CHENNAI: Tuesday will mark the 50th year of the Keezhvenmani massacre, in the composite Thanjavur district, in which 44 Dalits were burnt alive in a hut by landowners. Half a century later what has changed for Dalits in Tamil Nadu, a state defined by Dravidian politics espousing social justice?
The Keezhvenmani issue began as a labour dispute between the landowning upper caste communities and the Dalit agricultural labourers, supported by Communists, demanding higher wages. According to the writings of Mythili Sivaraman, CPM and women’s rights activist, who played a key role in documenting the aftermath of the massacre, it was not just a labour dispute: the landlords were irked also by change in attitude of the workers from a subservient stance (Gentlemen Killers of Kilvenmani, 1973, EPW).
While some changes in wages and land ownership took place in the aftermath of the massacre, the struggle for Dalits remains focused on landless labour and caste discrimination. D Ravikumar, general secretary of VCK — one of the mainstream Dalit political parties — points out that land reforms are yet to be implemented in the state.
Activists and scholars note that Dalits still do not have seats in the decision-making tables. Ravikumar points out that there is rarely judicial intervention against any Dalit atrocity let alone punishment for the accused. Meanwhile, Ravikumar argues that till date, any agricultural belt has the most number of Dalits as they were known as the landless poor who would work for minimum wages. Agriculture involves skilled labour but still these workers only get 25 per cent of wages compared to unskilled labourers in urban sector, he said.
Writer and scholar Stalin Rajangam says the condition of Dalits hadn’t changed much over the years. Since 1968, Dalits have been able to avail benefits, including the kissan commission and life insurance, but to retain land or get a share of it is till a struggle, he says. "A few reasons that can be cited for the stagnation of the Dalit community is that the Dravidian parties claimed to have constraints as CPM has been raising its voice for the community. However, the CPM has never been in the ruling position to bring in changes.”
Writer Meena Kandasamy’s scathing article ‘No one killed the Dalits’, highlights the view of the Dravidian ideologues to the issue. When the massacre was reported, then DMK CM, C N Annadurai reportedly had said, “People should forget this as they forget a feverish nightmare or a flash of lightning”. Periyar, speaking a month later, reportedly said, “wage is not something you can demand, a wage is that which is fixed by market conditions”. Rajangam argues that changes in education and employment status in the community have happened over time, not because of any specific interventions.
However, there has been change for the better, says K Samuel Raj, general secretary, Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front (TNUEF), noting that before the massacre, Dalits were treated as slaves and caste Hindus virtually took ownership of them. Only after the massacre did the government begin reforms, including laws to improve the livelihood of Dalits, he says.
Scholar Karthikeyan Damodaran, at the University of Edinburgh, points to changes in political representation. “It would be really unjust to say that things haven’t changed since Keezhvenmani, as major changes have happened at the political level especially in terms of representation,” he said. “Now we have full-fledged political parties which work among Dalits...parties with a more solid mass base than before. This is a major change because Dalits were largely either showcasing loyalty being part of Congress or the Dravidian parties,” he says.
“However, contemporary Dalit politics is at the crossroads, with the very term and meaning of Dalit is getting remade with some Scheduled Caste leaders contesting their classification and laying claim to higher status. The Dalit aspiration towards autonomy in political terms is also palpably missing and parties like the VCK have become mere extensions of Dravidian parties.” Further, the populist nature of the Dravidian parties has resulted in an emphasis on immediate benefits rather than long-term economic changes, he argues.