Tamil Nadu has a long history of brutal violence against dalits and other marginalised communities. It also has a long history of struggle and success against caste discrimination and upliftment of oppressed communities. The CPI(M) along with mass organisations has been fighting the battle against caste legally, in Parliament as well as through mass mobilisation for several decades. The Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front (TNUEF) along with other mass organisations and the CPI(M) conducted a statewide survey in 2008 covering 1,849 villages of 22 districts to study the prevalent forms of caste discrimination in the state. Nearly 40 years after the 1969 Keelvenmani massacre in which 44 landless dalit labourers were burnt alive by goons of upper caste landlords for demanding better wages, this survey revealed the atrocious forms of untouchability that continue to prevail.

Keelvenmani – Massacre for demanding higher wages

The Keelvenmani massacre is a telling example of how inequality inherent in the caste system has dovetailed into the class interests of exploiters. The landless dalits who were kept as farm slaves by the landlords in and around Tanjavur district, began demanding adequate wages under the leadership of the CPI(M) in the 1960s. When their demand for ‘half a measure of rice more for each sack of rice harvested’ went unheeded, the Keelvenmani workers went on strike and withheld part of the harvest. Tensions grew between the unionists and the landlords. On 25 December, 1969 the landlords and their henchmen went to Keelvenmani in police trucks and started attacking the labourers and set fire to the hut in which many women, children, and the aged took refuge. A total of 44 of them were brutally murdered that night, including 5 aged men, 16 women and 23 children. The movement did not end there. The CPI(M) mobilised mass support and continued the struggle for higher wages, and through consistent legal fight though 15 of the landlords and their henchmen were acquitted.

Legal victory of the Vachathi case

Similarly, the Vachathi case is a great victory in the fight for justice against the violence meted out on dalits and tribals. On 20 June, 1992, a team comprising 155 forest personnel, 108 policemen and six revenue officials entered the dalit-dominated Vachathi village. Under the pretext of conducting a search, the team ransacked the villagers’ property, destroyed their houses, killed their cattle, assaulted around 100 villagers, and raped 18 women. The CPI(M) fought the Vachathi case for nearly 20 years and on 29 September, 2011, a special court in India convicted all 269 accused officials for atrocity on dalits and 17 for rape; 54 of the accused had died by the time the case was closed and the remaining 215 were sentenced to jail.

Uthapuram Caste-Wall broken and the following Police Atrocities

The TNUEF was formed in May 2007 to intensify the efforts taken up by the CPI(M) and other progressive and left organisations towards the eradication of untouchability in Tamil Nadu. The survey conducted by the TNUEF soon after its formation revealed that a 600 metre long wall was built in the middle of the Uthapuram village in Madurai district to prevent dalits from having easy access to other parts of the village. The CPI(M) demanded that the state government remove the wall. Protests were held and the then general secretary of CPI(M) Prakash Karat also visited Uthappuram in May, 2008. The state government and the district administration held discussions with the dalits and others and resorted to removing a part of the wall. Though the Uthappuram wall was broken, the oppressive forces began carrying out their domestic chores on the pathway and pelted stones if any dalit attempted to use the path. All these happened with the implied consent of the police who stood guard there.

The police continued with its collusive role. Even though FIRs were registered under Protection of Civil Rights (PCR) Act, no arrests were made. Instead, the police arrested and registered cases against 540 dalit men in clashes that erupted in October; when the men eluded arrest, the women were attacked and 60 of them arrested, including a mother who had given birth to a child just three days ago. The police broke open the dalit houses and damaged property worth several lakhs. They promulgated Section 144 CrPC banning entry into the village. The dominant forces as well as some collaborationists among the dalits were alarmed by the CPI(M) and its mass organisations growing in the village. More clashes erupted in the region and instead of taking action against those who indulged in violence, the police registered false cases against 850 common people and started random arrests. When dalits were picketing against the false cases at E Kottaipatti, a village near Uthappuram, a small contingent of police with the DIG went to Uthapuram and resorted to firing, in the process killing a 23 year old youth, Suresh.

