"The constitution has made untouchability illegal, but caste is still alive in our society. Our goal is to have caste itself banned," says Ravi Kumar, a Dalit MLA. A noisy meeting of tribal students in Cuddalore District, south of Chennai, leaves Ravi Kumar hoarse. But he resolutely prepares for his next meeting in his constituency — the historic Vaishnava temple town of Kattumannarkoil.
Kumar is one of the two MLAs from the Viduthalai Siruthaigal (Dalit Liberation Panthers) in the assembly, which has 44 Dalits. His party leader is Thol. Thirumavalavan of the Parayar community, that for centuries announced village deaths by drumming on the parai (a local drum). From the name of this formerly ‘untouchable’ community had originated the derogatory ‘paraiah’. Today, however, 64 per cent of the 1.1 crore Dalits in the state are literate, just 10 per cent behind the state average of 74 per cent.
"This high literacy level among Tamil Dalits is not due to the Dravidian movement," says Ravi Kumar. "In British Raj, only two communities had a good English education: Brahmins and Dalits. The Brahmins, because they served the British in offices and the Dalits, for serving them at home as cooks, bearers and personal attendants. A Tamil Dalit, Rettamalai Sreenivasan, attended the Round Table Conference in London with Dr Ambedkar."
Dalit political awareness in Tamil Nadu began as early as 1895 with the Adidravida Mahajanasabha founded by M Chinnathambi. His son, MC Raja, made a Rao Bahadur by the British, published a Dalit magazine Parayar (which also means ‘to speak out’) between 1893 and 1900, with a circulation rivalling The Hindu.
However, the last 40 years of the Dravidian movement have not helped Tamil Dalits because of caste demographics.
"Forward castes, including Brahmins, Muslims and Christians, constitute 13 per cent of Tamil Nadu. Scheduled Castes are 19 per cent and Scheduled Tribes one per cent. The rest are intermediary castes who control political power," says P Radhakrishnan, Professor of Sociology at the Madras Institute of Development Studies and author of the study, ‘Religion, Caste and State’ (2007).
Says Ravi Kumar, "Of the 234 MLAs in the present assembly, only two are Brahmins: Jayalalitha and SV Shekhar of the Mylapore constituency. Middle castes have run the government for 40 years. So who is responsible for Dalit non-inclusion?" In the 2004 general elections, the Liberation Panthers and another major Dalit party, the Puthiya Tamilagam, were kept out of the Democratic Progressive Alliance (DPA) led by M. Karunanidhi of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK).
Atrocities against Dalits continue, mostly perpetrated by the two most dominant backward castes — the Thevars (mostly AIADMK supporters) and the Vanniyars (the PMK's vote bank). Two years ago at Thinniyar in Tiruchirapalli district Thevars forced Dalits to eat human excrement. Six months later, Dalits were forced to drink urine at Gounderpatti near Dindigul.
"The only radical solution is to ban caste. No wearing caste marks or retaining caste surnames, banning caste-based organisations and abolishing government caste-counting mechanisms like official forms. But will any political party have the guts to do it? Particularly in TN?" challenges Ravi Kumar.
Is this a constitutional amendment whose time has come?