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Jayalalithaa's Sacrificial Lambs

The killing of six dalits at Paramakudi, 35 km from Ramanathapuram in Tamil Nadu, as a result of police firing and brutality on 11 September 2011 can be ascribed to Chief Minister Jayalalithaa's bid to appease the Thevars and draw them into the fold of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam by demonstrating that she can use state power to support them. She has thus undertaken a sacrificial offering of dalits to appease the Thevars!

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Sekaran – a guru puja – it went berserk,

Jayalalithaa’s Sacrificial Lambs

resorting to stone pelting, arson and torching of vehicles. The police, according to its own version, had to lathi charge, but Anand Teltumbde when the situation went out of hand, it

The killing of six dalits at Paramakudi, 35 km from Ramanathapuram in Tamil Nadu, as a result of police firing and brutality on 11 September 2011 can be ascribed to Chief Minister Jayalalithaa’s bid to appease the Thevars and draw them into the fold of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam by demonstrating that she can use state power to support them. She has thus undertaken a sacrificial offering of dalits to appease the Thevars!

This column is based on the author’s fact-finding visit as part of a team of concerned activists to Paramakudi on 2-3 October 2011. This team included Priyadarshini of Democratic Students Union, New Delhi, Lakshmi Prasanna of Caste Annihilation Liberation Front, Murugan, Kesavan and S Gopal of the Centre for Protection of Civil Liberties, Tamil Nadu.

Anand Teltumbde (tanandraj@gmail.com) is a writer and civil rights activist with the Committee for the Protection of Democratic Rights, Mumbai.

A
nimal sacrifice to propitiate the gods is said to have been a common ritual in Vedic times; today the powers that be gun down dalits to appease their vote bank. Yes, that is precisely what happened in Paramakudi, 35 km from Ramanathapuram, where six dalits were killed in police firing and the unleashing of police brutality on 11 September 2011. The Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa, faced with massive opposition – over the issue of death penalty to the alleged killers of Rajiv Gandhi – barely four months after she regained the reins of power, sacrificed the lives of dalits to propitiate the dominant community of Thevars (incidentally, meaning god, as the distortion of Sanskrit “deva”) in order to insure her powerbase. Unwittingly, in her immediate response to the incident, she justified the “police firing” as an attempt at putting an end to the clash between two communities.

Intricate Plot

Notwithstanding media reports, which rarely take pains to unearth the truth in cases where dalits are involved and unquestioningly portray the police version, our factfinding team came to the conclusion that the police action was absolutely unprovoked and was rather pre-planned to terrorise the dalits and appease the Thevars. Despite this, the incident was projected as “a battlefield between the agitators and the police personnel” in which “scores of policemen were injured and a number of government vehicles including a riot control vehicle were torched down by the agitators” (The Hindu, 12 September 2011, reporting from Ramanathapuram, Madurai). The police version, of course, repeated its standard story that it had to resort to whatever action it took, in self-defence and to save the lives and property of others. The police version was that as the news of the arrest of the dalit leader John Pandian, who was on his way to Paramakudi, reached the crowd of people collected at the five-point junction to observe the martyrdom of Immanuel

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had to open fire. So neat and clean!

The facts based on the testimonies of eyewitnesses (those wounded and others) and the video recording of the entire episode screamed otherwise. As in previous years, everything appeared usual except for the large numbers of the police who were deployed there, laced with full anti-riot gear and a dreary armoured vehicle Vajra, because of a murder of a 16 year-old Pallar boy, Palanikumar, just two days ago. He was murdered by a group of 10 persons, allegedly for scribbling a derogatory remark on a wall against the Thevar leader Muthuramlinga Thevar. The falsification had begun right here: the wall in question was not normally accessible to dalits and second, the scribbling was at such a height that Palanikumar could not have even got his fingers there. In the light of the fact that there have been such murders on the eve of the guru pujas every year, this murder was not an unusual occurrence. But it perfectly served the purpose of mobilising the huge police force. Likewise, John Pandian, who had been granted special permission to come to Paramakudi, was arbitrarily detained so as to create the grounds for the story that dalits went berserk.

As per the practice in previous years, since the traffic on the Madurai-Ramnad road was diverted, there was no question of any rasta roko; the police and the crowd of people were so proximate that stone pelting was not possible; and there being no vehicles around, damaging them was unlikely. While everything appeared normal, the police force suddenly burst into action at around 11.30 with a lathi charge, provoking people into stone pelting from distance. After a few minutes, the police moved in vajra and opened fire without any warning whatsoever, felling four persons. As though it was not enough, they randomly picked up 18 youth in the evening, when normalcy had been restored, and beat them so brutally that two of them died with the beating and the others survived with multiple fractures and broken skulls to tell

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Economic & Political Weekly

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the story of police brutality. At around the same time, on the outskirts of Madurai, a police inspector fired with his service revolver seriously injuring two Pallar boys. Their crime – they dared to argue with the police as to why they were prevented from going to Paramakudi.

