The Lede
Part 01: Politically Powerless
Tamil Nadu

Part 01: Politically Powerless

Divya Karthikeyan

From panchayat to Assembly, the journey of would-be politicians from the Arunthathiyar community is fraught with strife
“I deem the acts of the DMK MLAs a drama enacted by them to insult the Arunthathiyar community, the most suppressed section of society, to which I belong.”

On 19 February 2017, Tamil Nadu Assembly Speaker and leader of the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) P Dhanapal minced no words when he declared that he was being discriminated against for belonging to the most oppressed community of the Dalits, the Arunthathiyars.

This came after he disallowed the demand for a secret ballot by the opposition Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in the Assembly, during the vote of confidence for Chief Minister Edappadi K Palanisamy.

Dhanapal had been forced to leave the House after violence in the Assembly between the DMK and AIADMK members. His shirt was torn in the melee.

Speaker Dhanapal’s shirt is torn in the clashes that broke out in Assembly during the vote of Confidence for Chief Minister Edappadi Palanisamy

A year later, Dhanapal spoke to The Lede on his utterances that day. “If the dominant castes declare so proudly that they belong to their caste, then why should I not? There is no shame in it,” he says, leaning forward from his chair in his office. For Dhanapal, it is a moment of vulnerability that sets him apart from his diplomatic stand as a Speaker. When asked about his work, he is a diplomat, but when he is asked about his caste identity, he is no longer a politician.

“I was smitten by MGR shortly after I completed school, and so was the rest of the Arunthathiyar community. He worked for my caste tirelessly after his famous movie Madurai Veeran,” he says.

Part 01: Politically Powerless

Tamil Nadu Assembly Speaker P Dhanapal, a man of few but powerful words

Madurai Veeran is a 1956 film starring MG Ramachandran, Padmini and Bhanumathi Ramakrishna. It tells the story of Veeran, the foster child of a cobbler, who is Arunthathiyar. He falls in love with Bommi, a princess and elopes with her. Shortly after, they are finally married. He is then sent to Madurai to find a gang of robbers where he sees Veliyamma, a courtesan. She falls in love with him, much to the wrath of King Thirumalai Nayakar, who wants to make her his concubine. After putting to death the gang leader of robbers, he sacrifices his body. He is then united with Bommi and Veliyamma in heaven.

A song from Madurai Veeran (1956) in which MGR romances Padmini

The film was based on a folklore hero who is revered in the countryside of Tamil Nadu.

“He (Madurai Veeran) is hailed as a legendary hero of the Arunthathiyar community, and MGR having acted in the film, won the votes of the community en masse,” says Dhanapal. To date, the AIADMK has a hold over the Arunthathiyars. “It took one movie to change everything,” he says.

Dhanapal won in 2016 from the Avinashi constituency in Coimbatore district. He claims to have worked to provide regular water supply and roads. As for helping the Arunthathiyar community he says, “I cannot project myself as a leader who is oriented towards helping just one community because that will not work to anyone’s advantage. I have to take the whole constituency into account. I can’t help it now, can I?” he asks.

But as limited by the circumstances as Dhanapal is, he still finds himself tied to his identity of a 10-year-old child when he was first confronted by his caste, ridiculed and brushed off. “It (the ridicule and discrimination) is what can bring strength to a community like mine. To amass that anger and put it to use,” he says. His political career so far, he feels, is a result of that anger and the desire to fight back society.

In The Opposition Camp

In DMK leader VP Duraisamy’s office, souvenirs and photographs of Karunanidhi are littered across the room. Formerly the Deputy Speaker of the Tamil Nadu Assembly from 1989-1991 and 2006-2011, he was also a Rajya Sabha MP from 1995-2001.

Part 01: Politically Powerless

VP Duraisamy, former Rasipuram MLA says Arunthathiyars in cities are likely to benefit more from reservation than those in rural areas

Duraisamy is the opposition camp’s Arunthathiyar challenge to Dhanapal. Duraisamy argues that his party, the DMK, has done more for the community than the AIADMK. “In the year 2007, when Karunanidhi was Chief Minister, he introduced a Bill for 3% reservation in education and employment for the community,” he said.

