Readers of Kafila might have heard of the horrific shootings that took place at Paramakudi and Madurai on September 11. Officially seven people died when police opened fire on dalits who had gathered to pay their respects to Immanuel Sekaran, a dalit leader who was brutally killed in 1957 in circumstances that pointed to the complicity of dominant caste thevars in carrying out this murder. (The thevars are an important constituent of the ‘Mukkulathor’ complex of castes that includes the kallars and the maravars.) Subsequently, U Muthuramalinga Thevar, Forward Bloc leader was arrested in connection with Sekaran’s death – he stood trail and was released two years later, because the case against him was not established and proved. (Thevar was proud of his anti-communism and his Hinduism; to him he claimed that patriotism and theistic belief constituted his very vision, they were the ‘eyes’ through which he saw the world.)
But before all that happened, a great many other deaths took place – following Sekaran’s death, widespread riots happened across the region (in and around Mudukkalthur in Ramanathapuram district in the south east of Tamil Nadu), and tragically both thevars and dalits were killed in large numbers. Dalit homes were destroyed, their crops set on fire, their families humiliated, entire villages burnt down, a church where dalits had taken refuge was stormed by thevar mobs and two men killed. Several thevars were killed too, as dalits retaliated, and many more died in police firing. These events laid the basis for a volatile political atmosphere, which continues to persist in the region, and one in which the thevars have lost no chance to let the dalits know their ‘place’; dalits for their part have continued to resist, often amidst tremendous odds.
Sekaran’s murder happened on the heel of widespread competitive political anger and discontent in the region, triggered it would seem, by a by-election which saw a thevar candidate returned to the Tamil Nadu Assembly. It was rumoured then, and continues to be repeated to this day that Sekaran, along with members of the Nadar community were Congress supporters, whereas Muthuramalinga Thevar whose candidate had won the by-election was a Forward Bloc man, and opposed to the Congress in Tamil Nadu, especially its leader, K Kamaraj. Political passions, we are made to believe, ran high and peace meetings, held in anticipation of further and greater violence in the wake of the elections were scuttled by the recalcitrance of all parties concerned. In the event, widespread violence was unleashed, and the rest is now history.
What is often conveniently forgotten in such reasoning is the persistence of the most atrocious forms of untouchability in the region, in Ramanathapuram, since the 1930s, and which has not retreated with time and has in fact reinvented itself in the face of dalit resistance. What is also forgotten is the social capital that thevars have assiduously built up – through their presence in cinema, in local administration, in political parties – and which is often used to buttress their claims to social status, long denied to them in the order of things in Tamil Nadu, (the Southern kallars were counted amongst the criminal tribes by the British) and which they now covet and make their own through the willful denigration and humiliation of dalits. Though, historically they have, for several periods of time, themselves been outside the pale of the caste order, that memory is not significant in their recall of times past. Their ideologues appear to want to do two things: view the kallar-maravar-thevar complex as authentic Tamilians, committed to the land and its faith; and as purveyors of a martial past. Having served as guards of the frontier to the imperial Cholas, and of the seas for the Pandyas, these ideologues are inclined to see their communities in the light of a proud past of which they claim to be forbears. This pride, in that perverse manner rendered routine by varnadharma requires them to treat dalits with contempt – in keeping with the logic of graded inequality. Dalits to this day continue to bear the brunt of that wretched pride.
Immanuel Sekaran has since been memorialized in song and legend and has emerged as a pivotal memory to mobilize dalits into acts of resistance. Over time, the occasion of his death has come to be celebrated as a solemn event – and ironically as it were, it precedes the celebrations that happen in October every year to honour the memory of Muthuramalinga Thevar and which are usually observed in triumphant hauteur by the members of his community, with able support from political leaders from across the ideological spectrum.
Ever since the AIADMK under MGR and later on under the present Chief Minister J Jayalalitha have chosen to patronize the Thevars (and the other sub-castes that are linked to them, including the kallars and the maravars), community leaders in the southern districts have reaffirmed their caste authority and hegemony by taunting, insulting and inflicting violence on dalits who dare to defy their diktats. Political support in fact has earned them an impunity that is explained away in terms of their so-called ‘primeval’ will to acts of violent anger. It is not surprising then that the memory of Immanuel Sekaran serves to haunt and anger all those determined to counter dalit militancy.
In this latest instance of violence, which saw police shoot at a gathering of dalits in a major junction in the town of Paramakudi, as they sought to make their way to pay tribute to Sekaran’s memory, it is evident that the firing was entirely unprovoked. Several sets of fact-finding reports are currently circulating in the Tamil public sphere, all of which make it clear that there was nothing to suggest that the dalits who had come together to keep vigil with Sekaran’s memory were causing a law-and-order problem. Chandra Bose, a senior dalit leader in the region who was present in Paramakudi in fact attempted to counsel the police into not doing anything rash, but all his imprecations were ignored, and simultaneously, as it were, the police resorted to lathi charging and shooting – this fact has been fudged by the police who claim that they shot at the gathering only when all other attempts to quell the crowd had failed. Further teargas was not used, and the mechanism for using it remained untouched.
The police also have argued that their officers shot in self-defence, because the crowd of dalits had resorted to stone-throwing. Again, on the evidence of Chandra Bose and others who have spoken to various fact-finding teams, it appears that the stone-throwing started after the shooting and not before.
