Dalit politics in Tamilnadu
RAJ SEKHAR BASU
IN the southern Indian state of Tamilnadu, a majority of Dalit men, women and children work as agricultural labourers in return for a pittance. They live a life steeped in poverty and find it difficult to throw away the shackles of debt bondage that have been passed on to them from previous generations. The practice of segregation continues and Dalits are forbidden to enter places of worship, to draw water from public wells or wear shoes in the presence of the dominant upper caste groups.1 In such a situation, the Dalits are forced to perform the lowly occupations which are often stigmatized as polluting.
In most villages Dalits are made to render free service in times of death, marriage or any village function. They are forced to clean the village, dig graves and dispose off the carcasses of dead animals. Any effort to subvert the practice of untouchability leads to social boycott and acts of retaliatory violence. The attempts on the part of the Dalits to convert to Buddhism, Christianity or Islam, seldom offer them an opportunity to discard the label of untouchability.2
Significantly, the prevalence of the caste system adds an economic dimension to the social scenario of rural Tamilnadu. R. Balakrishnan, the Chairman of the Tamilnadu Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes had observed, The caste system is an economic order. It prevents someone from acquiring land or receiving an education. It is a vicious cycle and an exploitative economic arrangement. Land owning patterns and being a high caste member are coterminus. Also there is a nexus between (being) lower caste and landlessness Caste is a tool to perpetuate exploitative economic arrangements.3 Such a statement obviously implies the degraded state of Dalit agricultural labourers, most of whom happen to be landless.
The lack of access to landed resources compounds the economic problems of the Dalit masses. This state of helplessness is exploited by upper caste landlords and rich peasantry belonging to the intermediary caste groups. Economic liberalization too has had an adverse effect on the livelihood of these underprivileged groups as the downsizing of the public sector has diminished the job opportunities for Dalits in state owned enterprises. Further, globalization and the entry of corporate giants have deprived a section of the Dalits from exercising ownership rights over land which in the past had been assigned to them as Panchama lands. The assignees were forced to sell these lands to the other castes in order to survive the pangs of starvation.
Yet, these lands continue to be recorded year after year as DC (conditional) lands in official revenue records. It is ironic that the assignees of DC lands themselves have no real understanding of the conditions that have been laid down for the exercise of occupancy rights over such lands. The inability on their part to comprehend the intricacies of land transfer have been of great advantage to the upper caste landlords and land speculators. No wonder, attempts on the part of the Dalit Joint Action Committee and the Save Panchama Land Movement to force the government to restore all such lands to their original Dalit owners have resulted in mayhem and rioting.4
Consequently, the state of Tamilnadu has been ravaged by caste clashes. The clashes between Thevars (a backward caste) and Pallars (Dalits) have been in the headlines of the national dailies for now well over a decade.5 It is often argued that the sense of self-esteem and freedom among the Dalits resulting from the governments policies of protective discrimination have encouraged the land owning background and upper caste groups to strengthen the foundations of the old social order.6
This strife torn atmosphere has generated predictable responses from radical minded academics and grassroot level Dalit activists in Tamilnadu. The functioning and relevance of the governmental structure, as practiced and sustained by the post-colonial state, have come under close scrutiny and criticism. The attempt on the part of the Indian nation state to be representative of all lingustic and religious groups has come under heavy attack. All talk of plurality in terms of religious and cultural experiences have been looked upon as calculated moves aimed at erasing the differential experiences of groups within the contours of the Indian nation state structure.
M.S.S. Pandian has argued that moral regulation by the modern state is integral to the existence of nations, as it remains an effective ploy in the creation of an ever-elusive homogenized citizen subject.7 Since citizenship does not have any connotation, what essentially is represented in the personality of a citizen is a result of changing power dynamics in a nations biography. Pandian observes, The contest around citizenship staged by those social groups that find themselves inadequately or not represented at all in the citizens figure, reproduces most often the very language of the nation.8 While, at one level, the claim to citizenship is presented as a claim to equality, at another level it is essentially a narration of irreconcilable differences. Presumably, it is the other aspirations that strengthen the demands for an alternative nationhood with rights to an alternative state.9
Incidentally, there have been some moments in contemporary Indian politics when attempts were made to obliterate the language of the nation state. The writings of the Tamil Dalit intellectuals known as the Pondicherry Group represents what may be seen as an example of such a trend. Raj Gowthaman, A. Marx, Ravikumar and others have attempted a rethinking on questions related to power and culture, in particular on the complexity of issues relating to Tamil/Dravidian nationalism.10
The interest in Dravidian nationalism is no recent phenomenon in Tamilnadu. In the early decades of the twentieth century, the Dravidian movement led by E.V. Ramaswami Naickar had tried to counter the challenge of the hegemonic Indian nation through the construction of Tamil/Dravidian nationalism. This phase of the Dravidian movement advocated a form of nationalism which was territorially undefined and allowed sufficient space for different identities to articulate themselves.11 The movement upheld a more inclusive notion of citizenship by integrating the aspirations of lower castes, religious minorities and non-Hindi speakers. The Dravidian movement leaders in Tamilnadu invented a glorious Tamil past to silence the unwelcome product of north Indian imperialism or depredating Brahminism.12 Thus, what was essentially arrived at was an undifferentiated/homogenized non-Brahmin, who was still awaiting his/her nation.
