[Karthik Navayan was a member of a fact-finding team that visited Paramakudi town on 19th and 20th September, 2011, and interacted with the victims and also with the district officials in Ramanathapuram. This article contains his observations and analysis- Round Table India]
On September 11th the police killed six among the several Dalits who had assembled in Paramakudi to observe the 54th death anniversary of their leader, Immanuel Sekaran. Another 30 were seriously injured and are undergoing treatment in various hospitals.
Among those killed were 1) R. Ganesan (65), 2) T. Panneerselvam (50) and S. Vellaichamy (65). It is the argument of the police and the revenue officials that these three old people had attacked the police and burnt their vehicle and were hence shot at and killed! Three youngsters called P. Jayapal (20), Theerthakani (25) and Muthukumar (26) were also killed. Among the older persons, 65 year old Vellaichamy was not killed by any bullets but died from the severe lathi blows the policemen had inflicted on him. Therefore around forty policemen accompanied his body to his village and threatened his family that his last rites should be completed within fifteen minutes and left the village only after the rites were completed, as ordered. R. Ganesan, also 65, who had gone to Paramakudi on that particular day with the intention of distributing his son's wedding invitation cards as he thought he would get to meet a lot of relatives and acquaintances on Immanuel Sekaran's death anniversary, was shot dead before he even realized that trouble was brewing in Paramakudi.
All those who died in the firing were daily wage labourers.
They'd all gone to Paramakudi to pay respects to their leader, Immanuel Sekaran, and not with any plans to create trouble or clash with the police. On the other hand, it is the police who are now busy conducting raids on several villages and are arresting many Dalits. The victims are being harassed and implicated in false cases! This can't happen without any political motives—it seems like the police firing and the subsequent repression let loose on Dalit villages are all part of a deliberate strategy to further marginalize the Dalits of this region economically, politically.
According to Chandra Bose, leader of the Immanuel Peravai, the immediate cause for the police firing was the Rasta Roko held by the protesters on that day. On the 11th, the police had arrested the Dalit leader, John Pandian, near a village called Vallanaadu and had taken him away to an unknown destination. When the Dalits gathered in Paramakudi learnt about this arrest, around two hundred of them started holding a Rasta Roka demonstration. They demanded to know the whereabouts of the arrested leader John Pandian and sought his immediate release. They also expressed doubts that Pandian's arrest was the result of a plan hatched by his political adversaries and that he could be killed in a fake encounter. John Pandian's arrest and the subsequent demonstrations were the immediate causes for the police firing, but when you carefully examine the events that have been unfolding since the first week of September in Ramanathapuram, you'll realize that the killing of the Dalits wasn't an unplanned event.
The police and the Collector are trying to justify John Pandian's arrest by saying that they had received some information that he was going to create unrest at the Immanuel Sekaran memorial event. A collector has to examine all aspects of a situation before arriving at a decision based on such information. But who's responsible for the decision taken to detain John Pandian, the resultant unrest and the subsequent loss of lives? The officials thought that John Pandian's presence at the event could cause a law and order situation. But it was the detention of John Pandian that actually created the law and order situation and led to the killing of the Dalits. The full responsibility for this massacre lies on the shoulders of the police and revenue officials whose inept handling of the situation caused this tragedy.
The following three incidents make it very plain that the police and revenue officials had acted in a very partisan manner since the beginning of September. The first incident was the stabbing to death of sixteen year old Dalit youth, Palani Kumar, in Pallapacheri. The second was the removal of the banners erected by the Dalits, by the police. The third was John Pandian's arrest. The fourth event, the police firing, was the logical culmination of the first three incidents. It was something the police had anticipated. There is clear evidence for this conclusion. It seems to be a matter of common agreement among lower cadre policemen, government employees and common citizens discussing the event that the police firing happened as a result of instructions received from 'above'. Common people seem to veer toward the view that it was on the orders of Sasikala, Chief Minister Jayalalithaa's companion and Thevar political leader. Who should verify the degree of truth in these charges? Can CBI do that? If these issues are investigated without political interference, the common people's perceptions will be proven true.
