The public hearing
In light of the above occurrences, the DPI, PW-TN, the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights, and the Human Rights Forum for Dalit Liberation – Tamil Nadu worked together to organise the public hearing. Its purpose was:
Ø to publicise the continuous violations of the 73rd and 74th amendments of the Constitution in Pappapatti, Keeripatti, Nattarmangalam and Kottakachiyendal panchayats;
Ø to create awareness about the present state of Dalits in these panchayats;
Ø to expose the government’s wilful shirking of its duties for the past nine years;
Ø to inform civil society organisations and the media about the negligence of the national and state SC/ST Commissions, so that they may help in the attainment of justice for the victimised Dalits;
Ø to stress to the government that these panchayats should continue to be reserved after the designated 10 years are up; and
Ø to investigate the shocking assault to democracy that is taking place, because though elections have been announced 19 times in nine years and though civil society organisations have intervened, Dalits in these panchayats continue to be prevented from occupying their rightful positions.
At the hearing, Poongodi, members of his family, members of the dead Narasingam’s family, and other Dalits recounted what had happened. Members of several political parties also spoke.
Administrative and police officials did not come to the hearing, nor did they even acknowledge the event.
Karuthakannan, who resigned after defeating Poongodi in the March 2002 Keeripatti panchayat election, spoke on behalf of the Kallar caste Hindus. He said that he was not forced to resign, but voluntarily resigned because he did not want to risk losing his only source of livelihood, which was working on the lands of the Kallars. When jury member, Dr. Giri, asked him why he contested in the election in the first place, Karuthakannan was unable to provide a satisfying answer.
In a particularly telling exchange, Karuthakannan said, "When Poongodi filed his nomination, none of the people in our community felt safe because they were afraid of the Kallars’ assault. So most of our people fled from the village. Only after I filed my nomination did all of them come back, and peace returned to our village." To this, former judge of the high court of Chennai, MS Janarthanam, asked, "You did get peace but have you got self-respect?" Karuthakannan replied, "But we do not believe that we have the requisites or the wealth to become a panchayat president."
GK Mani, president of the Pattali Makkal Katchi and MLA, called the fact that elections have not properly been held in the four panchayats "shameful." The jury asked him why his party had not taken the initiative to hold an all-party meeting to address the problem, and he replied that it would be most appropriate for the ruling party to take such action. Thereafter, the jury stressed that political parties should do more to encourage people to participate in elections.
At the end of the public hearing, each jury member individually denounced the state of affairs in the panchayats of Keeripatti, Nattarmangalam, Pappapatti and Kottakachiyendal.
Notably, former Supreme Court Justice Ramasamy disagreed with Surendran, general secretary of the Forward Bloc, who had earlier testified that the failure of the elections was not a human rights issue but an issue of poverty. Ramasamy held that "the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights make this (hearing) absolutely relevant" to the issue of human rights. He also emphasised the fundamental importance of the right to vote, and called it the duty of the State to see that reservations are enforced and to hold wayward officials accountable. He placed the burden on political parties and NGOs – which are less prejudiced than administrative and government officials – to educate people about the necessity of reservations.
Former chairperson of the National Commission for Women, Dr. Giri, focussed on the problem of prejudice amongst officials. She questioned why the national SC/ST Commission had not sent any representatives to the hearing.
The remaining jury members also spoke about the various enemies of the panchayat system. They strongly advocated for the abolishment of untouchability through education and enforcement.
The jurors left the discussion moved and with open eyes. Formal recommendations from them are forthcoming. Even though the recommendations will be non-binding, they will carry the weight and wisdom of the country’s premier authorities on justice. Because all of the enforcement mechanisms have tragically failed, there is no concrete remedy for the Keeripatti victims or for democracy in these panchayats. The public hearing, its publicisation and the jury’s recommendations provide one source of hope for the victims and for democracy in India. Knowledge and acknowledgement of this denial of basic human rights is the first step, it is hoped, towards correction and radical alleviation.
Archived from Communalism Combat, June 200 Year 11 No.108, Dalit Drishti 1