At every stage in the atrocities following the Uthapuram wall demolition, the CPI(M) and its mass organisations intervened to restore normalcy, only for the police to repeatedly disrupt the peace. The district CPI(M) leaders and P Mohan, MP, had to intervene for the women who were arrested to be released. TNUEF Secretary P Sampath and P Mohan went to Uthappuram violating the ban order and met the people of the village. A team of CPI (M) MLAs led by Balabarathi, leader of the Tamil Nadu CPI(M) legislature party, Central Committee member U Vasuki along with AIDWA leaders and DYFI leaders visited the village. A 2,000 strong demonstration was held at Madurai, and party state secretary N Varadarajan met the chief minister and raised the issue, following which attempts for arrest were given up by the police. The CPI(M) raised a Rs 2 lakh fund from party members and distributed relief material to the affected people of Uthappuram on the eve of Deepavali. DYFI conducted a protest hunger strike against the police firing in Madurai in which 1,000 youth including those from Uthappuram and E Kottaipatti participated.

N Varadarajan met the chief-minister and demanded a judicial enquiry into the incident and the same was ordered. The attempt to arrest 850 men was also given up. This enabled men from E Kottaippatti, Kaundampatti, Perumalpatti, and Chellayipatti to return to their villages. On the insistence of the TNUEF, the district collector was transferred. P Sampath and P Mohan met the new incumbent and insisted that the other demands of the dalits of Uthappuram, like total removal of the wall, diversion of the sewage canal running through the dalit area, ensuring the right of the dalits to worship and practice their traditional and religion rituals etc, be met. AIDWA approached the High court to demand relief to the affected people of Uthappuram, action against the police who attacked the women and a judicial enquiry into the police atrocities. The commission set up by the high Court recommended Rs 15 lakh compensation for the victims, but the Tamil Nadu government objected to the findings of the report. The High Court passed an interim order to pay Rs 10 lakh as compensation to the victims, a notable victory in the legal battle.

Similarly, in Vellore city, a big iron gate was constructed between upper caste houses and dalit dwellings in a crowded main road. The TNEUF, as soon as it was launched, brought this to the attention of the state government. Demonstrations of dalits and other democratic forces were organised. The government was warned that if it fails to remove the iron gate, it would be brought down through direct action. Following this, the government removed the gate.

Temple Entry Movements

Whenever dalits demand equal rights, they are brutally repressed by the Tamil Nadu police. Temple entry by the dalits was forcibly prohibited by the police in several districts, who stand guard while the upper castes indulge in violence or themselves attack the dalits. Temple entry movements in Tamil Nadu were an early practice in the fight against caste. A historic temple entry movement in July 1939 in Madurai was led by many progressive and communist leaders at a time when the Communist Party was banned. N Sankaraiah, then a student leader, gathered at the temple entrance with several students to greet the dalits and Nadars, the most suppressed communities in the Madras Presidency of British India, while they successfully entered the famous Meenakshi Sundareshwarar Temple and created history.

Many successful struggles have been carried out to enable dalits entry into temples, a right that has been denied for very long. The CPI (M), TNUEF and DYFI have led several temple entry movements and succeeded across 12 districts. When CPI (M) and TNUEF leaders led the temple entry into the Pavali Kamatchiamman koil in Virudhunagar district, the police refused to permit entry. Later, the Higher Court decreed that dalits should be allowed entry to that temple whenever it is kept open. In Chettipulam of Nagai district, the dominant forces instigated caste hatred, forced closure of shops and attacked not only the dalits who tried to enter the temple but the police force that had come to protect the dalits. They used violence to force the authorities to issue prohibitory orders. During the dalits’ entry into Kangaiyanur temple, the police force acted in support of the dominant forces and attacked dalits who tried to enter the temple. Many including G Latha, MLA, were brutally attacked and sustained injuries; 110 Activists including K Balakrishnan, President, state unit of AIKS and State Secretariat member of CPI(M), Anandan, District Secretary, CPI(M), Villupuram district committee, were arrested and incarcerated in Cuddalore jail. Despite this, the state administration and police were forced to take dalits into these temples. The DYFI cadres led the temple entry of dalits into Mathur Mariamman temple in Nagai district and Nedi temple in Villupuram and Angaleswari Temple in Kongurayapettai in Namakkal districts. In many other centres, the temple entry of dalits took place braving the onslaught of the dominant caste forces.

