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A new churning in the caste cauldron

Ahead of next year’s elections, Tamil Nadu is witnessing an early mobilisation and an assertion of identity by intermediate groups such as Vanniyars towards reviving their flagging political fortunes

The cyclical shake-up of Tamil politics that accompanies each election seems to have begun early this time. Whilst we may still see parties jumping ship and changing alliances in the immediate run-up to the polls, there has been a lot of jostling for position already. Following a recent meeting of the ‘All Community Federation,’ for example, The Hindu reported one leader as saying that “constituents of the Federation would never ever support the Dravidian parties as it was because of their rule that casteism continued to survive in some form in Tamil Nadu.” The irony of a collection of caste-based parties pointing the finger of blame at others was clearly lost on P.T. Arasakumar, leader of the National Forward Bloc. Likewise, the claim to represent “all communities” by a front that has been running a campaign against inter-caste marriages and seeking amendments to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, is laughable. At least, it would be laughable if it did not have such deleterious consequences for social and community relations in the State.

Politicisation of caste

Once hailed for its progressive anti-caste politics, Tamil Nadu has more recently been associated with the politicisation of caste. In 2006, Vaasanthi— the former editor of India Today’s Tamil edition — observed that “every section of society now clings to its caste label with pride. With a caste-based political party being born every day, each group is in the need of political protection and asserting its identity.”

Several new caste-based parties and fronts have emerged since that statement was made. Were such organisations limited to the symbolic realm and focused upon the rediscovery of caste histories and identities that have been subsumed within the rhetoric of Dravidian politics, they might merit little more than a footnote in discussions of Tamil politics. Unfortunately, the assertion of caste pride is built on an exaggerated sense of superiority and entitlement that views the upward mobility of lower caste groups with alarm.

When 300 Dalit homes were torched in November 2012 following a cross-caste marriage, many analysts were puzzled that such violence should occur in the State that fostered Dravidianism and championed cross-caste and secular weddings. The truth is that the radical edge of Dravidian ideology was blunted even before the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam first took power. Dravidian parties have used a rhetorical emphasis on Tamil nationalism and language to avoid enacting politically sensitive election pledges on land reform, dowry and caste. As Narendra Subramanian’s (1999) book Ethnicity and Populist Mobilization makes clear, the Dravidian parties revolved around a cluster of socially dominant castes. It has taken the emergence of caste based parties to open up Tamil politics to new categories. Thevar and Vanniyar parties succeeded in wresting concessions from the state. They have also ensured caste-based representation regardless of which party wins an election because both the DMK and the All-India Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam are acutely sensitive to caste when selecting candidates. Despite the rise of Dalit parties, however, the continuing under-representation of Dalit politicians in Cabinets and ministry portfolios questions the pluralism of the Dravidian parties.

Despite this, Dravidian parties still secure cross-caste support and Tamil nationalism retains the capacity to unite competing caste parties. Both the DMK and the AIADMK are adept at keeping different castes on board through a variety of material and symbolic means. Whilst the perception that the Dalit vote is split may mean less attention is focused on them, the rise of autonomous Dalit parties has led others to pay lip service (at least) to their concerns. Jayalalithaa, thus, recently, clamped down on the Pattali Makkal Katchi following Dalit-Vanniyar clashes and also spoke up in favour of Dalit Christians. Through judicious interventions of this nature and through wider welfare programmes, the Dravidian parties have successfully managed to act as catch-all parties. Caste concerns, thus, must be repeatedly politicised by those wishing to make electoral capital out of them. We would argue that this is what we are witnessing in the current mobilisation of intermediate castes.

Escape from patronage

Several factors feed into the emergence of the All Community Federation. The first issue is the long-running sore for intermediate castes that is the Prevention of Atrocities Act. Whilst conviction rates remain pitifully low, the existence of the Act and the provisions within it have served to curb some of the worst excesses of the dominant castes. Worst still, from their perspective, the Act has emboldened subordinate groups to fight back and mobilise against forms of domination. In this process they have been aided by a number of government initiatives that have reduced the dependency of lower castes: Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act and the public distribution system. For all the flaws in the functioning of the MGNREGA — many documented in this paper — Dalits have seized on the opportunity to work for the government rather than relying upon the seasonal occupation provided by landlords. When allied to the provision of free or cheap rice (albeit sometimes of poor quality), Dalit households have been able to escape long-term patterns of domination and patronage.

Operating in parallel to the above are patterns of migration to cities, other States or other countries. All have dramatically undercut the dominance of the intermediate castes and challenged their self-image as benevolent overlords. Faced by a decline in their authority, intermediate castes across the State have resorted to counter-mobilisation built on a narrative of ‘reverse-casteism’. Such groups, in other words, rally members by accusing Dalits of misusing the PoA Act, receiving preferential treatment, and instigating cross-caste marriages. This last point in particular is important. Numerous studies (see for example the >May 4, 2013 issue of Economic and Political Weekly) note how caste and patriarchy are intertwined through the concept of ‘honour.’ Given the importance of chastity and endogamy to the maintenance of caste boundaries, such ‘honour’ hinges on the behaviour of women. Caste honour, here, depends on the ability of caste men to protect and control caste women.

Honour, we should note, is also a relational concept that requires ‘others’ against whom a group may be compared. The ‘others’ for intermediate castes are not Brahmins whose dominance inspired the non-Brahmin movement in the early part of the 20th Century, but the Dalit castes who have hitherto propped up the caste hierarchy. What has happened in the past few years, we would argue, is that the combination of factors serving to reduce the dependency of Dalits has engendered a crisis of masculinity amongst intermediate caste men that finds its expression in the campaigns against (the very small number of) cross-caste marriages. In other words, the mobilisation by intermediate castes led by Dr. Ramadoss is geared towards the consolidation of caste interests rather than their dissolution. Whilst they are right to emphasise that Dravidianism has failed to tackle casteism, we should not be fooled by the name they have adopted. The ‘All Community Federation’ is not an attempt to revive the radical anti-caste ideology of Periyar so much as an attempt to revive the flagging fortunes of once-dominant castes.

(H. Gorringe and D. Karthikeyan are in the University of Edinburgh)

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Printable version | Jun 2, 2020 9:29:51 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/a-new-churning-in-the-caste-cauldron/article5241161.ece

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