Both Dhanapal and Duraisamy agree that there is a severe lack of unity among Arunthathiyar politicians and mid-level workers cutting across party lines. This disunity has been instrumental in ensuring that Arunthathiyars are unlikely to have a prominent voice in politics.

Duraisamy says another issue is that the benefits of reservation have not been equally distributed. “The downtrodden of the western belt are less likely to get priority treatment, as opposed to those in Chennai and other districts,” he says. In effect, the reservation system works better for an Arunthathiyar in Chennai or other cities in the state, while the rural Arunthathiyar is less fortunate.

Regardless of differences in their politics, Dhanapal and Duraisamy stand united on one point. “There is this idea within politics that since we have reached this high a level, we must know our place. We should not aspire beyond this. No one wants our caste members to be on par with other dominant castes. That is their worst fear,” Duraisamy says. Dhanapal concurs with this observation.

The Politics Of The Little Fish

“If a superior threatens to hang an Arunthathiar sweeper or scavenger, he will not resist. He would instead say – “Ask the supervisor if he can grant me a day’s leave.”

These are the words, whimsically uttered with a smile by Agalavan Rangaraj, a union leader and sweeper who handles cases of Arunthathiyar workers in conflict with higher caste superiors.

Part 01: Politically Powerless

Rangaraj, a union leader for 20 years, is a sceptic aiming to bring some change

He has fought for twenty years not just to give Arunthathiyars work benefits and prevent harassment. Rangaraj has also created a “Kadan Azhikkara Sangam” (Association to Destroy Debt), an organisation that aims at providing a chance for Arunthathiyars to lend and borrow money amongst themselves, as opposed to falling into debt traps from the higher caste moneylenders.

Over 50 small Arunthathiyar unions, parties and organisations exist across Tamil Nadu. Some, like the Arunthathiyar Munnetra Kazhagam are well known, and some like the Arunthathiyar Sena in Chennai are mushrooming, all with varied ideologies and aims. But social justice, economic justice and reservation are issues that echo across the board. They are sweepers and scavengers by day and social workers and party members by night.

The larger parties function as petitioners to the government, engaging and negotiating with state leaders. But the smaller parties are attempting to consolidate the community, without much success so far.

Jeevan of Arunthathiyar Munnetra Kazhagam is one such. “Members join mid-level parties for one of two reasons – they are either in competition with other Arunthathiyars, or they want the tag of a party member. They are often focused on protests when they happen. The rest of the time, they prefer eating gruel and sleeping. This, I feel, is the problem with Arunthathiyar parties coming together to form a united front. Apart from unity, the passion, the anger is severely lacking,” he says.

He believes Paraiyar and Pallar parties are much better off. “For some of us, the unity of other castes reinforces the alienation of the Arunthathiyar community – we become afraid at their unity, feel that we will never be recognised, that they might as well move on and live our lives. Sadly rebellion is not our strength,” he feels.

K Nathan, a Coimbatore-based Arunthathiyar, is a calm, bespectacled man, aware of his limits within the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK), a Dalit party that is mostly Paraiyar dominated. “I am a symbol,” he says.

Part 01: Politically Powerless

Nathan, a VCK member who believes the part will do good for the community

But why did he join? “I feel like VCK is undergoing, or at least will undergo a change. We still work on the ground. But why it has weakened is beyond me,” he adds. The VCK, led by former Lok Sabha MP Thol Thirumavalavan was a firebrand party in the 1990s. Its voteshare though has slid over the years – from its first election in 2001 in which the party contested under the DMK symbol, to 1.29% voteshare in 2006. The party hit a peak of 1.51% voteshare in 2011. In the last election in 2016, the VCK took a beating – falling to 0.77% voteshare.

Nathan feels an Arunthathiyar voice will finally be recognized within the party and he waits ardently for the day. “It is a party that has managed to make a mark. Someday, we will come to the fore. I think,” he adds, a sense of doubt pervading his words.

