Tamil Nadu

The long, dark shadow of Melavalavu lingers on 

The Melavalavu massacre, 25 years ago, was a grotesque expression of caste hatred and violence, and remains one of the most gruesome incidents of caste supremacy asserting itself over humanity, one that will not be forgotten. The incident unfolded at Melavalavu village in Melur near Madurai on June 30, 1997, resulting in the murder of seven persons of the Scheduled Castes (Paraiyars) for daring to contest in the elections to the local bodies reserved for these communities against the diktat of caste Hindus (Kallars). They included the elected panchayat president, K. Murugesan, 35, and vice-president K. Mookan (6 persons died on June 30 and 1 person a week later).

‘Viduthalai Kalam’, the memorial for the victims of the caste violence at Melavalavu in Madurai district

‘Viduthalai Kalam’, the memorial for the victims of the caste violence at Melavalavu in Madurai district | Photo Credit: G. Moorthy

The fact that these audacious murders were committed by caste Hindus after reportedly declaring at a meeting in the village that ‘A Dalit may become the President of India [K.R. Narayanan was then the President], but no Dalit can become the president here’ shocked the collective psyche of Tamil Nadu. Political observers say the incident reiterated the need for a strong Dalit-centric political party to articulate their views within the dominant, all-encompassing ‘anti-Brahmin’ politics propounded by the influential Dravidian movement, its leaders and Dravidian parties. In a way, the immediate starting point of this particular conflict can be traced to the passing of the Tamil Nadu Panchayats Act, 1994, after the 73rd Amendment to the Constitution was introduced in 1992. This led to the post of Melavalavu panchayat president being reserved for the Scheduled Castes. The law gave the Scheduled Castes an unprecedented access to constitutional power and authority at a place where it had been historically unavailable to them. However, unintentionally it also turned out to be a spark to the powder keg of caste equations in Melavalavu.

The tradition of exploitation

The path filled with filthy water through which Dalits in Melavalavu still carry their dead to bury their dead.. Photo

The path filled with filthy water through which Dalits in Melavalavu still carry their dead to bury their dead.. Photo | Photo Credit: G. MOORTHY

The reason was that the Scheduled Castes were locked in an unequal relationship with the dominant Kallars, one of the three sub-castes of the Thevars that band together as ‘mukkulathor’. This meant subjugation in a tradition termed ‘Kudikallar murai’, in which there was exploitation of (the Scheduled Caste) labourers in the properties of Kallar families in exchange for taking care of their material and other needs. This form of exploitation, Dalit scholars say, continued (and continues in a highly diluted form) as part of local culture and tradition for many generations.

It is in this context that the caste Hindus considered the panchayati raj law — which envisaged ‘the Gram Sabha as the foundation of the Panchayati Raj System to perform functions and powers entrusted to it by the State, and provides for a three-tier Panchayati Raj system at the village, intermediate and district levels’ — as a threat to their culture and tradition with potential to fundamentally alter the unequal and advantageous social relations between the Scheduled Castes and themselves. Incidentally, Mr. Murugesan’s family is said to have broken free from the ‘Kudikallar’ tradition at least a generation earlier.

In the June issue of the Neelam magazine, two articles have explained the traditions of ‘Kudikallar’ and ‘Nadu (country)’ related to the Kallars in regions like Melur and have given a detailed account of what had happened in the run-up to the elections and the murders.

Writer and Dalit intellectual Rajangam, who has authored one of the articles, said that in the ‘Kudikallar’ tradition, the Kallar families take a Dalit family under their wings and ensure that their needs are taken care of. “In turn, the Dalit families have been made to work in their homes for generations. The Dalit families are not mistreated as long as they don’t cross the boundaries and the rules. For example, they do not enter through the front door; they cannot fall in love with someone in the Kallar household. Even the smallest of transgressions would result in severe punishments. It is an unequal, exploitative relationship — it was not just an economic but also cultural exploitation. The exploitation was justified as tradition.”

