By Jeya Rani
“Is it really authentic? There are many doubts about it….”
“This is a concerted attempt to deflect Tamil Nadu from its protests…”
“It is a case of prior enmity struck at a temple festival three years ago …”
“It is a clash between two communities, not an assault on one by another…”
“A person who sells ganja will kill his own wife and kids if they tried to stop him. They were killed for that.”
Kachanatham (Tamil Nadu): On May 28, eight Dalits from the village of Kachanatham, in the Manamadhurai circle of the district of Sivagangai, were hacked with knives and sickles by members of a caste Hindu family from the same village. Among those hacked, Arumugam (68) and Shanmuganathan (31) were killed immediately. Chandrasekaran (34) died in an ambulance on his way to hospital. Dhanasekaran (52), Malaichamy (50) and Sukumaran (22) were admitted to Meenakshi Mission Hospital in Madurai with at least 40-50 cuts on each of their bodies. Deivendran (45) and Mageshwaran (18) were taken to Madurai Rajaji Government Hospital with severe injuries.
Skeptical contentions like the ones listed above started swirling around as soon as news of the assault began to spread. Long before the Dalits in their singed and broken houses had mustered the courage to wash away the blood of their loved ones, efforts were already underway to misrepresent a blatant caste attack as a non-caste issue.
Kachanatham is situated 30 km away from the atrocity-prone Sivaganga. To get there, one has to cross the villages of Aavarangaadu and Maaranaadu, where at least a thousand Agamudaiyar families live. They, along with Kallars and Maravars, are a socially dominant community. Hedged in by water tanks, farms and groves, the village of Kachanatham is “geographically vulnerable” for its Dalit inhabitants. No immediate attention would be paid were they to be attacked, locals say.
The village itself has 35 Pallar (Dalit) families and just one Agamudaiyar family. The Agamudaiyars have for many years perpetrated caste discrimination and oppression against the Dalits, demonstrating the Sanatana rule that strength lies in hegemony, not in numbers.
On the day of the incident, several people – including relatives of the inhabitants and natives of the village who now live elsewhere – had come to Kachanatham to attend the temple festival of Karuppannasamy, the tutelary deity of the Kachanatham Dalits. The festival had started two days before, on May 26. On that day, Prabhakaran, a relative of Kalaiselvi living in Kachanatham, was allegedly abused by two young Agamudaiyar men – Suman and Arunkumar – while speaking on the phone outside his house. The two men said they were irked that a low-caste man like him dared to obstruct their way and attempted to physically assault him, the victims alleged. Deivendran, the son of Arumugam, warned them that he would complain to the police, but they were not deterred. They continued to assault both Devidenran and Prabhakaran and stopped only when other locals intervened. Before leaving the scene, they allegedly issued a warning: “How can the Pallars become this arrogant? They will be killed.” Prompted by the death threat, Prabhakaran and Deivendran lodged a complaint against them at the Thirupachethi police station.
Suman and Arunkumar fled when the station inspector came looking for them. The inspector brought their father Chandrakumar to the station and warned him of consequences were his sons to continue such behaviour. After that, Chandrakumar was let off. The police, moreover, ignored requests from the Dalits to offer protection for the festival. On Sunday, the second day of the festival, the village was calm. The Dalits participated in the festival believing all was sorted. Yet what awaited them the next day was a brazen, cold-blooded murderous assault, for which the caste Hindu perpetrators had taken the Sunday to prepare.
Deivendran says, “Since I had lodged a complaint, I was their main target. I am a soldier in the army. I had come on leave not just to attend the temple festival but to get married. After the festival ended, we left for Manamadurai that very night to look after the wedding preparations. My father Arumugam chose to stay back. At around 9 pm on that night, a group of people carrying weapons barged into our house. They were looking for me. When my father told them that I was away, Meenakshi – Suman’s mother – ordered the mob to kill my father. ‘So what if the son is not around? Kill him,’ she had said, pointing to my father. My old father was dragged around and hacked to death. He died on the spot. They also took Rs 3,70,000 in cash and 35 sovereigns of gold that I had saved for my wedding expenses. My house has been ransacked. I work to protect my country. But who could offer protection to me and my family?”
Heading a mob of 20 people, Suman and Arunkumar had switched off the street lights before committing the horrendous act, the Dalits alleged. Some families were watching television while others had gone to sleep. The mob hacked everyone they could lay their eyes on. “They said that we wouldn’t dare to go to the police only if at least ten of us Pallars were killed,” recounts Kaleeswari, a villager.
Shanmuganathan, killed in the gruesome assault, is a local hero of sorts. An MBA graduate, he rejected many corporate offers to farm his 20-acre plot of land. His father Arivazhagan is a deputy trainer in a government ITI institute and his mother is a school teacher. Shanmuganathan was a much-loved young man. He was an inspiration and a mentor to local youth – he helped them obtain student loans and guided them in their studies.