Arunthathiyars in small political outfits are concerned that they are losing out on a seat at the table. This is because they feel state level parties and politicians have an attitude of self-preservation.

Nathan is convinced that no mainstream Arunthathiyar politician will ever want to help the smaller fish. “But Pallars, Paraiyars, they help their own come up.”

Selva Kumar, a member of the SC/ST Commission of the state, believes Arunthathiyars themselves are their worst enemies when it comes to politics. “There is no unity. Today, if Thirumavalavan makes a mistake, his own community and party members of the VCK will support him. Arunthathiyars term their own leaders useless,” he says. “They have little to no vote bank. It is simple – they have already decided that they will never reach heights,” he adds.

Part 01: Politically Powerless

Selva Kumar, member of the State SC/ST Commission, is clear about his responsibilties, but critical of the community

J Perumal is the first and only Arunthathiyar member of the BJP and has few regrets about it. He has knocked on doors of leading political parties, asking to be a member. He was rejected by all except the BJP. In 2016, he contested in the Scheduled Caste constituency of Avinashi in Coimbatore, and lost to Dhanapal, AIADMK leader and Speaker of the Assembly. “It was worth a shot,” he says.

His mother was his biggest opposition. “No one knows the lotus (symbol),” she said to Perumal.

“No matter how much good you do as an Arunthathiyar, you cannot win if you are not the two leaves party (AIADMK),” Perumal says. He claims he has visited various state level leaders and spoken to them about giving back to their community. “They all say, come to me if you want to join the party, don’t come to me if you want me to do social service,” he adds.

The Silent Fight Of Panchayat Leaders

In the bylanes of Tharamangalam town in Salem, a woman sits behind reams of paperwork in her office. She speaks feistily, intimidating the men around her and ordering them to keep silent when she talks. This is Valli, a panchayat president in Arurpatti village near Tharamangalam. Arunthathiyar panchayat leaders often face the wrath of Gounder men, dominant caste members, who strive to rule by proxy.

Part 01: Politically Powerless

Valli, panchayat leader of Arurpatti, demonstrates coir-making to the women in the village

After thirty years of having Gounder Panchayats in Arunthathiyar colonies, Valli and others have finally caught a break. Their panchayat is now a reserved one. But not only do they have to face harassment, they are also subject to patriarchy and are constantly put down even by the Arunthathiyar men.

They are often made to sit on the ground while the Gounder men conduct panchayat meetings. All documents go through Gounder men, who only ask the panchayat leaders to sign them and go back home.

Valli, locally, began a movement against these discriminatory practices two years ago. After various meetings with Arunthathiyar panchayats, she motivated many women and men to stand up against the Gounders.

“When we give up and give into caste bias, we are not only letting down our people, we are letting this discrimination go on. Power comes not only by position, it also comes when we learn to assert ourselves and choose to take the chair back,” she says.

About 60 kilometres away, Anjali Devi sits on a heap of hay, fidgeting with her saree’s pallu. The panchayat leader of Pudhupalayam, a reserved panchayat in Salem, she credits Valli for educating her about how hard the road ahead would be, and not to give in. “I was terrified at first. I was scared these Gounder men would do something to me. We have it worse than men panchayat presidents, because they can do anything to us,” she says.

Part 01: Politically Powerless

Anjali Devi, a panchayat leader from Pudhupalayam has finally mustered the courage to assert her position

“I used to come back crying from these meetings. It was hard just to fight with these Gounder men to install a borewell, but I am somehow managing now. You know, it is such a pain to be born a woman in this caste, and now a woman leader, I don’t know how I do it every day,” she laments.

For Arunthathiayar women and men both, power is a liability as well as a gamechanger. It is, as Valli says, a process. Despite reserved panchayats, clerks and district collectors who are of dominant castes do little or nothing to intervene.

From Dhanapal and Duraisamy, Nathan and Perumal to Valli and Anjali Devi, it is clear that the road to a clear vision, unity and drive is a long and tiresome one. But on their respective turfs, the battle continues.