The Lede
Winning Dharmapuri: Money & Caste Are Key, Despite Several Livelihood Issues
2019 Polls

Winning Dharmapuri: Money & Caste Are Key, Despite Several Livelihood Issues

Sandhya Ravishankar

Sandhya Ravishankar

While voters suffer from lack of job opportunities, water scarcity, poverty and indebtedness, they say caste and cash are high on priorities

As a conversation about the politics of the state was ensuing hotly, a grey-haired woman came rushing up to the group. “Where is the money? Give me the money,” she demanded of this reporter. “What money? I don’t know what you are talking about,” replied this reporter.

“Thi.Mu.Ka. (DMK or Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) is giving money near the temple. Everyone in the village says so, that is why I came here,” she said.

“No, I am sorry, I am not from a political party. I am only a reporter and I am not here to distribute cash.”

“Are you sure? Everyone is saying so,” she reiterated.

“I am very sure,” this reporter reassured her.

This exchange was in Muthanoor village in Dharmapuri district. Another 15 minutes later, a man arrived with the same demand. Half an hour later, another man, same demand. The group burst into peals of laughter.

“See madam, how desperate people here are for money,” said ET Sankar, a member of TTV Dhinakaran’s AMMK (Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam) in the village.

“Yesterday one DMK person came and took down 179 names from the village,” said the final demander of money, in a defensive tone. “That is why we thought they have come to distribute money,” he added.

“You say whatever you want madam, it is money that speaks here,” continued Sankar. “It is because of the poverty. There are no jobs, no sources of income. We will take any money that is given to us and vote,” he said.

…And Caste

In nearby Maveripatti village too, the poverty is grinding. Men and women alike, work as construction labourers despite owning small parcels of land. Farming has taken a beating, especially this year. This village has lost out on the Cauvery water supplied through the Hogenakkal Integrated Drinking Water Scheme thanks to an alignment that did not favour them.

Worse, their groundwater has become unusable, thanks to the dumping of garbage near the lower banks of the ‘eri’ or lake near their village. Effluents from the garbage have leached into the groundwater and polluted it. The smell of filth is unbearable.

“Our main demand of 15 years is for a new burial ground,” said S Vediappan, 60, a shop keeper in the village. “Parties, politicians and governments have come and gone but our demands have not been met. In fact about 15 years ago, we protested on the roads with a dead body.”

Vediappan says the village has been fighting for a new burial ground for over 15 years
Vediappan says the village has been fighting for a new burial ground for over 15 years

“We all voted for Anbumani (Ramadoss) last time. He came to our village and we told him our demands. But nothing happened. There is no use in us casting our votes,” said K Selvi, 37, a construction labourer who even organised a protest during the PMK (Pattali Makkal Katchi) candidate’s campaign earlier this month.

Selvi, a construction labourer, organised protests against the garbage dumping near their village
Selvi, a construction labourer, organised protests against the garbage dumping near their village

Another problem this village faces is sleeplessness and headaches. This is thanks to a large stone quarry that operates within three kilometres from the village. The crusher, when operated, shakes the earth, rattles their teeth they say and the noise gives them headaches.

“They have made a huge 200 foot hole in the ground with the crusher,” said V Samidurai, 37, a resident of the village. “The dust it raises and the noise is terrible.”

Residents say they are fed up with politicians and their promises, which have gone unfulfilled for close to two decades. They are having to endure the pain of not having even basic necessities like water come easy.

“We had decided to boycott the elections because the demands of 600 suffering families have gone unheard,” said Selvi.

“They will say all this madam, but the truth is that we will all vote en masse for Anbumani,” butted in Samidurai. “They are saying this summa (simply),” he added.

Samidurai says the village of Vanniyars will vote only for Anbumani Ramadoss
Samidurai says the village of Vanniyars will vote only for Anbumani Ramadoss

A sheepish Selvi smiled and nodded in agreement.

Why vote for Anbumani, despite their claims that he did not resolve their problems? “Jaadhi, madam,” explained Samidurai. “He is from our jaadhi. We are all Vanniyars here. We will vote only for him.”

Vanniyars are a group of sub-castes brought together under one umbrella by the erstwhile Vanniyar Sangam. Anbumani Ramadoss’ father Dr S Ramadoss, was one of the key persons who brought unity amongst the poverty-stricken Vanniyar castes and successfully got them 20% reservation as a Most Backward Class (MBC) in the early 1990s. It was the agitation led by Dr Ramadoss, a medical doctor from Tindivanam in 1987, where huge trees were felled across the national highways paralysing the state, that gave rise to the PMK, a party which now boasts of a consistent 5% voteshare in Tamil Nadu.