The police and other public officials are trying to justify the firing and the subsequent deaths, to the media and to the rights' activists, by saying that the protestors had attacked the police and destroyed public property. But it wasn't the intention of the Dalits, who had come in lakhs to Paramakudi on that day, to destroy public property, or to attack anyone. They had only gathered to observe the death anniversary of their leader, Immanuel Sekaran.
Killings of Pallar/Mallar/Devendrakular Dalits have been happening for over a half a century in southern Tamil Nadu. A short list of the first killings:
• Immanuel Sekaran was killed on 11th September, 1957.
• On 13th September, five Dalits, including one woman, were burnt alive in Arumkulam by a band of Thevar killers.
• On September 16th, Thevar groups killed sixty Dalits in Veerambal, Arumbakan, Arunlandakatti, Samdakottai villages.
• On September 17th, police shot dead dead a Dalit in keeraMtai village.
• On September 18th, in Tamdikudi village, homes belonging to Dalits of the Devendrakular community were burnt down. Similar attacks have continued since then.
Who is Immanuel Sekaran?
Immanuel Sekaran was a prominent social reformer and freedom fighter. A contemporary of Dr. Ambedkar, he was a Dalit leader who fought against caste discrimination and untouchability in southern Tamil Nadu. On 11/9/1957, this Dalit leader was killed by people owing allegiance to the Forward Bloc leader Muthuramalinga Thevar, of the Thevar community.
Immanuel Sekaran, who was martyred at the very young age of 33, has attained demigod like status among the Dalits in the region. That's why lakhs turn up on his death anniversary to pay tributes to him. According to some estimates, over a million ordinary Dalits, apart from many leaders, participate in the Immanuel Sekaran Memorial day events. This has been happening regularly since 1988 but was never reported in the mainstream media.
This year's anniversary marks the 54th since his death. This year too, like every year, the Dalits started making earnest preparations for the Memorial Day. But the Government and the officials of various departments, like every year, started imposing many strictures and placed many hurdles, and made all efforts to scuttle the event. They did not permit the installation of food and water stalls. The Dalits endured all that and remained immersed in their preparations.
The pre-September 11th series of events are part of a conspiracy
If we carefully examine all the events unfolding since the beginning of September, we realize that the killings of Dalits in Paramakudi were part of a meticulous plan orchestrated by the police and the political leaders of the local Thevar community. It can't be said that all the government officials and all the Thevar political leaders were a part of this conspiracy, but one has to recognize that this plan couldn't have been executed without the participation of some political leaders, police officers and revenue officials. The fact that the Dalit leader John Pandian (TMMK) was arrested in Vallanaadu to prevent him from attending the memorial reinforces the impression that a deliberate strategy was at work. Pandian's arrest resulted in his supporters, around two hundred of them, sitting on a dharna near the five road junction. The police could have easily rounded up these two hundred Dalits conducting an impromptu Rasta Roko agitation, but they resorted to firing instead, which clearly shows that the police had no intention of arresting them. According to the District Collector, two thousand policemen had been mobilised in Paramakudi on that day. It is difficult to believe that those two thousand policemen could not have controlled two hundred, unarmed Dalits.
Moreover, the Dalits were conducting Rasta Roko on only one road. The police also diverted the traffic moving towards this road because it would gradually be filled with people arriving for the Immanuel Sekaran anniversary. So why did the police conduct a lathi charge and then open fire on the Dalits in a street from which all traffic had been diverted? It seems quite clear that John Pandian's arrest led to the firing incident. Did the police have no inkling that John Pandian's arrest could lead to a law and order problem? It needs to be investigated whether such a tense situation was deliberately created. The reasons cited by Arun Roy, the District Collector of Ramanathapuram, for John Pandian's arrest seem implausible. The District Collector's response to our fact finding team's query on the issue was that John Pandian's arrival in Paramakudi would have sparked off a law and order problem and hence he had to issue orders to detain Pandian. But the law and order problem that arose out of Pandian's arrest doesn't seem to have appeared as a problem to the police and the authorities. Probably, whatever the problems that Dalits pose, in those authorities' view, can be suppressed easily, without being questioned. But why do problems of the upper castes or the problems of the castes like the Thevars become problems of the police and the authorities?
