23 August 2005
The press in India has rarely documented, in any detail and with any sensitivity, the grinding poverty, the day-to-day deprivations and discriminations and the all too frequent atrocities faced by the Dalits in this country. The fortnightly published by The Hindu group, Frontline, has been a rare exception in this regard. For more than a decade now, one of its Correspondents, S.Viswanathan, has painstakingly chronicled these dimensions of the Dalit situation in one of more modernised, progressive States in the country, Tamil Nadu.
The articles written by him on these issues — sympathetic and sensitive — have now been put together as a book by Navayana Publishing in Chennai, a novel publishing effort in highlighting the Dalit situation in the country. It has been a very worthy enterprise. These chronicles, in their totality, bring out a number of important aspects of the Dalit situation in Tamil Nadu today.
The first thing that strikes a reader is the depth and range of deprivations and discriminations Dalits have to face today: these are intense and acute, multiple and overlapping. And these are deprivations and discriminations a Dalit has to face in every aspect of his or her life. The Dalit condition is unique in this sense: such `cradle to grave’ deprivations and discriminations have rarely been the lot of any other community in India.
The articles painstakingly document these deprivations and discriminations in terms of livelihood issues: Dalits are denied access to land; their legitimate and traditional fishing rights in ponds are taken away; they are denied access to roads and often their living space, the Cheri on the outer fringes of the village, is encroached upon by the `caste Hindus’; their access to clean drinking water is virtually non-existent and their wells are often poisoned during anti-Dalit riots; the majority of Dalits are agricultural labourers with low wages and long stretches of unemployment — the list appears to be unending.
Social, political reprisals
However, these deprivations and discriminations are not just economic; they are also social, cultural and political. Illiteracy among Dalits is very high and this is exploited in more ways than one. There are subtle — often not so subtle — types of discrimination a Dalit student has to face in school; untouchability is widespread, including the use of `two glasses’ — one for Dalits and the other for `caste Hindus’ — in tea shops. There is a delicate line of social behaviour, transgression of which brings in immediate and often brutal reprisals. Smoking in front of `caste Hindus’ or walking in the main part of the village wearing chappals can invite violence. But the most brutal forms of reprisal — including `honour killings’ of the couple by `caste Hindus’ — seem to be reserved for inter-caste marriages involving a Dalit.
The discriminations are also political in nature. Often their right to vote is taken away through violent means; in some cases there is violent reprisal — by the police — because Dalits decide to boycott elections in protest. In elected panchayats with reservations for Dalits, elections are either not allowed to be held, or, when held elected Dalit panchayat members are not allowed to function. In some cases, the denial of these rights has taken the form of murder of Dalit panchayat members. Political rallies by Dalits are not allowed to take off or severely restricted.
There is very little solace for a Dalit in religion or even in death; various types of discriminations continue in these spheres. The religious rights of the Dalit — to worship — are often severely restricted. And the burial grounds for Dalits often lack proper approach roads and attempts to reach these grounds through land belonging to `caste Hindus’ often invite reprisals.
The fact that Dalits have to face such deprivation, discrimination, and violence — in all their intensity and range — from `caste Hindus’ is perhaps explicable in terms of the central role caste plays in our society. But these articles also bring out the role — more often than not, nefarious — played by various organs of the state in this. The police have often been brutal in their dealings with Dalits — the articles documents heart-rending accounts of such brutalities. The administration has been insensitive, to say the least. Atrocities against Dalits and instances of Dalit assertion are treated essentially as law and order problems, not social ones. Viswanathan also records the devious ways in which the administration tries to scuttle various programmes and measures instituted by the State for the benefit of Dalits — such as reservations in jobs and poverty alleviation programmes. The inquiry commissions set up by the State often end up blaming the victims: perhaps the most notorious example of this is an inquiry Commission that did a complete white-wash of police brutalities against striking workers, mostly Dalits, of the Manjolai tea estate in Tirunelveli in July 1999.