Caste Clash and the State

The conflict between Thevars, a landowning caste, and the Pallars, a dalit caste of landless labourers, has a long history. Over the years, the Pallars, taking advantage of the reservation policy, went in for higher education and got into government jobs, or migrated to countries in west Asia, Singapore and Malaysia. With their accumulated savings, they bought land, diversified into petty businesses and thus achieved economic independence from the Thevars. The Thevars, on the other hand, built their social capital on the basis of proximity to the powers that be, ignoring education, and stagnated economically. With their social and economic advancement, the Pallars no longer acce pted the Thevars’ ideological hegemony, which provoked the latter to assert their dominance with violence. Earlier, in such violence, the Pallars were clearly at the receiving end. But now, they have begun to retaliate. Interestingly, both these communities have developed their respective mythologies to claim nobler lineage. The Thevars claim the regal lineage of Chera, Chola, and Pandians, while the Pallars claim direct descent from Indra, the king of gods. They therefore called themselves as Devendra Kula Vellalar and resented being clubbed with other dalits.

The Thevars had an inspiring leader in U Muthuramalingam Thevar, who while mobilising resistance to the Criminal Tribes Act 1920 (some sub-castes of the Thevars had then been classified as “criminal tribes”), got catapulted into politics and became a prominent leader during the post-Independence period until his death in 1963. Pallars had a leader in Immanuel Sekaran, a military pensioner, who catalysed a significant awakening among them. After the 1957 general elections, a major riot broke out between the Thevars, who largely supported the Forward Bloc, and the pro-Congress Pallars, that led to the killing of several persons and the torching of thousands of houses. After the riot, a “Peace Conference”

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was held during which Muthuramlingam Thevar’s ego was hurt by Immanuel Sekaran who refused to stand up in a mark of respect for him like all others. Sekaran was murdered the following day and Thevar was arrested for having masterminded the murder but was acquitted of all charges and released in January 1959.

After Sekaran’s martyrdom, the Pallars started observing his death anniversary as guru puja at Paramakudi where he was buried. Large numbers of people congregated every year to pay homage at his memorial. After the death of Muthuramlinga Thevar in 1963, his death anniversary became an occasion for Thevar guru puja. In order to claim the Thevar vote bank that was up for grabs after Muthuramlinga’s death, both the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) vied with each other in appealing to the Thevar sentiment by showering honours upon Muthuramlingam through the state under them. In 1968 the Pasumpon Muthuramalingam Thevar College was founded in Usilampatti by the then DMK-led state government. His biography was included in the high-school textbooks in Tamil Nadu. In 1971 his cemetery in Pasumpon was converted into an official memorial by the AIADMK government and the guru puja became a state function. A life-size portrait of Thevar was installed in the Tamil Nadu Assembly in 1980. In 1984, after the bifurcation of the Ramnad district, the Pasumpon Muthuramalingam district was created. Greenways and Chamiers, two important arterial roads in Chennai, were renamed after Thevar, and his statue was installed at the intersection of his eponymous road with Anna Salai. Also, in Mumbai city, the old Sion-Mahim link road was renamed after him, obviously with the influence of the DMK. Naturally, it provoked the Pallars to demand the same status for Immanuel Sekaran’s memorial and their guru puja. This demand picked up momentum from 2007, when a large congregation of people attended the 50th anniversary of Sekaran’s martyrdom. In 2010, ostensibly with DMK’s mediation, the central government issued a postal stamp in his memory.

At the Altar of Power

Numerically, the Thevars outnumber all other backward communities, including

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Pallars, and are thus electorally important. Right from the beginning, Jayalalithaa had realised this, and she has always been their patron. Perhaps, her soulmate Sasikala Natrajan, who belongs to the Thevar community, had a role in this. During her fiveyear tenure as chief minister from 1991 to 1996, Jayalalithaa had extended influential political and police positions to members of the Thevar caste, allowing them to further consolidate their powerbase. One of its fallouts is that a majority of the police force in the southern districts of Tamil Nadu hails from the Thevar caste. This does not however mean that all Thevars are supporters of the AIADMK. In fact, the electoral support of the Thevars is divided between the DMK and the AIADMK. The rout the DMK suffered in the last Assembly elections with an over 12% swing in favour of the AIADMK has presented an opportunity to Jayalalithaa to consolidate her support among the Thevars and thereby reduce her dependence on the smaller coalition parties, which were intrinsically unreliable. Much of her electoral success, in fact, was attributable to the desertion of the DMK bandwagon by these parties.

In southern Tamil Nadu, the choice clearly falls on the Thevars. Though the rival Pallars had electorally allied with the AIADMK through Krishnasamy’s Puthiya Tamizhagam, they were not en bloc behind the latter. Their long-standing antagonism with Thevars rather overrode any political arrangement. Strategically, Jayalalithaa would any time prefer Thevar support to that of Pallars. From 2007, the sudden rise in scale of the Immanuel Sekaran’s guru puja has alarmed the Thevars. This is reflected in one of their outfits Aapanaattu Maravar Sangam (AMS) taking a formal note of the “number of people who attend the meeting” and exhorting its members “to stop it else it might become a state function like that of the guru puja of Thevar”. The AMS had called a meeting “to plan to sabotage the gathering on September 11 for the guru puja of Immanuel Sekaran” (AMS pamphlet). The situation provided an excellent opportunity for Jayalalithaa to appease the Thevars and draw them sentimentally to the AIADMK by demonstrating that it can use state power to support them. Thus, she has undertaken a sacrificial offering of dalits to appease the Thevars!

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