The question the tea master asks anyone who orders tea at this small shop outside Somampatti near Vazhapadi is whether you will have your tea in a plastic cup or the regular glass.
In this Kongu heartland of western Tamil Nadu where Vellala Gounders and Vanniyars constitute the majority of OBC voters, the plastic cup has replaced steel tumblers in the social enforcement of the “two-tumbler” system.
“The upper caste people prefer the plastic cup. Nobody here says it is because of caste, but we all know it is,” says Murugesan, who claims to have gone to jail protesting against the Emergency in the 1970s. In Gandhi Nagar nearby, Dalits allege they are still pulled up when they wear slippers and enter the OBC area, an issue the Untouchability Eradication Front of the CPI (M) has been trying to resolve.
Last year, an upper caste mob from Vilaripalayam damaged properties in the SC colony of Somampatti after a Dalit boy and a Vanniyar girl eloped. “The arm of an elderly man was broken. Things were set afire. The police intervened, but we still live in fear,” says Palanisamy, as he points to the broken tiles on his roof.
Across Salem and Namakkal districts, the issue of ‘honour’ and inter-caste marriages dominate discussions in social gatherings. The idea that Dalit men wantonly and systematically woo OBC girls and later leave them in the lurch has percolated to every level, forcing parents to increase surveillance of their children.
This has translated into strict territorial demarcations. In Somampatti, Dalits say all aspects of their lives have been affected by recent incidents. Caste Hindus now object to flex boards that Dalits put up to mark family functions. “The couple who eloped have been underground for nine months now. >After the murder of that boy [Shankar] in Udumalapet , we really fear for their safety,” says Vinayagam. A science graduate who works in Chennai, he feels lack of exposure to a cosmopolitan life is an important reason for the festering caste tensions.
Barely a kilometre from Manjakalpatti, the home of Yuvaraj, the prime accused in the sensational Gokulraj murder case, caste emotions are at their peak to the extent that the crime is stoutly defended. “First, we do not think he killed the boy. Second, tell me what is wrong? Should people remain silent when our honour is at stake?” asks Bhoopathi, a spare parts mechanic in this lorry hub of Sankagiri. Here, women too share the anger, supporting their husbands, talking of violent reactions against inter-caste weddings.
While they lack the manpower, small caste organisations, like Yuvraj’s Dheeran Chinnamalai Peravai, invoke a hoary past of valour with tales of kingship and war to strengthen a sense of pride. Their primary medium of communication is the wall poster, followed by the more modern Whatsapp.
The sway such groups hold over the local population was evident in Paramathi in Namakkal, where U. Thaniyarasu of the Kongu Youth Forum is the sitting MLA. When he won in 2011 contesting in the AIADMK’s symbol, Mr. Thaniyarasu had over 30 criminal cases pending against him. But in this village of Mavu Reddy (local tradition calls the place ‘Maan Viratti’), elders say they will vote for the party he allies with, a phenomenon that explains the Dravidian parties' acceptance of the caste outfits.
En route to Tiruchengode, it is difficult to miss the posters put up by hundreds of Kongu organisations. Even plots put up on the market have boards such as ‘Gounder Colony’ announcing the caste name, more as an exclusion tactic, though locals say this is a way to announce that the plots would be available to members of only one community.
While Dalits in these areas seek a special law to protect inter-caste couples, many OBC men want one to stop such weddings.