The vexatious problem of caste atrocities in Tamil Nadu

Much remains to be done in Tamil Nadu, as recent events have shown

Updated - October 11, 2023 12:59 am IST

Published - October 11, 2023 12:15 am IST

Dalit village panchayat president Indumathi’s husband and their children at the police station in Tamil Nadu’s Ambur.. Photo: Special Arrangement

Dalit village panchayat president Indumathi’s husband and their children at the police station in Tamil Nadu’s Ambur.. Photo: Special Arrangement

The DMK’s response to Governor R.N. Ravi’s latest charge that there had been a “rise in caste atrocities” in the State was different from its responses in the past. In an unusual move since it came to power in May 2021, the party drafted its general secretary and Water Resources Minister Durai Murugan to counter the Governor’s charge. One reason for this could be that Mr. Durai Murugan, who is the senior-most minister in the present government and ranked second in the Cabinet, belongs to the region, undivided Vellore district, which the Governor alluded to in his charge.

Mr. Ravi cited the example of Nayakkaneri village panchayat in Tirupattur district where a Scheduled Caste (SC) woman, P. Indumathi, could not take charge as the panchayat president since 2021 despite being elected unopposed. However, this was not due to political reasons or the State government’s interference. In October 2021, a Division Bench of the Madras High Court restrained Ms. Indumathi from assuming office after a writ petition was filed questioning the Tamil Nadu State Election Commission’s decision to reserve the Nayakkaneri panchayat president’s post for SC (women) on the ground that not a single family in the village belonged to a SC.

Regarding the conviction rate in crimes against SC/Scheduled Tribes, Mr. Durai Murugan pointed out that Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Gujarat, all ruled by the BJP, fared poorly on this count. He also said that after the DMK assumed office, the rate went up to 9.12% from 7.15% in 2013-2020, when the AIADMK was in power. He gave an account of the various measures taken by the present government to protect SCs/STs.

Notwithstanding the Minister’s forceful rejoinder, it cannot be denied that Tamil Nadu has been witnessing crimes against SCs or discrimination against SC chiefs of rural local bodies. In August, an SC boy and his sister were brutally attacked in Nanguneri town in Tirunelveli district. Last December, human faeces was found in an overhead tank of Vengaivayal, a remote hamlet in the Annavasal block of Pudukottai district. The faeces was discovered after some children who drank water from the tank fell ill and had to be admitted to hospital. These are just two incidents that particularly captured public attention.

Also read | Woman Dalit panchayat president missing; Ambur police file case

Though the government took swift action in these cases, such incidents underscore the fact that the problem is much deeper and more complex than what meets the eye, given the State’s long history of struggle for social justice. The media regularly carries different accounts of alleged caste discrimination or the findings of studies by NGOs on such events. In August 2022, the Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front published a report based on a study covering 386 village panchayats of 24 districts, highlighting bias against SC chiefs of village panchayats. SC intellectuals have been complaining about the attitude of both the DMK and the AIADMK in times of transgressions committed by caste organisations, which are drawn from Backward Classes or Most Backward Classes, for the obvious reason of “vote bank politics,” given that intermediate castes numerically outweigh the SCs.

At the same time, one cannot completely dismiss the two principal parties with respect to political representation of SCs. In 2001, the AIADMK got elected a SC candidate (Dalit Ezhilmalai) from the Tiruchi Lok Sabha constituency, a general seat, and appointed another SC (P. Dhanapal) Speaker of the Assembly after a gap of several decades. Three ministers in the DMK cabinet belong to the SC community. The present regime established the State Commission for SCs/STs a few years ago. It successfully conducted elections in October 2006 in the village panchayats of Pappapatti, Keeripatti, and Nattarmangalam in Madurai district and Kottakachiyenthal in Virudhunagar, where sections of the intermediate caste had refused to accept SCs as their panchayat presidents for 10 years. Mr. Durai Murugan stressed on the fact that this took place when Chief Minister M.K. Stalin was Local Administration Minister during the DMK regime of 2006-11.

However, much remains to be done, as recent events have shown. Only a healthy collaboration between the Raj Bhavan and the State government, aided by the involvement of public-spirited officials at every level, activists, and panchayat leaders will bring about the desired results.

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