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Updated: October 17, 2013 02:07 IST

A new churning in the caste cauldron

    H. Gorringe
    D. Karthikeyan
Comment (14)   ·   print   ·   T  T  

Ahead of next year’s elections, Tamil Nadu is witnessing an early mobilisation and an assertion of identity by intermediate groups such as Vanniyars towards reviving their flagging political fortunes

The cyclical shake-up of Tamil politics that accompanies each election seems to have begun early this time. Whilst we may still see parties jumping ship and changing alliances in the immediate run-up to the polls, there has been a lot of jostling for position already. Following a recent meeting of the ‘All Community Federation,’ for example, The Hindu reported one leader as saying that “constituents of the Federation would never ever support the Dravidian parties as it was because of their rule that casteism continued to survive in some form in Tamil Nadu.” The irony of a collection of caste-based parties pointing the finger of blame at others was clearly lost on P.T. Arasakumar, leader of the National Forward Bloc. Likewise, the claim to represent “all communities” by a front that has been running a campaign against inter-caste marriages and seeking amendments to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, is laughable. At least, it would be laughable if it did not have such deleterious consequences for social and community relations in the State.

Politicisation of caste

Once hailed for its progressive anti-caste politics, Tamil Nadu has more recently been associated with the politicisation of caste. In 2006, Vaasanthi— the former editor of India Today’s Tamil edition — observed that “every section of society now clings to its caste label with pride. With a caste-based political party being born every day, each group is in the need of political protection and asserting its identity.”

Several new caste-based parties and fronts have emerged since that statement was made. Were such organisations limited to the symbolic realm and focused upon the rediscovery of caste histories and identities that have been subsumed within the rhetoric of Dravidian politics, they might merit little more than a footnote in discussions of Tamil politics. Unfortunately, the assertion of caste pride is built on an exaggerated sense of superiority and entitlement that views the upward mobility of lower caste groups with alarm.

When 300 Dalit homes were torched in November 2012 following a cross-caste marriage, many analysts were puzzled that such violence should occur in the State that fostered Dravidianism and championed cross-caste and secular weddings. The truth is that the radical edge of Dravidian ideology was blunted even before the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam first took power. Dravidian parties have used a rhetorical emphasis on Tamil nationalism and language to avoid enacting politically sensitive election pledges on land reform, dowry and caste. As Narendra Subramanian’s (1999) book Ethnicity and Populist Mobilization makes clear, the Dravidian parties revolved around a cluster of socially dominant castes. It has taken the emergence of caste based parties to open up Tamil politics to new categories. Thevar and Vanniyar parties succeeded in wresting concessions from the state. They have also ensured caste-based representation regardless of which party wins an election because both the DMK and the All-India Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam are acutely sensitive to caste when selecting candidates. Despite the rise of Dalit parties, however, the continuing under-representation of Dalit politicians in Cabinets and ministry portfolios questions the pluralism of the Dravidian parties.

Despite this, Dravidian parties still secure cross-caste support and Tamil nationalism retains the capacity to unite competing caste parties. Both the DMK and the AIADMK are adept at keeping different castes on board through a variety of material and symbolic means. Whilst the perception that the Dalit vote is split may mean less attention is focused on them, the rise of autonomous Dalit parties has led others to pay lip service (at least) to their concerns. Jayalalithaa, thus, recently, clamped down on the Pattali Makkal Katchi following Dalit-Vanniyar clashes and also spoke up in favour of Dalit Christians. Through judicious interventions of this nature and through wider welfare programmes, the Dravidian parties have successfully managed to act as catch-all parties. Caste concerns, thus, must be repeatedly politicised by those wishing to make electoral capital out of them. We would argue that this is what we are witnessing in the current mobilisation of intermediate castes.

Escape from patronage

Several factors feed into the emergence of the All Community Federation. The first issue is the long-running sore for intermediate castes that is the Prevention of Atrocities Act. Whilst conviction rates remain pitifully low, the existence of the Act and the provisions within it have served to curb some of the worst excesses of the dominant castes. Worst still, from their perspective, the Act has emboldened subordinate groups to fight back and mobilise against forms of domination. In this process they have been aided by a number of government initiatives that have reduced the dependency of lower castes: Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act and the public distribution system. For all the flaws in the functioning of the MGNREGA — many documented in this paper — Dalits have seized on the opportunity to work for the government rather than relying upon the seasonal occupation provided by landlords. When allied to the provision of free or cheap rice (albeit sometimes of poor quality), Dalit households have been able to escape long-term patterns of domination and patronage.