When he returned from the festival that night, Shanmuganathan went immediately to bed. The mob hacked him to death in his sleep. In the same house, Chandrasekar was hacked by the mob while watching TV. He died on his way to the hospital. Days have passed since Shanmuganathan and Chandrasekhar died, but when this reporter visited, the house still stood witness to the horror which unfolded that night. Blood stains were still visible in the spot where Shanmuganathan was sleeping. Chandrasekhar left a trail of blood prints on the door and the staircase where he had tried to run away from the mob.
Shanmuganathan’s mother Maragatham dreads going back to the house where her son was hacked to death. “How can I see his blood? He was my precious child,” she wails. His father refused to see Shanmuganathan’s face until his burial. “It will haunt me for the rest of my life to see him in that state. How can I ever recover?” he asks.
Engulfed by personal sorrow, Arivazhagan nonetheless seeks to explain what went wrong. “We have land. Every house has graduates. Some of us work with the government. There are policemen, teachers, engineers, VAOs (village administrative officers), government bus drivers, auditors, conductors, soldiers among us. We have been doing respectable work. Some of us are working abroad. The Agamudaiyars could not accept the fact that people like us who were once their slaves are now educated and earning well. We developed this village on our own and they cannot accept that we are developing. Our educational and economic growth troubled them. We stopped them from stealing and selling ganja. They tried to dope our children. My son would create awareness about this. He loved this village and its people and he was killed for that.”
Arivazhagan’s brother Dhanasekaran and his son Sukumaran are still in hospital, recuperating from wounds that will forever change their lives. Sridevi is fatigued from taking care of her still-unconscious son in the ICU and her husband in the orthopaedic ward, whose his hands and legs were chopped off.
“There are many cases against Suman and Arunkumar. But the police took money from them and let them go. On the three occasions when the police did arrest them, they were released in a few days. We work in agriculture. My husband cannot even hold a spade now. He has been hacked in fifty places. My son wanted to become an IAS officer. Now I feel that it would suffice if he just recovers from this. We work hard, we study and lead a dignified life, yet we are killed. But those who kill us in the name of caste live well. You can go around and ask about our children. There is not a single case against them. Even when confronted with knives, we only sought the help of police. But they turned a blind eye,” rues Sridevi.
A day after perpetrating that gruesome horror, five persons including Suman and Arunkumar surrendered before a magistrate court in Madurai. The police filed an FIR against 17 persons, but not all of them have been arrested. Suman and Arunkumar live with their parents, Meenakshi and Chandrakumar, in Kachanatham along with relatives Suresh, Selvi, and a few others. But they do not belong to Kachanatham. It was the Dalits who gave them land when the family migrated to Kachanatham a generation ago. Dalits say that the house the family lives in belongs to one of them. The caste Hindu family takes water for drinking and other purposes from a well that belongs to Shanmuganathan. Despite all this help, the caste Hindus – including Suman and Arunkumar – would verbally and physically abuse the Dalits.
The Dalits in Kachanatham say they were subjected to untold miseries and atrocities by the family. They would tease the women bathing by the motor pumps by appearing only in their undergarments; take baths in tanks meant for drinking water; harass women with sexually degrading words; barge into houses and walk out with whatever they wanted; steal chickens and goats; use casteist slurs; snatch the jewelry worn by Dalit women; and insist on being given priority in queues in public places like PDS shops.
“Last year, they (caste Hindus) taunted four members from our community – Malaisamy, Dhanasekaran, Chandrasekar and Sadhasivam – and even chased them with knives threatening to kill them. We lodged a complaint in the police station. They assaulted another person – Pandi – and after he lost consciousness, ran away with his chickens. When Pandi later questioned them about it, they threatened to kill him too. Sadhasivam was also beaten up. Ramu is a priest in our temple. He sustained head injuries after being beaten with a belt. Raaku – a widow – was beaten at her legs for crossing their path. She cannot walk now. Every single time we are beaten up, every single time we have had a casteist slur hurled at us, we have complained to the police. But no action has been taken against the family. Had only the police taken some action, we need not have lost so many lives,” says Revathi.
On July 2, 2017, the Dalits lodged a complaint at the police station against Suman and his family and demanded protection. On July 20, 2017, they took their complaint to the Sivagangai superintendent of police, and on July 31, 2017, they petitioned the district collector, the Adi Dravida welfare department officer, and the public grievances cell, all to no effect. This apathy on the part of all wings of the administration has emboldened the caste Hindu family to brazenly commit such a gruesome crime.
Tamil Nadu ranks among the top ten states in atrocities against Dalits. And the number of crimes committed against Dalits is increasing. One in six cases filed with the National Scheduled Castes Commission is from Tamil Nadu and Puducherry Of the 32,000 cases filed between 2015 and 2017, 5,300 are from Tamil Nadu. At least 2,000 of those cases include murder, rape and physical and verbal assault. And yet this data does not even begin to capture the actual number of atrocities suffered by Dalits.
