When PMK launched its tirade against inter-caste marriages involving Dalit men, political parties came on board to criticise the statements by party founder Ramadoss. Activists and feminist intellectuals say that what was lost in the melee was the voice of Dalit and Vanniyar women, rendered silent by the confines of caste. “Cast in caste, they have become prized trophies to be owned, regulated and guarded by the menfolk of the respective communities,” a noted activist said.

What PMK has articulated may play out dangerously for women of the intermediate castes, especially in rural areas. “The wounded masculinity projected by the PMK vis-a-vis a demonstrative Dalit masculinity would limit women’s autonomy, freedom and sexuality,” says S. Anandhi, Associate Professor, Madras Institute of Development Studies. She adds: “Women would be compelled to rework both their public and private spaces to align with the caste masculinities.”

For V. Geetha, social historian and activist, the Dharmapuri riots were an expression of sexual anxiety. “Targeted violence against Dalit women and property is itself an attempt to ‘unman,’ emasculate the Dalit, to reveal their inability to function as ‘protectors.’ That a mainstream leader such as Mr. Ramadoss articulated such anxiety is shocking,” says Geetha.

In May of this year, a 30-year-old Vanniyar woman was publicly lynched for an alleged extra-marital affair with a Dalit man in Vedaranyam. “Prior to the lynching, the men had asked her if she was not happy with Vanniyar men that she chose a Dalit,” said the Dalit man, when The Hindu interviewed him then.

Sexual politics is complex and works at multiple levels, says Anandhi. By invoking a sense of ‘wounded masculinity’, PMK has established a new role for its youth, that of ‘boundary setters’, assuming a vigilante role. For women, seen as transgressing community norms, there is a high price to pay. Dalit outfits have not fared much better either, says Anandhi. “Caste parties including that of Dalits bear notions of community honour and women continue to be the carriers of that honour,” she says. The virulent male is all-too-present in their aggressive youth brigades and their projection of a leadership with twirled moustaches. The Dalit woman is rendered invisible.

And boundary settings are prevalent even among Dalits, Anandhi says. In 2010, a caste panchayat here publicly whipped an 18-year-old Dalit girl for ‘abetting’ a love affair. The girl set herself on fire.

Dravidian parties have typically responded to this problem by championing mass marriages. Anandhi believes that while inter-caste marriages question caste identity, they often remain symbolic and caste-ritual based subordination of women continues, she says. “Unless the caste-gender linkages are established and women’s independent personhood is foregrounded, both Dalit women and women of intermediate castes would continue to remain as invisible symbols and as transferable property between castes,” says Anandhi.

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