Caste prejudice and caste as a relationship, as B R Ambedkar pointedly asserted, rest upon endogamous marriages. Inter-caste marriages have always been resented by casteists all over India – parents, caste bodies and political parties. The recent death of Ilavarasan, a young dalit man in Tamil Nadu’s Dharmapuri district, highlights once again the vice-like grip of caste prejudice.
While the immediate circumstances leading to Ilavarasan’s death are still under investigation, the fact remains that its root cause was the immense pressure on him and his wife Divya by the leaders of the Vanniyar community to which Divya belonged. Ilavarasan and Divya got married last year against the wishes of her parents, a decision which led her father, Nagarajan, to commit suicide. In itself this is doubly tragic – a death forced by a feeling of insult and humiliation that flowed from some extremely regressive ideas. The role of the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), which has its mass base among the Vanniyars, is particularly dubious in this tragic episode. The PMK actively fanned the violence which erupted in the aftermath of this marriage and its activists led the attack on dalit homes in Naickenkottai village of Dharmapuri district in November 2012 after the death of Divya’s father. Similar attacks were reported on a dalit colony in Marakkanam in Villupuram district in April this year.
The PMK campaigned against the marriage, with its leader S Ramadoss openly opposing marriages between dalits and Vanniyars and demanding amendments to the Scheduled Caste/ Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act to subvert the clauses which protect dalits from physical and verbal attacks. He went on to suggest that parents should be given a legal say in their children’s marriage. Ramadoss’ virulent attacks on inter-caste marriage and the autonomy of young adults underline how much of a threat inter-caste weddings pose to the institution of caste. The PMK has now formed a federation of intermediate castes to further push this regressive programme.
The PMK has long been seen as the Vanniyar community’s political representative after it managed to achieve “compartmental reservation” for the “most backward classes” among the backward classes in the late 1980s. But in recent times its political fortunes seem to be ebbing and it has been reduced to holding only three assembly seats in the state.
In the near past, the PMK had resorted to demands and agitations to carve a bigger political constituency for itself. These demands were either chauvinistic (Tamil exclusivism) or parochial (demand for a separate state in north Tamil Nadu). However, these have not been successful political manoeuvres. It now seems to have latched on to an aggressive anti-dalit politics where opposition to “our girls” being taken by “dalit boys” is the rallying cry. PMK’s present politics exposes the limitations of identity politics which fails to move beyond its exclusivism and is today a visible by-product of Dravidian politics in Tamil Nadu. The limiting of social justice to identity assertion has seen the continuation of age-old caste antagonisms, rather than their gradual erosion. It is tragic and ironic to witness the revival of such fatal casteism in a state which pioneered powerful anti-caste movements in south Asia.
The caste-based antagonism between the dalit and Vanniyar communities has been present in Tamil Nadu for a long time. The Vanniyar agitations in the late 1980s were directed not only at obtaining affirmative action, but also against the fact that dalits were “beneficiaries” of the reservation policy.
The Vanniyars have traditionally been a poor, lower caste community. The socio-economic status of the dalits in northern Tamil Nadu has been worse. Yet, following migrations of upper and middle caste communities to urban areas, many among the Vanniyars became landowners, and dalits farm labourers on these lands.
As a result of reservation, the Vanniyars have improved their socio-economic status and have done well for themselves among the most backward classes. The recent rise in the socio-economic condition of dalits, sections of whom are moving from farm labour into various forms of urban or migrant work, has created a situation of conflict with the landowning backward classes. This has occasionally resulted in aggressive violence against dalits in several parts of Tamil Nadu in the past decade with the dalits facing attacks largely from the landed backward classes – Vanniyars in the north, Kallars in the south. The ruling Dravidian parties have been unable (or perhaps unwilling) to do much about this issue, for they too derive a fair amount of support from these landed backward communities. These pages had commented (“Dalits in Tamil Nadu”, 21 July 2012) on the need for a stronger political mobilisation of the dalits in the state.
Ilavarasan’s tragic death is an indication that progressive forces need to come out more forcefully against the intermeshing of caste and patriarchy. Whether it is the middle class families of India’s growing cities, or the Khap panchayats of rural north India or criminal politicians, it is becoming clear that caste cannot be fought without fighting patriarchy.