While deep-rooted caste prejudices and practices provide the basis for these discriminations and atrocities faced by Dalits, the Frontline articles also document another side to the picture. While the story has been one of deprivations and discriminations, it is also a story of Dalit assertion. And such assertion often has invited reprisals — often brutal — by `caste Hindus’ and the State. The bases and forms of such assertion by Dalits have been varied and many. It has often been the result of out-migration, particularly to the Gulf countries, by Dalits in search of skilled jobs. It has taken the form of land struggles; struggles for better wages and working conditions, as by the Manjolai estate workers. It has often taken the form of conversion to Islam. Perhaps most importantly, it has taken the form of political mobilisation and involvement.
Viswanathan documents in considerable detail the trajectory of Dalit politics in Tamil Nadu, and his assessment is sober and reasoned. While recognising the specificities of the Dalit situation — or even the uniqueness of it in terms of the depth and range of deprivations and discriminations faced by Dalits — he constantly attempts to situate the Dalit problem within the larger socio-economic and political contexts. He recognises the fact that the `caste Hindus’ who are often in the forefront of violence against Dalits — like sections of Thevars in southern Tamil Nadu and Vanniars in the northern regions — hardly belong to the ruling classes and have only a marginally higher socio-economic status than Dalits. And it is the poor belonging to all the communities and castes who suffer during episodes of violence. Given this reality, isolating the Dalits from the rest of the deprived is hardly a solution. Viswanathan’s attempt in these Frontline articles is to identify the foundational basis of deprivation in general and unite all the deprived sections on such a basis even while recognising that the Dalits are the most deprived in every sense of the term and hence, their problems would need special emphasis and attention. He constantly keeps going back in these articles to the foundational role played by the land question, the question of livelihood, and the need to have a socio-cultural movement against the caste system. In this he is squarely within the Marxist tradition and highlights the positive role the Left parties have played in the Dalit politics in Tamil Nadu. So, the diatribe against the Left parties in the introduction to the book by Ravikumar, one of the publishers of the book, appears particularly incongruous.
Role of the Dravidian movement
What about the role of the Dravidian movement and the Dravidian parties, the DMK and the AIADMK? The title of the book, `Dalits in Dravidian Land,’ as well as large parts of the introduction seem to indicate that the Dravidian movement and the Dravidian parties have to share a large part of the blame for the situation of the Dalits in the State today. The Dravidian parties certainly have a lot to answer for in this regard: the articles clearly chronicle the fact that violence by state organs was a regular feature all through the rule of these two parties in Tamil Nadu. But one also would have to recognise the fact that the Dravidian movement in the State provided socio-political and cultural space for the deprived sections to assert themselves. While it is undeniable that the gainers in this process were largely the middle castes, the assertion by the deprived — including the Dalits — could hardly be divorced from this movement.
This is a book that tells us what an intelligent, committed, sober — and self-effacing — journalist can do to highlight gross injustices and deprivations prevalent in our midst. At a time when glossy, trivial, P3 journalism is making heavy inroads into the Indian print media, we should thank Frontline and Viswanathan for keeping this tradition alive; and Navayana for putting all the articles in one place.
© Copyright 2000 – 2005 The Hindu
Dalits in Dravidian Land: Frontline reports on anti-dalit violence in Tamil Nadu (1995–2004). By S. Viswanathan, Rs 300 (USD 25); 356 pages, ISBN: 81-89059-05-X, pb with 34 B&W photographs.
The book is available in leading bookstores across the country. In Delhi, contact: West Land Books: 011-51718453, 011-29840113
For the southern states, contact West Land Books in Chennai at 044-30580417, 52080417, 52080418
To avail discount on bulk orders contact:
Navayana Publishing at 91-94440-61256, firstname.lastname@example.org
Navayana Publishing, 54, 1st Floor, Savarirayalu Street, Pondicherry 605001