Riven with the aftershocks of a tragic love story, the constituency appears divided on community lines

Just a little away from Natham Colony at Naikkankottai, the epicentre of a tragic love story that shook the conscience of Tamil Nadu last year, Dalits of Vellalapatti still feel its aftershocks.

Ilavarasan from the community married Divya, a Vanniyar, setting off a series of events that led to the young man’s death. The police say he committed suicide after she disowned the marriage under pressure from her community. The social consequence of the episode has been, however, a divide between Backward Caste sections and Dalits in parts of the State. For many in the Dharmapuri Lok Sabha constituency, their voting decisions will depend on which side of the divide they stand.

“In the 2009 Lok Sabha election, we voted for political parties irrespective of who the candidate was. This time however, we will vote for our community,” says Ilakkiyam, a Dalit woman, who is leaving for Bangalore next week to find work.

Krishnaveni, Ilavarasan’s mother, says the relationship of Dalits with the landowning Vanniyars has soured. No longer are Vanniyars willing to employ Dalits to work their land. Many in the Scheduled Caste community across Dharmapuri have begun migrating seasonally to other States in search of work, putting their families under extreme pressure.

The grieving mother says that while the death of her son was a personal loss, the repercussions of the love affair go beyond the realm of the personal.

“In the past six months, this has become an unbearable livelihood issue. Our income has plummeted. We have been set back by 20 years. We believe our vote this time will decide our future,” she says. The women in the villages, where toilets are few, fear even using the surrounding lands to answer nature’s call.

Ms. Krishnaveni says she is even willing to campaign for those espousing the Dalit cause.

Without exception, the community members, in over 15 villages this reporter visited, pledged their support to the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi, led by Thol. Thirumavalavan. The Dalit party is in alliance with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, which looks set to gain from this consolidated vote bank, despite fielding a candidate from the Vanniyar community.

But in Vanniyar pockets, a counter-polarisation seems to be building up. On almost every wall is painted the “Mango,” the election symbol of the Pattali Makkal Katchi. Its founder, S. Ramadoss, has accused Dalit youth of enticing girls from other communities with an eye on their wealth or for extortion. The party has fielded his son and former Union Health Minister Anbumani Ramadoss as its candidate in the constituency.

The people of Sellankottai, where Divya lives, and nearby places say their vote would be for those who have taken up “burning issues” affecting the community and its women in particular. “Whatever Ayya (Dr. Ramadoss) is saying is the reality,” says Jeyaraman, an agriculturist, recollecting a number of cases filed against Vanniyar youth in the area under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.

The tremors of the Ilavarasan episode are palpable in faraway Pennagaram, where those from Sellankottai have taken up electioneering for the PMK. While the Vanniyars are considered the largest vote bank in the constituency, Dalits are a close second.

Sampath Kumar, political commentator and Professor at the Asian College of Journalism, says the campaign which the PMK undertook to unite all non-Dalit communities may benefit the party in Dharmapuri, which has sizable non-Vanniyar Backward Caste and minority vote banks. The Communist parties also have a strong presence in Harur, but are not in the fray this time.

The PMK’s victory may hinge on the extent to which the two principal Dravidian parties, which have won here twice each in the past, make inroads into Vanniyar votes.

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