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Observations and notes from a visit to Nellai and Madurai districts in Tamil Nadu by a team – Ravichandran, Randeep Singh, Roshan Sharma and Malarvizhi Jayanth – in the second week of July 2011 with the purpose of making a documentary on the attack on panchayat president Krishnaveni, and the continued attacks on dalit panchayat presidents in Tamil Nadu.
This is the story of Krishnaveni – an Dalit woman of the Arunthathiyar caste who did not finish school, mother of two, who became Panchayat President. She decided to contest the elections as an independent in Thalaiyuthu Panchayat, Nellai district, when it was declared reserved for dalit woman candidates. She won by a margin of 700 votes. Some people did not like this. They thought it demeaning that they had to take orders from a dalit woman.
In five years, many people in her village warmed to her. They talk, with admiration and respect in their voices, about how she laid roads, built a library, created infrastructure with amazing speed, how she did not take bribes, how her honesty and straightforwardness kept getting her into trouble. She filed more than 15 complaints against people including the vice-president and ward members of the Panchayat. They were obstructing her work because she did not allow them to skim public money. They did not like the fact that a dalit woman was standing up to them. The district administration and the police did not care.
A few young men came to her house many times that day, June 13, 2011. They asked her children, ‘Where is your mother? Where is your father?’ She had worked a long day at the panchayat office. She took an auto home around 9 p.m. On the street next to her house, at the turning past Karuppansamy temple, they attacked her. Opposite the library she had built, upon the road she had laid, they stopped the auto. The auto driver leapt out and fled. They clamped her mouth and eyes shut. They had already broken the streetlight on the road to ensure perfect darkness. They pulled her head back by her braid. They cut off the braid. They cut off a ear. They hacked at her, all over her body.
In photographs, she stands bold, straight and beautiful, radiating confidence and strength. She receives awards for good governance, for excellence, for merit. A minister leans in to listen to a point she makes. MLAs, collectors, policemen, all the people she had petitioned for protection, all the people who did not come through for her, infest her albums. In every picture, she stands straight, shoulders square, her courage writ large upon her posture.
In hospital, she lies on a stretcher, both her arms and legs, her body covered in bandages. Her head shaved, the scar of the lost ear turning a sickly yellow, a blood stain on the bandage on the left hand, her sister holding up the bandaged right hand because it hurts too much to put it down. ‘I am afraid now‘ she says. Krishnaveni, the brave. Krishnaveni, the strong. Panchayat president Krishnaveni, the woman who was given the title of Veera Penmani (Heroic Woman) by the women of her village. Panchayat president Krishnaveni, first woman panchayat president in the state to be attacked with such cold-blooded brutality.
Her husband refuses to talk to the camera. ‘They transferred me, they accused me of corruption so that they could get back at her. I told her to never back down. We did what we had to, no regrets or fear,’ he says, later. The dean at the hospital refuses to allow filming. Filming the outcome of injustice could cause a law and order problem apparently.
The streetlight is back on that street corner. That dark corner, place of bloodshed, is now paved with golden light on a windy evening. The people are hesitant to speak. In front of Jaggamman temple, an old woman, eye-patch flapping in the wind, mouth rimmed with blood-red betelnut, eyes rimmed with rage, is willing to speak. ‘They want us to keep cleaning toilets,’ she says. ‘That’s why they hacked my daughter-in-law mercilessly. Jaggamma will exact our revenge..she will..she will,’ she flings a curse at the skies. The men around her are afraid to talk to the camera. The women, too. ‘We were not afraid earlier. We would walk around our village at any time. Now we are scared.’
‘We don’t have toilets. The women can go behind the bushes, very early in the morning or late in the evening. Some men won’t let us do that even in peace. They will shine torches into the bushes when we are squatting there. They would call out vulgar things,’ they said. She tried petitioning the government for funds to build a toilet. There was no response. She went around the village, asking for money to build a toilet, she raised Rs. 1 lakh from the people who elected her. She asked for their opinions on where a toilet could be built. They chose a spot together. It was on poromboke land. A man from the dominant caste had encroached upon the land near the chosen spot. He didn’t want a toilet in that location. Most people are sure that he is responsible for the attack, that he is in cahoots with the vice-president.
If the president is dalit and the vice-president is not, it is obvious that there will be problems, say activists. Both of them have to sign cheques together. Witholding a signature will mean that panchayat workers won’t get paid, development projects will be stalled.
‘We can’t listen to just one person,’ says a bureaucrat with an oily manner. He received Krishnaveni’s petition for protection. He did nothing about it. As she lies in hospital, he says, ‘This was a clash between individuals. Caste? Caste is a set of imaginary lines we are imposing on the situation. Caste does not exist.’ Outside a friend from the Aathi Thamilar Peravai – which seeks to politically mobilize the Arunthathiyar – says, ‘Oh that man is dalit. That lady, his deputy seated next to him, is Thevar. He won’t take a stand on a caste issue in front of her.’
