Govind Nihlani’s 1996 cinematic essay, Sanshodhan (Amendment), celebrated the 73rd Constitutional Amendment (1992) that tried to give a voice to the downtrodden and women in grassroots democracy, while also pointing out the issues in implementing it. How a legislation’s potency can be constrained by socio-economic factors was seen a year later in the Melavalavu massacre in Tamil Nadu’s Madurai district.
Murugesan, a Dalit, defied a dominant community’s diktat, contested from a reserved seat and emerged as the Melavalavu panchayat president in 1997.
Days later, he was beheaded and five of his Dalit colleagues murdered in broad daylight. The prosecution secured conviction for 17 assailants, of whom three were released in 2008 by the then DMK government. One died in prison in 2010. On November 8, as per Government Order 687, the remaining 13 convicts were released for good conduct. The belief that the uncalled-for leniency would only embolden the dominant caste is not unfounded. That tension has not subsided can be seen from the threats the slain Dalits’ families say they get even now.
The Madras High Court has castigated the authorities for the haste in granting remission to the 13 convicts, who have now been impleaded suo motu in a case challenging their release. The court has sought a report on the grounds for remission, and asked the government if it took note of the safety and security of the victim community and the impact the release may have on them.
While two decades have passed since the gruesome murders, the fact that caste discrimination still exists in multiple forms indicates a collective failure in addressing it. The frequent denials of access to burial grounds to Dalits or the recent incident where caste Hindus constructed a bund in a village near Tiruchy that led to flooding in a Dalit ghetto are all reminders to political parties to make amends to the community. Humanity should subsume narrow sectarian sentiments so that no other Murugesan pays with his life for upholding democratic principles.