Mr. Rajangam said the ‘Kudikallar’ tradition had lost its teeth over time because of the political awareness created by Dalit organisations and leaders. “Other factors such as Dalits finding work in the West Asian countries and managing to achieve economic parity [with dominant castes] markedly changed the situation. Education and political awareness have also spurred social change,” he said.

Also read | ‘Melavalavu’ Murugesan responsible for VCK entering electoral politics: Thirumavalavan

He said the notion that Kallars perceive themselves as head of a region (usually head of a group of villages) could probably explain their sharp reaction in the Melavalavu issue. “They also perceive themselves as the head of the ‘Nadu’ (usually a collection of villages) where democratic laws or modern political thoughts do not apply. The only law that applies is the law of the dominant castes. The Nattars (people with powers to manage community resources) and Dalits have very definitive rules and laws to follow. This tradition, along with the ‘Kudikallar’ tradition, was challenged by modern laws and political ideas. Hence, there was a contradiction in society,” he said.

Researcher Poiyamozhi Murugan has published a detailed account of what had happened in the run-up to the elections and how Murugesan was monitored, tracked and eventually killed while returning in a bus. When the elections were announced and the post was reserved for the Scheduled Castes, the caste Hindus called a meeting in the first week of September 1996 and issued a dire warning to the Scheduled Castes against contesting in the elections. The caste Hindus had continuously threatened those who wanted to contest over the next few months.

The Dalit youths, who were determined to contest in the elections, had boycotted the meeting during which the Dalit elders were warned. The threats and intimidation prompted Murugesan to lodge a complaint with the National Human Rights Commission and the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. The investigation of the allegations by officials from New Delhi further angered the caste Hindus.

Later on, with the encouragement of government officials and the police who assured them of protection, the Scheduled Caste candidates filed their nominations. The elections which were announced on October 10, 1996 and December 29, 1996 were postponed. When the elections were held, the caste Hindus indulged in booth capture. The officials finally managed to hold elections on December 31, 1996.

With the Kallars boycotting the elections, Murugesan and his aides Mookan, K. Raja (Murugesan’s brother), O. Sevukamoorthy, K. Chelladurai and Boopathy were elected. Murugesan was killed, along with his aides, on June 30, 1997, six months later, by caste Hindus while returning in a bus after a meeting with the Collector in Madurai to seek financial compensation for a fire attack on Dalit homes and police protection. Murugesan was decapitated and the head was thrown into a well.

Speaking at the 25th anniversary event, Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi founder and president Thol. Thirumavalavan recalled that he was taken aback by Murugesan’s audacity when he asked him about the threats that he had been facing. “He was very sure of contesting for the post of the panchayat president. He said ‘even if they take my head, I will contest’. In a way, the Melavalavu issue was responsible for the VCK entering electoral politics,” he said.

Several reports of the incident said it was a well-planned murder: the whereabouts of Murugesan and his aides were constantly monitored. The members of the caste Hindus involved in the attack got into the bus and were sitting on the roof. It is believed that the victims were first attacked by some persons with a knife to injure them so that the perpetrators could identify those with blood stains and kill them with machetes.

Also read | Government had fallen in error by releasing Melavalavu massacre case accused, says Madras High Court

Manimekalai, wife of Dalit panchayat president K. Murugesan who was killed on June 30, 1997

Manimekalai, wife of Dalit panchayat president K. Murugesan who was killed on June 30, 1997 | Photo Credit: G. MOORTHY

Speaking to The Hindu, Manimekalai, wife of Murugesan, recalls that there was an air of inevitability and she had asked her husband not to get involved in politics and take on the caste Hindus. “He was a DMK man and would wear the party’s dhoti. We used to get death threats often. And I had told him not to get involved in social issues. But he never listened to me,” she said. Ms. Manimekalai added, “Every anniversary, we make it a point to cook for people who visit ‘Viduthalai Kalam’ (a memorial). It makes us feel good. My only appeal to the government is that my daughters and sons should be considered for jobs according to their qualifications.”

