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Updated: May 8, 2013 01:13 IST

When development triggers caste violence

Hugo Gorringe
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The educational and economic development of Dalits is seen by the backward castes as a challenge to the social order, as recent incidents in Tamil Nadu show

On the evening of November 7, 2012, a crowd numbering over 1000 people burst into three Dalit settlements in Dharmapuri, north-western Tamil Nadu, and laid them waste. Over a period of several hours, they looted, smashed and burned. Trees had been felled on all approach routes to prevent police and fire-tenders from reaching the scene and those officers who were present decided that discretion was the better part of valour. Over 260 houses were razed to the ground, valuables worth millions of rupees stolen, and goods from televisions to motorbikes smashed and set on fire.

Status competition

The immediate motive for this sustained attack was said to be an inter-caste marriage between a Dalit man and a backward caste woman. Tamil Nadu, however, has a long history of anti-caste activism which encouraged cross-caste marriages. Even today, couples marrying across caste are entitled to various state benefits. This region, furthermore, has a history of communist inspired mobilisation that saw the poor of all castes uniting against landlords and industrialists. In the past 20 years, however, caste identities have been increasingly politicised and polarised by politicians seeking to make political capital out of community identities. It is caste politics and status competition that underpin such violence rather than domestic politics; a point emphasised in May 2013 when violence erupted once more around a Vanniyar (Most Backward Caste) caste conference.

Those at the forefront of the current upsurge in violence are those called the ‘backward’ or the ‘most backward’ castes. These are formal categorisations that entitle groups to affirmative action in recognition of the fact that they have historically lacked the privileges of education and social status. These castes are located just above Dalits in the caste hierarchy but tend to own land. These castes have increasingly mobilised politically to demand special provisions for their group.

In so doing they have reinforced the boundaries of caste and mobilised against perceived threats and injustices. One recurrent assertion of such groups is that Dalits receive favourable treatment from the state and misuse anti-caste legislation to get back at higher castes. Attempts by Dalits to assert themselves in the late 1990s, thus, were met by violent repression from backward castes anxious to defend their status and dominance.

The tragedy of the situation is that there have been systematic efforts to reduce caste tensions in this millennium. Thol. Thirumavalavan, Member of Parliament, Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK-Liberation Panther Party) — the largest Dalit party in Tamil Nadu — came to prominence for his fiery rhetoric that promised to hit back against caste aggression and spoke of a counter-violence of the oppressed. Since gaining office, however, he joined hands with Dr. S. Ramadoss — leader of the Most Backward Caste Vanniyar party, Pattali Makkal Katchi — and campaigned on Tamil issues in the interests of social harmony. Indeed, as Gowthama Sannah — Dalit intellectual and VCK leader — put it in 2012:

“Back then when we spoke of hitting back, Mukkulathors and Vanniyars were vehemently and violently anti-Dalit. After Dalits started to counter-attack, their predatory instincts diminished. Now they do not engage in major riots, they do not tend to set light to cheris [Dalit settlements], they do not tend to muster people to attack Dalits. Though small-scale violence persists in many places, the will to engage in major clashes has declined. Then why should we stick to the same ‘hit back’ slogan and strategy? You can only say that when there is a need. Now, when they are being quiet — after the war, peace is the only way.”

Barely a month after this statement, caste ‘wars’ erupted again. Following on from the arson in Dharmapuri there have been similar incidents elsewhere. One question that has been raised is whether this violence can be understood as a form of untouchability or whether it reflects the more recent politicisation of identity. Certainly Dalits have been hitting back across India, but to equate this to the eradication of hierarchy would be premature. Dalits — or Scheduled Castes as they are known in official documents — are still disproportionately represented amongst the poor and landless and still struggle to realise the promises of the Constitution.

