The rise of Zamin Devarkulam — from a village of caste clashes to an untouchability-free area — is also the story of Kamala Balakrishnan. A school dropout-turned-panchayat president, Kamala along with her husband equipped the place with CCTV cameras, public address systems and mobile-operated borewell.
KOVILPATTI : The day Zamin Devarkulam received its Untouchability-free Village Award, panchayat president Kamala Balakrishnan was in her finest attire. She chose her best saree for the event, which was on April 6, 2015.
A Class X dropout from a class/caste conscious society, Kamala has been the face of Zamin Devarkulam. Her photographs with the District Collector and Superintendent of Police after receiving the award adorn the panchayat office. Only Mahatma Gandhi and former Chief Minister C Annadurai share space with her on the wall.
Flags and banners of political parties are not allowed in this second grade panchayat, a decision that the villagers took unanimously. In the past one-and-a-half years, Z Devarkulam has been featured in at least two news channels as a hi-tech village.
Of the 1,500 residents, 359 are Dalits. People belonging to nine caste groups live in the village. There has been no discrimination and people live in harmony, taking part in each other’s family functions, according to a letter that Kamala had sent to the district revenue officials, asking them to consider her village for the award.
Kamala would have laughed it off, had she been told a decade ago that she would become a panchayat president, let alone be of an award-winning one. Elected in 2011, she is now into the final four months of her tenure.
Kamala’s work was mostly taken care of by her husband and other ward members. She became the face of it, by virtue of being the panchayat president. The 73rd amendment to the Constitution stipulates that one-third of the panchayat president posts in a state should be reserved for women, something that moulded local body chiefs like Kamala. But, she is no rubber stamp president either — a common complaint against women panchayat presidents in the country. She knows what she is doing.
“I was naive... I still am, I guess,” Kamala says, letting out a laugh. Kamala sees all of it as a learning process. “You know how our society is. In our community (Kamala belongs to Naicker, a dominant OBC community), women are not allowed to speak out after a certain age. I was no different. I was married off, before I even knew about the outside world,” she says.
Marriage with S Balakrishnan in 2006 brought her to Z Devarkulam, which is 20 km from her hamlet near Thiruvengadam.
Neither Kamala nor her husband harboured any vision to lead or transform their village, until one night in 2007 when Kamala spent a night in a police station with her five-month-old child.
Z Devarkulam of today, with its CCTV cameras, public address systems and mobile phone- operated borewell, was not the same when Kamala came there as a daughter-in-law. Vijaya Bank has opened its branch and set up an ATM there last year. A primary health centre also functions.
“People would not give their daughters’ hand in marriage to men from this village. We had a hard time convincing Kamala’s relatives before the marriage could happen,” says S Ayyammal, Kamala’s mother-in-law.
The village, a decade ago, would fit the description of most villages in the State. Open drains, non-existent roads, no toilets and frequent clashes (though not on caste lines) were almost a way of life. Ironically, it was one such clash that transformed the village into what it is today.
Balakrishnan was among the 20 men, whose names figured in a complaint lodged by a villager over the hacking of a local. But when the police came looking for him, he was not at home and all they could find were Kamala and her child, whom they took to the station.
Indha ponna kootu ponga, Aambalainga ellam varuvaanga (Take this woman to the station, the men would follow), one of the policemen said, and Kamala spent the better part of the night at a police station in Kovilpatti that day.
At that time, Balakrishnan, a building contractor, was with his father Subbaraj in Madurai, 115 km from the village. Eventually, police found that the charges against the 20 men were false.
In the days that followed, it came to Kamala’s notice that many families in the village had been left out of the government welfare schemes due to personal animosity. Over a period of time, dinnertime conversations in Kamala’s house changed — from ‘something should be done about this’, the tone changed into ‘we should do something about this’.
When the announcement reserving the village for women came in the 2011 local body elections, Kamala entered the fray. Until then, Kamala had never thought of fighting back. But, the ghosts of her husband’s childhood were haunting the village again and the couple decided to make their village a better place to live. For everyone.
What’s the childhood that Balakrishnan did not want to relive? Four murders in three years. The reason, Balakrishnan says, is a quarrel over pasting of political posters. “An altercation over which party’s poster would be on the walls led to murders here. Those were scary times. The early 1980s,” he says.
When his wife was elected president, the first thing the couple did was to ban flags and banners of political parties in the village. “There are members of all political parties in our village. But we decided that it should not be a reason for us to not look into each other’s face. The animosity more often than not ended up in violence,” adds Balakrishnan, who did not pursue education after school. When Kamala rose to a position, among the other things they did was to ask for suggestions — from the educated in the village, those working abroad and those who have moved out — on what can be done to improve the village.
