…turn in any direction you like, caste is the monster that crosses your path.
B.R. Ambedkar, in Annihilation of Caste, 1936
In 2009, around Valentine’s Day, when Sri Rama Sene, a fringe Hindu chauvinist group led by Pramod Muthalik, targeted pub-going women in Mangalore, it became international news. Their infamy owed in no small measure to the “Pink Chaddi Campaign” by the irreverently named Consortium of Pub-Going, Loose and Forward Women. From The New York Times to our raucous news channels, everyone enjoyed the spectacle of young, articulate, savvy, urban women neatly pitted against Hindutva bigots opposed to their drinking or dating.
Since November 2012, in northern Tamil Nadu, the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) has led a campaign with far worse consequences. S. Ramadoss, founder-leader of the PMK, and leaders of the Vanniyar Sangham — the caste outfit that is to the PMK what the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh is to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — have been making statements no less outrageous than Muthalik’s. >Ramadoss believes that young Dalit men wearing jeans, T-shirts and sunglasses, riding motorcycles and wielding mobile phones are luring girls of Vanniyar and other “intermediary” castes. Last November, the actions of the cadres of the PMK and Vanniyar Sangham, and the hate speeches of Ramadoss, his son Anbumani Ramadoss, and other Vanniyar leaders such as ‘Kaduvetti’ Guru, resulted in a Salwa Judum-style torching of over 250 Dalit homes in three Dalit colonies of Dharmapuri district. In April 2013, there was another round of violence unleashed by the PMK cadre protesting intercaste affairs. According to a report in Frontline (May 31, 2013), they damaged about 500 public and private buses, setting fire to 13 of them, and also cut down over 160 trees. Everyday life was affected in 10 districts with a sizeable Vanniyar population.
This cycle of violence culminated in the >July 4 death of E. Ilavarasan , a 23-year-old Dalit who married Divya, a Vanniyar girl. When found dead along a railway track, Ilavarasan was wearing sky-blue jeans, the attire Ramadoss loathed. In fact, it was their elopement and marriage last October that first instigated Ramadoss’s tirades against “love dramas” in which Dalit men were posing a threat to the “honour” of Vanniyar women.
In sheer scale — both of moral policing and damage to lives and property — Ramadoss and the PMK have far exceeded Muthalik and Rama Sene. And yet no one feels the need to send pink chaddis to these caste fanatics. Where Muthalik & Co. erred was in attacking the consumerist logic of both Valentine’s Day and the culture of pubs, antagonising a powerful class constituency. Had Muthalik opposed Vokkaliga-Dalit marriages, he would not have been bestowed pink chaddis . Muthalik courted controversy when he declared: “If we come across couples being together in public and expressing their love, we will take them to the nearest temple and conduct their marriage.” Surely, this is ridiculous, but compared to Ramadoss’s war against intercaste marriages, Muthalik sounds like a misinformed reformer. While the former speaks the language of Hindu supremacy, the latter embodies the logic of caste supremacy. Caste or rather jati dharma predates, and is a far more gruesome and pervasive reality than, Hindu dharma .
Caste and Hindutva
What we are witnessing is merely a restatement of the battle at the heart of India’s flawed democracy in the post-Mandal, post-Babri phase: the divisive discourse of jati assertion, where each jati demands its share in power structures in proportion to its share in the population, competing with the discourse of Hindutva that seeks to project a united force of all Hindus. At first, like many social scientists and commentators, I too believed that post-Mandal jati assertion had derailed and subverted the Hindutva agenda, but it is time we realise that caste majoritarianism is by no means in contradiction with communal majoritarianism (a Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam or PMK would happily align with either the BJP or the Congress, depending on what could be gained). The forces of destruction wielded by Mandalite politicos are just as bad as those unleashed in the name of Mandir.
Why is it that Hindutva’s excesses raise the hackles of India’s liberal-secular classes while the brazen assertion of casteism — whether by the Brahmins who defend the “ made snana ” ritual (where people roll on plantain leaves smeared with the leftovers of lunch served to Brahmins) in Karnataka’s Kukke Subramanya temple every December or by Vanniyars in Tamil Nadu — causes comparatively little outrage, and virtually no sustained national coverage? What is it that distinguishes the logic of caste from the logic of Hindutva in elite common sense?
In the early 19th century, the Madras Presidency witnessed the beginnings of the “Non-Brahmin” movement. This has largely been misrepresented as an anti-caste movement, which it certainly was not. In its first phase, the higher-level non-Brahmin castes — Naickers, Reddiars, Vellalars, Mudaliars, Chettiars — sought parity with Brahmins for job opportunities in the colonial government. The composition of the first Justice Party ministry of 1920 reflected this social reality. In 1967, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) formed the first post-independence non-Congress government in Tamil Nadu. Under this regime, only the higher order non-Brahmins were empowered, and the “Most Backward Classes” — such as Thevars in the south, Vanniyars in the north — were excluded. With the rise of the M.G. Ramachandran-led Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (later AIADMK) in 1972, the Thevars found a voice.
Meanwhile, the Vanniyars, who had vested faith in the Congress, felt left out. When two Vanniyar leaders broke away from the Congress in 1951 and launched the Tamil Nadu Toilers Party and Commonweal Party, controlling 25 councillors by 1952, the Vanniyars emerged as the first caste bloc to prove their voting power in independent India. The Congress, as it has always done, wooed back the two leaders to prove their majority in the Assembly.
The struggle of the Vanniyars regained momentum in 1980 with the formation of the Vanniyar Sangham, and peaked in 1987 when the PMK staged a successful weeklong roadblock in the northern districts to demand 20 per cent reservation. When the Ambedkar birth centenary reinvigorated Dalit demands for civil and political rights in 1991, Thevars, Vanniyars and other intermediary castes fiercely opposed them, even calling for the repeal of the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act of 1989.
While the Pallar-Dalits in the south rallied behind the Pudhiya Tamizhagam, the Parayar-Dalits of the north hit back under the Dalit Panthers (VCK). By 2006, the VCK had elected an MP and two MLAs, and made peace with its principal antagonist, the PMK. However, when the PMK returned only three MLAs from the 30 seats it contested in the 2011 Assembly poll, it returned to aggressively jati -based politics, culminating in the current crisis. In politics today, jati identity cannot be reduced to the instrumental purpose it serves in electoral democracy. At the deeper, ideological level, what we are witnessing is the worst kind of throwback to jati as dharma , as a governing order. The forced separation of Ilavarasan and Divya (with the judiciary and the state shamelessly abetting), mirroring the acts of khap panchayats in Haryana, is a warning against any kind of transgression of jati laws. What binds the Marathas of Sonai village in Ahmednagar district—who killed three young Dalit men because of a Valmiki-Maratha affair on January 1, 2013 — with the Jats of Haryana and the Vanniyars of northern Tamil Nadu? It is their abiding faith in the supremacy and utility of caste.
There are stories that make lesser news. In 2010, in Pallinellinoor, Villupuram district, Kokila, a Parayar girl and Karthikeyan, an Arundhatiyar boy — both of different Scheduled Caste jatis — decided to get married. Fearing repercussions from Kokila’s family, the couple kept it a secret. In 2012, when the truth was out, Kokila died under suspicious circumstances in her parents’ house — a euphemism for honour killing. Neither the Dalit movement nor the media took notice. The deviousness of the caste system is such that it can quickly turn victim into perpetrator; the larger truth is that its amorality makes everyone — oppressor and oppressed — a victim. Caste is truly the monster that crosses our path in whichever direction we turn.
(S. Anand is the publisher of Navayana. )
This article has been corrected for a factual error.