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October 9, 1998


TN caste war bringing Dalits, most backwards together

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N Sathiya Moorthy in Madras

Is there a method in the madness of growing caste clashes in southern Tamil Nadu?

If the events of the last few years are any indication, a master plan seems to be in operation to create areas of influence among rival communities.

Consider this: the clashes between the intermediate Thevar caste and the Dalits, then still known as Harijans (or Adi Dravidars in Tamil), resumed after a long break with the Kodiyamkulam incident of 1994 in Tirunelveli district. Last year the clash spread northwards towards Virudunagar. And this year it has moved further north to Ramanathapuram district, where 11 persons have died so far in violence over the last seven days.

In every place that has witnessed these clashes, there has been a Dalit consolidation. Headless at the time of the Kodiyamkulam incident, when the All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam led by Jayalalitha Jayaram was ruling the state, the Dalits have gravitated to the infant Puthiya Tamizhagam party of Dr S Krishnaswamy, who is also president of the Devendra Kula Vellalar Federation (a Dalit organisation).

Even if the Kodiyamkulam incident was not planned, the Dalit uprising since seems to have been spurred by some calculated moves on either side. For instance, the current clash in Ramanathapuram has been brewing for a while, with the Kandadevi temple dispute in neighbouring Sivaganga district, which first took the Thevar-Dalit clash north of Virudunagar, where it was left last year.

This was preceded by a similar demand by the "most backward" Muthuraja community for temple honours at Sarakottai, in the same district. Interestingly, the Muthuraja Community Association was an electoral ally of the Puthiya Tamizhagam in the Lok Sabha election earlier this year in Sivaganga where the community is strong and the Dalits, who figure lower down the complex caste ladder, are in a minority. Moreover, the Muthurajas are pitted against the local Thevars.

If Sarakottai saw the consolidation of the Muthurajas, who constitute a dominant grouping in some of the south-central districts, the Coimbatore blasts earlier, during the elections, saw a forced consolidation of the state's Muslims. Again, an interesting fact is that the Tamizhaga Muslim Munnetra Kazhagam, once considered a moderate alternative to the outmoded Muslim League, has allied with the Puthiya Tamizhagam since the Lok Sabha poll.

Lately, intelligence reports have been mentioning the TMMK as a possible refuge for members of some Islamic organisations banned after the Coimbatore blasts. And it was in the TMMK's company that Puthiya Tamizhagam organised a conference in Ramanathapuram earlier last month that spread caste and communal tensions in the coastal Keelakarai region, which has a strong Muslim presence. The resultant tension led to Tamil Maanila Congress president G K Moopanar's car being attacked in the area last fortnight.

Last week, Krishnaswamy, a native of Coimbatore district, also raised the issue of Dalit oppression in the plantations of the adjoining Nilgiris. The plantation owners have been prompt in denying his charge, but Krishnaswamy can be counted upon to try and make a political issue of it.

All this points to a consolidation of Dalit votes in southern Tamil Nadu, linking up with a possible consolidation in Coimbatore, and bolstered by a union of Muslims, Muthurajas and, maybe, the Arundatiyar community dominant in some districts in between. It may also mean the evolution of a state-wide vote bank of the oppressed and the depressed, under Krishnaswamy's leadership.

If the Dalits voted en masse against the Thevars, and hence the AIADMK (Jayalalitha's closest aides then, Sasikala and her husband Natrajan, were Thevars), in the 1996 election, it remained hidden in the anti-Jaya wave of the time. But the Lok Sabha election earlier this year proved the Dalit domination in the southern districts, where Puthiya Tamizhagam candidates, including Krishnaswamy, contributed to the DMK-TMC combine losing five seats.

The Dalit votes would have gone the DMK-TMC way if the Puthiya Tamizhagam had not been in the fray. But Krishnaswamy wanted to prove his might for the anti-AIADMK sections to take him seriously as an electoral ally in future. Should the Dalit consolidation gain ground, from Tirunelveli in the south to Coimbatore in the west, the Puthiya Tamizhagam could even become a counter to the established political parties.

A similar consolidation of the backward Vanniars in the northern districts was attempted some years ago under the Pattali Makkal Katchi, now a partner in the Bharatiya Janata Party-AIADMK alliance, but it failed to take off.

Indications are that the masterminds of the current consolidation have taken into account the traditional Thevar antipathy to the Dalits, and their possible reaction to any assertion of self-esteem by the latter. In fact, even the term "Dalit" has gained currency in the state only in the last year or so, making political identification with Dalit groups elsewhere in the country easier.

But what has unnerved intelligence sources is the simultaneous rise in militancy in a section of the Muslim youth, and the reported inflow of foreign funds and weapons. The police have formally charged Muslim fundamentalists for the Coimbatore blasts, and also conceded that then BJP president Lal Kishinchand Advani, now Union home minister, was the target.

There has also been a spurt in the use of country-made pistols and bombs in the caste clashes in the state. Intelligence sources do not rule out the possibility of sophisticated weapons from abroad making their way to some of these militant groups. The police have already been ordered to undertake a door-to-door check for weapons in the areas where clashes took place last week.

With the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence also getting into the act, Tamil Nadu may be getting caught in a dangerous spiral of violence.

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