Many of the village’s non-dalit residents acknowledge that Krishnaveni worked without fear or favour, that she implemented schemes benefiting several communities, that she laid roads where none existed. The magnitude of her achievement shines in comparison with other villages where panchayat presidents had learnt to ‘adjust’ and ‘compromise’. Some of the other panchayat presidents have learnt the ‘ways of the world.’ They have learnt to skim funds top and bottom, keep the vice president and ward members happy, buy themselves a Sumo. ‘That is the mark of the corrupt president,’ the people say. ‘The ones that start driving around in Sumos months after getting their post. Did Krishnaveni drive around in a Sumo?’ they ask indignantly, ‘What crime did she do to deserve this?’
Some panchayat presidents are hapless rubber stamps. They told Thangavelu that his mother was ill, brought him back to his native village when it was declared reserved for dalit candidates. He left behind his daily wage labour in Mumbai and came. They made him stand for elections and made sure he won. They made him pay a bribe to his own vice-president to get his own government allotted house. His wife is not at home, when the team visits. She has gone to get her wages under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. He is at home. The president is not required to disburse funds, only his laboriously printed signature is needed. ‘They don’t tell me about anything,’ he says, ‘They only ask for my signature.’
Other ‘smart’ dalit panchayat presidents in the district have learnt to keep the dominant castes happy with judicious helpings of public funds. Caste draws lines across everything. How smart you can be. How much money you can spend on your village. How much courage you are allowed, how much pride, and how much dignity. The ‘smart’ ones say that she was too ‘stubborn’, that she didn’t know how to ‘compromise’, didn’t know how to ‘adjust’. Given her location on the hierarchy – the unsaid words imply – she should have compromised and adjusted much, much more.
Inside Thalaiyuthu, ‘We need to lose this generation for our people to find freedom,’ said a young woman. ‘We have been brought up to be slaves,’ says another young man. ‘We need to lose this generation. Death can come only once,’ said a young man, ‘What is the point of living like this? We need to arm ourselves,’ said another.
The stories about her courage are legion. The best is of the minister who walked into her office and tried to order her around to do a favour for members of the dominant castes. The minister then tried to sit in her chair. ‘Madam, this is my office,’ she told the minister. ‘This is my chair. Please don’t order me around.’ The minister backed down after that. In a world where Panchayat Presidents are not even allowed to sit in their chairs (because the dominant castes believe that dalits should not aspire to such things), such stories are nectar to the ears.
125 panchayats in Nellai are reserved. Forty dalit panchayat presidents have received threats to their lives. Nellai is proud runner-up in the game of ‘Which district has committed most atrocities against dalits?’ The collector received a petition signed by 40 dalit panchayat presidents saying their life is in danger. He saw Krishnaveni when these Panchayat Presidents came to submit this petition. He didn’t care.
Panchayat president Servaaran had come to see Krishnaveni. He had told her, ‘You are doing many brave things, I am afraid for my life.’ They killed him the next day. They killed him for the crime of being a dalit panchayat president.
They killed panchayat president Jaggaiyan on a main road at dawn, beating him with the head of an earth-breaking spade. Lives were broken, democracy was murdered, caste was kept alive.
Three dalit panchayat presidents – all Arunthathiyar – have been attacked in Nellai. Servaaran and Jaggaiyan died. Krishnaveni battles for life.
Somewhere in Nellai, verdant fields unroll till a horizon crowned with blue mountains. The wind sculpts fields into long rippling waves of tender green. There is a smell of rain in the air. What looks like a roadside shrine turns out to house statues of the Thevar, a dominant caste in the region. Two blood-red sickles with red drops dripping off their sharp tips are painted on one white wall. ‘Ekkulamum vaazhanum, mukkulathor aalanum,’ says the caption. Threat and benevolence woven deftly into one sentence. ‘All communities should live, the mukkulathor should rule.’ And if they don’t…the sickles are wordless threats. The aruvaal – the sickle – is a weapon of harvest. Used frequently and often to harvest each fresh crop of bloody caste privilege. A tool of agriculture synonymous with murder – but only in the hands of the dominant castes.
After the attack on Krishnaveni, the women are afraid. ‘Is there anyone else who can be a model of governance like her? Only Krishnaveni can be that model,’ says Muthumari, friend of panchayat presidents across the district. Her questions to them are warm with affection and knowledge of their lives. Muthumari helps panchayat presidents get training that is due to them from the government, she helps mobilise Arunthathiyar women. ‘My brother is the only Arunthathiyar to own a shop on this street,’ she says, pointing at a shop in the bustling heart of Nellai town. Gleaming glass frontage, ice cream parlours, grocery stores and caste line the street.
