The Emergence of Right-wing Caste Politics in Tamil Nadu


Harish S. Wankhede

 Ilavarasan and Divya eloped and got married. Divya's father killed himself a little while later because his daughter had married a Dalit youth. A few days ago Ilavarasan's body was found next to the railway tracks near Dharmapuri. It is, as yet, unclear if his death was a murder, accident or suicide. Divya is a Vanniyar woman who dared to fall in love beyond her caste moorings. Vanniyars are not exactly upper-caste; in fact they have been listed as MBC's in Tamil Nadu state. However, as far as caste hierarchies go, Ilavarasan as a Dalit, was a step lower according to the Vanniyar sense of righteousness.

pmk khap

In a state that boasts of having started the self-respect movement led by Periyar, it is indeed puzzling to see how even amongst lower caste groups such criminal hierarchical tendencies persist with such dangerous effects. The traditions of oppression and aversion to other castes, as set by Brahminical caste values, seem to have translated into a common set of behaviors for castes trying to identify as one step above some other caste in this hierarchy.

Ilavarasan and Divya never realized that caste is not just a petty social subject in their personal family feud, but it is also a political weapon that pitches one caste against another for brutal consequences.

The Vanniyar community has emerged as a significant political force in Tamil Nadu with the rise of Paattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), especially in the 13 districts in the northern part of the state. The PMK is notorious for mobilizing its cadres on sheer caste identity (its main slogan was 'Vanniyar ottu anniyarukillai' - 'Vanniyar vote is not for the non-Vanniyar') and for pitching conservative rhetoric to protect female chastity from the 'ill effects' of modern life. For instance, the PMK condemned film actress Khushboo for speaking in favor of pre-marital sex. They said this was a threat to Tamil culture.

In many ways, Ilavarasan and Divya's relationship gave the local political bosses grist for the political mill. The relationship was seen as a slur on the honor of the Vanniyars. The eloping of the couple was instrumentalized to heighten the emotive caste sentiments by portraying Dalit youths as a new threat to the integrity of the society. The PMK chief claimed that 'the Dalit boys wear jeans and sun glasses to lure Vanniyar girls and get married to them for material benefits'. Divya's father, who failed to fight the daily 'humiliation' from his caste peers, ultimately committed suicide. In reaction, the PMK cadres burned and looted more than 150 houses of Dalits at Dharmapuri on the very next day. After the Dharmapuri riot, the PMK flagged its staunch opposition against inter-caste marriages and against any special legal protection to the Scheduled Castes. Divya also succumbed to the political and societal pressure, and decided to get back to her mother, never to return to Ilaravasan's home. After Ilavarasan's traumatic death, Dharmapuri is tense once again.

So who do we blame for Ilavarasan's death? While the inquiry commission into this incident will file a report, a preliminary judgment can be placed on social casteism, which restricts people's marital choices, and political casteism, where those who choose to break out of social casteism are made to pay a heavy price. In many ways, the incidents around Divya and Ilavarasan have dragged this country back at least a hundred years into the past where families have succumbed to caste pressures as have individuals, riots have occurred, and people have been publicly lynched.

The PMK has not only created a false demon out of Dalits to mobilize certain Backward Castes for their own self-interested political arithmetic, but has also disturbed and contaminated the regional political sphere known for its progressive and radical socio-political programs against the Brahmanical caste prejudices and untouchability.

If the PMK is to be believed, there is permissible and honorable love and the illicit one. Divya's father, Ilavarasan and several other young people in India who are rejected because of the one thing they cannot change about themselves – their caste identity – may have died by their own hand, but the knives that have been used have been wielded by a deeply racist, casteist, narrow-minded and brutal society that not only subscribes to Manu's irrational codes, but would also rather have someone die in the name of some ancient semblance of honor than believe in the dignity, human rights and capacities of people as individuals.

The staunch belief in hierarchical caste order endorses that the Dalits must be thrown into the den of darkness for perpetual exploitative servitude and to live a life where existence does not include happiness, freedom, capacity or equality. Ilavarasan was a modern man, who stood away from such brutal social laws and challenged the false upper caste superiority by his choice to marry a Vanniyar girl. His death sends the signal that a Dalit life must learn to live without free will and equality or else it may be terminated. Any tampering with the 'dharmic' codes of the society will have serious consequences.

We are unsure if Ilavarasan ended his life on his own because railway drivers have a strict code to abide by in the case of a suicide or accident on the tracks. There is no indication that this was done by the engine driver near Dharmapuri, raising serious doubts about whether Ilavarasan died in a train accident. However, even if Ilavarasan has chosen to end his life, it is a forced suicide. Societal orthodoxy has coerced and tortured him persistently and made his life a condemnable filth for breaking the social norms by falling in love with the Vanniyar girl. Forced suicide is nothing but murder without culprits. The PMK's aversions that belittle the other community, spread hatred and champion false patriarchal rhetoric of chastity, honor and dignity is an open criminal-feudal arrogance of exclusive casteist mobilization to retain its political relevance in Tamil Nadu. The PMK has orchestrated all this not as a social mafia but as a democratic political force governed under the constitutional modalities of a secular state.

Politicization of lower castes is observed as a democratizing force that challenges the dominant control of upper caste elites over the political institutions. A positive implication of caste politics has the capacity to make the polity more representative and tilted towards the welfare of the socially downtrodden masses and economically marginalized communities. However, caste politics is a double edged sword too, that mobilizes one particular segment of the influential castes not against the dominant socio-political elites but to endorse the rightist conservative Brahmanical caste values against the worst-off sections of the society. Ilavarasan's death is a demonstrative example that suggests that the idea of caste politics in Tamil Nadu has already taken a wrong turn.



Harish S. Wankhede is assistant professor of political science at Delhi University.

Cartoon by Unnamati Syama Sundar.

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