Similarly, the police removed the banners that the Dalits had erected, on the Collector's orders, citing the reason that the local Thevars found the text on the banners ('daiva tirumagaanar immanuyaal saekaraN') objectionable. The collector ordered their removal after the Thevars met him to complain. The Collector is very cleverly trying to justify that decision by saying that it's the Dalits who have been suffering the most in the continued conflict between the Pallars and the Thevars over the last half century, hence he had ordered the removal of the banners that angered the Thevars to prevent any new loss of Dalit lives. The Collector seems to have great sympathy for the Dalits and their lives, but there is no need for it now. Dalits who are not lowering their raised heads even when their throats are being slit don't need any sympathy. It would have been enough if the Collector had respected his constitutional duties and performed them. What the Dalits expect from a District Collector is not sympathy at all.
Senthilvelan, an I.P.S officer, was appointed as in-charge of the bandobast arrangements for the Immanuel Sekaran memorial event. It was under his charge that a laathi charge and firing were conducted on the Dalits. But the police started firing a mere five minutes after the laathi charge had begun. No warning shots were fired into the air, no precautionary shots aimed below the knees were fired, no rubber bullets and no water cannons were used. The fact that none of those regular precautionary measures were adopted, makes it very plain that the police and the authorities were acting with the clear objective of launching a lethal assault on the Dalits and their struggle for self-respect.
Who are the Thevars?
The Thevar community is recognized as a Most Backward Class in Tamil Nadu and its members are responsible for all kinds of oppression practiced against the Dalits in southern Tamil Nadu. The goons who attacked the Dalit students in the Ambedkar Law College in Chennai a few years ago belonged to the 'Mukkulathor Manavar Peravai', a students' organization also associated with the Thevars.
The SC/ST employees association of Tamil Nadu's transport department had installed a banner at Immanuel Sekaran memorial day venue. On it was written: 'Deshiya Thalaivar, Daiva Tirumaganaar, Immanuel Sekaran'. Which means: 'National Leader, Son of God, Immanuel Sekaran'. One Prabhakaran, belonging to the Thevar (Maravar) community and leader of the 'Mara Tamilar Senai', unable to digest such high praise being showered on Sekaran, a Dalit leader being eulogized as a national leader, lodged a complaint with the local police station demanding that the banner be removed. He also lodged a complaint with the District Collector. It is their argument that only Muthuramalinga Thevar of their community (Thevars), and no one else, could be referred to as 'daiva tirumagaanar'. Makes one shiver thinking of the kind of democracy we live in. Earlier, a Tamil film by the name of 'daiva tirumagaanar' also faced protests and the producer was forced to change the title to 'daiva tirumagaan'.
This community, whose members act in such a barbaric, unconstitutional and undemocratic manner, is even now recognized as a Most Backward Class and avails itself of reservations. In the current Tamil Nadu assembly, 90 MLAs belonging to different parties are from this community (Maravar). This community, which has a prominent presence in the fields of cinema, education, industry and politics, is indulging in atrocities and killings in southern Tamil Nadu every day. Now that Jayalalithaa has become the Chief Minister, they have become more emboldened because Jayalalithaa's closest companion, Sasikala, also belongs to the Thevar community. There exists a public perception, based on information yet to be verified, that it's Sasikala's hidden hand that's behind the killings in Paramakudi and a lot of atrocities before that. The Dalits opposed the threats issued by Thevar leaders and the police to remove the banners. Some Dalits working in government removed the banners they had erected in deference to the threats of the police and revenue officials. But rest of the Dalit associations refused to oblige and their banners remained, and caused annoyance among the police. It also made the police react in this fashion: 'Because the Dalits are not co-operating with the police, the police shall also not co-operate with the Dalits'. This reaction signaled the tone of events, including the firing, to come.
