Dalits Media Watch
News Updates 03.04.13
S. DORAIRAJ, FRONTLINE, Volume 30; Issue 7, April 06-19, 2013
Dalit panchayat presidents continue to face caste-based discrimination and intimidation in several districts in Tamil Nadu.
"My hands are tied. I have not been allowed to discharge my democratic duties. A couple of ward members belonging to the dominant caste hurled verbal abuses at me. I left the village as I faced an imminent threat to my life. I have returned [on March 19], ending my 10-day-long self-imposed exile, following assurances given by the local police and the revenue authorities. But the problem is far from over as casteists, who want to usurp my powers and pose a threat to my life, are yet to be booked. Yet, there is no question of buckling under pressure," S. Palraj, elected president of the Nakkalamuthanpatti village panchayat in Tirunelveli district in Tamil Nadu, said.
The Dalit panchayat president's fears cannot be dismissed as unfounded as his predecessor, Jakkaiyan, was murdered on November 22, 2006, for choosing to ignore the diktats of persons belonging to the dominant caste in running the local administration, Dalit organisations point out. Palraj was allegedly threatened that he would meet the same fate if he tried to function independently.
Recalling the circumstances that forced him to leave the village, Palraj said: "I have not been allowed to occupy my seat in the panchayat office. At one stage, two upper-caste members asked me not to enter the office premises. They wanted me to collect a certain amount for my daily expenses and leave the job of running the panchayat to them. They compelled me to sign the office records maintained by them. I was verbally abused and threatened with dire consequences at a meeting on March 7 in the presence of the Block Development Officer [BDO]. Though the BDO pulled them up for unseemly behaviour, they continued with their intimidation. As things came to a head, I decided to leave the village."
Palraj has submitted petitions to the District Collector and the Superintendent of Police seeking their intervention. Fortunately, in this case, the vice-president of the panchayat, despite being a member of the dominant Naicker community, has not joined the casteists.
Collector C. Samayamoorthy told Frontline that the police were looking into the issue and that Palraj would be given protection if it was found necessary. The issue was raised by him suo motu at the routine law-and-order meeting, the Collector said, adding that it was the duty of the district administration to ensure the protection of elected representatives.
The local police have registered a first information report under Sections 341, 294 (b) and 506 (ii) of the Indian Penal Code and Section 3 (1) (X) of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.
Palraj is one of the 3,136 Dalit panchayat presidents elected in the local bodies elections held in the State in October 2011. Many others like him face different forms of caste-based discrimination. A sizable number of them have become victims of manipulative tactics adopted by dominant caste groups who want to retain their hold on governance at the grass-roots level. The onslaught of casteists, particularly in areas that witnessed the worst caste violence in the southern districts of the State in the mid-1990s with Dalits bearing the brunt of the attacks, has reached unbearable levels.
Organisations such as the Tamil Nadu Dalit Panchayat Presidents' Forum and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as the Madurai-based Evidence have repeatedly urged the State government to take action against the ward members and clerks, mostly belonging to the upper castes, who prevent Dalit panchayat presidents from delivering their mandate. They have also called for steps to provide adequate security to those panchayat chiefs who have been targeted by casteist forces.
Official sources claim that the enactment of the Tamil Nadu Panchayats Act, 1994, close on the heels of the enactment of the 73rd amendment to the Constitution, 1992, "added a new dimension to the existence of local self-governance" and provided scope, among other things, for the reservation of seats in local bodies for the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes in proportion to their populations and also posts of chairpersons of panchayati raj institutions for them on a rotation basis.
However, representatives of NGOs and Dalit organisations point out the shabby treatment meted out to the elected panchayat presidents, indicating that there is a long way to go in achieving empowerment of the oppressed sections. Even at the time of enacting the State Panchayats Act, there were criticisms that the Bill was rushed through in the Assembly without detailed discussions.
Studies undertaken by some NGOs and independent fact-finding teams show that Dalit panchayat functionaries face discrimination and humiliation in a variety of ways at the hands of the status quoists.
The socially, economically and politically influential caste groups tried to stall the State Election Commission's exercise of delimiting certain rural constituencies. On realising that they might not succeed in subverting the process, they worked out a different strategy. They started adopting devious methods to scuttle the trickling down of democracy to the grassroots level. The recalcitrant attitude of the upper-caste groups was evident when they prevented the conduct of elections to four reserved panchayats —Pappapatti, Keeripatti and Nattarmangalam in Madurai district and Kottakachiyendal in Virudhunagar district—for more than a decade after 1996 either by preventing the Dalit aspirants from contesting the elections or by forcing them to resign soon after their election. Although the election of panchayat chiefs in all the four villages was completed in 2006, the influential caste groups have allegedly ensured that the local bodies do not function smoothly.
Tamil Nadu has a record of persons belonging to dominant castes sponsoring Dalit candidates with poor socio-economic backgrounds, such as landless agricultural workers, for the post of president in reserved panchayats while retaining for themselves the post of vice-president. This has resulted in elected functionaries virtually becoming "benamis" of the upper castes, mutely accepting their diktats. In most of these cases, the elected panchayat chiefs depend on the land-owning class for their livelihood. Even the slightest attempt on the part of the Dalit panchayat presidents to assert themselves is not tolerated.
