What is behind the sudden spate of attacks? The former BJP chief minister, Kalyan Singh had withdrawn a government circular directing all government officials, including the police, to make proper use of the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. The impact of this decision has been to give the police a free hand in targeting Dalits, according to some. The BSP leader, Mayawati has alleged that there was a distinct pattern in the killings: Chamars and Jatavs being specially targeted since they were far more politically organised and conscious.
Dare challenge social oppression?
A violent attack on Dalit homes in the Themmavur village of Tamil Nadu’s Pudukkottai district took place on May 17 simply because of the Dalits refusal to subject themselves to rites of symbolic oppression during temple festivals. About 30 Dalits, including seven women, were admitted with serious injuries to the government hospital at Pudukkottai following the attack; 30 others also had serious injuries while 36 homes of Dalits were badly damaged with food and utensils being looted.
The Themmavur panchayat, located 12 kilometres from Chengipatti in Thanjavur district, consists of 18 hamlets with a total population of 3,000. Of these, four are exclusively Dalit hamlets; the rest have no Dalits living there at all. There are 500 Dalits in Themmavur village, one–sixth the total population of the total village. The proportion of Dalits to non–Dalits is the same in the Kunnandarkovil blocks and to the district as a whole.
For four years now, Dalits have refused participation in the temple rites that are symbolic of their oppression as a caste. There are two temples in the village dedicated to Mari Amman and Kali Amman. For the past four years, Dalits have refused to beat drums during the temple festivals and death ceremonies, tasks that, in Dalit perception, are a symbolic reiteration of their oppressed social status. They have, however, not refused to perform other tasks.
This year, too, despite the tensions that resulted in the Dalit decision to subject themselves to oppressive rites no more, the Dalits reiterated their decision. This was at a meeting on April 15, convened by the Pudukkottai revenue divisional officer during which caste Hindus demanded that the Dalits beat the drums. The Dalits were also given a veiled threat that “they would receive proper treatment after the festivals.”
On May 1, Dalits lodged a police complaint, fearing reprisal. They were advised by the tahsildar to “avoid conflict”. The Kali Amman festival was on May 17 and Dalits, fearing trouble, lodged a fresh police complaint. During their on–the–spot enquiry, a sub–inspector and a village administrative officer tried to persuade the Dalits to reconsider their decision. But the Dalits stayed away from the festival. They demanded and were given police protection until 5 p.m. that day. Soon after the withdrawal of police protection, a caste Hindu shopkeeper with known sympathies for Dalits was attacked by iron rods, after which the Dalit settlement and Dalit homes were pillaged. The All–India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) conducted a fact–finding investigation into the incident. The AIDWA report recorded 30 bags of groundnut and 5 bags of paddy being looted and the thali chains of three women and the earrings of one woman being snatched away.
A conference of Dalit women held in Pudukkottai by AIDWA in April 1998 had listed numerous instances of the prevalent practice of untouchability and other forms of discrimination against Dalits in the district and had brought it to the attention of the district administration. No steps for the eradication of the same have been taken.
More crimes against Dalits
According to information received from the Human Rights Forum for Dalit Liberation, other incidents of violence against members of the Dalit community have also been recorded from Coimbatore and Thiruvannamalai in Tamil Nadu.
In one case, Moothan (50 years) belonging to the Arunthathiar community from Aruvankadu colony of Alathur village in the Avinashi taluka in Coimbatore district was brutally assaulted and wounded by