The Hindu Explains | Keezhvenmani: The first chronicle of violence against Dalits in independent India

December 25, 2018 05:02 pm | Updated 05:55 pm IST

Tamil Nadu CPI (M) leaders pay homage at the Keezhvenmani massacre memorial at Keezhvenmani village in Nagapattinam district, Tamil Nadu on December 25, 2017. Photo: Special Arrangement

Tamil Nadu CPI (M) leaders pay homage at the Keezhvenmani massacre memorial at Keezhvenmani village in Nagapattinam district, Tamil Nadu on December 25, 2017. Photo: Special Arrangement

December 25, 2018 marks the 50th anniversary of the Keezhavenmani massacre. In a wage struggle, 16 women, 23 children, and five men were charred to death on December 25, 1968 inside a hut in which they took refuge.

What happened at Keezhvenmani?

Keezhvenmani is a village in Nagapattinam district of Tamil Nadu. On December 25, 1968, 44 Dalits were locked in a hut in the village, which was then set fire to.

How did Keezhvenmani redefine Dalit politics?

Keezhvenmani was independent India’s first well-chronicled massacre of Dalits, and came to signify the suppression of a landless community raising its voice to seek something as basic as decent wages. Under the influence of the communist movement prevalent at that time in the eastern part of the then unified Thanjavur District (now Nagapttinam district), the rise of Dalits became a symbol of class and caste struggle.

What was the impact of Keezhvenmani on Tamil Nadu politics?

The gruesome killings came as a jolt to Tamil Nadu which had just voted for the DMK, replacing the Congress, traditionally known as a party of the landed gentry . The Keezhvenmani incident also launched irreversible agrarian changes , spawning mass scale redistribution of temple and mutt lands in the region.

What is the role of the communist movement post-Keezhvenmani?

Keezhvenmani was the culmination of Dalits finding their nascent voice under the banner of the communist movement in the unified Thanjavur district.

A memorial with 44 pillars eternalising the memory of the 44 Dalits was inaugurated in 2014 by the Communist Party of India (Marixst). The memorial was built with contributions of ₹3 crore from members of the CITU .

What was the extent of the Keezhvenmani massacre’s influence beyond politics?

From Indira Parthasarathy’s Kuruthipunal to Meena Kandasamy’s The Gypsy Goddess , Keezhvenmani has inspired several literary works.

Kuruthipunal (The River of Blood) was serialised in Kanaiyazhi — a literary magazine of repute — in 1970. The novel triggered widespread debates. While the CPI(M) protested against the novel, calling it an attempt to digress from the issue, and burnt copies, the CPI supported it. But the novel fetched Indira Parthasarathy the Sahitya Akademi Award.

“These days, they happen all over — atrocities against Dalits. And nobody seems shocked. Back then, we were really shocked. I somehow wanted to write on it — one because it was very close to where I used to live and grow, and two because I firmly believe writing is a social act. Any art work for that matter is,” Mr. Parthasarathy told The Hindu in January 2018. The novel was later made into a filmKan Sivanthaal Man Sivakkum .

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