While activists are fond of insisting that nothing changes, caste is clearly changing across India and Dalits are developing economically and educationally just as others are. Indeed, it is arguably because of this development that the current conflicts arise. Quietly and gradually, Dalits are escaping forms of dependence and, in so doing, are posing a challenge to the caste order that those just above them in the caste hierarchy find hard to stomach. In Dharmapuri in 2012 and Marakkanam in 2013, mobs deliberately targeted the economic assets of their victims. One factor fuelling their animosity is that Dalits no longer act as submissive agricultural labourers in the fields of the dominant castes. This resentment feeds into a sense of insecurity that is captured in backward caste slogans that say: “first our jobs and now our women.” Women’s bodies, here, serve as the embodied markers of caste purity and so it is when Dalit men marry Vanniyar women that issues arise. The voices and choices of the women concerned are lost in the claims and counter-claims of male politicians.

For all Sannah’s talk of peace, the violence in Dharmapuri was not completely unexpected. Earlier in the year, a Vanniyar Member of the Legislative Assembly had threatened violence against any non-Vanniyar who dared to marry a Vanniyar girl. Though this hate speech was made on an open stage, no action was taken against him for inciting violence. Such speeches are extremely popular within the party because they counter-pose valorous sons-of-the-soil against uppity Dalits who ought to know their place. This construction of an exclusive identity helps create internal solidarity that may help the party in elections, but commentators are increasingly questioning the social costs of such a strategy. Finally, in May 2013, senior members of the PMK were arrested and charged with inciting violence; a move which prompted widespread disruption across the State and party members smashed and burned vehicles, blocked roads and took to the streets.

Vociferous forms

It is tempting to dismiss this violence as indicating the continuing significance of age-old caste identities and relations. To do so, however, ignores the fact that the caste system is clearly changing and the structures underpinning it are starting to shift. Old certainties are being eroded and caste identities are assuming new — often more vociferous — forms. Aspects of caste and untouchability, however, continue to be embedded in the make-up of Indian society. Much as institutions in the U.K. had to confront issues of institutionalised racism, those in India need to recognise and address institutionalised casteism throughout society.

The road towards a casteless and egalitarian society will be long and tortuous, and the divisions between Dalits and ‘caste Hindus’ will prove hardest of all to bridge. Standing by while politicians spew casteist venom renders the authorities partly culpable for caste polarisation and any ensuing violence. If the belated arrest of politicians responsible for ‘hate-speech’ signals a new and more proactive approach to caste politics, then perhaps some good may arise from the ashes of Dalit homes in Dharmapuri.

(Hugo Gorringe is Senior Lecturer in Sociology, University of Edinburgh. Email:

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Castism has been the part of our life since childhood. When we started growing up, society used to tell us that you touched the dalit, now you are not allowed to enter in the room, first take the bath and then enter. If the same person is higher official of society then we will feel so great to see him in our dinning room.
At collage time when we tried to appear for engineering exam my friend who's father was a so economic wealthier (govt officer) got the seat because he was SC/ST but another friend who got the more score and his family was also not economically well (his mother-father was blind) in that case also, he was failed to secure the seat. He also did get any economic and social help.
There should be some changes that should help the real needy rather than politically needy.
I am also not sure, whom should we blame, our self or government. Two para define the rooted intensity of our life.

from:  Vicky
Posted on: May 10, 2013 at 17:36 IST

This is a shocking article. Young people in cities like Bangalore are
far far away from such caste based politics. We only encounter this
irony when reservations in seats for professional courses and government
jobs are given as a benefit to everyone from the caste instead of
assessing their financial situation. Thanks to the IT/ITES/BPO jobs
here, people from all parts of the country are welcome and are working
with each other. Could development be the answer to these problems?

from:  Prashant
Posted on: May 9, 2013 at 13:56 IST

it is the mindset that has to be completely changed.casteism that has been deep rooted in humankind could not be eradicated overnight; even if it happens, morrow's man will divide the human beings by one measure or other. after all long ago mankind was divided only by the job they years rolled on casteism reared up its ugly head. once it was he and she, then varnashram, then religion and then caste. unless men consider their brothers equal and friendly we can not expect any drastic change.

from:  asokan
Posted on: May 9, 2013 at 08:37 IST

Violence in the name of caste must be crushed with an iron hand. So
long as the police remain out-maneuvered mute spectators, we are going
to see a long and ugly slide towards casteist anarchy. It is futile to
blame the Brahmins as many mis-guided individual are wont to do. The
DMK's casteist policies have ensured that Brahmins have neither
economic or political clout. Indeed, most have already left the state
for friendly shores in other states or abroad.

