No 'Marriage' of Ideologies: Kongu Parties Find Raison D’être in Their Differences With Dalits

Parties representing well-to-do Gounders mobilise votes through politics of disadvantage

Published: 09th May 2016 06:53 AM  |   Last Updated: 09th May 2016 06:53 AM   |  A+A-

MAYAWATI14

ER Easwaran is powerful and influential in the western belt of Tamil Nadu. His political entrepreneurship had once upset the electoral calculations of the major players. He is now the general secretary of the Kongunadu Makkal Desia Katchi, which also runs a marriage bureau to help parents from his community find “the correct grooms for their daughters before it’s too late”.

Why should political parties be involved in what essentially is a family matter? “Who told you we’re a political party? This is a family! We’re tackling a family problem,” he says.

No.jpgIn Kongu Nadu, as the 12 districts from Coimbatore to Karur in west Tamil Nadu is known, the burning issue this election is the potent politicisation of inter-caste marriage, especially those between Dalits and the dominant caste of Kongu Vellala Gounders. Several parties that claim to represent their interests attempt to mobilise votes by building a politics of disadvantage — an enormous task for a community of land-owning, affluent businessmen that reign over the textile, engineering and poultry industries in the State. The parties claim they will protect Gounder pride and develop the region, but underline their “backwardness” by saying they have been shortchanged politically.

“We might be strong academically, financially and socially, but not politically,” says Easwaran.

Gounders, classified as Other Backward Castes (OBCs), were in powerful positions in the Congress party post-independence, and have been backing the AIADMK in the past few decades. “Nearly 50 per cent of Tamil Nadu’s tax revenue comes from us but the government only spends `3,000 crore every year in this region. We need votebank politics — only then will we be taken seriously,” he insists.

To mobilise this vote bank quickly, says analyst Stalin Rajangam, the Kongu parties “are using emotional, cultural issues”. Prior to the 2014 general elections, they rallied for amendment of the Protection of Civil Libert­ies Act, 1955 and the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, to stop what Gounder leaders like ‘Best’ S Ramasamy call “blatant misuse” by Dalits. Now, they are rallying against the “polluting” Dalit-Gounder marriages.

As their convoys of insecurity travelled through rural Coimbatore, Tirupur, and Namakkal, Kongu parti­es left behind potent caste grudges among Gounder youth. In Vellakoil in Tirupur, Harish Ramasamy, a 26-year-old textile factory supervisor, sat with his friends outside a small bakery. The previous week, three Kongu parties campaigned in the region. “It’s true what they say, some people need to be put in their place. We can’t sit around and let them overtake us,” thunders Harish. His friends agree vociferously.

In the backdrop of honour killings, Harish’s rage is dangerous. Seven months ago, he says with pride, he “successfully separated” his cousin from a Dalit man she married. “Her father, my maama (uncle) had simply disowned her — that’s too passive. We gave the boy’s family a few slaps, told him to stay away, and brought my cousin back. That was that.”

G K Nagaraj, of Kongunadu Jananayaga Katchi, which has allied with the BJP, says, “We didn’t start caste clashes. But when Dalit parties provok­e their boys and encourage ‘love drama’ with our innocent girls, it disturbs us; we need to protect ourselves.” He says the marriageable age of girls should be raised from 18 to 21 years. “They are too naïve to make decisi­o­ns.” As to their voting when 18, he says, “Voting is not influenced by hormones.”

Harish has taken a leave of absence to volunteer with Easwaran’s party, which is contesting in 72 constituencies, on its own. “It is the first time I see the point of politics,” he says. Like many Gounders in the region, Harish’s father is a traditional AIADMK supporter, but the son believes all the parties have taken them for a ride.

Kongu parties admit modelling their campaign on that of S Ramadoss’ Patali Makkal Katchi, a Vanniyar caste party that pioneered rallies against inter-caste marriage, and won a Parliamentary seat in Dharmapuri in north TN. “The dominant caste anger here arises from sociopolitical changes in the north and south: in these parts, Dalits are not as submissive as before,” says Rajangam. He says the emergence of Dalit parties, VCK of northern Parayars and Puthiya Tamilagam of the southern Pallars, may not have brought empowerment, but “has given Dalits confi­dence”. Due to education and urban migration, rural Dalits are also less dependent on feudal land owners.

The western Gounders, in a sense, have borrowed dominant caste disenchantment for political ends. Sadly here, the neighbourhood Dalits being demonised are largely the Arundatiyars, in some ways left out by Dalit parties too. Economist M Vijayabaskar who has researched Kongu politics says, “Gounders are not a politically sidelined community, but they might grudge having to compete for political attention with the Arundatiyars, a numerically large Dalit community in the region that has traditionally voted for the AIADMK.”

U Thaniyarasu of the Kongu Ilaignar Peravai, whose member Yuvaraj is accused in the honour killing of Dalit boy Gokul Raj, distances himself from any caste talk. “We don’t talk dirty caste politics,” he says, perhaps realising the need to differentiate his party in the region and also play down casteist speeches since his alliance with the AIADMK. This sudden moderation is part of the election time realpolitik; the atmosphere is thick with hate campaigns.

‘We need votebank politics for us to be taken seriously’

Paving a path to power

E R Easwaran, general secretary of Kongunadu Makkal Desia Katchi, seen at a rally with his supporters says, “We might be strong academically, financially and socially, but not politically.”

Affluent businessmen and land-owners

The Kongu Vellala Gounder community of land-owning, affluent businessmen that reign over the textile, engineering and poultry industries in Tamil Nadu are classified as Other Backward Castes (OBC)

Affluent businessmen and land-owners

The Kongu Vellala Gounder community of land-owning, affluent businessmen that reign over the textile, engineering and poultry industries in Tamil Nadu are classified as Other Backward Castes (OBC)

Community has backed AIADMK for decades

The Gounder community has had leaders in powerful positions in the Congress party post-independence, but in the past few decades have been backing the AIADMK led by J Jayalalithaa

Kongu parties rally against Dalit-Gounder weddings

In 2014, they rallied for amendment of Protection of Civil Libert­ies Act, 1955 and the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, claiming “blatant misuse” by Dalits. Now, they’re against Dalit-Gounder unions

 

Kongunadu Munnetra Kazhagam was formed in 2009, but each of its founders have now split up, creating four smaller parties

As a populous OBC, Gounders are one of the greatest beneficiaries of the 20 per cent OBC quota. Dalit incomes in Tamil Nadu are 24 per cent less than that of OBCs

 

(Rohini Mohan: writes on politics and human rights. Her book, The Seasons of Trouble (2014), a non-fiction account of three people in post-war Sri Lanka won The Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize and Tata Literature Live! First Book Award (Non-fiction).

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