It is paradoxical that often it is tragedies that succeed in drawing everyone’s attention to prevailing harsh realities. The cynicism of the electoral politics of survival has made inter-caste marriages in Tamil Nadu a matter of political violence and conspiracy. The death of a Dalit youth, E Ilavarasan, in western Tamil Nadu’s backward Dharmapuri district early this month following a failed inter-caste love marriage—now touted by the police to be a suicide—would bear testimony to this paradox.
This is one of the bloody chapters in the caste violence that exploded in Tamil Nadu in November last year when Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) chief S Ramadoss came out in opposition to Dalits marrying non-Dalit women, particularly those belonging to his own Vanniyar community, saying that they were trapping the girls into marriage.
Ilavarasan’s family blames the PMK for his death, which the party denied. This is playing out in the background of Tamil Nadu’s caste crisis with violence against Dalits flaring up in places. There are still numerous villages where Dalit panchayat chiefs are humiliated, Dalits are stopped from worshipping at temples, drawing water from wells and using common pathways, tea stalls adopt the twin tumbler system (offer tea in separate glasses or coconut shells to Dalits), barbers refuse to give a haircut to a Scheduled Caste male and Dalit habitations are described as “colony”.
Ilavarasan’s death has turned the focus on the prevailing caste atrocities in a state that ornamentally prides itself with having pioneered the social reformation process in the early 20th century in a bid to create an egalitarian society.
The Ilavarasan tragedy threatens to snowball into another spike in the confrontation gap with family and activists asking for a CBI or Special Investigation Team probe. Stating that Ilavarasan was under threat from some PMK workers ever since he fell in love with Divya and married her, Ilavarasan’s father T Elango alleged that his son was murdered.
Historically, the PMK has been opposed to Dalits, but of late it has been trying to consolidate Other Backward Castes and Backward Castes on a political platform that is against Dalits.
Until eight months prior to his death, Ilavarasan was one among the millions of faceless Dalits in the southern state. However, certain orchestrated violent incidents on November 7, 2012 catapulted him to an unenviable position and put under emotional strain his 13-day-old blissful love marriage with N Divya belonging to the dominant Vanniyar caste.
On that day, Divya’s father Nagarajan, who had all along endorsed her love affair with Ilavarasan, though the latter was younger than her in age, hanged himself. Nagarajan was driven to the doorsteps of death by a pressure group that had overnight emerged within the Vanniyar community. This group heaped humiliation on him for having blessed his daughter’s elopement with a Scheduled Caste boy.
Hours after Nagarajan’s suicide, a mob of Vanniyars as if on cue stormed Ilavarasan’s ancestral Natham Colony and burnt down over 250 homes belonging to Dalits. The fact that the mob had targetted all Dalits and not just Ilavarasan’s home pointed to a larger political design.
Clearly this was not one of the numerous familiar cases of family wars over inter-caste marriages. And it did not require a political theorist to predict the role of the PMK in this barbaric attack. For the record, the PMK denied a hand in the turbulent incidents that revived the socially nauseating anti-Dalit politics in Tamil Nadu.
Ramadoss is no stranger to political violence. In the 1980s he led a violent struggle to get the Most Backward Community status for the Vanniyars, a dominant community in parts of northern and western Tamil Nadu. The PMK’s emergence as a powerful intermediate caste group had led to friction between the Vanniyars and Dalits, particularly in Cuddalore and Villupuram districts. Ironically, around eight years ago it was Ramadoss who took an initiative to unite the Dalits and Vanniyars in the northern districts by forging an alliance with the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK), a party that represents one segment of Scheduled Caste people in the state.
The PMK-VCK alliance yielded rich electoral dividends till 2009 when the former walked out of the DMK-led front and joined hands with the AIADMK.
With back-to-back electoral routs in the Parliamentary and Assembly elections threatening the PMK’s survival and relevance in the Dravidian political firmament, Ramadoss not only returned to Vanniyar politics but also shamelessly used the Ilavarasan-Divya romantic affair to build a broader political spectrum against the Dalits.
The move exposed his desperate aspiration to revive his waning political fortunes by pitting the dominant communities against the oppressed. Ramadoss’ devious calculation is that tapping the latent caste pride by touching an issue that matters—caste ‘purity’—can bring in votes for a third front led by the PMK.
This vicious campaign against Dalit-upper caste marriages eventually consumed Ilavarasan’s life. Using Divya’s mother as a pawn, the PMK had managed to wean her away from her husband in early June. Though the young girl initially insisted that she had chosen to live with her mother under duress, she became a prisoner of circumstances and succumbing to emotional blackmail, declared that she would never return to Ilavarasan.
It was in the backdrop of this painful separation that Ilavarasan was found dead.
Noted Tamil writer Manushya Puthiran sees an abhorring lesson in this incident. In his view, Ilavarasan’s death only proved that a caste outfit can deny us the basic right to choose the kind of life we want to live.
Ilavarasan himself had refused to play into the hands of Dalit parties. Nearly a month before his death when his wife was weaned away from him, he had fervently appealed not to mix politics with love. “This is our personal affair. No one has the right to interfere in this. Despite the turmoil that I am facing, I have not met the VCK leader Thirumavalavan because I don’t want anyone to politicise this,” he had said while expressing the hope that Divya will one day return to him.
Sadly that reunion never took place.