Further, just at the very moment when the police opened fire in Paramkudi, police in Madurai city shot at a modest gathering of less than 100 people. In addition, it is claimed by dalit leaders in and around Paramkudi, two young men were singled out by the police and either killed in custody or shot point-blank.
The police story has other aspects to it which do not bear scrutiny: they have argued that they were anticipating a major law-and-order crisis with the impending arrival of John Pandian, a fiery dalit leader, known to provoke his hearers into angry action, and so had to stop him from proceeding towards Sekaran’s memorial – hearing the news of him being apprehended by the police, his supporters, we are told gave into rowdy action, and the police had to resort to firing to protect themselves. A very thin excuse, it would appear, since John Pandian had been granted police permission to go to the memorial and it would not have taken much to render his visit ‘safe’.
So, why did the police shoot? There appears to be a malevolent ritualism to the shootings, their timing (on the very day that Sekaran was killed), that they were not provoked, that they were not preceded by warnings… and that they happened in the same month as the original riots of 1957. Further, the shootings happened in the wake of the death of Palanivel, a 16 year-old dalit youth who was murdered because he had allegedly sought to defame Muthuramalinga Thevar through a piece of wall writing that offended the thevars. Those who spoke to his family members in his native village have pointed out the very modest circumstances of his family, their fear of the thevars, and the sheer incongruity of the young man attempting something that for sure would have brought him to disaster and death. It has long been observed that the dalits in villages close to Mudukkalathur are extremely vulnerable to attack and they are least likely to indulge in lone acts of opposition.
To return to the question of the shootings: why did the police shoot? Angry progressives have noted that this is sheer police brutality; that there was not even the excuse of caste tensions (a claim that is falsified by the role played by the ‘Aapanaattu Maravar Sangam’a group that is local to the region and avidly involved in settling issues of dominance). Others have argued that the state government has been taken aback by the unexpected show of solidarity cutting across castes and faiths that has mobilized hundreds of young Tamils to protest the death penalty awarded to Santhan, Murugan and Perarivalan, accused in the murder of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and have resorted to this vile measure to scuttle Tamil unity. What is of course not addressed here is that this unity which is achieved in the heat of struggles to do with pan-Tamil causes such as this one, or to do with language and opposition to Brahmin-bania authority, comes regularly unstuck when it comes to caste.
So, to understand the logic of the firings, we need to look elsewhere: at the manner in which the police continue to be wooed and pampered by both the DMK and the AIDMK; at the impunity they enjoy as custodians of ‘law and order’ which gives them power and legitimacy to consistently place themselves outside civic and public scrutiny; at the ‘right’ they have arrogated to themselves to use firearms speedily and without thought; at the unregenerate casteism that is present pervasively in the force; at the cultural affirmation they have received through flattering and feared media representations (a character in a Tamil soap, a ‘good’ cop went by the name of ‘Encounter Dorai’); at the histories of service of the police heads who were involved in the firing, and which reveal a thoroughly anti-people attitude which has been made evident on other occasions.
More particular is the clout enjoyed by the leaders of the thevar community with the ruling party, and which has decided to use it to ‘settle’ the question of dalit defiance in the south eastern districts. It is extremely telling that Jayalalitha was dismissive of the deaths that happened, did not deign to refer to the desecration of a commemorative event observed in honour of a dalit leader and that she would not allow even a glimmer of doubt to be cast on the police.
We must also look at the history of governance under the AIADMK – especially the last two times J Jayalalitha was in office. She is unabashedly elitist, an aspect of her personality that is fudged because she plays the benevolent ‘mother’ to her large group of non-Brahmin and dalit supporters, and happily and successfully infantilises their politics. She has made no secret of the support she has consistently extended to Narendra Modi. She has shown herself to be easily instrumental and cynical in the manner she treats public causes, supporting them now, dismissive of them another time, all with an eye to immediate political gain. Of course, many of these ways of being would apply to the political class as a whole, including her arch-foe, the DMK, but there is a shade of political evil that she covets, which has to do with her ability to shut up people. In this latest instance, not one of the fact-finding reports, even when released to well organized press meets have found their way to the dailies. (The only report that gained some media attention was the one given out by the Dalit Panthers, but this was only because the press conference was addressed by Ram Vilas Paswan, and it seemed alright to let him speak.) The Tamil weeklies which gloat over every minor political event until they can render it sensational have shut up after making initial noises about the Paramkudi firings. It is this ability to reach out to the undemocratic core that lies at the heart of every violently beating democratic heart that renders her a politician that is more than ordinarily corrupt and cynical. It is as if she allows many of us to be unabashed about our founded and cruel disinterest in the politics of caste and caste based injustice. Not only the public, but this time around, the district administration too has been drawn into this evil politics of silence and denial.
Sadly, the vibrant Tamil nationalist public voices that have created a new civic space around the issue of protesting the death penalty are all too eager to be conspiratorial about the Paramakudi events, and not entirely willing to consider the caste question as it emerges and re-emerges in all that we do, or don’t do. The Dalit Panthers, the CPI (M) and the CPI have, to an extent, insisted on bringing the policemen to book, but even before the dead were cold in their grave, the two communist parties were engaged in parleys with the AIADMK on the matter of local elections. It is another matter that they finally have decided to go it alone in the local polls, but tragically this is not on account of Paramakudi.