There are many reasons for the unfortunate incidents of inter-caste
violence. Foremost is the unchecked corruption that has gripped the
Indian polity. When money and power are all that matter, which
politician would really care about the finer side of life: social
uplift, economic opportunity, justice and educational advancement? The
right to life and liberty will be the first casualty as is all too
evident. The senseless violence can only be stopped by dialogue and
reconciliation between the communities.

from:  CS Venkat
Posted on: May 8, 2013 at 23:31 IST

Please ask the students in school final years in Tamilnadu the caste
that s/he belongs to and immediately they will tell any one of these -
OC/BC/OBC/SC or ST. There is a list given with the applications for
govt college admissions,exams or employment that lists nearly 300
castes in various categories as stated above but the students don't
know it. The politicians with vested interests cling to these castes
for their own benefits. So called dalit leaders, politicians,
ministers, judges and lawyers, IAS/IPS and other senior govt
officials, college/school principals, headmasters and school teachers,
panchayat presidents have not done anything for the economically
deprived dalits in this country. The same situation prevails in other
MBC or BC castes also. After independence, the third generation of
economically improved sections in all castes continue to enjoy the
benefits of reservation in educational opportunities, jobs, promotions
and other benefits.

from:  chandrasekaran
Posted on: May 8, 2013 at 21:05 IST

Violence/Clashes are just one form of subjugation. Caste operates in a myriad of ways.
Caste Hindus can't bear even a little economic development of Dalits and where is the scope for Power sharing in the political sphere. Egalitarian society is just a misnomer.

from:  Chinnadurai Gangatharan
Posted on: May 8, 2013 at 16:41 IST

politicians and governments are in a way responsible for the caste related violence in India. Benefits such as educational preferences to people were not based on eligibility or financial status. It was purely based on whether a person belonged to scheduled caste/tribe. In many cases, SC/ST candidates for educational and financial aid preferences belonged to well-to-do people compared to so-called higher caste candidates. It was and still is a discrimination. In the case of ST/SC students for engineering college admissions the government relaxes minimum grade requirements while not considering same guide lines to economically backward higher caste students. In a way governments and politicians encourage caste-based divisions for their own benefit. Until people get their fair share in educational and job opportunities strictly based on merit and economical status, castism will exist and politicians will manupulate people.

from:  vijayaraghavan
Posted on: May 8, 2013 at 13:40 IST

Brahminism taught Hitler to use the SWASTIKA. This swastika is like a
symbol of Hinduism. The Brahmins taught the British how to divide and
rule. (the caste system portrays this) The British ruled the world.
Veerapandya Kattabomman was petrayed by the Brahmins. To stay in power
the Brahmins unleashed the caste hindus whenever the lower caste groups
started questioning. How can the sheduled caste groups survive.

from:  P.Palamuthu
Posted on: May 8, 2013 at 13:19 IST

I strongly support Mr.Balraj's view on eradicating the Caste, Clan and
Family names from the Indian System but who will tie the bell to cat,
CONGRESS no way they will divide further (or) archaic further to
benefit, because they work on 33% allocation to women for 60+ years
and still unable to constitute it. BJP is in fractured condition and
not possible to get parliament majority and again they can't do it. It
is left with State Governments to enact state policy's to ban the
party's and its leader's. Arrest them if they are not align with state
norms. coming back to current issue, both VKK and PMK both are caste
based party's, arrest both leaders for fueling the unrest to the
state. If they want to go to SC and fight case let them do it but
don't let them to meet press and fuel further.

from:  Jothi Kumar
Posted on: May 8, 2013 at 12:43 IST

@C.Balraj. Without knowing the real facts you are unnecessarily blaming
the Hindu religion.Today caste and sub caste are there in each and every
religions.Some of the Political parties and their leaders are only
nurturing this caste feeling for their own survival.Common People have
to be identified and isolated them

