Violence in a classroom rocks Tamil Nadu district torn by caste division

Jun 07, 2022 11:22 AM IST

On April 25, during the lunch break at the school, the 17-year-old’s classmate from the dominant OBC (other backward classes) Thevar community was hit by a brick during an altercation which cut his ear, leading to a blood clot that killed him five days later.

Tirunaveli: It’s 8.30am on a breezy May afternoon, and a 17-year-old boy is being ferried to his government school in southern Tamil Nadu’s Tirunelveli district to write his Class 12 board examinations. He is astride a motorcycle, sitting uncomfortably between two men. The discomfort is not because there is an important test ahead, but because the two men that he is squashed between are policemen in uniform. In April, the school saw the death of a boy in his class — a killing rooted in age-old divisions of caste that now threaten his life.

 (HT Photos) PREMIUM
(HT Photos)

On April 25, during the lunch break at the school, the 17-year-old’s classmate from the dominant OBC (other backward classes) Thevar community was hit by a brick during an altercation which cut his ear, leading to a blood clot that killed him five days later. The main accused in the case was a Class 11 boy from a Scheduled Caste and his two Muslim friends. All three have been arrested. Yet, even a month later, the 17-year-old lives in fear. Not because he is an accused in the case, but simply because he is from the same caste, Arunthathiyar, as the accused.

In Tirunelveli, there are several accounts of how the fight in school turned violent, but what is now clear is that it revolved around coloured threads that students wear as conspicuous caste markers. These cleavages have never been hidden, and are deliberate and obvious in Tirunelveli’s homes, streets and among its people — and increasingly, in its schools.

The incident and its aftermath

On April 25, at around 2.30pm, a heated argument broke out between the main accused, a Class 11 student and the 17-year-old Thevar boy over the caste thread on the former’s wrist. After being hit by a brick, the latter started bleeding. He went home that evening after first aid was applied, but later that night developed excruciating pain. He was rushed to the Tirulnelveli government hospital. A surgery was conducted on April 26 for a blood clot in his brain; five days later, on April 30, he died.

Following a complaint from his parents, both daily-wage labourers, the police arrested three students under sections 302 (punishment for murder) and 294(b) of the Indian Penal Code. L Francis, deputy superintendent of police, Ambasamuthiram said, “We have gone through CCTV footage and will be filing a charge sheet soon.”

Yet, it is not just the investigation of the crime that has the police worried, but the prospect of revenge killings. “For the past month, we have been conducting peace meetings with the school’s students where we counsel them. We have also consistently met with the families of the deceased and the accused and counselled both sides. Nothing we say can bring back a student’s life but we are doing everything possible so that the issue doesn’t escalate,” Francis said.

The main accused and the 17-year-old named in the first instance both live in a corner of the village where only Scheduled Caste families live. The roads are narrow, with open sewers on both sides. Most families either rear goats and cows, or work as sweepers in the village panchayat. Since April 25, fear has stalked the narrow lanes, and none of the children have gone to school, save for examinations. Many are no longer at home; they have been sent away to relatives across the state for fear of reprisal. “When it’s a choice between life and education, life is more important. They (the dominant castes) could decide to do anything. They could wipe out our entire colony,” said a man who has sent his children away.

On his part, the 17-year-old has stayed within the confines of his home, spooked by the messages on WhatsApp groups on his phone, that have been “forwarded many times”. One such message has a photo of the dead boy, which says that he was a Thevar and was brutally killed. “Vengeance will follow…Revenge, retaliation will continue…”

What this has meant is that more than a 100 policemen have been stationed in the village since the murder. Francis said, “The policemen will remain for as long as it takes for the villagers of all communities to come to a consensus that there will be no further violence. Our work is to ensure that the village is peaceful now.”

Near the corner where the families from the Scheduled Caste community live, next to a small mosque live the village’s 200 Muslim families. The father of one of the two Muslim boys arrested for the crime maintains that his son had little to do with the altercation, and suffered a head injury himself. “The police detained our sons only to suppress this from escalating into a caste conflict,” he said. Next to him, his wife is disconsolate. “I asked him many times why he got involved in a fight where he knew we would not be able to protect him. He said that he could not bear to watch his friend being pushed. My son told me that the SC boy was being harassed constantly and had faced incessant abuse for at least a week. The OBC boy would wash his hands and spill that water on the SC boy’s face,” she said.

Meanwhile, 5km away, in the Thevar part of the village, there is anger in the voice of the mother who lost her son. “The incident happened at 2.30pm but the police informed me at 6pm. To this day, the school has not told me what happened. The first hospital he was taken to didn’t even scan his head. My son died because of the negligence of the teachers and the doctors,” she said.

The boy’s sister, a Class 10 student, has a medical bandage around her wrist. Unable to cope with her brother’s death, she tried to cut herself on the night of May 17. “There seems to be no point living anymore. What happens to the communities outside the walls of my house is not my responsibility,” she said.

Caste that is all pervasive

The path to the Thevar boy’s home is easy to find. Fluttering at the street’s entrance, on an iron pole, is a yellow flag. The colour is a clear, uncompromising marker of caste. Thevars have yellow and red, Nadars blue and yellow. In the Dalit parts of the village, the flags are green, while the Arundhatiyars have green, black and white flags.

The colours do not just mark the streets. Inside classrooms and open playgrounds, they adorn hair ribbons, vests under uniforms, chains, and more ubiquitously, threads on student’s wrists.