Fight for Elections in Reserved Panchayats

On the political front, the upper caste ruling classes have prevented the entry of dalits into elected bodies through forceful restrictions. Elections could not be held for 10 years in Pappapatti, Keeripatti and Nattarmangalam panchayats in Madurai district and in Kottakachiyendal in Virudhunagar district because these panchayats are reserved for dalits. The dominant caste forces continuously prevented dalit candidates from filing their nominations, and even prompted some dalits to file nominations and later forced them to withdraw them. In an election at Pappatti, a dalit was elected, but dominant caste forces coerced him to resign. Many dalit organisations including the Viduthalai Chiruthaikal Party made efforts to hold elections to elect Panchayat Presidents in these villages; but the dominant caste forces consistently thwarted their efforts. The CPI (M) and its mass organisations mobilised both dalits and people belonging to higher castes. A list of persons of dominant castes who prevented the elections from taking place was prepared and given to the Collector for taking action.

Simultaneously, the CPI(M) legislators vociferously raised this issue in the state assembly. The state government had been toying with the idea of getting those village panchayats in a rotation system so that the respective panchayats would come under the general list for elections. The CPI (M) protested against this measure and announced a fast under the leadership of its State Secretary. The government was forced to announce that the villages would continue to be under reserved category and steps were taken to hold the elections after a gap of 10 years. The CPI (M) fielded its members and supporters in Pappapatti, Keeripatti and Nattarmangalam. Dalit leaders were elected as Presidents in these four Panchayats. The Keeripatti panchayat President Palraj Samy is a member of the CPI (M), so are several of the ward members in these panchayats. The struggle for fair conduct of elections in the reserved panchayats was a successful struggle fought among the masses as well as in the assembly.

Separate quota for Arundhathiyars

The 3% reservation for Arundhathiyars under the 16% seats reserved for Scheduled Castes for admission in educational institutions and appointments in state services was a victory of the intense struggle led by the CPI(M). Educationally and economically, Arundadhiyars are the most backward among all castes, including dalits. The CPI(M)’s achievement for a sub-quota for Arundadhiyars is a big step towards the empowerment of this community. Massive district level rallies were led by the CPI(M) demanding the implementation of the Tamil Nadu Arunthathiyars (Special Reservation of seats in Educational Institutions including Private Educational Institutions and of appointments or posts in the services under the State within the Reservation for the Scheduled Castes) Act.

In Virudhunagar, 5,000 people participated in the rally, in Dindugal 6,000, in Salem 2,000, Tirunelveli 6,000 and in Ramanathapuram 2,000. In a state level rally organised by the CPI(M), more than 20,000 people, mainly Arundathiyars, but including several non-dalits and a large number of women participated. The participants marched to the state secretariat and demanded that the then Chief Minister Karunanidhi implement the recommendations. A commission was formed to study the modus operandi for providing reservation for Arundhathiyars within the reservation for Scheduled Castes and its recommendations were submitted to the Tamil Nadu government by November 2008. The Act was passed in April, 2009.

The chief minister held talks with the CPI(M) team led by N Varadharajan, state secretary. Representatives from Arundhathiyar organisations also joined the team. After discussions, the Welfare Board for Sanitary Workers was formed by the government in which three members (two from CPI(M) and one from the Arundadhiyar organisation) as suggested by the CPI(M) were included. The government issued orders changing the slavish name of ‘vettiyan’ as Crematorium Assistant and government time scale was fixed for them. Individual orders were issued to 178 persons in Chennai Corporation. In another government order, the roadside cobblers had been covered by the welfare board formed for leather workers.

Auxiliary Plan for Dalits/Tribals

The TNEUF, as soon as it was launched, had brought to the attention of the state government the auxiliary plan for dalit/tribals in Tamil Nadu, by which 19% of the funds should be allotted for the empowerment of dalits and tribals. The CPI (M) legislators took up these issues strongly in the Assembly. Many dalit, Left and democratic organisations conducted movements on these demands. In this background, the state for the first time allotted 19% of the 2010-11 Plan allocation to the auxiliary plan for dalits. This is a significant achievement and the TNUEF has been continuously organising movements to properly spend the allotted funds, as there hasn’t been much improvement in the socio-economic conditions of the dalits and tribals. With the private sector booming in an era of globalisation, the TNUEF and the CPI(M) have been demanding reservation for education and jobs in the private sector. The TNUEF has also been carrying out a series of movements to force the Tamil Nadu government to fill up existing and backlog vacancies.