In some cases, the dominant caste groups have not hesitated to get rid of the Dalit panchayat chiefs who dared to function independently. Murugesan, a young president of Melavalavu panchayat in Madurai district, was hacked to death along with five other Dalits in 1997. Menaka, a Dalit woman panchayat chief of Urappakkam in Kancheepuram district, was murdered on the panchayat office premises in 2000. R. Purushothaman, president of Mannivakkam panchayat on the outskirts of Chennai, was killed on September 24, 2012. A 10-member fact-finding team comprising, among others, V. Karuppan, State convener of the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights, O. Fernandes of the Human Rights Advocacy and Research Foundation, and M. Bharathan, director of the Tirunelveli-based Human Rights-Kalam, submitted a detailed memorandum to the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam government on March 16, 2007, highlighting the travails of Dalit panchayat presidents.
The team, which conducted "fact-finding investigations" into the deaths of Jakaiyan and Servaaran, presidents of Nakkalamuthanpatti and Maruthankinaru panchayats respectively, said in the memorandum that the district administration and the police should take more efforts in Tirunelveli district to provide protection to the "vulnerable panchayat presidents". As many as 40 Dalit panchayat chiefs in the district were forced to become "puppets" in the hands of members of the dominant castes, they alleged.
A study conducted by Evidence in March-April last year in 171 panchayats spread across 10 districts, including Madurai, Dindigul, Theni, Sivaganga and Villupuram, revealed that 52 per cent of the panchayat presidents, who fell in the ambit of the survey, were farm workers or daily wage earners; 48.5 per cent of them were jobless; around 40 per cent of the panchayat chiefs had a monthly income of less than Rs.2,000; and around 65 per cent of the persons interviewed had admitted that their candidature was sponsored by the upper-caste groups.
Vice-presidents of the reserved panchayats, in collusion with the staff, keep the cheque books, registers and account books under their control. The Dalit panchayat presidents have to think twice before entering their office premises, as in the case of Kadaneri village in Madurai district. Even if they are permitted to visit the office, they are not allowed to occupy their seats.
A case in point is Kottakachiyendal in Virudhunagar district. In certain places, as in L. Kottanipatti in Madurai district, Dalit panchayat chiefs are denied access to official records. They are not allowed to play their due role in taking decisions pertaining to development works in their panchayats. Most often they sit on the floor and remain mute spectators to the discussions held by the elected representatives belonging to the dominant castes. In several cases, Dalit panchayat presidents sign cheques and other records in the possession of the vice-presidents without a murmur. At several places, they are prevented from conducting gram sabha meetings.
Thazhiayuthu, a reserved panchayat, earned notoriety in 2011 for not allowing the Dalit woman president to convene the gram sabha meeting. The worst affected are women presidents of the reserved panchayats.
The survey conducted by Evidence revealed that 45 of the 171 panchayat presidents had admitted that they were kept in the dark about the schemes under implementation, seven of them alleged that they were not allowed to occupy their seats in the office, and six of them said they were not permitted to hoist the national tricolour on occasions such as Independence Day and Republic Day.
However, some Dalit organisations maintained that not all people belonging to the dominant communities adopted caste-based discrimination against Dalit panchayat functionaries. Only those sections that wished to perpetuate inequality and exclusiveness were reluctant to accept the empowerment of the oppressed people. In many reserved panchayats, the dominant caste groups were able to woo the Dalit ward members to their side.
According to K. Ganesh, secretary of the Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front, caste-based humiliation of Dalit panchayat presidents is part of the 85 types of untouchability practised in the State. Even S.C. employees belonging to panchayati raj institutions have been ill-treated by persons belonging to the dominant communities in local bodies headed by non-Dalits.
In 2012, the State government announced a five-fold increase, from Rs.2 lakh to Rs.10 lakh, in the cash component of the award given to villages that eschewed untouchability. But none of the villages fulfilled the condition for the award, which was an indication of the sorry state of affairs, he said.
Ganesh pointed out that the growing Dalit assertion was another reason for the anger of casteist forces. In a number of villages, young and educated Dalit panchayat chiefs were not prepared to put up with the insults heaped on them, he said.
According to A. Kathir, executive director of Evidence, 146 of the 171 presidents interviewed admitted that their electoral rivals, also Dalits, had better educational qualification. "This indicates that candidates with better education were defeated owing to the conspiracy of the dominant caste groups," he says, stressing the need for imparting proper training to the elected chiefs on various aspects of the administration of panchayats.
M. Bharathan, adviser to the Tamil Nadu Dalit Panchayat Presidents' Forum, called for immediate amendments to the relevant laws so that the post of vice-president was also reserved for Dalits. In the reserved panchayats, Dalits should be appointed clerks and the police should be sensitised adequately to ensure that cases were registered under the S.C.-S.T. (POA) Act, 1989, whenever an affected Dalit panchayat president lodged a complaint of caste-based discrimination, he said.
As part of the empowerment of Dalits, the government should provide each Dalit family with three acres of cultivable land and subsidised credit with a view to reducing its dependency on the dominant caste groups, he opined.
On behalf of
Dalits Media Watch Team
(An initiative of "Peoples Media Advocacy & Resource Centre-PMARC")
Peoples Media Advocacy & Resource Centre- PMARC has been initiated with the support from group of senior journalists, social activists, academics and intellectuals from Dalit and civil society to advocate and facilitate Dalits issues in the mainstream media. To create proper & adequate space with the Dalit perspective in the mainstream media national/ International on Dalit issues is primary objective of the PMARC.