From Non-Brahmin to Non-Dalit: Caste Politics in Dravidian Land

By Hugo Gorringe

Dravidian Parties in Tamil Nadu are celebrating 2012 as the centenary of Dravidian Politics. Clearly this is a notable milestone. Dravidian politics, after all, was synonymous with social egalitarianism and radical campaigns against caste, gender and linguistic inequalities.


From the initial mobilisation of ‘non-Brahmins’ against the predominance of the numerically weak Brahmins in positions of administrative power, through the Self-Respect movement calls for cultural change, to the Dravida Kazhagam’s (Dravidian Federation) campaigns against superstition, caste and patriarchy the past hundred years of Dravidian mobilisation has plenty to celebrate. Although the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (ADMK) have lost much of the social radicalism they still retain a populist emphasis on social justice that has resulted in a number of social development schemes (such as the mid-day nutritious meal) that have benefited those at the foot of society (Lakhsman 2011).


As though to mark the centenary in fitting style, 2012 saw a significant breakthrough in a long-running caste dispute in Uthapuram. This town gained global notoriety for the caste wall that was erected to separate Dalits from their Backward Caste neighbours. Following sustained campaigns by the CPM and Dalit groups and the proactive intervention of then SP Asra Garg, the two communities marked their new found amity in June 2012 by celebrating the temple festival together.

Writing in The Hindu D. Karthikeyan hailed this as a ‘paradigm shift in peace-building measures’ and others took delight in the ‘giant stride towards communal harmony’. Whilst Uthapuram, at first sight, offers an example of the virtues of the inter-caste dialogue and interaction promoted by Dravidianism, the fact that we are still rejoicing in the destruction of a caste wall and the joint celebration of a village festival after all these years should give us pause for thought.


Subramanian’s (1999) comprehensive study of Tamil politics suggests that Dravidianism has fostered social pluralism in the state and served as an important buttress against communalism. At the same time, however, he notes the in-built casteism of the main Dravidian parties and the reluctance to engage in full scale land-reforms or other structural programmes that might have eroded the basis of caste inequalities. Even after a century one will struggle to find Dalits who have made it to the top in Tamil politics although Dalits comprise 18% of the population. It has taken successive mobilisations by caste-based movements and parties such as the Vanniyar Sangam and various Dalit movements to expose and challenge the dominant caste bias of Dravidian politics. All this combined with the fact of continued discriminations demands a more detailed exploration of the ties between Dalits and Dravidianism.


Dalit Politics and the Dravidian ‘Centenary’

In fact, the marginal position of Dalits within Dravidian rhetoric dates back to the late 19th Century. Why, we must ask, are we celebrating one hundred years of Dravidianism this year when Dalit intellectuals first articulated a vision of Dravidian politics well in advance of 1912. Indeed, Rev Rathinam (a Dalit convert) first registered the Dravidian Association (Dravidar Kazhagam) in 1886. His example was followed in 1891 when the great Dalit activist Pandit Ayotheethassar formed the Dravida Mahajana Sabha. Nations, as Renan notes, are founded on the basis of selective memory and forgetting, but what leaders choose to forget speaks volumes about their attitudes, identities and vision.


The erasure of these pioneers from the history of Dravidian politics is indicative of the systematic exclusion and marginalisation of subaltern voices in the movement. The history of anti-caste rhetoric and mobilisation and the populist appeal to the poor and marginalised saw Dalit voters abandon Congress for the Dravidian parties, but the faith they vested in the movement was not repaid in kind.



In 1968, for instance, when 44 Dalit agricultural labourers were burned alive in their huts for daring to demand better remuneration, Dravidian leaders were conspicuous by their silence and only took an interest following sustained campaigns and protests. In 1974, again, the popular and prominent leader Dr Satiyavani Muthu was ousted from the DMK for noting how caste Hindu politicians were frustrating her work as the Minister for Harijan Welfare. Despite being a key party leader – whose resignation prompted ten MLAs and an MP to step down in solidarity – she was unable to get her proposals for Dalit welfare accepted, let alone implemented (Ross-Barnett 1976).



The true failure of the Dravidian movement in terms of caste, though, is seen in the continued caste character of Tamil politics and the inability to take the anti-caste message to the masses. Washbrook (1976) noted how no campaigns or speeches had managed to breach the ‘untouchability line’ separating Dalits from their peers.


