Chennai: Barely three months after a Dalit woman in Tirupur district was stopped from cooking at a government school, a similar incident surfaced in Salem last week. S. Jothi, 47, a Dalit noon meal cook, was allegedly threatened by the parents of students of a government primary school in Kuppankottai in Salem who demanded her transfer. The Salem district police registered cases against six people, including the school headmaster, under the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act, and arrested three.

In July, after P. Pappal, also working as a cook at Thirumalaigoundanpalayam government high school in Tirupur, faced severe opposition from parents, the block development officer cancelled her deputation order. Following protests, Pappal was reinstated and the National Commission for Scheduled Castes directed the government to make her appointment permanent.

From brutal violence to discrimination in the name of caste, the western part of Tamil Nadu—the Kongu region—is rife with instances of oppression against Dalits. Of late, the region has also been witness to gruesome killings of Dalit youth.

In 2013, Dharmapuri district witnessed the killing of E. Ilavarasan following his marriage with a upper caste-Hindu girl. The murder of engineering graduate V. Gokulraj in Namakkal in 2015 was followed by that of V. Shankar in 2016.

Apart from the powerful intermediate Gounder caste, influencing the major political and economic space, the rise of fringe groups, too, have aided in mobilizing caste violence. In 2014, Tamil writer Perumal Murugan was forced to leave his hometown, Tiruchengode in Erode district, after his novel Mathorubhagan invoked protests by Hindutva and upper-caste outfits.

Analysts said the caste discrimination in the Kongu region is different compared to the rest of the state.

“The socio-economic and political gap between the Dalits and other intermediate castes is huge in the Kongu region, compared to the southern or northern districts," said C. Lakshmanan, professor at the Madras Institute of Developmental Studies.

While Parayars and Pallars—the two major sub sects of Dalits—are spread across Tamil Nadu, the Arunthathiyar community, the most oppressed among Dalits, lives in large numbers in the Kongu belt. The Arunthathiyars, landless agricultural labourers and workers in industries, are completely dependent on the intermediate caste for employment and education, as the entire economics of this region has been dominated by the influential Gounder caste, added Lakshmanan.

While the 90s witnessed the rise of Dalit politics in the rest of Tamil Nadu, the western districts did not have any major impact and remained dominated by the intermediate caste. According to K. Ramakrishnan, general secretary of the Thanthai Periyar Dravidar Kazhagam, compared to the previous years, Dalits of this region are becoming politically aware and caste discrimination is getting reported much more than ever before.

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