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Caste war breaks out in southern Tamil Nadu

N Sathiya Moorthy in Madras

As caste violence raged in the the southern districts of Tamil Nadu, Chief Minister M Karunanidhi was on a holiday in Udhagamandalam, inaugurating an annual flower show, of all things.

AIADMK supremo Jayalalitha Jayaram may have sounded harsh, but she was right in saying that the state government, particularly the intelligence wing of the police, has failed once again. Both in predicting the riots and controlling the situation.

Karunanidhi did rush back to the state capital to take personal charge of the fire-fighting exercise, but it was only on the political side. The administration failed miserably as the dalits and the intermediary caste of thevars fought pitched battles in various southern districts for a fortnight. Four persons were killed in the police firing, as many policemen were beaten up, and a train-load of passengers had a close shave as demonstrators waylaid the Kanyakumari Express using boulders and attacked the engine driver with sickles and sticks.

The scene in southern Tamil Nadu now is akin to the one prevailing in the northern districts abutting Madras through the seventies and early eighties. In the northern districts, caste clashes between the dalits and the intermediary caste of vanniars lead to the formation of the Pattali Makkal Katchi, a near-exclusive political party of the latter community with a social message and political agenda. Though the dalits in the two regions are as varied as the respective intermediary castes fighting to retain their socio-economic supremacy, the broad spectrum of issues in both cases are almost similar.

Trouble started this time after the state government decided to name a proposed transport corporation after dalit leader Sundaralingam. Adding fuel to the fire was Ottapidaram legislator S Krishnaswamy who taunted the hurt thevar sentiments as the government declined to name the new outfit after the Pandya kings, ancestors of the thevars.

The thevars went on the rampage by setting buses on fire and blockading traffic on the highway and interior roads. Then, taking to offence to Krishnaswamy's temporary banishment from the area and his subsequent arrest following violation of the ban, the dalits retaliated, bringing back memories of the 1994 riots between the thevars and harijans in Kodiyamkulam.

Normalcy is now returning to the districts, where a six-member ministerial team headed by assembly Speaker P T R Palanivel Rajan is overseeing the restoration of peace and order. Unlike the AIADMK dispensation, in which officials and politicians had time only for attending on the chief minister, the DMK government promptly dispatched a team of top functionaries to restore normalcy. Besides, the government held an all-party meeting at Madras on Wednesday, when leaders of all major parties agreed that no district or transport body should be named after caste or community leaders. This suggestion was made by Tamil Maanila Congress chief G K Moopanar.

The day-long meeting, chaired by Karunanidhi, was attended among others by Moopanar, leader of the opposition, S Balakrishnan, PMK founder S Ramdas, TNCC's provisional head K V Thangabalu, CPI's R Nallakannu, CPI(M)'s N Shankaraiah besides representatives of Thevar Peravai, All-India Forward Bloc, Dravida Kazhagam and the Janata Dal. The AIADMK, led by Jayalalitha, however did not attend the meeting.

Appealing all sections of the people to shun violence, the leaders urged them to to resolve their problems through talks. The government accepted the leaders' suggestions and agreed to give adequate compensation to the families of those killed. Besides, permanent peace committees would be set up in all the districts.

Reacting to the criticism levelled against the intelligence wing of the state police for its alleged failure to foresee the riots, Karunanidhi said it may not be fair to review its working at a public forum. Moreover, it was the tip-off given by the wing that lead to the recovery of powerful expolosives, dangerous weapons and bombs from a house in Kodungayur recently.

However, the all-party meeting seemed an after thought, considering the TMC's guarded offensive against the state government and the intelligence wing. The party too has sent its fact-finding team to the affected areas. So has the AIADMK.

Though there is some truth in Karunanidhi's claim that anti-social elements had used the incidents to drive a wedge between the ruling DMK and its ally TMC by targetting local leaders of Moopanar's party for attacks, the same cannot be said about another caste clash in the region in late April. An unsuccessful DMK candidate was said to be behind the cold-blooded murder of CPI-M corporator Leelavathy in broad daylight. Trouble was nipped in the bud with the prompt arrest of the alleged assailant and his henchmen.

However, Karunanidhi's provocative statement in the assembly, 'The weak will not be meek," referring to the attacks on DMK targets at Madurai, unleashed mob fury on places and properties belonging to the trans-migrant Sourashtra community, to which Leelavathy belonged. Suddenly, the peace-loving Sourashtra community, with an eternal feeling of rootlessness, has been transformed. Given the community's numerical strength in the Madurai area, provocative statements may ignite arson.

The 'Sourashtra episode' in Madurai can still be ignored as an aberration, but that cannot be said about the recurring thevar-harijan clashes in the interior areas. Or, about the nadar upsurge down South earlier this year, when 'Karate'' Selvin, a 'reformed' thug and hitman taking to serious politics, was bombed to death. Selvin was on parole after a long innings of incarceration including a term under the National Security Act.

The caste clashes in the southern districts now, as those in the northern districts earlier, stem mostly from the socio-economic disparities, real and perceived. In the absence of a strong upper caste segment in this region, earlier feuds used to centre around the nadars and the thevars, two intermediary castes. If the early rounds went to the nadars, what with the legendary Kamaraj himself hailing from the community, the thevars had their day when Sasikala Natarajan became Jayalalitha's all-powerful aide.

The 'Kodiyamkulam incidents, for instance, can be attributed to the new-found political patronage of the thevars who were unable to stomach the progress made by the dalits. At least one member from the latter families is in the Gulf.

Unlike their one-time saviour John Pandiyan, Krishnaswamy, like the Vanniar leader Dr S Ramadoss, mixes militancy with the right proportion of politics, communal awareness and caste aspirations. That has made his leadership formidable, not only for the thevar community but also the state government.

As a result, the police and its intelligence network have failed to pierce through the veil of secrecy behind the dalit decision-making apparatus. Operating from isolated villages, they surprise the administration and the general public alike when they call for road blockades or strikes. So much so that last fortnight, as violence swept the region, neither the students nor the government had any clue whether the university examination would be held.

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