(The New Indian Express) The Backlash to Dalit Political Assertion: Kilvenmani and Arakkonam
As I sit down to write this column, trying to address the question, “Has Tamil Nadu changed since the Keezhvenmani massacre?”, the bloodstained news of the double-murders of Dalit youth Arjunan and Surya in Arakkonam has just come in. Two young Dalit men were killed by caste fanatics on April 7 because they were canvassing in the recently concluded legislative assembly elections for the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK), a party that stands for caste annihilation.
Surya was a new bridegroom, married only a fortnight before his gruesome murder; Arjunan leaves behind a four-month-old child. This double murder shows that the flames of caste supremacist hatred which charred to death 44 Dalit women, men and children in the village of Keezhvenmani on December 25, 1968, continue to burn bright within caste fanatics.
Gopalakrishna Naidu directed hatred against Dalit landless agricultural labourers who were striking for an increase in wages by raising the bogey of communists liquidating landlords. The murderer masterminds of today run caste-based political parties, spew toxic caste hatred vilifying Dalit men of naadaga kadhal (staged-love), violently attack Dalits who politically organise for caste annihilation. Even as caste-fanatics rape Dalit women with impunity, they also kill their own daughters for marrying Dalit men. False propaganda, rumour-mongering, a dehumanisation and demonisation of the Dalits has always been essential for the project of caste oppression.
While it is true that the social mobility offered by years of Dravidian rule has indeed alleviated large sections of the society, including Dalits, out of extreme poverty and broken away with demeaning systems of servitude, they have not been enough to remove deep-seated anti-Dalit hatred among caste-Hindus. In the first fifty days of the lockdown last year, more than 81 caste atrocities took place against Dalits, including 22 murders.
When we recollect Keezhvenmani in the context of Dalit History Month, let us remember that much more than the wage struggle, what angered caste fanatics in the undivided East Tanjore district in the 1960s was Dalit political assertion. People traditionally seen by the feudal landlords as their house slaves were standing up against them, rallying under the red flag and challenging their authority and oppression. Today, the flags under which Dalits consolidate themselves, the immediate demands that they place, and the Dalit Periyarist-Ambedkarite leadership under which they assert themselves vociferously, might have changed, but the backlash remains the same.
Every single act of transgression is punished by violence and certain death that caste-fanatics are eager to unleash at the slightest pretext. Keezhvenmani was an unmatched house of horrors because Dalits not only lost their lives when they militantly stood up against caste-feudalism, but also because the state machinery failed them dishonourably. Not a single bloodthirsty landlord was convicted, the prime accused Gopalakrishna Naidu walked away without having done any jail-time. Keezhvenmani is a massacre that repeats itself endlessly every time a caste atrocity occurs, every time the guilty caste-fanatics go completely unpunished.
It is a national shame that the state machinery continues to fail its duty in protecting the Dalits and in providing them retributive justice by punishing their murderers. Instead, the criminal judicial apparatus punishes Dalit assertion and dissent, and files false cases on the already victimised Dalits. Even the Prevention of SC/ST Atrocities Act remains a paper tiger: according to the latest NCRB data, there is more than 90% pendency of cases, low convictions, absence of special courts. Police forces collude with caste fanatics; in the Arakkonam murders, they surreptitiously brought the bodies of the deceased into the village on April 9, even as the Dalit families and villagers refused to take back the bodies until all the culprits were arrested.
Even as we blame caste fanatics and the state machinery that acts as their stooge every single time, it is also worthwhile to assess our role as a civil society when caste atrocities against Dalits occur. We, the people of Tamil Nadu, should introspect our own collective silences and complicity on the question of caste atrocities. As a society, we were capable of seeing jallikattu as intrinsically linked to Tamil identity, and could converge on the Marina in the tens of thousands on a single issue. If bull-taming as a sport could become a torchbearer of our identity, why do we, who live in a land where Periyar’s thoughts on social justice have influenced every sphere of our lives, not see the project of caste-annihilation also as an integral part of our identity? Why don’t we see an outpouring of people on the streets when Dalits are murdered simply for staking claim to electoral democracy, the right to canvass for the VCK, as witnessed in the gruesome Arakkonam double-murder?
In addition to the failure of the state machinery, it is also the absence of our public outrage that strengthens caste-fanatics, allows them the temerity and courage to operate in the open, to multiply their toxic hate speech, and to murder Dalits in broad daylight with impunity.