The killing of Palani Kumar
On September 9th, a sixteen year old Dalit Intermediate student, Palani Kumar of Pallapacheri village, was stabbed to death by some Thevars from Mandalamanickam village when he was returning home after watching a play staged in the village. They say he was killed because he wrote 'Muthuramalinga Thevar is a eunuch' on the wall of the fair price shop in the village. Despite being erased, there are still traces of what was written on the wall, but they're at a height quite above what a sixteen year old could normally reach. So it doesn't seem possible that the Dalit youth could have written that.
Another important fact to remember is: in reality, Dalit villagers from Pallapacheri are too scared to ever visit the village of Mandalamanickam because it is totally Thevar dominated. While there are around two hundred Dalit (Pallar) families in Pallapacheri, the number of Thevar households in Mandalamanickam is around a thousand. That is the main reason why the Dalits of Pallapacheri have been demanding a direct access road to the main road because they don't wish to travel to the main road through Mandalamanickam village. That is also the reason why 49 Dalit students from Pallapacheri prefer to study in a high school eight kilometres away from home, rather than go to the high school in Mandalamanickam which is only a kilometer away! Under such circumstances, it is very difficult to believe that a Dalit teenager from Pallapacheri could ever have written a comment abusing Muthuramalinga Thevar on the walls of the fair price shop in the Thevar village of Mandalamanickam.
The villagers in Pallapacheri say that the police have registered the murder of Palani Kumar, who was killed by the Thevars, as having been committed by 'unknown persons'. No one has been arrested so far. This murder had caused a lot of fear among the Dalits of Pallapacheri, and they had invited their leader John Pandian to the village. But the local police and revenue officials barred John Pandian from visiting the village. John Pandian's visit could cause a law and order problem, they said. Therefore John Pandian canceled his visit to Pallapacheri and promised to visit the village after the Immanuel Sekaran memorial on the 11th. But the police who arrested him on the 11th didn't release him until the 13th. He was released by the police only after a Habeas Corpus petition was filed in the High Court.
The partisan attitude of the government officials
When Palani Kumar, the Dalit student from Pallapacheri, was killed by the Thevars of Mandalamanickam the police registered the offence as committed by 'unknown persons'. This reflects nothing but a partisan attitude.
It was the Dalits' democratic right to erect banners in honour of their leader Immanuel Sekaran. But the police action of summoning them to the police station and pressurizing them to remove the banners, definitely indicates the readiness of the officialdom to serve the local Thevar interests, in order to secure the patronage of the Thevar political leaders.
There are indications that the Thevar political leaders' hands were also behind John Pandian's arrest. Were the police and revenue officials not aware that it would cause anxiety among the Dalits if a Dalit leader was arrested on Immanuel Sekaran's memorial day, an important annual event for them? Even if they were aware, they had decided to follow only their political masters' dictates; and hence they arrested John Pandian and killed six Dalits during the Rasta Roko demonstration which naturally followed it. This was perhaps their way of killing two birds with one shot.
It is clearly evident that in Tamil Nadu, the police and all the wings of the administration are controlled by the Thevar (Maravar) leaders. This is against the law and the constitution.
The Paramakudi killings bring to light once again the pervasive lack of democratic consciousness and respect for human rights among those wielding power in the state apparatus. There is an urgent need to work for the spread of more democratic values and norms in governance. Paramakudi is a good place to begin this mission. Political and civil society needs to fight for the Government to undertake the following remedial measures as a first step:
Karthik Navayan is a Dalit human rights activist.
[Translated from Telugu by Kuffir. Pictures courtesy: Karthik Navayan]