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Fear, hatred haunts violence-hit southern districts of TN

Fear lurks in the minds of people and mutual hatred persists among the warring groups in towns and far-flung villages of the southern Kamarajar district in Tamil Nadu, which witnessed prolonged caste clashes between Devendra Kula Vellalars and Maravars.

With the death of four people in a stabbing spree earlier this week, the toll in this district alone during the two-month-long violence has risen to eight. The scars of the caste war are yet to heal in the southern districts as a whole, which has claimed more than 40 lives.

The genesis of the problem lies in the heightened militancy on the part of the youth of the Devendra Kula Vellalar community, which has thrown up leaders like S Krishnasamy, MLA. The victims of Sunday's violence were innocent people--a mill worker, returning from work in the night, two casual labourers and a village official who evidently had to pay the price for entering a ''self-proclaimed war zone'' between the two castes.

Even a brief skirmish has the potential of creating tension snowballing into clashes, involving scores of people, resultant police firing and mass arrests.

On Thursday last, two people including a girl sustained bullet injuries at Koomapatti, 25 km from Rajapalayam on the foothills of the Western Ghats, as police opened fire to quell a mob which laid siege to a police station and threw stones, demanding action against those involved in the assault on a youth.

Seven people were arrested by the police and a high-level team led by Inspector General (southern range) K Vijay Kumar had to camp there.

Some people, allegedly belonging to the Devendra Youth Organisation, threw stones at visiting Thevar Peravai activists team on Sunday last leading to a clash at nearby Desikapuram village. Eleven people were injured in the clash following which police resorted to firing and arrested more than 50 people.

The trouble originated in April last at Kandamanur, west of Madurai, when a statue of Pasumpon Muthuramalinga Thevar, the undisputed leader of Maravars, Kallars and the Agamudaiyars put together, was found desecrated.

Krishnasamy, who defied a subsequent ban in the area, was arrested, following which Devendrar Kula youth resorted to agitations, including an attack on a running train, from their stronghold of neighbouring Chidambaran district. The state government responded by releasing Krishnasamy.

Soon, clashes occurred in Kamarajar district in the wake of Maravars's resentment over the state government's decision to carve out a new transport corporation from the existing Pandyan Transport Corporation and name it after Veeran Sundaralingam, a key lieutenant of the eighteenth century freedom fighter Veera Pandya Katta Bomman. The Maravars felt their very identity, represented by the title Pandyan, was being threatened and responded by targetting buses named after Sundaralingam for attack and arson.

The Maravars, who have been the beneficiaries of caste hegemony in a number of southern districts, found themselves at the receiving end of this newly emerging militancy among Devendra Kula Vellalar youth.

Though the Maravar protests were initially confined to Madurai city and some southern towns, last month's police firing on a group of Maravar protestors in front of the Sivakasi sub-collectorate, in which three people were killed, aggravated the situation and clashes spread to far-flung Maravar villages serviced by the controversial transport corporation.

A ride from this town to any nearby village in a rickety white bus belonging to the new transport corporation could well turn out to be a dangerous proposition, with the buses having become target of Maravar fury. Incidents of stone-throwing on passing buses, attacks on bus crew and setting fire to buses are quite frequent. In fact, bus services are repeatedly suspended and services to sensitive villages like Injar are being operated with police escort. Some villages like Watrap have declared that buses bearing Sundaralingam's name are unwelcome.

However, a Sundaralingam bus was seen going to Mugavur village, which witnessed the first death in the district in the caste clashes last month. Tragically, Soundarapandyan, who had been stabbed to death, belonged to none of the warring castes. The village had to go without bus services for more than three weeks and the resultant caste clash ended with an attack on a local cinema theatre and the arrest of more than 60 people.

A rumour led to a police raid on Idayankulam, a Devendra Kula Vellalar habitat. Villagers allege that the police raided their houses and arrested more than 20 people after Maravar youth lodged a complaint that the Devendrars had erected an electric fence around the village. The fence turned out to be mere barbed wire erected out of insecurity.

Palanichamy, a resident of Idayankulam, was sore that the police had taken no action against the Maravars of nearby Mamsapuram, who, he said, had provoked an earlier clash. Idayankulam, moreover, had to accommodate more than 500 residents of the neighbouring Devendrar habitat of Aamachiyarpatti, who fled their homes after a similar clash with the Maravars of Mamsapuram.

The residents of Mamsapuram, however, said they were not against the naming of the transport corporation after Sundaralingam, but were only against the bifurcation of the existing Pandyan Transport Corporation.

Devendrar Kula youth complained of "routine police harassment". According to them, the majority of the 1,000 people arrested in the wake of caste clashes in the district belonged to their community.

Residents of Tiruthangal, a small town on the Srivilliputhur- -Sivakasi road, admitted that the town remained divided by the railway line into two zones populated by Maravars and Devendrars. While it was easy for an outsider to cross the railway track, youth belonging to the warring caste groups could do so only at immense risk to their lives. Two deaths had been reported from the town so far.

Sivakasi, well known for its fireworks units and printing presses, however, wore a busy look. Posters have been put up by Left parties and trade unions campaigning for communal amity on the one side and by caste organisations accusing each other of provoking the clashes on the other.

Residents of Kuraiyur village -- on the way to the district headquarters of Virudunagar which witnessed an explosion three weeks ago -- said the atmosphere in the village was still somewhat tense. The explosion, which took place in the Devendrar Kula Vellalar locality, created suspicion among the Maravars, leading to stabbing incidents in which two persons were injured.


Geographic spread of clashes changes

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