November 10, 2019

TAMIL NADU UNTOUCHABILITY ERADICATION FRONT: Twelve Years of Struggle and Achievements

P Sampath

FORMED twelve years ago, the Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front (TNUEF), a broad-based organisation, has since carried out many successful struggles and movements, increased its influence over various sections of the society and made quite an impact in the southern state. Trade unions, associations of farmers and farm labourers, mass organisations, dalit outfits, and some intellectuals have involved themselves in the functioning of this mass front over the years, making it a powerful agent of change.


The front’s first major victory came with the demolition of the “caste wall” erected by Hindus in Uthapuram village in Madurai district to keep dalit villagers away. This victory found resonance not only in other parts of Tamil Nadu but also in several areas across the country. After the demolition of the wall in Uthapuram, the term “Untouchability Wall” became very popular in the state. Thereafter, a number of such walls were identified and demolished in various places.


Subsequently, the issue of reservation for Arunthathiyars, a marginalised section within Scheduled Caste, was taken up jointly with the CPI (M). But this issue of inner-caste reservation created a controversy and high-pitched debates among Dalits as well as democratic sections. A historic rally organised in support of the cause drew a crowd of more than 25,000, including a sizeable number of Arunthathiyars. This rally and continuous agitations that followed compelled the state government to act. The then chief minister convened an all-party meeting in which elaborate discussions took place. The state constituted a committee under Justice M S Janarthanam. The committee conducted several meetings and enquires for one year in order to gather information and finally submitted a report to the government. The government accepted the findings and issued an order earmarking three per cent reservation for Arunthathiyar within the SC quota. This order too evoked debates among Dalits and other sections of people. Some individuals filed a case objecting to this reservation in the Madras high court. The TNUEF and the CPI(M) unitedly fought to safeguard the three per cent reservation. The successful implementation of inner-caste reservation for Arunthathiyars is an important milestone for the TNUEF as well as the CPI(M).


TNUEF observes September 30, the death anniversary of legendary Communist leader P Srinivasa Rao, as a day of struggle against caste oppression. On that day, direct actions against untouchability is conducted. In the struggle, establishing the right of Dalits to worship in temples is given priority. During these 12 years, such temples where Dalits were denied entry, discriminated against or denied right to worship were identified and chosen for forceful entry of Dalits. In the past 12 years, braving all obstacles Dalits successfully entered 29 temples and worshiped. Further in many temples, the discriminations were successfully overcome by sustained counter actions. During these struggles, TNUEF had to face violent reactions from dominant caste forces, and brutal lathi charges from police too. The casteist mindset of many bureaucrats was a hurdle. However, these type of repressions and hurdles were overcome and the rights of Dalit people were established. Words will not be sufficient to describe the overall impact of the struggles and the resultant prestige of the Left movement.


Fight for land occupies an important place in the fight against caste oppression. Access to land makes dalits less dependent on casteist forces and paves the way for establishing their other just rights. A sizeable number of dalits and tribes were given lands in states like Kerala, West Bengal and Tripura where the Left continuously ruled and the livelihood of those people increased substantially. Distribution of land is the reason behind the fact that in these states the abuse against dalits is less pronounced than in other states. With this vision, during the British rule after massive protests the concept of Panchami land for dalits took shape and lands were distributed in large scale. Due to intense struggles waged by dalits along with democratic forces after Independence too, in many places dalits were given some lands. But those lands given to dalits were forcefully taken over by dominant caste forces and some individuals in states where the Left movement was not that strong. In many places the bureaucrats were hand in glove with such landgrabbers. In TN, efforts were made by TNUEF to retrieve such lands and give them back to dalits. In Chengalpattu in Kanchipuram district, Panchami land retrieval conference was held. In some places, the lands were recovered and handed over to dalits. However, it is a fact that a large number of Panchami lands are in the hands of caste forces and powerful individuals. In future, the front will strengthen the efforts to retrieve Panchami lands.


