Progressive steps must let caste amity replace caste pride
Despite the Dravidian parties’ development of the state, they have relied on various communities as voting blocs, reifying hierarchy and power in the process.
Tamil Nadu, a state with a proud anti-caste tradition, was shocked in August by the news of a group of dominant caste school students in Tirunelveli district’s Nanguneri going to their Dalit classmate’s home and hacking him and his sister. Both are recovering from injuries, but the scars they will bear are testament to the state’s unhealed, often unacknowledged, wounds. The Dravidian movement has changed TN’s landscape in material terms. Through reservation, welfare schemes, and a variety of legislative initiatives, TN, in many ways, is a more equal state today. The divisions of caste and discrimination based on it still underpin Tamil society.
The 17-year-old Dalit boy, who was harassed by his classmates, had planned to leave town just ahead of the attack. The attack was in retaliation to the boy’s mother complaining about the harassment to the government school principal. The alleged bullies were punished, and angered, they took revenge with sickles. It is wrenching that 17-year-old boys would wield sickles at all, let alone against a peer. However, there cannot be cause for too much shock.
TN still has Dalit colonies, caste killings over intercaste consensual relationships, villages that practice two-tumbler systems, clashes over access to burial grounds, and more. Caste remains visible in government schools, with students known to wear caste wristbands.
Post the Nanguneri incident, the state government announced the formation of a committee headed by a well-respected former high court judge to look into caste issues at schools and colleges and determine how to prevent violence and foster amity. This is a welcome step. However, any changes will depend only on how TN acts on the committee’s report.
Despite the Dravidian parties’ development of the state, they have relied on various communities as voting blocs, reifying hierarchy and power in the process. Meanwhile, change must also be societal. While marginalised groups have become more empowered and assertive in claiming their rights and dignity, many in the dominant communities have been against the breaking down of caste hierarchies. Worse, some of the youngsters in these communities are infected with toxic beliefs of caste pride. This must be nipped in the bud through pop culture, media, educational institutions and the state government so as to ensure TN achieves the goals of the progressive Dravidian movement, which laid the foundation for much of the state’s success.