In memory of 44 Dalits who were charred to death in agrarian wage struggle

On Sunday, women and men, comrades and progressives, marched along the narrow winding roads to Keezhvenmani village in Keezhvelur at Nagapattinam, to commemorate the new memorial eternalising the memory of 44 Dalits — children, women and men — who were burnt to death in an agrarian wage struggle in 1968.

Keezhvenmani was perhaps the first chronicle of violence against Dalits in Independent India both as a labouring class and as outcastes finding their nascent voice under the banner of the Communist movement that was gaining ground in the then East Thanjavur region. Here, in a wage struggle, 16 women, 23 children, and five men were charred to death inside a hut in which they took refuge.

The killings were a culmination of a protracted struggle for wage hike by landless labourers, primarily Dalits, under the rising red flag union of the then Unified East Thanjavur district. That was on December 25, 1968.

It redefined the etymology of violence against Dalits, both as Caste and as a Class that was systematically kept out of land ownership, and was seeking due wages under the strength of communism. With the highest percentage of Dalits among the landless at that time, class struggle merged with caste struggle.

And for Tamil Nadu, a State that had catalysed promising changes under the banner of Dravidian ideology in 1967, the gruesome caste-class killings of Keezhvenmani was a jolt. The Keezhvenmani incident also launched irreversible agrarian changes, spawning mass scale redistribution of temple and mutt lands in East Thanjavur region.

The newly-erected granite memorial with 44 pillars was inaugurated by the Communist Party of India (Marixst). The memorial, built of contributions to the tune of Rs.3 crore from members of CITU (Centre of Indian Trade Unions), is earthquake resistant.

As if to immortalise the underlying struggle, the structure, after seven years of labour, has been consciously constructed of granite to stand the test of time.

Dedicating the memorial, spread over 4000 sq.ft., in the presence of the CPI(M) General Secretary Prakash Karat, the CITU State president A.Soundarajan said the memorial should serve as a tourist site for all left-thinking progressives from across the country.

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