As locals put it, an issue that plagued Z Devarkulam in the early 80s was gangster aalunga (gangsters). For long, the villagers had been into cash crops such as cotton and maize. “Wielding sickles, a group of 10 men from nearby villages and led by one Seeni Naicker from Muthusamypuram would roam our streets. They would take away all the cotton from our fields overnight and sell them in the market,” recalls Ayyamal.
As the locals preferred to stay indoors initially, the numbers of the affected farmers shot up. In no time, the issue engulfed the whole village. Finally, they had to approach police.
And, that was how the Closed Circuit Television (CCTV) cameras found entry into Z Devarkulam. Today, there are 18 of them in the area to avert crimes. “People from here who work outside and are settled abroad sponsored some of them,” says Balakrishnan.
The CCTVs installed in the village have even helped the local police in solving crimes committed in other villages. In one such case in 2013, the registration number of a van in which goats were stolen and transported was picked up from the CCTV grabs when the van passed through the village. This is the most favourite story of the villagers. They tell it to everyone who visits them, as evident from the earlier media reports about the village.
While the technological advancements were the reason the village first came into limelight, that was not enough for the government to recognise it as untouchability-free, which carried a cash reward of `10 lakh.
Like in many villages, the Dalits were not land owners in Z Devarkulam. But they were not discriminated upon. They formed a quarter of the village population.
While Balakrishnan was growing up, clashes among the Naickers over political divisions were prevalent. The Arunthathiyars, considered untouchables among the Dalits, bore the brunt of the power struggle among the dominant castes. Usually bestowed with undignified labour, the Arunthathiyars worked in the farms and houses of the dominant caste members. “At some point of time, they started beating us, questioning why we worked in the other person’s farm. That is when we started to flee,” P Perumalammal (55) says.
The families of those murdered (the intermediate castes) in the fallout in the 1980s also moved out of the village. Perumalammal and her husband Pandi worked in places near Coimbatore and Kerala, before returning home almost five years ago. Perumalammal is now a panchayat worker. Her sons work as cooks at restaurants in the nearest town, Kovilpatti.
Now, people from the Arunthathiyar community cook for all during village functions.
Why is a village free of communal clash an achievement of sorts in the region? The demography of Z Devarkulam tells it all. A total of nine sects live in the village, including Naickers, Devars, Chettiyars and Vannans.
A beacon of hope
Z Devarkulam is located in the foothills of Kazhugumalai, where a riot broke out in 1895 between Nadars and Maravars (both intermediate caste groups) over the use of a temple chariot car. Ten people died, but the ill feeling only grew from there leading to another riot in Sivakasi four years later.
Geographically, the village falls under the jurisdiction of both Tirunelveli and Thoothukudi — the two southern districts where murders and clashes over caste are still the norm of the day.In November 2015, 11 school students of a government school in Kazhugumalai, 10 km from Z Devarkulam, were reportedly arrested after a classroom fight. One of the boys had played a song on his mobile phone, which a section opposed saying it glorified the former’s caste.
There are villages in this district where the community hall remains unused as a dominant group would not allow the Dalits in, a revenue official from Tirunelveli requesting anonymity told Express.
Thus, when Z Devarkulam applied for the Untouchability-free Village Award of the state government under its select village scheme, Kamala and her team were sure of what they were doing. Records at the Nallatinpudhur Police Station, under which the village fell, showed that there had been no clashes over communal reasons in the past five years, a very important criteria considered by the administration.
There are five intercaste couples, including a Dalit groom and caste Hindu bride, in the village. This, when some 250 km away, a Dalit boy was murdered for exactly the same reason in Udumalaipet in western Tamil Nadu.
Z Devarkulam does not have a common burial ground, but a separate facility was provided to the Arunthathiyars by the panchayat.
For a population of over 1,500, the number of temples in the village is startling. There are 10 places of worship, where variations of 10 Hindu gods are worshipped.
“We have no restrictions on entering any of the temples in our village,” says Pandiammal from the Arunthathiyar community. Her sons visit the village every year to participate in the Kovil Thiruvizha (temple fest).
Considering that places of worship have been a hotbed of caste clashes in the State, Z Devarkulam should be a sensitive area. But it is not. And that is where the real achievement lies.
The challenge, Balakrishnan says, is to maintain the reputation the village has earned. In a country like India, an untouchability-free village is like an oasis amidst the deserts of the world put together.
Zamin Devarkulam is striving to be more than that, the seeds of which were sown by Kamala and Balakrishnan.