“The six lakh villages in India are divided into two categories: oors (where dominant castes live) and cheris (where Dalits live). Dalits living in cheris are subjected to atrocities by caste Hindus living in oors. They are subjected to untouchability. Not all of these cases are reported. In Kachanatham, Dalits face caste atrocities every day. The murders are only the continuation of the humiliations they suffer every day. Yet only this one gruesome incident will be reported and discussed – not the everyday atrocities. For Dalits, atrocity is normal life. The general society and the media respond only when murders or rapes occur,” says Punitha Pandiyan, editor of Dalit Murasu magazine.
The media’s reporting of Kachanatham in Tamil Nadu was a sham. While the 13 murders during the anti-Sterlite protests continued to occupy the headlines for several days, the hacking of eight Dalits by caste Hindus was not deemed significant enough to warrant a news headline for even a day. Several newspapers reported it as a clash between two communities. The people of Kachanatham took offence at this.
“How can you call it a clash? Had it been a clash, shouldn’t we have hacked two of their people? We have been peaceful and they attacked us only because of caste hatred. Why can the media not write that Agamudaiyars murdered Pallars? They manufacture these reasons: That we did respect them in our temple, that we sat cross legged, that we opposed their selling of ganja. How can they expect to be given priority in our temple? Why do they consider it disrespectful if we sit cross-legged? Isn’t caste the reason behind it? Before the attack, they said that Pallars should be decimated. They said constantly that they were born to rule and destroy us. Sadly, the media doesn’t mention this caste hatred,” says Kalaiselvi.
As many as 275 places in 28 districts across Tamil Nadu have been declared by the government as atrocity-prone for Dalits. Except for districts like Ariyalur, Chennai, Krishnagiri and Tiruppur, Dalits have been assaulted everywhere else. In Sivaganga, caste Hindus are blatantly dominant. It is hard to spot banners without photographs of Muthuramalingam – a Thevar leader – in districts like Madurai, Theni, Sivagangai and Tirunelveli, where Mukkulathors live in large numbers. Every child born in the community is also raised on caste pride. It comes as no surprise that they treat Dalits with hatred right from their school-age. They learn of caste as their own culture. In most films with a rural setting, the hero is inevitably a Thevar. Twenty-something Suman and Arunkumar are living examples of how the idea of caste is fed to children as a matter of pride and honour.
Dalit activist K.S. Muthu has been a government school teacher for many years. He says, “Schools in southern districts are centres of casteism. After Immanuel Sekaran’s murder in 1957, the Mukkulathors became pointedly aggressive in exhibiting caste pride. Even school children flaunt their castes by wearing pendants or t-shirts that have photographs of Muthuramalingam. Some of them wear wristbands in the colours of the flags of their caste organisations. Girls sport bindis in those colours. Muthuramalingam statues are garlanded in schools. But it is unthinkable to garland an Ambedkar statue in a school in a southern district. We have failed in introducing Ambedkar properly to the students. That is why Ambedkar and Dalits continue to be hated. Some students who are socially and politically powerful can assault their teachers and get away with it. Cultural institutions work hard to protect caste. But there is no institution that works towards the annihilation of caste. I speak here about the education sector, but it’s the same in every sector.”
Oppression of Pallars by Thevars is age-old. Certain organisations – the Puthiya Thamizhagam, the Thevendrar Voluntary Movement and the Mallar Meetpu Kazhagam – have made efforts to politically consolidate the Pallars of the southern districts. They claim that untouchability is not an issue. They consider the Pallar inclusion into the SC list to be a “mistake” made during British rule. Together they held a conference last year – at which BJP leader Amit Shah was present – rejecting reservation and seeking to leave the SC list. What these organisations claim, however, is false. Dalits face discrimination every day. They do not suffer because of some pre-independence census mistake, but rather because of centuries of Thevar oppression.
The SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act has laid down guidelines to help stop atrocities against Dalits. Creating district-level monitoring committees, conducting peace meetings involving both communities, confiscating weapons from dominant castes, granting licenses to carry weapons to Dalits and tribals to safeguard their lives if necessary, ensuring representation of Dalits and tribals in government institutions (especially in the police), and appointing Dalits as SP’s in atrocity-prone places are some such recommendations. These guidelines are, however, not followed by the state government.
“Over 40 organisations – both political and non-governmental – visited us. We have already lost three lives. But can any of them assure us that such an atrocity will not happen again? We place our trust in education, in our labour, in peace. We do have knives and sickles in our homes, but not even for a moment could we think of using them to hack people. We are civilised. Some people want to treat others as their slaves and that needs to end. That will be real justice for us,” says Arivazhgan. This remarkable civility was evident among every Dalit family in Kachanatham. They are not baiting for blood in revenge. Even after all this they pin their hopes on peace and justice.
Members of the caste Hindu family that the Dalits have blamed for the violence have left the village and were not available to be interviewed. When The Wire spoke to people from neighbouring villages, they refused to comment on the violence. Police has now been deployed in Kachanatham.
Translated from the Tamil original by Kavitha Muralidharan.
Jeya Rani is a journalist from Tamil Nadu with over 15 years experience.