At the government school, a Class 9 student has no qualms about admitting he wears a coloured thread. Only now, after the killing, have students stopped to do so within the premises of the school. “If the teachers see it now, they cut off the thread. This has happened after the death. So now we just remove them at the gate and wear them when we leave,” the student said.

M Bharathan, founder of the Tirunelveli-based Human Rights Council said that this quite literal wearing of caste on the sleeve worsened after the caste riots that engulfed southern Tamil Nadu in the mid-1990s, largely in the districts of Tirunelveli, Thoothukudi and Tenkadi. “Hundreds of murders were committed by both sides of the caste divide from 1995 up to 1997, and beheadings were the norm. After the clashes settled down, the Thevars, Vanniyars and Pallars began creating flags of their own. These colours were then used to paint homes, entered their clothing and then adorned their wrists.” Soon each community had a colour of its own.

RTI data obtained by activist S Karthik from the Social Justice and Human Rights Department of the Tamil Nadu Police showed that as many as 435 villages in the state still continue to practice caste-based discrimination in 2021. According to SJHR data, 720 social justice awareness meetings were held in these villages in 2018 but this came down to 597 meetings in 2021. In 2022, till March 31, 212 meetings have been held. The data shows that the temple town of Madurai has the highest number of villages where discrimination has been recorded with 43, followed by 25 villages in Villupuram and 24 villages in Tirunelveli.

In the village of Pallavur, some distance away from the village of the immediate crime, HT found a Thevar woman going about her day, shopping at the local grocery shop. On her wrist was the same yellow and red thread. “My son got it from a temple and he gave it to me,” she said, refusing to be photographed. Those sporting caste markers rarely speak of them, especially to outsiders.

“This is how they conceal the practice,” Rani, a local social worker said. If the hierarchy is challenged, then there is resistance. Rani says that in 2021, a high school in Tirunelveli even saw a protest against a headmaster who insisted that students not sport the caste threads.

Segregation is often rationalised, and that rationalisation means discrimination is often normalised. Outside a temple in Pallavur, one Thevar man said, “We don’t stop them (Dalits) from coming to our temples. They restrict themselves. Earlier, an SC colony used to be in the same village but they are so cut off, that authorities have given them their own ration shop.”

In Parancheri village, both Dalits and “upper castes” have a temple each, marked by the colours on lamp posts. The upper castes will not enter the Dalit temple; the latter can’t enter the former’s temple. “They may come to our temple but we can’t go there. They won’t let us. They don’t directly tell us not to come. But we know. Just like we know they won’t eat in our houses. If the families are close to each other, they will come for functions and we give them soft drinks and bananas. But nothing that is made in our kitchens,” a Dalit man in Parancheri said.

The enmity that comes from caste isn’t just in the every day, but has taken the form of violent beheadings, even in the recent past. On September 13, 2021, 38-year-old farmer Sankara Subramanian, a Thevar was murdered, his severed head thrown on the grave of a Dalit man called Manirathnam who was murdered in 2013. The police concluded that this was a revenge killing, and arrested six people including Manirathnam’s 20-year-old son Maharaja. Two days later, Mairappan, a 32-year-old Dalit man was killed, his head found at the spot where Subramanian was killed. T Kannappan, a retired Inspector General of Police who spent time in Tirunelveli said, “In a revenge killing, the method of the killing often shows how deep the emotion of revenge is ingrained. Like making an offering to God, these people offer their rivals’ heads to the graves of previous victims.”

Government attempts at intervention

In 2015, Bharathan petitioned the National Human Rights Commission, seeking its intervention over children wearing caste threads. Three years later in 2018, NHRC ordered for this practice to be stopped, he said. In July 2019, the AIADMK government issued a circular, ordering all district educational officers to identify schools “where such kind of discrimination is practised and to issue suitable instructions to head masters to prevent such practice immediately and also to take severe action on the persons who are responsible for the discrimination”. Bharathan, however, says that this hasn’t been enforced at all. “This is because even teachers, panchayat leaders and the police have worn caste threads.”

Tamil Nadu school education minister Anbil Mahesh Poyyamozhi did not respond to HT’s calls and messages for a response. The principal secretary of the department, Kakarla Usha, also did not respond to requests for comment. A senior district level official said that the death in the school was not a caste issue. “All four involved belong to different castes and religions so it would be unfair to brand this as a caste issue,” he said, asking not to be named.

Asked why students were wearing caste bands, the official said, “There are standing instructions that such things shouldn’t be practised and we are stepping up awareness with parents, teachers and students through School Management Committees.”

Get Latest India Newsalong with Latest Newsand Top Headlinesfrom India and around the world.

Enjoy unlimited digital access with HT Premium

Subscribe Now to continue reading

    Divya Chandrababu is an award-winning political and human rights journalist based in Chennai, India. Divya is presently Assistant Editor of the Hindustan Times where she covers Tamil Nadu & Puducherry. She started her career as a broadcast journalist at NDTV-Hindu where she anchored and wrote prime time news bulletins. Later, she covered politics, development, mental health, child and disability rights for The Times of India. Divya has been a journalism fellow for several programs including the Asia Journalism Fellowship at Singapore and the KAS Media Asia- The Caravan for narrative journalism. Divya has a master's in politics and international studies from the University of Warwick, UK. As an independent journalist Divya has written for Indian and foreign publications on domestic and international affairs.

Story Saved
Saved Articles
My Reads
My Offers
Sign out
New Delhi 0C
Monday, March 27, 2023
Start 15 Days Free Trial Subscribe Now
Register Free and get Exciting Deals