August 25, 2019

TAMIL NADU: Independence Day in Seragudi, Thanjavur

Subhashini Ali

THE state conference of the TNUEF (Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front) was held at Thanjavur from August 15-17.  The need to strengthen this organisation and the many struggles and agitations that it organises was borne out by the fact that in just the month preceding the conference, there had been two incidents of brutal ‘honour killings’ in which both husbands and wives had been murdered because of their inter-caste marriages;  one elderly dalit had been murdered in the neighbouring district of Rameswaram;  and, on the very eve of the conference, an attack on dalits had taken place in Seragudi  village in Thanjavur district.  This last incident is proof of the fact that dalits are sought to be humiliated and attacked even after they die.

In Seragudi, the dalit huts are on one side of the ‘general’ road, across which live the vanniyars who not only outnumber them considerably but also own all the land.  After a dalit dies, the cremation or burial is done at some distance from habitation, at the end of the ‘general’ road.  But the vanniyars oppose ‘their’ road being used or, as they put it, being polluted by the presence of a dalit corpse.  So they insist on the bodies being taken by a much longer route by the dalits who, naturally, resent and resist this.  Just a short while ago, a peace meeting had been held in the village by the local administration and it had been decided that no one would interfere with a dalit funeral procession using the ‘general’ road.

On August 13, Annalakshmi, died.  Her body was kept overnight near her hut so that all her relatives could attend her funeral.  On the 14th, when the dalits tried to take her bier on to the ‘general’ road, they were stopped by the local police and administration in the name of ‘law and order’.  The entire vanniyar community had gathered on the roadside, watching the administration protect the purity of ‘their’ road.  The dalits, however, were determined to assert their rights and the women came forward to carry the bier in turns.  Nearly 200 women walked at the head of the funeral procession.  The administration tried to stop them and the vanniyars resorted to stoning them but they could not be stopped and they continued to the burial ground and performed Annalakshmi’s last rites with honour.

However, seven dalits including three women were badly injured in the stoning and had to be hospitalised.  No one from the vanniyar side was hurt.

At 1.00 am on the 15th – Independence Day, no less – the police entered the village and arrested Annalakshmi’s son, Ilyaraja, and one of his relatives.  Three vanniyars were also arrested.  All of them were released later in the day.

TNUEF and CPI(M) leaders had visited the village on the 14th evening after Annalakshmi’s funeral.  They met the administration on the 15th and assisted in the release of the dalits who had been so unjustly arrested.

On the 16th evening, I accompanied CPI(M), TNUEF and AIDWA leaders to the village.  We were soon surrounded by very angry dalit men and women.  We talked to them at length.  They had many grievances and very genuine demands.  While all the land belongs to the vanniyars, the water sources and even the ration shop is controlled by them.  Only four homes belonging to dalits have latrines.  Since the dalits are landless, the women have to use the vanniyar fields to answer the call of nature.  This exposes them to much humiliation and insulting behaviour.  Except for those who migrate to nearby towns and cities and to Kerala for work, the others have to work on the vanniyar land.  While they get employment for a limited number of days, the wages are very low:  Rs 150 for women, Rs 250 for men.  Very little MNREGS work is available.  Only women do it and they are paid only Rs 120 a day when they should be getting Rs 240.  We were told that those who migrate now prefer to go to Kerala rather than urban Tamil Nadu because the wages are higher, Rs 600-800 a day and they do not face any kind of caste discrimination there.

Earlier, people in the state used to receive adequate, cheap rations but now the AIADMK government, inspired and pressurised by the Modi government at the centre, has stopped giving free rations that people were getting and has also reduced considerably the cheap rations they are entitled to.  The women complained that they got two kgs of rice per head only once in two months and kerosene once in 3-4 months.

It was landlessness that was their greatest problem.  The common lands, peramboke lands etc to which they had the right of access were being denied to them and land that could be distributed among them by the administration was also not being given.  Their social status combined with their landlessness made them vulnerable to every kind of injustice.

It is extremely disturbing that except for the VCK and CPI(M), no other political party has condemned the way in which the administration practiced open discrimination against the dalits.  Not even a statement has been issued by any of them.

The dalits of Seragudi, however, have not been cowed down by the actions of the administration and the vanniyars.  They are determined to fight for their rights and have decided to join the TNUEF in order to do so.