In TN and other parts of the country, honour killings are on the rise. Data reveals that there were 81 honour killings in the past three years in TN alone. Particularly those who have married outside caste have been brutally killed. The victims are mostly dalits and women. TNUEF is effectively intervening and fighting against these caste-driven honour killings. In recent years, TNUEF has intervened in all such honour killing incidents. It has been consistently taking steps to get justice for the victims and ensure that the culprits are punished. We have ensured that within hours of honour killing incidents, the organisers of TNUEF reaches the spot and be with the affected families. The front keeps a control vigil on these court cases and renders possible help. Many accused have been punished. Affected families have obtained relief and no one can deny the role of TNUEF in it. The 450-km-long march undertaken by the front between Salem and Chennai is a significant event. During the 15-day journey, people cutting across caste lines gave the marchers rousing receptions in various places. The march stirred the conscious of lakhs of onlookers all along. The march was not allowed entry into the Chennai city and campaigning was also prohibited. The participants picketed against this and got arrested.


statewide survey by hundreds of groups of TNUEF in 1,278 villages of various districts was carried out in 2009. By this survey, 88 forms of untouchability and 28 forms of atrocity were listed and an awareness campaign conducted throughout Tamil Nadu. The print media and electronic media have delivered these forms in their news items. The exposure of these forms of untouchability and atrocity has created tremendous impact and condemnation from various sections of people. A section of national media also exposed these forms. Now, a second statewide survey has been planned on livelihood of dalits. It will be carried out in the month of December, 2019.


Not only denial of entry into temples, but also other forms of untouchability such as two tumbler system in tea shops, refusing dalits to walk or cycle on some public pathways, bar on wearing footwear, denying hair cut in a saloon, not allowing common burial ground, not allowing to carry dead bodies or the total absence of burial sites for dalits are enacted on a daily basis in thousands of villages. In many villages, many direct action programmes have been initiated in protest against such cruelties and restoration of human rights. However, we have to go a long way and wage many more battles to eradicate these evils completely.

During these years, TNUEF has convened seminars and special conferences to impress upon the state and central governments to allocate funds for the welfare of the tribals in proportion to their population and to ensure funds are utilized fully for the betterment of these people. Other fraternal and democratic organisations took many initiatives in this period that compelled the governments to make section wise allocations. But shortcomings in proper spending of allocated funds still persist and fight against these tendencies will continue. In government jobs and in some bank jobs too, the Scheduled Caste reservation was not duly implemented and there are incidents where mistakes were rectified after the intervention of TNUEF.


An important aspect of the front’s struggle against the atrocities on dalits, caste-related abuses, and agitations for proper implementation of dalit-specific schemes is that many non-dalit sections were also earnestly mobilized. For example, half of the three thousand people who gathered to demand demolition of Uthapuram “caste wall” at a small village named Peraiyur were non-dalits. One noted dalit leader said that had they taken up this demolition issue, surely it would have been termed as caste struggle. But when the TNUEF took up this issue, it lent democratic character to the agitation and gained wider support. It is pertinent to mention here that the innumerable agitations and programmes conducted by the front for the uplift of the dalits were well received by the dalit organisations and intellectuals as well. The Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK), a party which is relentlessly fighting for the oppressed sections of the society, conferred its highest honour, “Ambedkar Award”, on the then CPI(M) state secretary N Varadarajan for taking up and succeeding in getting the inner caste reservation for Arunthathiyar community. ‘Ananda Vikatan’, a popular Tamil weekly, named the TNUEF president one among the top 10 eminent persons for TNUEF’s many accomplishments, including the demolition of the Uthapuram caste wall. The Tamil Nadu Progressive Writers and Artists Association presented its important annual award with a citation along with Rs one lakh to the noted progressive writer S V Rajadurai and the awardee donated the entire amount to the TNUEF in appreciation of its achievements regarding dalit entitlements. Further, many big news magazines and media houses came up with special news and messages appreciating the activities of the front. Also, the judiciary mentioned the TNUEF and acknowledged its role while pronouncing many judgements against honour killing and caste atrocities.


So far TNUEF has conducted three state-level conferences in Pudukottai (2010), Virudunagar (2015) and Thanjavur (2019). In these conferences, well-known Left leaders, dalit organisation leaders, noted intellectuals, artistes, writers and mediapersons participated and delivered speeches. It is a great honour for the front. The victims of caste suppression who bravely withstood the onslaughts and anti-caste crusaders took part in these conferences and narrated their stories. They complimented and thanked the TNUEF for the rock-like support. Above all thousands of dalits and non-dalits participated in these conferences rejecting caste and expressed solidarity with the Left movement.