The current Dalit intellectuals have started questioning the logic behind the construction of the Tamil/Dravidian. Their questions essentially focus on (a) Whether the citizen figure of the Tamil/Dravidian adequately represents the Dalits and (b) How did this category of undifferentiated non-Brahmin (which was an essential attribute of Tamil/Dravidian) pose obstacles for the Dalits in their quest for a sovereign identity and separate politics?13 The proponents of the Pondicherry Group tried to find answers to these questions in an era that witnessed the Ambedkar centenary celebrations, the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the rising brand of Hindutva politics.
In his two books, Dalits Paarvayil Tamil Panpadu and Dalit Panpadu, Gowthaman questioned the claim of homogeneity in Tamil culture.14 Instead, he characterized the whole of Tamil culture as a relationship between the hunter and the hunted. He rediscovered in the classical Tamil literature a world of unequal social relations and a hierarchical system. This stood in sharp contrast to Dravidian nationalisms advocacy of classical Tamil literature as the epitome of Tamil greatness. Gowthaman expressed the opinion that classical Tamil literature had always been the voice of the upper castes and seldom the voice of the Dalits. The Dalits and other labouring classes had toiled hard as the producers of wealth. But, the priestly classes, royal families and landlords, who lived by exploiting these classes, had succeeded in establishing their domination through ideology and violence.15
It has been pointed out that Gowthamans narrative of Tamil history differs from that of mainstream Dalit discourse in the way the Dalit past has been reconstructed. While the mainstream Dalit discourse had tried to represent the Dalits as the authors of the Indus Valley civilization,16 Gowthamans narrative of the Tamil past depicted the world of lowly hill cultivator, hunters, fishermen and pastoralist communities. The social life of these groups was believed to have been communal and more or less egalitarian, since there was hardly any internal differentiation. In other words, it was through such a narrative that a Dalit counterculture was sought to be projected.
M.S.S. Pandian has argued that the other past of the Tamils, which was silenced by Dravidian nationalism but underwent a revival in the hands of the Pondicherry Group, essentially represented a faceless past, without heroes or heroic episodes.17 This past stood for the erasure of the civilizational high points of Tamil culture and celebrated the traditions of those who were believed to be beyond the pale of this civilization. This projection had all the possibilities of eluding the trap of nationalism.18
Incidentally, the Pondicherry Groups search for Dalit liberation was not limited to a specific territory and advocated mobilizing under-privileged groups or communities, all of whom could be a source for a new brand of politics. Gowthaman argued that Dalits should build a Dalit sub-national culture based on the culture of the tribals, who are treated as without a nationality like the Dalits. However, this Dalit sub-national culture was viewed as an oppositional culture, which was bereft of formalization into any form of power. Gowthaman believed that state, caste, religion, God, morality, justice, norms governing man-woman relationships, as well as ideologies of family and literature, were all institutions that highlighted civilizational achievements. Thus they had to be resisted. This resistance meant resignifying as positive, as well as celebrating, those cultural practices that the upper caste institutions deemed as lowly.19
Members of the Pondicherry Group, particularly A. Marx and Ravikumar, have argued that nationalist invocation of the past cared little for the ordinary and denied them of any valid location in the society. They believed that defecating and urinating on heroes could be the beginning of displacing one set of heroes with another. However, there is also a clear message of defiance implicit in these acts. The aim on the part of the Dravidian nationalists to construct Dravidian literature as of exemplary literary quality was defined as an act of getting involved with the very structure of power, which they sought to demolish.