The Ilavarasan Ripple Effect

It is also this caste background that helped Anbumani gain a thumping win from the Dharmapuri seat in 2014. Just a year earlier, in 2013, Dalit lad Ilavarasan and Vanniyar girl Divya eloped and married for love.

A marriage of love gone fatal: Ilavarasan and Divya in happier times
A marriage of love gone fatal: Ilavarasan and Divya in happier times

Their act caused violence in many parts of Dharmapuri. Huts of Dalits were torched in Natham Colony, Ilavarasan’s village, and Divya’s father committed suicide out of “shame”. Eventually Ilavarasan was found lying dead on the railway tracks in Dharmapuri and police and courts ruled it a suicide. There is still though, a lot of suspicion over whether his death was a suicide or murder.

“The Ilavarasan issue was very big at that time,” said S Chandramohan, a worker with the Dharmapuri DMK (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam). “All the non-SC castes voted for Anbumani because they saw him as a “saviour” of their women. PMK conducted a lot of agitations and openly supported Vanniyars. There was a fear among people at that time – not just among Vanniyars but also among Chettiars, Reddiars, Naidus, everyone other than SCs – that their daughters were in danger. So they all voted for Anbumani,” he said.

Senior Ramadoss, in fact, had notoriously claimed that Dalit boys, “wearing jeans and sunglasses woo our women, take them away, impregnate them and then blackmail us.”

The PMK is not bothered with the ‘caste party’ tag hung on it by political analysts and even voters. “We started as a Vanniyar organisation, that shadow will always be there,” said Dr R Senthil, campaign manager for Anbumani Ramadoss and a former MP of the PMK. “We have a foundation and we are building on it. All parties have a caste base. Can you say DMK or AIADMK do not have a caste base? It is just that we are more known for it,” he said.

Dharmapuri district is composed of approximately 55 to 60% of Vanniyars. Another 20% are Dalit, largely belonging to the Paraiyar sub-caste. The rest are a mixture of Chettiars, Naidus and Vellala Gounders, mostly OBC (Other Backward Class) castes.

The DMK feels that they stand a chance, now that emotions have died down and inter-caste marriage is not a trigger issue this time.

Their candidate too is a Vanniyar, a local businessman, ‘DNV’ Senthil Kumar whose grandfather, a Congress MLA in 1965, is said to be among the founding fathers of the Vanniyar Sangam. “My grandfather DN Vadivelu Gounder was the one who brought Ramadoss into the party and even made arrangements for his stay in Dharmapuri when Ramadoss visited with a group,” said Senthil Kumar.

But in Muthanoor village, 30 kilometres from Dharmapuri, DMK worker K Kumar said that he would vote for the PMK despite being a DMK man. “I will never vote for any party which has allied with the VCK (Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi),” said Kumar. “It is against my jaadhi. Even though I am a DMK man, I will not vote for them this time.”

VCK is a Dalit party headed by former MP Thol Thirumavalavan and is part of the DMK alliance.

Another 20-odd kilometres away from Muthanoor lies the quiet sleepy town panchayat of Udaiyanur. At the entrance is a statue of late Congress leader Kamaraj, caged as most statues in districts are.

This is a staunch DMK stronghold, especially where the men are concerned. “We all put mottai (shaved head) when Kamaraj died and mourned for 13 days,” said G Muthusamy, a farmer with an acre of land. “After Kamaraj, we have become DMK supporters. We will only vote for DMK,” he said.

Farmer Muthusamy is a staunch Congress turned DMK voter
Farmer Muthusamy is a staunch Congress turned DMK voter

Udaiyanur’s woes are the same as that of other villages – no burial ground, lack of water and farm distress.

Muthusamy pointed with some disdain at a lady who arrived, curious to see the ‘news reporter’. “The women here though,” he shook his head. “They will vote for anyone who gives them the most money.”

The lady, who shied away from being named, laughed out aloud. “What has your kolgai (ideology) brought you? At least we are getting money. This is our money. They loot us and once in five years, they give it back to us,” she said.

Muthusamy retorted – “Can’t you at least take the money and vote as per your wish?”

“No, of course not,” said the lady. “If we take their money we should not cheat them. How does one vote matter?” she asked, sauntering away.

“Kaalam maari poyiduchu,” lamented Muthusamy. Times have changed.