As a first step to implementing the democratic goals of the Constitution Act, during elections there must be both protection for Dalits and penalties for disruptive acts by caste Hindus. Thus far, there have been neither.
Nine years of helplessness
Between 1996 and 2001, nine by-elections were announced in Keeripatti, Pappapatti and Kottakachiyendal panchayats. None of these elections were held. And yet, without taking any action to analyse or remedy the situation, the state government gave these three panchayats reserved status for another five years in 2001.
A notable exception to this state of affairs occurred in Nattarmangalam panchayat where Yosanai, a Dalit, ran uncontested for president in 1996 and remained in office until 2001. However, after elections were announced for October 2001, the caste Hindus of Nattarmangalam also protested their panchayat’s reserved status. Saraswathi, a Dalit, was physically prevented from filing her nomination for the post of union councillor. When she discussed the incident with TV reporters, caste Hindus threw stones at her house, injuring one of her relatives. The police did nothing. After this, no Dalits have come forward to participate in Nattarmangalam’s elections.
Since 2001, in Keeripatti and Pappapatti, Dalits have courageously but unsuccessfully tried to contest in the panchayats’ presidential elections. Poongodi first ran for president of the Keeripatti panchayat in March 2002 with the support of the Dalit Panthers of India (DPI). E. Subban also contested for panchayat president of Pappapatti. Because of their efforts, elections were held for the first time since 1996 in these panchayats.
In response, caste Hindus developed a new tactic. They submitted the nominations of their own Dalit candidates – both puppets – for these posts. They also threatened the original candidates and their families, as well as potential voters, while promising to boycott the election. Not surprisingly, Poongodi and Subban lost the election to the alternate candidates. In a final assault to democracy, the winners resigned at the order of the caste Hindus, leaving the presidential posts vacant yet again.
In several subsequent elections in these panchayats, caste Hindus produced puppet candidates at the outset, and then forced them to withdraw before the elections if there were no authentic candidates. Dalit witnesses at the public hearing also recounted how, whenever elections were announced, caste Hindus forcefully took Dalits to the union office and made them stage demonstrations calling for the de-reservation of their constituencies. Poongodi said that no political parties except for the DPI have addressed these issues.
April- May 2005
Recently, in the April 2005 elections, Dalits were again punished for attempting to assume their constitutional rights. Narasingam, a Dalit, who filed his nomination for president of Pappapatti panchayat, was soon after found mysteriously dead. Although a case was registered at the Uthappanur police station, no action has been taken to investigate Narasingam’s death.
In Keeripatti panchayat, Poongodi once more contested for the presidential post with the support of the DPI. He lost to the caste Hindu-supported candidate, Azhagumalai, who thereafter resigned. Though the NGO People’s Watch – Tamil Nadu (PW-TN) sent an appeal to the state government asking that it not accept Azhagumalai’s resignation, the appeal was ignored.
Shifting tactics again, caste Hindus gathered the names of the 28 Dalits who voted for Poongodi. The 15 families of these 28 people have since been socially ostracised and are currently surviving without ready access to food or utilities.
In a state of degradation and poverty, some of these Dalit victims walked to the PW-TN office in Madurai and spoke to members of the Joint Action Committee Against Untouchability on May 4. Committee members took the victims to the inspector general of police (southern range) and the district superintendent of police at Madurai. PW-TN also helped the victims file complaints with the secretary of the Adi Dravidar and Tribal Welfare Department, the regional director of the national SC/ST Commission, the chief secretary of Tamil Nadu, and the additional director general of police (Social Justice and Human Rights).
The victims asked the district collector of Madurai for cooked food, armed protection, alternative employment opportunities, and some form of action against those