The Lede
The Casteless Collective: No State For Dalits By Raveena Joseph and Sandhya Ravishankar
Tamil Nadu

The Casteless Collective: No State For Dalits By Raveena Joseph and Sandhya Ravishankar

Raveena Joseph

Raveena Joseph

The Lede explores how the four key ideologies in Tamil Nadu have left little space for Dalits to come to the fore

Tamil Nadu is a peculiar state in India. Its caste make-up is quite unlike that of the rest of the country, with over 70% of its populace coming under the Other Backward Classes (OBC) and Most Backward Castes (MBC), 21% under Scheduled Castes, 2% under Scheduled Tribes and 5% under the Forward Caste category. Of the 5%, according to the latest census figures, a mere 2% are Brahmin.

The state is also peculiar in that it witnessed a social justice revolution much earlier than the rest of the country. Since the 1940s, beginning with the Justice Party and strengthening with Periyar EV Ramasamy Naicker, the revolution, better known as the Dravidian movement, has held sway over politics, policy and the people.

Dalits in the state can be categorised into three main sub-castes – the Pallars of southern Tamil Nadu, the Paraiyars of northern Tamil Nadu and the Arunthathiyars of the western part of the state. While the Pallars and the Paraiyars have their own limited political voice in terms of leaders such as Krishnaswamy of Puthiya Tamilagam and Thol Thirumavalavan of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK), the Arunthathiyars are unique in being the most oppressed caste, without a strong political voice.

In the past 60 years, a set of four distinct ideologies have emerged in the state – the Dravidian ideology, the Left, traditional Dalit activism and the Right wing.

As The Casteless Collective, a group of young musicians from the slums of Dharavi in Mumbai and North Chennai, performed on January 06, the rhetoric of the oppressed classes was evident. Filmmaker and new age Ambedkarite Pa Ranjith, known for using symbols of Dalit pride in identity in his films, including superstar Rajinikanth starrer Kabali (2016), was the force behind the initiative. He aspired to use art – particularly Gaana, an urban Dalit genre – as a political tool to create awareness and discourse about caste. The collective’s songs spoke of exclusion, discrimination and inequality.

Muthu and his band perform a gaana number for The Lede

The Lede decided to find out why and how the four key ideologies in the state had left Dalits behind and nudged them out of the mainstream.

Dravidian Movement & The Dalits

“The Dravidian Movement is supportive of Dalits but only as long as they don’t overpower them in terms of ideology,” said Stalin Rajangam, Dalit studies expert based in Madurai. “For example, Dravidians dislike Ranjith’s ideology because he does not use Periyar in his rhetoric. They are scared when Dalits speak from a place of their own identity,” he said.

Rajangam points to the emergence of the Dalit movement in the 1990s as opposed to the Dravidian movement which began much earlier in the 1940s. “This itself shows that Dalit issues were not encompassed as part of the Dravidian movement.”

C Lakshmanan of the Madras Institute of Development Studies agrees. “In saying anti-Brahmin or non-Brahmin, they gloss over other pressing and fundamental issues of the people, particularly caste and untouchability,” he told The Lede. “For instance when the Keezhvenmani incident took place (horrific burning alive of 42 Dalits in 1968 by dominant caste landlords), Periyar said – “the wages of the worker is the prerogative of the landlord.” Similarly Annadurai who was the Chief Minister at the time said – “Burning 42 people is very sad, but in nature, lightning and thunder will come and go, therefore we must forget.” Neither of the two major Dravidian parties, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) or the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) have stood up for Dalit issues,” he said.

This is clearly borne out by the fact that caste-based atrocities, honour killings of Dalits are treated as a law and order issue by the Dravidian parties, rather than as having been born out of caste hatred and inequality. “Anti-Brahmin politics was explicit and anti-Dalit politics was implicit in the past,” continued Lakshmanan. “Now with the rise of the right wing, anti-Brahmin has become implicit and anti-Dalit has become explicit,” he said.

Political analyst Gnani Sankaran too felt that the Dravidian movement had excluded the Dalit community. “Dravidian parties view Dalits as an obstacle for consolidating BC and MBC communities whose antagonism towards Dalits is a sharp polarising factor,” he said.

The Left

The Left movement, which was powerful in the 1950s and 1960s in Tamil Nadu, was engulfed by the Dravidian movement and its resultant political parties once they came to power. As a result, the Left is a relatively weak force in the state, but an important one.

“The Communists’ major political discourse is class and not caste,” said Stalin Rajangam. “They do not look at caste as a separate identity.”

Lakshmanan agreed, calling for a revamp and restructure within the Left parties itself. “The party leadership itself is from the upper or dominant caste. Only very recently have they included Dalits at some levels of leadership. Their fundamental problem is that they have utterly failed to understand the caste situation in Tamil Nadu,” he said.

“The Left in the recent years has taken up the caste question and identifies itself with Dalit issues without any reluctance,” averred Gnani Sankaran.

Traditional Dalit Parties

Gnani Sankaran stated that the rifts within Dalit politics were bare for all to see. “The Dalit parties are divided based on sub-sects within the caste,” he said. “Traditional Dalit activists and politicians were drawn from semi-literate, under-educated sections of society. They lacked opportunities for elite and sophisticated education. The new-age Ambedkarites have the advantage of modern education, and also mentality free from the hangover of a feudal society,” he said.

The nature of electoral politics has, perhaps, led to the Dalit political voice being subsumed by the Dravidian parties, according to some analysts. “Thirumavalavan is trapped in a political dilemma as he needs to do politics with Dravidian parties,” said Stalin Rajangam. “So he cannot talk about Dalit issues as artistes and independent thinkers like Pa Ranjith do. If a Dalit voice points out where the Dravidian movement is falling short, it is projected as pro-Brahmin rhetoric.”

Lakshmanan feels that the traditional Dalit parties are caught in a trap of their own making and have not played the role of being the Dalits’ voice as they had originally meant. “They see themselves as part of Dravidian politics,” said Lakshmanan. “Some are immersed with the Congress, a few believe that the Left is the hope. They are unable to be contemporary voices,” he said.

The Right

While the presence of the right wing in Tamil Nadu politics has always been weak, it is yet another prominent ideology in the state. “Dalits, from the time of Rettamalai Srinivasan and Iyothee Thass have always been against Hindutva politics. Even though the other ideologies have failed to support us, we have always been against the Right,” said Stalin Rajangam.

Lakshmanan laughed when questioned about how the Right viewed Dalits in the state. “There is no need for a Right wing here, as their role has been performed by the Dravidian parties,” he said. Lakshmanan drew a parallel between Dravidianism and Hindutva – “Dravidians say Tamil, Tamil Nadu and Tamil desiyam (nationalism). The torch bearers of Hindutva say Hindi, Hindustan and Hindutva. They say the same things,” he said.

This continued political and social marginalisation, say experts, is the reason behind the emergence of new age Ambedkarite voices such as those of director Pa Ranjith. “A fuel has emerged in the Dalit community,” said political analyst Aazhi Senthilnathan. “2-3 generations of Dalits have fought hard and educated themselves well. Now they want to do something for their community. Dalits have not been able to come to leadership positions in any party, so now they have to create their own leaders. We may disagree with or criticise Ranjith’s politics, but he is emerging as a representative face of the Dalits. These new age Ambedkarites are showing that they have “thiramai” (capability). For the Dalit community, it is important to show that these leaders have “thiramai” and also a lack of hesitance in displaying their identity,” he added.