Speaking about what she thinks of her father’s death on the 25th anniversary of the incident, Murugesan’s daughter said, “We are proud of what he did, though we miss him every day.”

Tragedy and farce

It is hard to miss that the family members of the victims live in fear and anticipation of caste-violence, dealing with trauma of their own, worried that the circumstances for violence exist whenever the Dalits fight for their rights.

The Dalits have demanded that they be accorded their right to take part in the ‘Manju Virattu’ event (in which cows are let loose and allowed to run in the fields) organised as part of the temple festival. The family members and relatives of the victims allege that the caste Hindus wanted to celebrate the release of the caste Hindus who were convicted for the murders by organising a massive temple festival that has not been held for 25 years since the tragedy.

“We wanted to set up our own place for ‘Manju Virattu’. They disagreed. So, the dispute is alive,” said Botharaja, the youngest brother of M. Boopathy, who was also killed. He claimed that yet another explosion of caste violence could not be ruled out as similar events were happening again and again.

The fear expressed by Mr. Botharaja emerges from an anonymous letter — reminding them of a similar letter written 26 years ago — which said that once again they could face violence. He explained, “Just like we got an anonymous letter threatening to kill Murugesan and others, we have got a similar letter this time threatening to kill their family members.”

The anonymous letter, dated March 23, 2022, threatens the families of Raja (who became the panchayat president after Murugesan), Murugesan, Mr. Botharaja and others for demanding their rights in the temple festival and managing to stop ‘Manju Virattu’ temporarily. The letter allegedly written by caste Hindus says, “Let ‘Manju Virattu’ get over, we will take your head. Only if you are alive, can you claim your rights. We will come out even if we kill you [and are imprisoned]. We will see: your law or our money. Count your days.”

Botharaja, brother of Boopathy, who was killed

Botharaja, brother of Boopathy, who was killed | Photo Credit: G. MOORTHY

Mr. Botharaja says Melavalavu remains the same and very little has changed in the last 25 years. “The path to the graveyard continues to be submerged in drainage. We cannot even take our dead to the grave peacefully. We are still facing threats and intimidation for seeking our right to participate in the temple festival. There have been small changes, but nothing substantial,” he said.

The tragedy has also changed the mindsets fundamentally for these families. Karuppiah, the elder brother of Murugesan and Raja, says he doesn’t tell anyone where he is going when he is heading out of home. “It has become a subconscious thing. I just tell my family about my whereabouts. I never tell others about where I am going,” he said.

The Dalit panchayat presidents continue to face violence, threats and intimidation from the dominant castes even 25 years after the Melavalavu murders. There have been several other instances of the Dalit panchayat presidents across the State not being allowed to discharge their duties and even being subjected to humiliation by being made to sit on the floor and not being allowed to raise the national flag. Human rights activist Evidence Kathir said the dominant castes used a number of other ways to sideline and outmanoeuvre the Dalits even in the reserved constituencies.

“There have been cases in which a Dalit panchayat president was made to sit in a normal chair while the non-Dalit vice-President sat in a better chair. This is just like the two-tumbler system. Also, the dominant castes pick a Dalit candidate amenable to their demands. Sometimes, they would pick a candidate from the Dalit community that is a minority in a panchayat to outmanoeuvre the more assertive Dalits. In a few other cases, the Dalit panchayat president will just be for the sake of it and all decisions will be taken by the vice-president who would be from the dominant caste. Discrimination against the Dalit panchayat presidents continues. Cases under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act must be filed against those who mistreat them,” he said.

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Printable version | Jul 9, 2022 3:04:04 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/tamil-nadu/the-long-dark-shadow-ofmelavalavu-lingers-on/article65592398.ece