Posted on: May 8, 2013 at 12:37 IST

the basic objective is simple. Every caste leader wants to become a CM and hence they may even go out to divide tamil nadu into caste base region and become CM of the respective area. To that level these people are disintegrating tamil nadu and also India. The only way to prevent is that Election commission to derecognise caste based community from contesting elections. Also any political party indulging in violence as seen now to be banned for another 5 years at the minimum.

from:  brahamanapalle
Posted on: May 8, 2013 at 12:34 IST

The idea of introducing the Caste based reservation was to bring up the socially suppressed group. But when suggesting this bill itself Dr. Ambedkar had told that it was not a permanent solution, it was just the first step. There are many people in other caste's too who are in need of assistance. I think it is high time we re-visited the caste based reservation and bring in economic status based reservation.Only then the political gimmicks enacted by these politicians can be nullified. Till the government segregates people based on caste, these political parties will also exist exploiting the sentiments of the people.

from:  Arunkumar
Posted on: May 8, 2013 at 11:13 IST

There is a significant development on all fronts for scheduled cast,
this become cliché that scheduled caste individuals are not in pace with
the developing India.Thanks to government policy that make significant
developments on all dalit fronts, albeit there is lot more to do as in
many parts of India animosity still inherited in between upper caste
and lower caste.

from:  Deependra Tyagi
Posted on: May 8, 2013 at 10:18 IST

There is a legitimate case to ban the PMK. This opinion supports that
case. That the President of a recognized Political Party in a public
platform called for men of his caste to take up arms against Dailt men
to attempted to woo "their" women is casteist, sexist and regressive
tribalism at its very worst. Reminiscent of the KKK in the American

from:  Neel
Posted on: May 8, 2013 at 10:13 IST

When a group of people are developed merely based on caste, caste-based violence is likely to take place. It is therefore essential to ignore caste from all statistics. Development should be based solely on need. It is time for India as a nation and its government to merely give a national ID to each person that is poor and enroll them in programs to bring them up to a minimum level above poverty from where they should be able to move up through self-help.

from:  Som Karamchetty
Posted on: May 8, 2013 at 08:07 IST

As the author said, it all boils down to economic liberalisation of the Dalits that is not in the interests of the Vanniyars. Nobody to till the land at a pittance and nobody to do the errands as a bonded labour. Add to this the education and job opportinities available to the Dalits, which to their credit have been used by the Dalits for economic upliftment.
As the picture with the article shows castes and groups more powerful (financially and/or numerically) will be at the tail of the Vanniyars.

In the divide and rule politics of the sub-continent, vanniyars are fuelling the division for the politicians without them asking for it.

from:  mani sandilya
Posted on: May 8, 2013 at 05:24 IST

Sir,it is all starting from hindu religion.the religion have divided
the people on caste basis and have instituitionlised it the only way
to eradicate the caste is that govt of india should promulgate an
ordinance that all the governmnet/semi/psu emplyees/officers including
ministers should not use their caste suffix.and also the media should
use the persons name and not their should be made punishable
aaa ex.i have seen may ias and scientist use their caste name as
their it correct that can a secular govt is pro-pagating the
castiesm will the govt look in to it

from:  C.Balraj
Posted on: May 8, 2013 at 05:22 IST

It's tragic that a people who have a rich history and culture are today in the 21st century still caught up in this vile practice of caste. Tamil Nadu has produced great leaders and activists who have preached against the caste system but it's a sad commentary that caste ie being used as a "vote bank" by unscrupulous and opportunist politicians to further their own nests.
The young people and others must rise up against this unholy practice of caste and not only politicians to use people to promote themselves and their political parties.
Maybe Tamil Nadu needs the emergence of another leader of the calibre of Mahatma Gandhi. Whether this will happen in the free India is another question altogether?

from:  Subry Govender
Posted on: May 8, 2013 at 01:54 IST
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