In any society with a history of caste oppression and conflict, the slightest provocation can sometimes set off a sequence of deadly attacks and reprisals. Law enforcement officers cannot prevent all acts of provocation, but what they can do is to anticipate and contain the resultant social tensions before they explode. Failure to do this at Paramakudi in Tamil Nadu proved tragic, with the protest by supporters of a Dalit party turning violent and the police opening fire and killing six persons. When a remark scribbled on a wall about Pasumpon Muthuramalinga Thevar, who is revered as a reformer and saint by the intermediate caste grouping of Thevars, led to the murder of a Dalit schoolboy, it was clear there was going to be trouble. John Pandian, the leader of the Tamizhaga Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam, was understandably stopped from entering Paramakudi, but the police were unprepared for the consequences of their action. Opening fire reflexively on an angry group of people armed with nothing more than stones and crude petrol bombs was condemnable. Top police officers will have a lot to answer for before the Inquiry Commission constituted by the State government to inquire into the firing and related incidents.
For decades, certain rural areas in southern Tamil Nadu have been the battleground for ‘caste clashes' in which Dalits have been cruelly targeted by elements within the intermediate caste groupings. Dalits have certainly been at the receiving end of caste oppression — and have had to struggle and sacrifice to win rights to access public spaces, participate in temple rituals, and be free from humiliating casteist practices, which have survived from the feudal era notwithstanding Article 17 of the Constitution outlawing untouchability in all forms. With some heartening exceptions, the police and public officials have been far from even-handed in handling these grievances and demands. Thevars, sections of whom are as economically deprived as Dalits, carry their own resentments. From the time of the Mudukulathur riots in 1957, the triggers of violence have varied but the underlying reason has remained the same — entrenched caste oppression and the revolt against it, particularly by Dalit youth who are becoming increasingly organised by political groups. After a series of clashes in the 1990s, there was a lull for about a decade. The key lesson from the Paramakudi tragedy is that it was wholly avoidable. There would have been no loss of life had the early warning signals been heeded and well-thought-out and proportionate action been taken by the administration. The law enforcers need to be re-educated to change their ways of handling public agitations.