No 'Munnetram' for Dalits in Dravida land: Revisiting Vengaivayal case after 100 days

Vengaivayal is merely the tip of the iceberg, say Dalit activists.
In this image dated March 23, 2023, a group of youths from Nagercoil, who visited Vengaivayal to “express solidarity with the villagers” were confronted by caste Hindus.(Photo | Screengrab)
In this image dated March 23, 2023, a group of youths from Nagercoil, who visited Vengaivayal to “express solidarity with the villagers” were confronted by caste Hindus.(Photo | Screengrab)

It was an unimaginable cruelty. But humankind time and again proves that it is capable of such misdeeds.

The Vengaivayal iniquity would remain another ineffaceable stain in the history of the land of Periyar and Dravidian politics.

Vengaivayal is a village in the Pudukottai district of Tamil Nadu, about 380 km away from the state capital Chennai. It was here, on December 2022, that the overhead water tank which supplies drinking water to the Dalit population was found contaminated with human excreta.

As soon as the news broke out, Dalit activists, outfits, and political parties were quick to express shock and denounce the perpetrators. As things unfolded, more practices of caste discrimination in the village including the use of two tumblers (separate tumbler for Dalits) in tea shops came to light.

Further, the village has separate burial grounds for caste Hindus and Dalits. 

The Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) leader Thol Thirumavalavan, an ally of the ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK)-led government, visited the village and listened to the grievances of the Dalits. Chief Minister M K Stalin assured "stern action" against the perpetrators. However, he didn't visit the village.

The police registered a case under the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act against unnamed suspects. The police constituted a special investigation team. But amid widespread skepticism over the likely outcome of the probe, and under pressure from the opposition parties, the government was forced to transfer the case to the CBCID. However, no key accused has been identified yet by the police. Meanwhile, the government also constituted a one-man commission to probe into the matter and submit a report.

As for meeting the drinking water requirements of the Dalits, the government announced the construction of a new water tank. The old water tank is not being used since it is part of the evidence for the case. 

The construction of the water tank commenced a couple of weeks after the news about the caste atrocity broke out and is still underway. 

An alternative arrangement was made under the Jal Shakthi scheme to supply drinking water for the Dalit families.  

District Collector's Visit

When the Pudukottai district collector Kavitha Ramu visited the village soon after the horrific incident, she was confronted by the grieving Dalit people who informed her about a slew of prevalent casteist practices in the village. 

“When the collector interacted with locals over the contamination, allegations of caste discrimination in the form of a two-tumbler system, entry ban for Dalits in the local temple, and the likes came to the fore,” The New Indian Express had reported earlier in January. 

Vengaivayal is merely the tip of the iceberg, say, activists. They slam the government for the slow progress of the investigation. For instance, Dalit liberation movement secretary, S Karupiah says that the government, instead of cracking the whip on casteist elements, has cut a sorry figure with its attempts to whitewash the whole episode. 

“If a complaint is lodged and registered under the SC/ST Act, a case must be filed within 24 hours and the chargesheet should be filed in a court within 60 days. It has been more than 100 days and no chargesheet has been filed. But, Dalit families have been given monetary relief, and compensation. On what basis this relief was given if the government has not even identified the key suspects in the case?" asks Karupiah.

“Political parties such as the CPI (M), VCK, and the IUML had meanwhile alleged that the police offered Rs 2 lakh and a government job as a reward for those who came forward to confess to the crime," according to TNIE.

No Samathuvam, No Pongal

A Samathuva (equality) Pongal hosted by the government in Vengaivayal under the leadership of Adi Dravidar and Tribal Welfare Minister Kayalvizhi Selvaraj in January turned out to be a huge letdown as the Caste Hindus boycotted the event. They also expressed their displeasure over the alleged "one-sided investigation",  into the atrocity.

"Over 50 women from BC and MBC communities threatened to besiege the minister's convoy in protest against the one-sided approach” adopted by the government. A section of villagers of a nearby hamlet protested on March 15 demanding the arrest of perpetrators irrespective of their caste background and imposing Section 144 to put an end to further protests in the region.

Karupiah pointed out to The New Indian Express Online, “The government is siding with caste Hindus. A one-man commission has been set up to investigate the incident. Similar commissions set up to probe other caste atrocities in the past have not done justice to the Dalits. None of the commissions had favoured the victims, including the panels set up for the Keezh Venmani, Kodiyankulam, and Thaamirabarani caste atrocities."

“It is a matter of land and the power that comes with it. Dalit families in Vengavayal own land. Some have bought land from their hard-earned money, some have unassessed land (poramboke land). This bothers the dominant caste people. They cannot accept the reality of Dalits owning the land. They want to drive Dalits away from the village,” Karupiah said. 

“We have reasons to doubt that BJP cadres could be behind this atrocity” Karupiah claimed.  

Vengaivayal and Ambasamudram 

Author and activist Meena Kandasamy told the New Indian Express Online, “Vengaivayal is happening at the same time as Ambasamudram custodial torture case wherein assistant superintendent of police Balveer Singh reportedly pulled out the teeth of several suspects and tortured them."

Juxtaposing the two cases, Meena Kandasamy noted that, "in Vengaivayal we see police inaction, while in Ambasamudram we're dealing with a case of police excesses. We see the two extreme faces of the police and human rights violations."

The system, Kandasamy noted, customarily prefers to protect the dominant caste people and ignore the complaints of the Dalits. The system protects the perpetrators' of casteist crimes. 

"The state machinery which can be cruel and grotesque on one hand can also be a soft, polite creature when it comes to caste Hindus. They really seem to serve the ruling caste and oppressor caste. Political parties often do not take the side of minorities because they assume it would turn the majority of voters against them. And, there is so much malicious propaganda that says the victims are the perpetrators. The police have the duty to at least dispel that and protect the victims.” 

(With inputs from Nacchinarkkiniyan M in Pudukkottai.)

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