The drumbeats of oppression

In a village in Tamil Nadu's Pudukkottai district, Dalits are subjected to a vicious attack for refusing to subject themselves to rites of social oppression.

VENKATESH ATHREYA
R. CHANDRA

THEMMAVUR, a nondescript village in Tamil Nadu's Pudukkottai district, was the scene of a violent attack on Dalits by a caste Hindu group on May 17. About 30 Dalits, including seven women, were admitted with serious injuries to the government hospital in Pudukkottai, and at least 30 others suffered injuries of varying intensity. Thirty-six houses of Dalits were badly damaged in the vicious attack, and food, utensils and jewellery were looted from many more.

The atrocity at Themmavur is a grim reminder that notwithstanding media hype about India's emergence as a potential economic superpower of the 21st century, caste oppression and regressive feudal values remain a bitter fact of life in rural India, and not just in the 'Bimaru' States of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. The incident at Themmavur, taken with a series of other attacks on Dalits in the southern States (barring Kerala), points to the fact that whatever limited economic advances may have been made in these States since Independence, social oppression continues.

Themmavur panchayat is located 12 km from Chengipatti in Thanjavur district, on the road from Pudukkottai to Chengipatti. It comprises 18 hamlets, with a total population of about 3,000. Four of these are exclusively Dalit hamlets; the others have no Dalit residents at all. There are 500 Dalits in Themmavur village, accounting for about one-sixth of the population of the village; the proportion is the same in Kunnandarkovil block, to which the village belongs, as well as in the district as a whole. Agriculture offers the primary source of livelihood in the village; according to the 1991 Census, 1,416 of the 1,488 main workers reported that they were employed in agriculture.

The attack on May 17 followed tensions whipped up following the Dalits' refusal to subject themselves to symbolic oppression by caste Hindus during temple festivals. There are two temples in the village, for Mari Amman and Kali Amman, and for four years now Dalits of the village have refused to beat the drums at the festivals. In the Dalits' perception, for them to be called exclusively to perform the task of drum beating for temple festivals and for death ceremonies is a symbolic reiteration of their oppressed social status. They have, however, not refused to perform other tasks in connection with the festivals.

The Dalits' refusal to subject themselves to such rites of social oppression has been a sore point with the powerful families of the dominant caste of the village. The Dalits of the village have had to face harassment in various forms in these four years.

Apprehending tension during this year's festival, Dalits made clear their stand at a meeting convened by the Pudukkottai Revenue Divisional Officer on April 15. At that meeting, the dominant section of caste Hindus insisted that the Dalits beat the drums at the festivals. A second meeting was held on April 25 in the presence of the Tahsildar of Kulathur taluk. At this meeting, an agreement was finalised under which Dalits would not be required to beat the drums at the festivals, but would perform all other tasks. It was also agreed that all other outstanding issues would be settled peacefully after the festivals.

However, soon after the meeting the dominant faction among the caste Hindus told the Dalits that they would be allowed to participate in the festivals only if they agreed to beat the drums. The Dalits were told that they would receive "proper treatment" after the festivals.

On May 1, Dalits lodged a complaint with the Tahsildar but were told to avoid a conflict. They were assured that nothing untoward would happen, but matters only deteriorated: a caste Hindu petty shop-owner, who was known to be sympathetic to Dalits, was made to close down his shop and threatened with dire consequences if he continued to support them.

The Kali Amman festival took place on May 17. On the morning of the festival, Dalits, apprehending trouble, lodged a complaint at the Udayalipatti police station. A Sub-Inspector and the Village Administrative Officer made an on-the-spot inquiry, during the course of which they reportedly tried to persuade the Dalits to reconsider their decision not to beat the drums. However, the Dalits stood by their earlier decision, but in order to help avoid a conflict they offered to stay away from the festival. Fearing an attack, they sought police protection. Security was provided for the duration of the festival, and was withdrawn at 5 p.m.

Shortly after the police force was withdrawn, the petty shop-owner was attacked with iron rods by a group of caste Hindus. The group then went on a rampage in the Dalit settlement, attacking Dalits, damaging houses, and looting food, utensils and jewellery.

A report prepared by a team of leaders of the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA), which visited Themmavur village, contains a graphic account of the violence. The AIDWA team comprised State joint secretary, Professor R. Chandra; Pudukkottai district secretary Siva Banumathi; and district joint secretaries Noorjehan and Rukmani.

The report quoted one of the Dalit victims of violence as saying: "We told S (the caste Hindu shop-owner who was sympathetic to Dalits) to escape, but he was badly beaten up. We had no weapons, not even a knife. They attacked us with sickles, and abused us using a caste name in an offensive manner. They smashed to pieces what little furniture and utensils we had, and set fire to our huts."

The report quoted another victim: "I came back home hungry, only to find that the meal I had cooked for my kids and myself had been thrown away, and the cooking utensils broken to pieces. My children and I had to starve."

The AIDWA report recorded that 30 bags of groundnut and five bags of paddy were looted and 10 cycles smashed up. The thali chains of three women and the ear rings of another woman were snatched away. Even relatives of Dalit families, who had come from other places, were targeted. The attackers are reported to have shouted: "How dare Dalits invite guests." One of the guests was badly injured and had to be rushed to the hospital in Pudukkottai.

The AIDWA team was told that the attack appeared to have been well planned. One of the victims recalled: "The telephone connections to Kunnandarkovil (block headquarters) were cut off. Armed persons were brought from Pavuttampatti, Narangipatti, Vellakallipatti, Koppatti, Uchikkudivayal, Neyveli, Palaiyur, Vaduthavayal, Komapuram, Soliampattu and other villages nearby. It was past 10 p.m. when the police arrived. By then the damage had been done and the miscreants had fled."

The AIDWA team, which met the injured at the government hospital in Pudukkottai, found that Dalits were extremely anxious about the future. Mala had acute chest pain (she had been repeatedly kicked in that region) and severe internal injuries, and could not pass urine. A tearful Chinniah, who was in the orthopaedic ward, asked: "Is it possible for us to go back and live securely in the village again? We get our water from the caste Hindu street and are now afraid to drink it."

THE Communist Party of India (Marxist), which has a significant presence in Themmavur, has called for urgent action by the government to provide security to the Dalits of the village. Criticising the attempt to present the attack on Dalits as a clash between two armed groups, the party's district committee secretary said that this story was being floated to add weight to the false complaint lodged against Dalits by the dominant faction of caste Hindus. The police have arrested some of the persons accused of participating in the attack on the Dalits, but several others are still at large. The tension in the village is palpable, and Dalits have not been able to go to work.

A nominal relief of Rs.1,000 each has been sanctioned in respect of 32 of the 36 houses damaged. The Pudukkottai district committee of the CPI(M) has demanded immediate and adequate relief for the Dalit victims, stern action against the perpetrators of the atrocity, and adequate protection for the Dalits of Themmavur.

Dr. Venkatesh Athreya is Professor and Head of the Department of Economics, Bharathidasan University, Tiruchi.

R. Chandra, joint secretary of the Tamil Nadu unit of the All India Democratic Women's Association, teaches economics at Urumu Dhanalakshmi College, Tiruchi.


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