labour supervisor, it could have been better left to the officialdom to handle the issue - which, however, did not happen, with Dr Krishnawamy around.
Friday's incident has sharply turned the state's focus on the emerging caste divisions in Tamil Nadu, with the PT and Dr Krishnaswamy as the main theme.
Already, there is a running feud between the dalits and the backward class thevars, identified with the AIADMK, in the southern districts. Dr Krishnaswamy's involvement in the 'Mancholai labour dispute' helped spread the dalit-led divide onto the western districts too.
"The 'Tirunelveli incident' has the potential to divide the voters along caste lines, not just in the southern districts," says a political observer in Madras. As he points out, "The backwards, other than those in the northern vanniar belt, have been traditionally pro-AIADMK. Even in the southern districts, Friday's incidents could bring the two dominant backward classes like the thevars and nadars, on the same side, against the dalits."
In the northern district, according to this source, the backward class advantage rests with the vanniar-strong PMK, which is a partner in the DMK-BJP alliance. "But the events in Tirunelveli could consolidate the local dalits, who belong to a different, adi dravidar sub-sect, behind the TMC, which is now in league with the PT," says the source, referring to some adi dravidar political outfits holding poll talks with the TMC, after being ignored by the AIADMK.
This political observer says, "Whoever be the cause of the 'Tirunelveli incidents', it could help consolidate the backward classes on the AIADMK side. In the non-vanniar belt. Jayalalitha so very completely ignoring the claims of dalit parties while finalising her alliance strategy has forced them into the hands of the TMC, given the traditional anti-BJP, anti-DMK stance of dalit groups. This in turn could consolidate the anti-dalit backward class vanniars in the northern districts in favour of the BJP-DMK with its PMK participation, and behind the AIADMK, elsewhere in the state. It all depends on how far our political parties are ready to exploit the situation."
For his part, Dr Krishnaswamy has called off a state-wide bandh called for today, to protest the 'Tirunelveli killings', reportedly on the intervention of TMC chief G K Moopanar.
Given the 'violence' tag attached to the PT founder, Moopanar is vary of any action that could sully his public image, which has received a boost after the TMC decided to maintain equi-distance between the 'communal BJP' and the 'corrupt AIADMK', at the cost of an emerging electoral alliance with the Congress parent.
The TMC is also alive to DMK Chief Minister M Karunanidhi's indirect criticism of the party, "which could confer respectability on those preaching violence'' - in turn, a reference to Puthiya Thamizhagam and Dr Krishnaswamy.
Interestingly, with Dr Krishnaswamy and the PT in the Mancholai agitation were the Communist Party of India and the Communist Party of India-Marxist, two political parties that are now partners in the AIADMK-Congress front.
Some PT sympathisers hope for a tangible, if not substantial shift, in their favour, of individual Communist cadre loyalties. Likewise, local leaders of the fundamentalist Tamizhaga Muslim Munnetra Kazhagam, officially with the PT until crossing over to the AIADMK side this time and inviting Jayalalitha to address their Madras rally last fortnight, also visited Dr Krishnaswamy's injured cadres in the hospital.
Not very long ago, the two groups had worked for a dalit-Muslim consolidation, through a shared agenda and action plan, which had turned violent in Ramanathapuram and a few other places, about a year back.
Chief Minister M Karunanidhi had spoken to the state assembly only in May, about the police fears of motivated caste or communal violence, to bring a bad name to his DMK government on the eve of the Lok Sabha elections.
To that end, Dr Krishnaswamy's agitation may have triggered a further polarisation and consolidation of political forces in the state on caste lines.
Only that the question would still remain, whether it was at all his motive at this stage, given the PT's need for gaining public respectability and acceptance like the vanniar-strong PMK before it; or, if he was unwittingly playing into the hands of others, not necessarily in his company.
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