Operating in parallel to the above are patterns of migration to cities, other States or other countries. All have dramatically undercut the dominance of the intermediate castes and challenged their self-image as benevolent overlords. Faced by a decline in their authority, intermediate castes across the State have resorted to counter-mobilisation built on a narrative of ‘reverse-casteism’. Such groups, in other words, rally members by accusing Dalits of misusing the PoA Act, receiving preferential treatment, and instigating cross-caste marriages. This last point in particular is important. Numerous studies (see for example the May 4, 2013 issue of Economic and Political Weekly) note how caste and patriarchy are intertwined through the concept of ‘honour.’ Given the importance of chastity and endogamy to the maintenance of caste boundaries, such ‘honour’ hinges on the behaviour of women. Caste honour, here, depends on the ability of caste men to protect and control caste women.

Honour, we should note, is also a relational concept that requires ‘others’ against whom a group may be compared. The ‘others’ for intermediate castes are not Brahmins whose dominance inspired the non-Brahmin movement in the early part of the 20th Century, but the Dalit castes who have hitherto propped up the caste hierarchy. What has happened in the past few years, we would argue, is that the combination of factors serving to reduce the dependency of Dalits has engendered a crisis of masculinity amongst intermediate caste men that finds its expression in the campaigns against (the very small number of) cross-caste marriages. In other words, the mobilisation by intermediate castes led by Dr. Ramadoss is geared towards the consolidation of caste interests rather than their dissolution. Whilst they are right to emphasise that Dravidianism has failed to tackle casteism, we should not be fooled by the name they have adopted. The ‘All Community Federation’ is not an attempt to revive the radical anti-caste ideology of Periyar so much as an attempt to revive the flagging fortunes of once-dominant castes.

(H. Gorringe and D. Karthikeyan are in the University of Edinburgh)

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Hats of to Periyar and the Dravidian parties they thought by eradicating Brahmin domination in TN they can create a caste less society unfortunately it boomeranged on them and hit the DMK and the DK very badly In fact the higher caste OBC and MBC have cornered all the benefits and also started discriminating the SC/ST and still practice caste system and the two tumbler system which is practiced only in Tamilnadu and nowhere else in India.
In fact in UP the Brahmins forming a major chunk had teamed up with Dalits under Mayawati and have formed Govt and are a formidable force to reckon with. Hence if Brahmins /Chettiars /Mudaliars and other supportive community leaders along with and Muslims Christians and SC/ST in TN form a common front against caste based organizations they can create a casteless and creed less harmonious TN without caste politics so that every body can live without any discrimination

from:  siddavaram
Posted on: Oct 17, 2013 at 21:52 IST

it is a great article on a current subject --Caste politics is and has been the bane of Tamil Nadu politics. It is a shame that it is still the deciding factor in vote-bank politics. Unless Tamil Nadu politicians stop playing it up the only direction in which the State will go is Down.

from:  Veevip Sarathy
Posted on: Oct 17, 2013 at 21:14 IST

As long as caste distinctions remains in the Indian society, politicisation of caste will also be there.
Caste and Politics will automatically part ways once Indian society becomes just. Though, it remains to be seen when that day comes when Dalits are no longer ostracized and everyone gets a fair play in the society.

from:  Shaswat
Posted on: Oct 17, 2013 at 19:58 IST

This article, along with comments is the best place for Non Tamilian to
know about Tamil Politics. One should appreciate the Goverment of India
that implements such development Programs such as MGNREGA, POA Act that
somehow reaching to the Poor. No wonder how the parties are still in
confidence about their future even they have involved in such "BIG"
Scams as they can exploit on "CASTE", "Tamil Language" as Queen, Elephant respecitively in chess game.

from:  Pratap Murukutla
Posted on: Oct 17, 2013 at 19:04 IST

The revival of caste politics in Tamil Nadu is alarming to me . Any
person who objects to inter-caste marriage is a proponent of caste ,
gender bias and slavery . I have always been an admirer of periyar's
work and philosophy . While he had a few wild thoughts , he was a great reformer , more so than gandhi in my opinion. I find it amusing to see Brahmins come and post comments on how Periyar's Anti-Brahmin agenda has worsened the situation. They are
venting their own frustration from their loss of dominance in this state.
The major problem in my opinion is that the dravidian movement has been diluted to nothingness in our parties . I wish for a new BLACK SHIRTS movement of secular rational humane socialist activism . One where a progressive modern agenda is pushed forward to counter the religion and caste based politics of today.

from:  Senthil
Posted on: Oct 17, 2013 at 18:58 IST

Being a social engineer,Periyar went beyond articulating ideals and came up with solutions to implement his objective:,elimination of the religious order .

