In the recent violence against the Dalits in Dharmapuri district in Tamil Nadu, about 300 of their houses were burnt down and other properties destroyed by the Vanniars, a numerically strong intermediate caste, sections of whom have been economically stagnant. The immediate cause for the rampage was a Vanniar woman’s marriage to a Dalit youth and the consequent suicide of the woman’s father. However, the large-scale and systematic destruction of Dalit properties was a result of the simmering discontent against the upward mobility of the Dalits.
The growing intolerance of the intermediate castes towards this economic mobility of the Dalits is not confined to Dharmapuri district alone. In the last two decades, 11 districts in the State have witnessed similar destruction of Dalit property as part of caste violence. There are two aspects to this Dalit mobility and the resultant violence against them. One is the declining of role of agriculture in rural Tamil Nadu and its impact on the social and economic relations within villages. The second is the specific ways in which the changing economic relations have been negotiated through altered caste and gender relations posing challenges to the intermediate caste’s pre-existing power.
Across Tamil Nadu, the role of agriculture in sustaining rural livelihoods has dramatically declined with non-farm employment increasingly playing a significant role. A recent survey of rural households in four districts in the State done by the Institute of Development Alternatives, Chennai reveals that only 28 per cent of households rely on agriculture solely for their livelihood. In the remainder, at least one member of the household was engaged in non-agricultural employment, ranging from construction work to a range of manufacturing sector jobs. This resonates strongly with the observations made about the “commuting worker” in contemporary rural and urban landscapes. In Tamil Nadu alone, more than 72 lakh workers commuted from rural areas to work in non-agricultural sectors. This mobility is highly gendered with the age profile indicating the emergence of a young male workforce. This mobility has been accompanied by a new mobility of capital too. Studies indicate a growing ruralisation of the formal manufacturing sector in the last 15 years, with its output increasingly coming from the rural areas even as urban manufacturing employment is becoming more informal.
Impact of manufacturing
It is in this context that one needs to understand Dalit mobility in parts of Tamil Nadu. The spread of a range of manufacturing activity in small towns in Tamil Nadu and its diffusion into the nearby villages have spawned new rural-urban and rural-rural mobilities and a move into manufacturing and service sector jobs among Dalit youth, particularly in the northern and north-western districts. This mobility has also been backed by investments in education albeit of a limited kind.
The move away from traditional agricultural work has undermined the control that the intermediate castes could wield on Dalit youth. Fieldwork in villages adjoining and housing textile and clothing factories in the Coimbatore and Tiruppur districts, and shoe factories in Vellore district reveal not only a striking shift from agricultural work among the Dalit youth, but also a strong reluctance among them to take up agricultural work. The mobility beyond the village has enabled Dalit youth to challenge their traditional caste obligations and the masculine powers of the dominant castes. The refusal of Dalit women to perform menial duties for intermediate castes, the refusal of the younger generation of Dalits to labour in the lands of intermediate castes and to perform caste obligations such as funeral drumming — combined with relative improvements in their every day existence — have become the source of conflicts between the Dalits and the intermediate castes in the State. The inability and reluctance of sections of intermediate castes to make a shift from agriculture despite its non profitability due to strong social values attached to agriculture, their inability to force the castes below them to work on their farms and their lack of control over the mobility of Dalit youth have underwritten their caste anxieties.
Further, caste dominance is contingent upon the masculine power of men, their ability to control women in private and public spheres and also their ability to control the subordinate men of oppressed castes. With the challenge posed to their caste dominance, the intermediate castes find their masculinity in crisis since they are unable to exert power over the subaltern Dalit men and women. They also imagine an erosion of their masculine power in the private sphere with their claim that Dalit men lure away “their women.” The crisis of intermediate caste masculinity, which is the result of the economic mobility of the Dalits, is certainly at the core of these conflicts and the caste violence which targets Dalit properties. Otherwise, how can one explain the fact that invariably during the caste violence in recent times, motorbikes owned by the Dalits, a symbol of masculine mobility, have been targeted by the intermediate castes who desire to imitate the erstwhile dominant castes in their starched white dhotis moving on Enfield motorbikes!
(The writers are Associate and Assistant Professors at the Madras Institute of Development Studies, Chennai.)