This persistent ostracism of Dalits was epitomised in this, the supposed centenary of Dravidianism, with the creation and – more significantly – official registration of a Non-Dalit Common People’s Association. That egalitarian rhetoric has yet to penetrate caste society is writ large in the officials’ willingness to formalise a body premised on caste-based exclusion. The past few years have also seen leaders of political parties openly call for the repeal of the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act. Even though the conviction rate in the state is abysmally low and recently attracted the attention of central government, its mere presence on the statute books is perceived to threaten various Backward Castes who – belying their categorisation – continue to be socially dominant. As if such ‘reverse-casteism’ were insufficient to demonstrate the caste mind-set in operation here, the recent caste census has led some leaders to openly call for caste members to forcibly prevent and punish inter-caste marriages (especially where they involve Dalits).


Dravidianism and the Dalit Response

The late 1980s and 1990s saw Dalits begin to mobilise and organise themselves into movements and parties that contested Dravidian hegemony and pressed for Dalit voices to be heard and represented in the state. Slogans like the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal’s (Liberation Panthers) ‘our votes for ourselves’, sought to prise Dalit voters away from parties that treated them as a vote-bank to be bought off at election times and otherwise ignored. Mobilisation across the state saw rural Dalits refuse to perform tradition caste work, confront untouchability head-on and raise demands for land-reform and the implementation of reservations and the SC/ST PoA Act. This uprising was met by a counter-mobilisation of the castes immediately above them in the hierarchy who felt threatened by their emergence and a series of caste atrocities and clashes pock-marked the period. Most notably, in 1997 Murugesan, the Panchayat President of Melavalavu and six others were hacked to death in broad daylight for presuming to contest elections in a reserved constituency. Though Murugesan was a DMK member it was the Dalit Panthers who took up the case and it took over a decade and the dedicated and committed work of a team of lawyers to secure the conviction of the killers. In the meantime, facing suppression by social and legal means and following their characterisation as extremists, leading Dalit movements entered politics.


Institutionalisation has blunted the sharp edges of these movements. In accommodating to the structures of Tamil politics they have been reigned in by Dravidianism. Dalit movements do not now call themselves as such having discovered that Dalit politics is a sure-fire vote loser. Instead they opt to try and reach out to the broader category of ethnic politics. The lack of space for them in Dravidian Tamil rhetoric has seen Dalit parties rush to the cause of Tamil Eelam in search of Tamil unity and identity elsewhere, whilst Tamils inDravidaLandcontinue to be divided. The Viduthalai Chiruthaigal may claim to be a Tamil nationalist party, but non-Dalits are not joining in droves and other parties still hold them apart. Perhaps the most serious indictment of Dravidian politics, however, is seen in the gradual Sanskritisation or brahminisation of Dalits themselves. Puthiya Tamilagam, the first Dalit movement to organise as an autonomous party in the state, thus, mobilises members of the Pallar caste under the sanskritised nomenclature of Devendra Kula Vellallars.


Though the attempt to invert stigma and create pride in an oppressed community is welcome, the outcome of such moves is beginning to be seen in intra-Dalit conflicts and discrimination. The three main Dalit castes in the state not only rarely inter-marry but increasingly react to such unions in the same way as upper-castes. I have encountered numerous cases where Pallar or Paraiyar marriages to Arunthathiyars have resulted in the couple being ostracised.


Untouchability is still rife as shown in numerous reports by parties like the CPM and NGOs like Evidence. The two-glass norm may have declined to some extent, but only where disposable cups have come into play. This is not to say, as activists frequently do, that ‘nothing has changed’. There has been a marked improvement in Dalit education, significant reductions in dependency and an increase in legal awareness and self-reliance. Populist policies, as Lakshman (2011: 174) notes, contain a ‘marginal redistributive element’. There is, as we stated at the outset, much to celebrate about the centenary, but much too to regret. Even the milestone in Uthapuram has been called into question given that Dalits and BCs mainly worshipped from outside the temple for fear of renewed clashes. Despite over a century of Dravidian politics there is a continued need for Dalit mobilisation and campaigns against caste-based discrimination. The path towards the Dravidian ideal of an egalitarian society of Tamils remains partially trodden and strewn with obstacles.





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