Periyar saw the world in black and white,Brahmins and non-brahmins.He postulated that once the Brahmin hegemony was destroyed,justice would prevail and everyone would enjoy self-respect.Events have proved him wrong.The Brahmins have been eclipsed but social injustice prevails:self-respect too remains a distant dream.Periyar was wrong in assuming that there were only two castes,Brahmins and others.He was also wrong in assuming that the Brahmins alone were responsible for casteism,that once they were dislodged from the seat of power,society would become uniform and casteless.The opposite has happened:caste differences have become acuter ,not less.However unjust,the Brahmin hegemony maintained some sort of an order, now we have disorder. Now the clash is no longer between high and low castes but among backward castes.In Tamil Nadu itself ,the Dalits and the Thevars(BCs) are not fighting the Brahmins,the Mudaliars or the Gounders:they are fighting each other.Ironically the BCs who speak of supression, join the dalits only to demand reservation !

from:  J.S.Acharya
Posted on: Oct 17, 2013 at 15:02 IST

The credit for Caste politics in Tamilnadu is to be attributed first to
Justice party pioneered by people of upper caste against the Brahmins
out of sheer jealousy.
The Dravidian movement later gave an impetus with Brahmin hatred and
Brahmin baiting campaign with the support of others enlisting even the
support of other religious groups.
With their sole object having been achieved in all spheres,now the in
fighting among other castes has started.

from:  V.Viswanathan
Posted on: Oct 17, 2013 at 13:22 IST

The school and college students of the present day are not clearly
remembering the hundreds of caste names that are carried by the
government gazette; they know only OC/BC/MBC/SC/ST. It is the
politicians to gain power instigate the masses and create enmity among
the peace-loving ordinary citizens. The media is also highlighting such
incidents and give prominence to the speeches of the so called bogus
leaders. Given the choice the common public wish to ignore the so called
leaders and continue with their normal life.

from:  chandrasekaran
Posted on: Oct 17, 2013 at 12:19 IST

The article is very well articulated. What started by Periyar, more particularly targeting the
Brahmin domination and very successfully exploited by the different Dravidian Parties it is
now boomeranging on them, when the increasingly empowered Dalits have started calling
the shots on the 'Dravidian upper class'. The basic vulnerability in the mind set of human
beings is that it is programmed to imbibe the 'values' of the community it belongs, the most
important 'value' being to maintain its pedigree, that went by the term 'caste' in India,
violation of which was sacrilege. In India there has been a large scale integration of different
tribes and clans over a long period and caste distinctions have proliferated, each caste
maintaining its exclusiveness. Even as Brahmins had reconciled to the new order and moved
on; it is unfortunate that the old 'value' of pedigree remains rooted in the very same Dravidian
communities that were enthusiastic to get rid of Brahminism.

from:  M.R.Sampath
Posted on: Oct 17, 2013 at 11:16 IST

The way the author unfolds the single message is worth to read. By the name of "All community front" Dr.Ramadoss is perperating the intrests of dominant castes and trying to get the image as "Culture-Saver". This front will bite the dust in the upcoming elections without any doubt.

from:  Satish
Posted on: Oct 17, 2013 at 11:12 IST

TASK is for the TN govt to intervene judiciously against the political
parties instigating the once dominant caste groups of this state against
the Dalits. The author's attempt to link the Social programs like
MGNREGA and PDS to that of the elimination of racial domination is
praiseworthy here.Its high time we chose to vote against such Divisional
political parties.

from:  Saravanan
Posted on: Oct 17, 2013 at 10:55 IST

Few valid and important points by these articles that needs re-
emphasis and worth mentioning again.
1. "What has happened in the past few years, we would argue, is that
the combination of factors serving to reduce the dependency of Dalits
has engendered a crisis of masculinity amongst intermediate caste men
that finds its expression in the campaigns against (the very small
number of) cross-caste marriages." 2. "In this process they have been
aided by a number of government initiatives that have reduced the
dependency of lower castes: Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment
Guarantee Act and the public distribution system." I WILL ADD THAT
this social transformation is UNIVERSAL (to an extent) across NORTH,
Central, East(East UP,Bihar/Jharkhand/Odisha/(WB?)) and West
India.Fight among caste groups are primarily between SC and
Intermediate castes !

from:  H. Mandal
Posted on: Oct 17, 2013 at 10:19 IST

The authors claim of TN witnessing "progressive anti-caste politics" is
a big lie. Far from TN politics being anti-caste, it was mindless "anti-
brahmin" politics with one common agenda uniting the dravidian caste
gangs of TN. Consequently we today have NIL brahmins in TN Assembly, NIL
seats to brahmins in Govt Medical colleges, less than .05% employment of
brahmins in TN Govt. The mindless anti-constitutional discrimination
against brahmins continues with no newspaper having the courage to
oppose it.

from:  Ramesh
Posted on: Oct 17, 2013 at 06:37 IST

An interesting and well reserached article on Caste politics in TN. Despite the rapid economic growth, the state has had and the development strides in other areas over the last several decades, the caste assertions and identity to seek power has not mellowed. This is unlikely to change soon, as economically the people are still backward, compared to many other countries and " political power " is seen as critical for each caste group's social and economic growth, leave alone the political ambitions of the leaders. Caste is one of the major cauldron component for the " million mutinies " we will witness for few decades to come. Only rapid economic growth and sharing of the growth to many will change this. Many centuries of cultural/ social issues are not likely to go away in a few decades of development and growth.

from:  ADITHYA
Posted on: Oct 17, 2013 at 06:20 IST
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