For the last ten years, the dominant `caste Hindus' of Pappapatti and Keeripatti two panchayats reserved for the Scheduled Castes have been making a mockery of the local body elections in Tamil Nadu. They prevent Dalits from contesting for the post of panchayat president and failing that, from serving the elected term in office. Their notorious success in keeping Dalits out of representative grassroots democracy encouraged Nattarmangalam to follow suit: after allowing a Dalit to serve as president for the first five-year term from 1996, the dominant community leaders of this panchayat opted for the Pappapatti-Keeripatti model of subverting democracy and flouting the Constitution. All three panchayats are in Madurai, and along with Kottakachiyendal in neighbouring Virudhanagar district, where the Dalits have not shown any interest in the electoral process, they stand testimony to the failure of the state to end centuries of oppression. The economic dependence of Dalits on `caste Hindu' landlords did not, of course, help matters; the latter had no difficulty in finding Dalits who would contest the elections and resign immediately at their bidding. Against this dismal background, the decision of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam Government to keep the four panchayats in the reserved category for another term must be commended. Earlier, as mandated by law, the Government ordered that the rotation policy would apply to all reserved constituencies, meaning that a new set of constituencies would be identified for the Scheduled Castes and women.

The Government avoided the soft route of deferring rotation for all the reserved panchayats in the State, as was done in 2001. These four outlaw panchayats now remain exceptions to the general rule of reservation by rotation. The message is clear: caste oppressors cannot hope for a timeout and unless a duly elected Dalit representative serves a full term, a panchayat will remain in the reserved category. It is heartening that Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi's firm decision to refuse to `de-reserve' the four panchayats has won unanimous support across the political spectrum. Not just representative Dalit organisations but also all major political parties have backed the Government on this issue. As Mr. Karunanidhi pointed out in the Tamil Nadu Assembly, such support is crucial for ensuring successful conduct of elections in these panchayats. Virulent sections of the Thevar caste in these panchayats who practise social and political untouchability in this new form cannot be allowed to hold constitutionally mandated local self-governance to ransom. Had there been any temporising by the Government, the social scourge could have spread: just as Nattarmangalam emulated the benighted example of Pappapatti and Keeripatti, other panchayats might have chosen to break away from the constitutional fold, giving a socially progressive State a bad name.