Inspiring Conference Against Untouchability

Inspiring Conference Against Untouchability in Tamil Nadu
25 August, 2002 R Chandra
AN important aspect of democratic revolution is the elimination of caste oppression in general and of oppression of scheduled castes and tribes in particular. The CPI(M) and the mass organisations led by CPI(M) activists have taken important steps in recent times to carry forward the struggle against the oppression of Dalits and other exploited sections. The All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA) has been in the forefront in taking up the cause of Dalits at the national and lower levels. The Tamilnadu state unit of the AIDWA has been pro-active on this issue.
Four years ago, in 1998, the AIDWA's state unit organised conferences of women on the issue of untouchability in several districts including Dindigul, Thoothukkudi, Pudukkottai, Theni and Cuddalore. These conferences provided a platform for women, for Dalit women in particular, to share their experiences of oppression as well as their strategies of struggle. These conferences promoted their solidarity. They brought out numerous instances of cruel oppression, especially those related to the crime of untouchability. Following these conferences, the AIDWA launched a series of agitations and struggles. Then, taking stock of the overall experience, the AIDWA state committee decided to conduct zonal conferences, with delegates from several districts, to deliberate on how to carry the struggle forward. The first of these zonal conferences took place in Pudukkottai recently, on July 26.
The conference saw the participation of 202 women delegates from six districts --- Tiruchirapalli, Pudukkottai, Perambalur, Thanjavur, Thirvarur and Nagapattinam. While a majority of the delegates were Dalits, women from other sections were also there.
At the conference, state AIDWA's assistant secretary R Chandra gave an account of the atrocities and various forms of untouchability practised against Dalits in the state and the country. She drew attention to the fact that most Dalits are working in the unorganised sector of economy and are yet to be organised and assert themselves in most parts of the country. Citing data on Dalits from a report of the National Human Rights Commission, Chandra said Dalits form a majority of the nutritionally deprived population, and of those who die of starvation in our country. The data suggest that, on an average,
  • 2 Dalits are attacked every hour;
  • 3 Dalit women are raped every day;
  • at least 2 Dalits are killed every day;
  • at least 2 Dalit houses are set on fire every day.
Dindigul MLA and state AIDWA assistant secretary Balabharathi presented a study report on the problems of Dalit women, based on responses to a questionnaire circulated among women in the six districts from where delegates to the conference came. Several of the responses from the districts of Nagapattinam and Thiruvarur, Balabharathi noted, indicated an absence of the practice of untouchability, reflecting the impact of the struggle for social reform and economic empowerment of Dalits, under the leadership of the Left parties and the Left-led kisan movement. She pointed out the failure of Dravidian parties to effectively address the Dalit issue, and sharply criticised the demand put forward by Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) leader Dr Ramadoss for bifurcation of Tamilnadu on caste lines. She also noted with concern the deep and wide persistence of caste identities in the state's culture, citing the use of caste names in the titles of popular movies.
Sixteen delegates took part in the discussion on Balabharathi's report.
Mala, who suffered serious injuries during an attack by caste Hindus on Dalits in her village Themmavur in Pudukkottai in May 2000, recalled the struggle against this atrocity. That struggle was led by the CPI(M), AIDWA and other democratic mass organisations. But the harassment continues. An instance is that Dalit students are not being allowed to perform science experiments in schools. Dalit women are unable to find any employment.
Tamizh form Tiruchy district referred to the unfortunate divisions among Dalits themselves. Chellammal, also from Tiruchy, reported the case of a Dalit woman teacher who was beaten up and whose transfer was sought by the caste Hindus because she fell in love with a caste Hindu. Thanks to the support from the AIDWA, the teacher has been retained in the same school.
Indira from Perambalur narrated her experience of harassment after her son married a caste Hindu girl. She said drunken mobs attack Dalit settlements during festivals. In Krishnapuram village, caste Hindus refuse to buy milk from Dalits. The two-glass system still prevails in many villages. Those who fight these practices are pressured in many ways to give up. Indira was herself asked to desert the AIDWA. But she refused to submit to the intimidation, saying she would remain in the AIDWA and even risking her life.
Ayilammal from Perambalur noted that the 'backward' castes of her village do not buy provisions from the ration shop because it is located in the Dalit settlement. Padmavathi, also of Perambalur, referred to an incident of rape of a Dalit girl by a caste Hindu; against him no action was taken.
A delegate from Pudukottai reported that a Dalit is ridiculed if she/he uses an umbrella for protection from the hot sun.
Velumani narrated her harrowing experience. Her son had dared to marry a caste Hindu girl. A false case of 'kidnap of a minor girl' was foisted, and he was sent to jail. Velumani had to spend Rs 16,000 to get him released. The caste Hindus later separated the newly-wed couple. Even caste Hindu children are chided if they play with Dalit children, and their young minds are poisoned with casteist hatred.
Saraswathi from Thanjavur noted the continuing practice of using separate glasses for Dalits even in a village where, following a struggle, a settlement was reached about doing away with it. Even in Thiruvarur and Nagapattinam where the Left has a strong presence and a tradition of militant struggle, anti-Dalit discrimination has not entirely disappeared.
Jayam, who is the president of Kilvelur panchayat in Thiruvarur, reported that the panchayat clerk, son of an upper caste landowner, was refusing to work under a Dalit president.
Kalaiarasi of Nagapatinam referred to villages where Dalits cannot get a hair cut at the barber's shop. An old woman was made to carry her own excreta and clean up a public site near the Coleroon river. Her guilt was that, given the complete absence of toilet facilities in the nearby areas, she had used the site in an emergency.
Summing up the discussion, Vasuki (who was state AIDWA assistant secretary at the time of the conference and is its secretary now) referred to the problems the Dalit women leaders of panchayats face. She cited the case of Pushpam, president of the Keeranur town panchayat in Pudukkottai district, who was facing non-cooperation from officials under her. It is obvious that, being elected leader of a local body does not imply deliverance from the caste oppression. Vasuki condemned the practice of dismissing the elected Dalit panchayat leaders, indulged in by some bureaucrats with the connivance of vested interests, and using to this end certain provisions in the existing acts. She drew the delegates' attention to Dr Ambedkar's warning that unbridled operation of market forces will harm Dalits. She called upon the delegates to unitedly fight to secure the basic democratic rights of Dalits, and spelled out the tasks before the AIDWA in this regard.
The conference concluded with a public meeting, presided over by Pappammal of Gandharvakottai, when the large public gathering heard the speakers with rapt attention and appreciation. The police was reluctant to permit the use of mikes, but the reluctance was overcome by the intervention of AIDWA and CPI(M) leaders. The state AIDWA office bearers explained the organisation's perspective and demands on the issue of untouchability.