G Pramod Kumar
Chennai: A Hindu caste group preventing their children from attending classes at a local school in southern Tamil Nadu because two Dalit women were posted to prepare the noon-meals has sent shockwaves through the state.
More shocking was the response of the school and district administration, which transferred the women out of the school to mollify the community and bring the children back.
So far, neither the political leaders and Dalit activists nor the State government have raised the slightest protest, let alone fought for any corrective action.
The incident happened in a panchayat union school at Kammappatti near Rajapalayam in Virudhu Nagar district on Tuesday. As soon as the leaders of the community, Kambalath Naicker, came to know about the posting of the Dalit women, they told the school authorities that they would not send their children if Dalits cooked the noon-meal.
The community leaders justified their action on cultural grounds, that they don't eat food cooked by people from other castes, although it was a clear practice of untouchability and discrimination.
"We are not against any particular caste. We maintain cordial relationship with the scheduled caste people. But, it is our practice that our people, especially girls and women, do not eat food cooked by people belonging to any other community," The Hindu quoted B Sanjeevi, ward member of the Kammapatti panchayat.
The district revenue officer, who is holding the charge of additional collector reportedly echoed the voices of the community leaders and justified the transfer of the Dalit women. "This is a peculiar habit of this community. We cannot treat this as a practice of untouchability," according to the same report.
Caste-discrimination is always justified or camouflaged as a cultural practice. The motion on the Prevention of Atrocities Bill, which subsequently became an Act, in the Parliament in 1995, had in fact clearly said that "serious atrocities are committed against them (scheduled castes) for various historical, social and economic reasons."
What the community leaders, the school authorities and the local administration are doing is no different. In fact, the Prevention of Atrocities Act (POA) was passed mainly because of the inadequacies of existing laws to address the atrocities committed against Dalits.
Noted writer and commentator Gnani Sankaran said the Kammapatti incident was "ridiculous and unconstitutional". Any caste can discriminate others using such behaviour, he said. This is nothing but untouchability and untouchability is caste-based, he said.
According to him, this also shows the lop-sided development of Tamil Nadu. One part of the state is progressing quite fast, while the other is steeped in archaic practices. "The government should be stern and take punitive action against the village if they are found to be guilty. The district administration should not have yielded to their discriminatory demands for the transfer of the Dalit staff."
A senior professor at the Chennai Medical College said that strict action should be taken against the school authorities and district administration for their callous act of transferring the women out of the school because the community that practised discrimination couldn't stand them. The state government has time and again said that they are committed to the Protection of Civil Rights Act and the POA.
Despite the remarkable progress in human development indicators and women's rights, the state has a horrendous record in preventing the oppression and discrimination of Dalits. Discrimination and violence against them by caste Hindus is rampant in southern districts and also in many other parts of the state.
Dalit villagers are routinely ostracised by caste Hindus, which included denial of rights of passage, use of common public utilities and even simple lifestyle practices such as wearing footwear. A Tamil magazine recently reported how Dalit children had to hold their footwear by hand while passing by a caste Hindu village in Coimbatore.
It's contrasting indeed that such archaic human rights violations happen in a state that has stated to be committed to the well-being of scheduled castes and tribes.
The Tamil Nadu government, in its policy on (Adi Dravidar and Tribal Welfare Department) claims that "sustainable development of scheduled castes/scheduled tribes is its prime objective." Besides a series of welfare measures, the policy also lists the various steps taken by the government to implement both the PCR Act and the POA.
"Under Rule 17(1), of SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Rules 1995, the State Government have constituted District Level Vigilance and Monitoring Committee in each district headed by the concerned District Collector with officials / non-officials as members. The District Collectors are also empowered to nominate a person who has the right aptitude and understanding of the problems of SC/ST as a member in the committee."
If this were true and effective, there is something seriously wrong with the way the government policy is implemented. The same authorities who are entrusted with the protection of SC/ST are party to the discrimination witnessed in Kammapatti.
The policy further states: "the District Level Committee shall meet at least once in three months to review the implementation of the provisions of these Acts and monitor the relief and rehabilitation measures provided to the victims."
In addition, the state has a High Power Vigilance and Monitoring Committee chaired the chief minister to review and monitor implementation of the SC/ST Acts in the State.
The state government has also set up a Social Justice and Human Rights wing under the Additional Director General of Police to supervise registration, investigation and filing of cases under these two Acts and to act as a protection cell for scheduled castes and scheduled tribes.
So much on paper for SC/ST, but in reality, a community conclave can call the shots and banish people out of their sight. If the government is serious about its commitment, it should suo moto take cognizance of the Kammapatti incident and order an investigation.
Clearly the issue is not of safeguards and institutions to guard the constitutional guarantees, but severe lack of political commitment. Dalits are easy targets of discrimination of caste Hindus in the state and often the latter get away easily because of their political influence. There is no action against leaders who often practice anti-Dalit caste-based politics.
According to the 2011 census, 19% of the people in the state belong to Scheduled Castes and 1.04%, Scheduled Tribes. The state has the fifth largest Dalit population in the country.
It's regrettable that in a democracy, such a large population of people are still vulnerable to outrageous practice of discrimination and violence. The Kammappatti incident is yet another istance of the conflict between constitutional guarantees and the lack of political commitment.
[Courtesy: First Post, July 5, 2012]