There is no denying that media coverage of Dalit-related incidents and issues in Tamil Nadu has improved in the last two decades. In the early years of Independence, the typical attitude to Dalit problems was, as in every other State, one of complacency. This was mainly because the moment the Republican Constitution declared that untouchability was abolished across India, the media, civil society, and the political establishment began to believe that the problems concerning this section of the people have been resolved once for all.
In Tamil Nadu, particularly in the first few years of Independence, the struggle for reservation for backward classes in government employment became the foremost item on the social agenda of the Dravidian parties. So, unsurprisingly, when the State was rocked by incidents of violence involving Dalits and a section of caste Hindus in southern Tamil Nadu in the 1950s, the media as well as the mainstream political parties saw it as a “riot involving two social groups” or a fallout of competitive politics.
Only in the 1990s, when the birth centenary of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar was celebrated across the country and Dalit socio-political assertiveness was in evidence did the media begin to see the issue from a different perspective. Horrific violence against Dalits, the resultant loss of life and property, and brutal intervention by the police on the side of the oppressors gave a new dimension to the media approach to Dalit-related issues. The killing of Dalits, and entrenched discriminatory practices against them were now seen, at least by a section of the media, from the angle of violation of human rights. Kodiyankulam (1995), Gundupatti (1998), and the Tirunelveli massacre (1995) can be cited as notorious examples of police repression against Dalits.
The dawn of the 21st century witnessed some new developments. The realignment of political parties, hopes raised by electoral politics, and the success of coalition-building among Dalit parties altered the ground reality. Media coverage of Dalit issues seems to be in decline, although a few popular Tamil magazines have chosen to keep the coverage alive, in a diluted form, usually with an eye on those looking for sensational reports. During the same period, there has been a decline in anti-Dalit violence but the chronic or entrenched problems loom large. Aside from persistent social discrimination against Dalits, landlessness, loss of land owing to ignorance or acute poverty, and improper implementation of the reservation system cry out for a solution. In the most recent period, the subject has been given lower priority even among the handful of newspapers that have been maintaining a decent level of coverage.
Madras High Court judgment
For instance, a recent court judgment of the Madras High Court on the alienation of the “Panchami Lands” assigned to the ‘Depressed Classes' (later termed Scheduled Castes) to persons who were not from the Depressed Classes raises questions about a problem that has defied solution over decades. Dismissing the writ appeals filed by a private builder and a residents' association against an order passed in 1996 by a single Judge of the Madras High Court, a Division Bench comprising Justice Prabha Sridevan and Justice P.P.S. Janarthana Raja affirmed the findings of the single Judge that the lands in question were the [Panchami] lands allotted to members of the Scheduled Castes, subject to the conditions stipulated in Standing Order No. 15 of the Board of Revenue and that the present alienation of the land was in violation of these conditions. According to the Standing Order, if there has been violation of the conditions in the alienation of Panchami land, the Government has the power to resume the land. In such cases, “the Government will be entitled to re-enter and take possession of the land without payment of any compensation or refund of the purchase money.” The judgment pointed out that the conditions imposed by the Government when it assigned the land were that the allotted land should not be alienated to any person for 10 years from the date of assignment and thereafter they could only be alienated to persons belonging to the Depressed Classes and if they were alienated to persons other than the Depressed Classes, the Government had the power to retrieve such land.
The Division Bench quotes extensively from the observations of the Supreme Court of India while dealing with the question of the right to economic justice under Article 46 of the Constitution, “which casts upon the State a duty to provide economic justice to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes and other weaker sections of the society in order to prevent their exploitation.” Justice Prabha Sridevan, who delivered the judgment for the Division Bench, gives a brief history of the assignment of lands to the Depressed Classes, before elaborating the Bench's verdict. In 1891, the Collector of Chengalpet District in northern Tamil Nadu, J.H.A. Tremenheere, sent a report to the British government on the plight of the Depressed Classes. Lands were then in the total control of persons who were considered to be at higher levels in the caste hierarchy and the bonded agricultural labourers and landless workers mainly belonged to the Depressed Classes.
Tremenheere stated further in his report: “The small marginal land holdings, housing, literacy, free labour without force/bondage, self-respect and dignity are the factors that could lead to transformation (in their lives).” The British Parliament passed the Depressed Class Land Act in 1892 and 12 lakh acres of land were distributed to people from the Depressed Classes in Tamil Nadu. The lands were called Panchami Lands [also known as Depressed Classes Conditional Lands] and were given away on certain conditions.
Justice Prabha Sridevan noted in this judgment that it would appear that the conditions over sale were imposed bearing in mind that it would be easy to exploit persons belonging to the Depressed Classes who had been kept in a subjugated condition. Statistics showed that vast extents of lands distributed under the scheme were later in the possession of persons who did not belong to the Depressed Classes. The Judge observed that the conditions appeared to have been violated without any check or restraint. (The counsel for the appellants had submitted that such a restraint on alienation of land was void.)
The Judge drew attention to an excerpt from the Statement of Objects and Reasons of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, which the Supreme Court referred to while dealing with a petition challenging the Act. The excerpt read: “Despite various measures to improve the socio-economic conditions of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes, they remain vulnerable. They are denied a number of civil rights. They are subjected to various offences, indignities, humiliation, and harassment. They have, in several brutal incidents, been deprived of their life and property. Serious crimes are committed against them for various historical, social and economic reasons.” She added: “The very sad truth is that the conditions recorded in the Statement of Objects and Reasons in the year 1989 have not abated. Therefore, this only underscores the importance of protecting the rights of those who have been for centuries, denied this right [to live with human dignity].”
The verdict of the Division Bench, which has looked into the problem from the perspective of the constitutional rights of Dalits, such as the right to economic justice and the right to live with dignity, gains significance in the context of repeated appeals of Dalit and Left organisations to the government to retrieve Panchami lands, assigned to Dalits but now in the possession of non-Dalits, and restore it to Dalits. Only massive, concerted efforts of the government to survey the land assigned under the Panchami Land scheme and identify the land alienated to non-Dalits in violation of the conditions can lead to restitutive justice on the ground.
Dalit reassertion in Tamil Nadu
Although 1.2 million acres of land are reported to have been assigned to Dalits in Tamil Nadu, much of this has fallen into the hands of non-Dalits over the decades. The problem came to light only around the 1990s. It is noteworthy that an organised agitation demanding retrieval of the assigned land back to Dalits was staged in 1994 at Karanai near Chengalpet (now Chengalpattu), where the District Collector Tremenheere initiated the historical move to recommend to the British India government distribution of land to people of the Depressed Classes in 1891. The agitation was met with a heavy hand, resulting in the death of a couple of Dalits in police firing. Although the agitation did not succeed, the movement marked the beginning of Dalit reassertion in Tamil Nadu.
It is unfortunate that the Madras High Court judgment has not got the media attention it deserves. Only a few newspapers have reported with insight and context on the issue. Truthful and sensitive investigation of social issues and challenges, linked to mass deprivation in rising India, is a key responsibility of the media. Provided they are sensitised to the social responsibility of the media, young journalists with their skills, talents, and energy can do a lot to investigate these issues and help place them on the public agenda. It is up to those who lead media organisations and shape their agenda to give them their head.
“The Tirunelveli massacre ( 1995)”, referred to in the third paragraph of “Media coverage of Dalit issues in Tamil Nadu” (‘Online and Off Line', June 14, 2010), was on July 23, 1999.