Such ideas have at times also been replicated in the writings of the mainstream Dalit leaders of Tamilnadu. Thirumaavalavan, a vocal Dalit leader of Tamilnadu with a very radical bent of mind, categorically asserted that the upper caste bias of the Dravidian parties the DMK and AIADMK can only be resisted if the Dalits organize themselves. Nevertheless, he seems reluctant to snap ties with these parties because of electoral compulsions. Thirumaavalavans position thus seems to be both radical and compromising.20
In contrast, the Pondicherry Groups political agenda is one of moving from a faceless past to a faceless future a future denuded of all difference. As Gowthaman has observed, Our problem is not one of becoming owners of wealth or richer or crypto-Brahmin. To become owners, we need several workers. Likewise, to become rich, we need several poor. To become a crypto-Brahmin one needs a series of lower castes including the Dalits. That is why we do not need the order of domination and subordination. Only when the Dalit protest culture destroys this order, we shall arrive at the consciousness that one need not either be a crypto-Brahmin or a drudging Dalit. [Instead] let us be human beings We call those who are not bound by domination and subordination as human beings.21 The desire for power as a solution to the powerlessness of the Dalits has also been strongly criticized. Finally that since Dalit liberation basically stands for destruction of power, the yearning for power could lead to the destruction of Dalit politics.22
The Pondicherry Groups vision of politics, therefore, stands at a distance from both Dravidian nationalism as also mainstream Dalit politics in Tamilnadu. While the Dravidian movement and the mainstream Dalit politics seek solutions within the construct of a nation, the Pondicherry Group stands for a disentanglement from the trap of the nation. But, there may have been several other objectives that guided the perceptions of this group. In fact, through the entire exercise of critiquing as well as rejecting the civilizational claims of modernity, the Dalit activists try to claim a space for autonomous Dalit politics. This new political project, which is specifically addressed to the lower castes, gives rise to a sphere of politics outside the modern civil society/public sphere. The defiance that has been displayed in conceding to the demands of Indian upper caste modernity, has heralded the appearance of the subaltern counter public. As M.S.S. Pandian observes, this is a public where a language of caste instead of the language of speaking caste by other means is validated, encouraged and practiced.23 Nonetheless, modern civil society with its emphasis on modernity continues to resist the articulation of lower caste politics.24
1. For more details, see Broken People: Caste Violence Against Indias Untouchables, Human Rights Watch, New York, 1999, pp. 23-24.
2. Ibid., p. 27.
4. Brindavan C. Moses, Panchama Land in Tamil Nadu in M. Thangaraj (ed.) Land Reforms in India, Tamil Nadu: An Unfinished Task, Volume 9, Sage Publications, New Delhi, 2003, p. 130.
5. For more details, see The New Resistance: Dalits and the Politics of Caste, Frontline, 18 November-1 December 1995, Vol. 12, No. 24; The Sunday Statesman (Calcutta edition), 15 September 2002.
6. Broken People, op.cit., p. 82.
7. M.S.S. Pandian, Stepping Outside Histroy? New Dalit Writings From Tamilnadu in Partha Chatterjee (ed.) Wages of Freedom: Fifty Years of the Indian Nation State, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1998, p. 292.
8. Ibid., p. 293.
9. The claim to equality which is often couched in the language of rights inevitably endorses the nation state as the sole arbiter of citizenship claims. This involvement of the nation state brings forth a homogenizing desire, resulting in innumerable number of differences. For more details, see Ibid.
10. M.S.S. Pandian, New Dalit Writings From Tamilnadu, op.cit., p. 294.
11. Ibid., pp. 294-295; see also, M.S.S. Pandian, "Denationalising" the Past: "Nation" in E.V. Ramaswami Naickars Political Discourse, Economic and Political Weekly, 16 October 1993.
12. M.S.S. Pandian, New Dalit Writings From Tamilnadu, op.cit., p. 295.
13. Ibid., p. 296.
14. For him the culture of the Tamil nationality needs to be explored as it was often discussed in the context of the Indian nation. In fact, several contradictory elements were seen to exist within Tamil culture. In a sense, the culture of the Brahminised upper castes widely differed from that of the Dalits, a result of the subjugation of the latter by the former. For more details, see Ibid., p. 302.
15. M.S.S. Pandian, New Dalit Writings From Tamilnadu, op.cit., p. 303.
16. The depiction of the Dalits as authors of the Indus Valley civilization was restricted not simply within the boundaries of Tamilnadu or other parts of the erstwhile Madras Presidency. In the case of Punjab, the lower caste leaders owing allegiance to the Adi Dharm movement traced their identity to an ancient civilization that had been destroyed by the Aryans. In UP, the Chamar leader Swami Acchutananda articulated the view that untouchables were the first inhabitants of India, the rightful owners of the land. The Aryans were alleged to have destroyed their culture and civilization and transformed them into untouchables in the society. Swami Acchutananda popularized the view that Adi Hindus had their roots in the Indus Valley civilization of Harappa and Mohenjo Daro. For more details, see Mark Juergensmeyer, Religion as Social Vision: The Movement Against Untouchability in Twentieth Century Punjab, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1982, pp. 2-3; Christophe Jaffrelot, Indias Silent Revolution: The Rise of the Lower Castes in North Indian Politics, Permanent Black, Delhi, 2003, pp. 201-202.
17. M.S.S. Pandian, New Dalit Writings From Tamilnadu, op.cit., p. 304.
19. Gowthaman stated that it was through beef eating and drinking that the resistance to upper caste disciplinary institutions could be built. For more details, see Ibid., p. 305.
20. Thirumaavalavan, Uproot Hindutva: The Fiery Voice of the Liberation Panthers (Translated from the Tamil by Meena Kandasamy), Samya, Kolkata, 2004, pp. 51-53.
21. For more details, see M.S.S. Pandian, New Dalit Writings From Tamilnadu, op.cit., p. 308.
23. M.S.S. Pandian, One Step Outside Modernity: Caste, Identity, Politics and Public Sphere, Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (Codesria), Sephis-Codesria Lecture No. 4, Amsterdam/Dakar, 2002, p. 20.