Sunday, 15 February, 2009

Caste oppression gets a helping hand from the establishment

Caste oppression continues to be a feature of the agrarian belt of Vellore and Thiruvannamalai districts, and presents a challenge that is ingrained in the inherent complexities of India’s none-too-glorious history and scathing deficiencies of the current system. The economic and social development the country has witnessed since Independence has imparted a class character to urban India but in villages, caste equations still continue as fertile grounds for turmoil and conflict. Slowly but steadily, Dalits are organizing themselves and uniting to press intently for the rights that should have been theirs in any fair and democratic setup.

The process of Dalit upliftment ironically didn’t begin with an indigenous effort in Vellore district unlike in most other parts of India, but from an empathetic British District Collector in pre-Independent India. He studied the conditions of the poorest in society and ordered many lands in Vellore to be classified as Depressed Classes (DC) land. But the Dalits, illiterate and uninformed as they were, very few came forward to take possession of this land and it soon passed to the upper castes in society. As the higher castes in Tamil society moved to urban areas taking up jobs and other opportunities, the then backward castes like the Vanniyars for example, moved up the caste hierarchy to preserve the feudal agrarian order of Zamindar and tenant, landlord and landless farmer, peasant and tiller. With land reforms being hazily implemented in Tamil Nadu, the Green Revolution that was unfurled in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s hit the Dalits who were tillers on others lands very badly, as mechanization reduced significantly the labour that was needed in agriculture, forcing some of them to migrate to cities in search of work.

It isn’t that caste tensions are prevalent across all villages in these two districts. They are most noticeable in those villages where the Dalits are in a minority compared to the upper castes. In such areas, Dalits live with a perpetual fear of clashes breaking out over land, women, festivals and use of common facilities like tanks, temples and toilets. At several places where Dalits are moving to reclaim their land, the lack of cooperation at all tiers of the bureaucracy and the antagonistic stance of the police force are very evident. It comes as no surprise that the stakeholders in agriculture, bureaucracy and the justice system are bonded by caste ties, a formidable combination that the Dalits will find increasingly difficult to pierce as they up the ante of their struggles.

There have been several instances in Vellore and Thiruvannamalai of Dalits who owned agricultural land or who newly won rights to land selling it back to their upper caste neighbours. In most cases they sold it back for amounts far below the market price, a bogey that is raised by the upper castes; they say it is pointless empowering the Dalits with land as they will not retain it. The Dalits in these districts say it is the fear of upper castes whose lands inevitably surround theirs and the obstacles placed in the way of their farming efforts that force them to do so. Dalit activists also admit however that many of their ilk begin to possess an immense desire for quick money; the option before them is to sell the land, but sadly the money is almost always squandered away in drinking and gambling. As a result, all new efforts at land reclamation are done with pleas to transfer pattas to Dalit women rather than the men.

Government efforts to generate employment in rural areas for the landless through the NREGS have brought significant relief to the Dalits. But here again caste discrimination is practised in subtle ways, through segregation of work, so that Dalits and Vanniyars don’t have to come into physical contact. Dalits also complain that they are made to do the physically more taxing work, while others get away more easily. Works done through NREGS like digging public borewells, irrigation and rain-water canals are also monopolized by upper caste landlords who ensure the water does not reach Dalits, like in the case of Muniyamma of Kadalaikulam village (Dalits fight to reclaim land in Vellore, Page 17). But the government response to land demands by Dalits has been characterized by red tape and unease with ruffling upper caste sentiments.

The worst form of caste segregation and oppression can be seen in “inter-caste marriages” (for want of a better term, as rarely do the relationships culminate in marriage). Though an unwritten agreement exists that Vanniyar men will keep to Vanniyar women and Dalits to Dalits fearing caste conflicts, the Vanniyar men are free to break this arrangement and get into physical relationships with Dalit women - often with the promise of marriage, and more often than not walking away from the relationship after saddling the women with their offspring. After interviewing a few women who had been thus promised and betrayed, it was obvious that the panchayat and police machinery sided with the errant men. Only recourse to strong legal action with the help of Dalit political support even gave them an outside chance to win alimony, forget about marriage. These women say that the men would have been ready to accept them, but for fear of ostracism from their community and the threat of disinheritance of ancestral land.

The Tamil Nadu government policy of 50% reservation for Backward Castes fails in rural Tamil Nadu as can be seen from the fact that these erstwhile lower castes have taken up the mantle of upper castes today and continue to perpetrate their hegemony over the Dalits through our existing democratic systems of governance. A crucial file relating to the Kandhaneri graveyard issue(refer above mentioned article) going missing and the sad case of M.Bhagyaraj of Karungali who was assaulted by 14 upper caste youth, but only one person was arrested and later released, despite him having made 26 visits in 18 months between May 2007 and December 2008 to various police officials in the district to press his case, all point to a parochial civil and political machinery, which treats the Dalits on the basis of their caste identity as lesser citizens of the country.

Unlike the Vanniyars, who have today more or less consolidated behind the Pattali Makkal Katchi(PMK) as that party’s political base, the politically active among the Dalits who make up 17% of the state’s population, remain divided among a handful of Dalit and Dravidian parties. The Dalit question and the caste system were glossed over by the Indian National Congress in the freedom struggle and the constitutional reform process that followed it. Caste consciousness is an integral part of the Indian mindset whether rural or urban, and the question remains as to whether the caste system can reorient itself towards practising equality of all castes including the Dalits, even as the nation progresses towards its goal of super-power status.

P.S: An analysis piece written for the college newspaper based on reporting done at Vellore and Thiruvannamalai districts. Wonder if I can get out of the urban trap and report from rural India when I come out. Around the time I was in Vellore, I was appalled but not at all surprised to come across these two opinion pieces on the caste system written by an honourable Supreme Court judge; I leave you to make your conclusions - Part-I and Part-II.