If the villages of Pappapati, Keeripatti and Nattramangalam in Madurai were known outside their boundaries, it was for a notorious reason. For over a decade in the three panchayats reserved for scheduled castes, no Dalit was allowed to be president for more than a week.
But on Wednesday, when the villagers cheered their new Dalit panchayat presidents, the celebrations were for real. The Thevars, members of a backward community that outnumber Dalits five to one and who have been regularly unseating the presidents, had finally come around. Democracy seemed to have finally trumped caste politics and electoral officials heaved a sigh of relief.
For long, elections here were reduced to a farce. Caste Hindus opposed a lower-caste man leading the panchayats but since the post of panchayat president was reserved for scheduled castes, the Thevars handpicked a Dalit as their candidate and elected him unopposed. But just for a few days. Then, he would be asked to resign and the village would again be without a head. The state Election Commission regularly conducted by-polls but to no avail. This time, however, the state government warned the Thevars they would be jailed under the Goondas Act if they tried to unseat the presidents. The threat worked. The caste Hindus participated in the polls and elected Dalits as presidents and ward members.
District collector T Udhayachandran said: “The warm reception by the people indicates a change of heart. It is a victory for grassroots democracy.” He added that Pappapati, Keeripatti and Nattramangalam would be made model panchayats.