Our commerce, our rulers, our food, clothes, roads, houses, languages, lives – all produced by caste. A caste economy which regulates who should be alive and who should not, who should be allowed to sit on the Panchayat president’s chair and who should not, who should chop off whose head, who should sell their labour and who need not, who can eat off that labour and who cannot, who should be touched and who should not.
Servaaran’s widow weeps, remembering the 65-year-old man who was cut down for standing up to the dominant castes. The Thevar, each time she mentions the caste name, she lowers her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. Her daughter scolds her in the Telugu of the Arunthathiyar people. ‘Why won’t you talk openly about it? If we don’t talk about it, who will? Tell them that the Thevar did it. What have we got to lose now?’
(The communities associated with scavenging in several states do not speak the dominant language among themselves, they are usually considered ‘outsiders’. Then what does that mean for linguistic nationalism? asks Ravichandran, the research scholar in the team.)
Everywhere, people are afraid to talk about caste. Muthumari does not give an interview at home, because it is a ‘non-dalit area.’ Jaggamma’s devotees in Thalaiyuthu won’t talk because ‘what if they cut us down like Krishnaveni?’ Inside their ‘own area’, in their street, they are loud in anger and grief.
Mallika touches the arm of the strange woman from the city and jumps back, ready to run if admonished. Her eyes are wonder-struck when no whack follows. ‘See, I can touch her,’ she tells her friends, who frisk about while the widow of Servaaran – the murdered dalit panchayat president – weeps at the camera. Mallika prods the arm of the strange woman again and jumps back again. Then she holds out her arm. ‘Will you touch me?’ she asks.
‘Do you speak our language?’ asks Mallika of the strange woman. ‘No? But you will talk to me, right?’ she asks. They play the game of ‘one for amma, one for appa, grandma, brother and sister,’ folding little fingers into a clenched fist. Then ‘here comes the crab, here comes the fox, here comes the crab, here comes the fox,’ and tickle, tickle, tickle. Mallika dissolves into giggles, her sunny smile the only warmth in a world where dignity, democracy and the right to life splutter and go out in the wind.
In 1997, a murderous gang hacked off panchayat president Murugesan’s head in Melavalavu, near Madurai. The head went thudding down the steps of the bus he had been sitting in. One of the murderers picked it up and ran away. Now, Samathuvan describes how the massacre at Melavalavu happened. Along the road that makes its way through fields, he points out the place where the bus was stopped. Where panchayat president Murugesan’s head was hacked off, where dominant caste murderers ripped open dalit bodies and garlanded themselves with the intestines. The dalit people had bought some land in a temple auction, that was intolerable to the dominant castes. ‘How can Dalits be allowed to own land? they thought. That led to the violence,’ he says. In Melavalavu now, there is a memorial built with the free labour of the dalit people of the area – one of the very few in the country to the victims of caste violence – to the memory of those six people and two more who were murdered. One for participating in a roadblock to protest the murders and another for playing an Ambedkar song. There are no photographs of these men, only paintings, rough approximations of the faces of those who could not afford photography in real life, but have been memorialised in death. ‘The Melavalavu dalits are hated in this region,’ says a young man. ‘They think we are the reason for the rising dalit assertion, for the improved reach of the Dalit Panthers. The police slap cases against us for no reason. We don’t get work easily.’ The violence never ends.
These are the lessons from Krishnaveni’s story:
Political work is valuable, is empowering, is the only hope of the marginalised. We have been socialised into leading cossetted middle-class lives by our caste-ist families and by our overwhelmingly upper-caste media, into believing that politics is a bad word, that politicians are evil, that the practice of politics is hopelessly corrupt. The practice of caste is the most evil, corrupt thing in this country. We practice it shamelessly and blame ‘politics’ for evil and corruption.
The memorial at Melavalavu to those murdered by caste is an exception. We usually don’t acknowledge how caste enables murder. Caste is our own private holocaust – the one we don’t want the UN to acknowledge – where people are outright murdered with the connivance of the state, denied the right to work, to food, to health, to life, to education, to dream, to political representation, slowly starved, worked to the bone, and cast off – and no memorials mark their passing. Only the privileged lead more privileged lives, the roads grow wider, the buildings in the cities taller. This is a country that is built, fed and watered by Dalit blood and sweat. ‘We don’t practice caste anymore,’ some posh city dwellers claim. Sure, we don’t practice caste anymore, we can afford not to, now that we are perched prettily and corruptly on top of a pyramid of caste privilege. Since the harvest of privilege is officially ours, others can carry the aruvaals and do the actual murders for us now.
Links to more material on the theme of discrimination and violence against dalit panchayat presidents is available at http://writingcaste.wordpress.com/2011/07/18/90-days-of-writing-caste/