Dominant caste groups in the state have found their own ways to capture and preserve power
Dravidian political parties, which came into existence with the objective of achieving social equality, have been in power for more than four decades in Tamil Nadu, yet caste-based discrimination against the Dalits has remained a fact of life in the southern state. That’s in contrast with neighbouring Kerala, which has emerged as a model for social development by largely eliminating anti-Dalit practices that had once been as much a part of its society as in Tamil Nadu. Across India, the Dalits have adopted an approach of “organize and agitate" and sought to participate in parliamentary democracy by occupying positions in democratic decision-making structures wherever opportunities arise. Since the 1990s, the Dalits have increasingly been asserting themselves against caste oppression. In this period, Tamil Nadu has been witness to a surge of violence against the Dalits.
The new Panchayati Raj Act of Tamil Nadu, 1994, provided Dalits the opportunity to enter the portals of power, acquire critical mass at the grassroots of governance and promote social justice. But the dominant caste groups have found their own ways to capture and preserve power. One stratagem was to sponsor Dalits to local bodies as candidates of the local communities. This prevented the entry of more qualified Dalits into local governance structures. Yet, in many places, Dalit candidates have entered local administrative bodies with a sense of purpose to work for the oppressed. Constitutional provisions such as Articles 17, 15(2), 29(2), 35, 244 and 371(A), meant to promote the eradication of caste-based discrimination, have played a minimal role. Unaware of such provisions, these Dalits have relied on age-old local community bonds to maintain harmony at the grassroots.
The entry of Dalits into local governance and the organized struggle by Dalit groups have had an impact on the functioning of the rural institutions in Tamil Nadu. Irrespective of the skill, capacity, managerial ability and capability of the elected Dalit representatives, the new Dalit consciousness has made them look at the opportunities they got through the reservation of seats for them. This new consciousness has provoked them to take up social justice issues in the past 20 years.
Media reports have continuously captured stories of the Dalit representatives in local governance and the status of Dalits in rural areas. A book entitled Dalits in Dravidian Land by S. Viswanathan revealed the intensity of the caste oppression in Tamil Nadu despite the interventions of the state. In 2006, the government of Tamil Nadu released a report; in 221 gram panchayats, discriminatory practices against Dalits were found to be prevalent and of them in 160, the discrimination was of a subtler variety, it said.
These kind of reports goaded a non-government organization to conduct a survey throughout Tamil Nadu. Eight districts in the state—Madurai, Dindigul, Theni, Salem, Sivaganga, Erode, Perambalur and Cuddalore—were found to have a high incidence of caste-based discrimination. It was inferred that 36 forms of discrimination had been adopted against Dalits by the dominant communities. Discriminatory practices and their intensity varied from district to district. Such surveys have been repeatedly conducted and their findings disseminated. Yet, there has been no consistent and organized effort on the part of the state to reduce such practices.
A number of public hearings were also conducted. Among the instances that emerged was the inability of the state election commission to conduct elections to four gram panchayats in the Madurai and Virudhunagar districts because for 10 years the dominant community refused to accept reservations of seats for Dalits under the Panchayati Raj Act.
What is the way out? First, the Dalit representatives need orientation, training, capacity building support and hand-holding. The elected Dalit representatives need the support of local non-government organizations in tackling problems on the ground. Dalit panchayat leaders also need the backing of civil society organizations. And academic institutions have to take up this issue for rigorous research.
G. Palanithurai is professor, Rajiv Gandhi Chair for Panchayati Raj Studies, department of political science and development administration, Gandhigram Rural Institute, Dindigul, Tamil Nadu.