For almost a decade, democracy has been blatantly and injuriously violated in the panchayats of Keeripatti, Nattarmangalam and Pappapatti in Madurai district and Kottakachiyendal panchayat in Virudhunagar district. Since 1996, caste Hindus have prevented legitimate elections from being held in these constitutionally-designated reserved panchayats. The failure to implement the democratic norms laid out in the Constitution comes at a great cost to the Dalits in these panchayats, and to society at large. Though grassroots structures, including the rotational reservation of select panchayats, are in place, democracy is faltering where it is most needed. Rights are meaningless if other ill-intentioned members of society can so easily take them away. Therefore, the government must address the systematic silencing of Dalits by strictly enforcing its policies.
On June 14, a public hearing was held in Madurai to address the failure of the Constitution in Keeripatti, Nattarmangalam, Pappapatti and Kottakachiyendal. Year after year, Dalits have been unable to take up their rightful positions in these panchayats because of disruptive acts by caste Hindus, including boycotts, fear tactics and puppet candidates. To date, presidential and various other posts in these panchayats remain vacant, and still no one has been held accountable.
At the end of the public hearing, the esteemed jurors unanimously claimed to have learned a great deal from the proceedings, namely that the Constitution was not at work in these panchayats. The jury consisted of Justice Mr. K. Ramasamy (former judge of the Supreme Court of India), Mr. MS Janarthanam (former judge of the high court of Chennai), Dr. Mohini Giri (former chairperson of the National Commission for Women), Dr. N. Markandan (former vice chancellor of Gandhigram Rural Institute – Deemed University), Prof. Gopal Guru (Jawaharlal Nehru University), Dr. George Mathew (director of the Institute of Social Science, New Delhi), Dr. G. Palanidurai (senate member of the Gandhigram Rural Institute – Deemed University), and Dr. M. Thangaraj (Madras University).
Provisions for positive discrimination to uplift India’s most backward communities are inherent in the Constitution. Thus, women and SC/ST communities have a fundamental right to be represented in public institutions in proportion to their numbers. Moreover, the Constitution (73rd and 74th Amendments) Act 1992 was passed in the national Parliament to redistribute political power within the three-tier panchayati raj structure – village panchayats, panchayat unions and district panchayats – thereby forcing state governments to amend their panchayat laws. Since 1996, the Tamil Nadu Panchayat Act 1994 ensured that the representation of Dalits in the state’s panchayats was to be proportional to their percentage within the population, which is over 25 per cent.
In August 1996, Keeripatti, Nattarmangalam, Pappapatti and Kottakachiyendal were selected by the Tamil Nadu state government to have their panchayat posts reserved for Dalits for five years. Since this announcement, caste Hindus living in the villages in these panchayats have protested against their reserved status and have regularly boycotted elections. They have also instilled fear in potential Dalit candidates by threatening to ostracise and even kill those who defy the boycott.
The status of Dalits
Dalits depend on caste Hindus for their economic and social livelihood. They also suffer from the real and psychological effects of centuries of untouchability. In the named panchayats, several forms of untouchability survive, including: forbidding Dalits from entering temples or using village streets in caste Hindu areas; providing Dalit children with separate seating and different lunches at school; and denying Dalits the right to take water from the common panchayat pump. As a result of these and other forms of untouchability, Dalits have limited access to public utilities and services such as ration shops, government offices, public toilets and polling booths, which are located in caste Hindu areas. Moreover, they are commonly the victims of physical and sexual assault by caste Hindus.
In the face of caste Hindu resistance, Dalits cannot be expected to have the courage to participate in the panchayat elections, either as candidates or voters. Their fear increased further in 1997, when Murugesan, Mookkan and four others were brutally murdered by a mob of over 60 people after the former two men were elected president and vice-president, respectively, of the