Murder Of BSP Leader Armstrong In Chennai And The Reality Of Dalit Politics In Tamil Nadu

Swarajya Staff

Jul 09, 2024, 01:43 PM | Updated 01:43 PM IST

K Armstrong.
K Armstrong.
  • The story of Armstrong is a complicated one. Was he a gangster as the DMK supporters claim? Or was he a strong grassroots Dalit leader who fought for his people? 
  • In the climactic segments of Mani Ratnam's iconic movie Naayagan, Velu Nayakkar (Kamal Haasan), a man who chooses some questionable ways to make money and help the people in the slums of Dharavi, is asked by his young grandson whether he is good or bad (neenga nallavara kettavara?)

    That line has been part of many spoofs and memes. But to the pointed query, his reply is "I don't know". For, in his heart, he understands his approach has not been above board. But at the same time, he also feels that it was all done to help the hapless men and women living in that cheri (slum) — an euphemistic reference to Dalits who live in such shanty-filled localities.

    The perplexing moral ambiguity in Nayakkar's character is also part of K Armstrong, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) leader who was hacked to death in Chennai, triggering a heated and passionate exchange between the Dalits and the Dravidian-DMK (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) types. 

    The DMK lackeys have branded him as a gangster and allegedly involved him in shady violent politics. On the other hand, the Dalit community is praising him as a source of inspiration who helped countless Dalit youngsters to pursue their education and also guided them to better life through gainful employment.

    The Story Of Armstrong

    So, who was Armstrong really?

    As with the screen Nayakkar, it is not easy to slot the slain BSP leader. Those in Chennai who have been following local politics will tell you that Armstrong's activities were no real secret. Though there is nothing on files to implicate him directly — he was exonerated in about seven cases — Armstrong did operate a bunch of people who were involved in goondaism, the kind our films have normalised.

    Armstrong, a lawyer by profession, was said to have been running a racket that involved threatening the plaintiffs, adversarial lawyers and even judges and magistrates. Again, these are widely reported stories for which there is no clinching evidence. But it is also a fact, that such activities are shady and proofs are hard to come by.

    But the most damning aspect of the whole story is that Armstrong, who wanted to uplift the Dalit youths, could not have chosen a different path. One sad reality of Indian politics is the political climb to the top is through the steps of crime and skulduggery. It is true of almost all grassroots politicians who have risen from below across all parties.

    Once they climb up the ranks, most politicos become different beasts. There is a chance for them to take a shot at redemption. Many DMK and AIADMK (All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) leaders, who currently occupy top slots in their respective parties, were for sure rowdy elements in their days of political infancy. But today their past is a distant memory or at least a well concealed one. Such luxury and leeway are what the Dalit leaders don't seem to get. Or it comes to them at a very high price.

    The VCK (Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi), the politically most powerful entity of the Dalits in Tamil Nadu, is a good case in point. Many of its leaders were once accused of the same charges that are now being thrown at Armstrong. But once the VCK became part of the DMK scenery, its top blokes got acceptance. As you can see, it has come after invisibilising the party's essential identity.

    BSP in Tamil Nadu, of which Armstrong was the leader, chose to try its luck by charting its own path. It of course meant that the party's leadership couldn't shrug off its past. Violence and gangsterism remained an ineluctable baggage.

    Dalits Caught In A Cul De Sac In TN

    It doesn't matter whether Armstrong was taken away, as claimed by the police, by the same storm of violence that he had actually set off. In other words, it is being put down as a revenge killing. But the question to ask is, why are the Dalit leaders more susceptible to these retaliatory attacks while the leaders from other communities manage to escape and gravitate upwards.

    That is the real tragedy of Dalit politics in Tamil Nadu. (The story may be similar in other states too). But what is glaring here is the fact that the Dravidian types never miss an opportunity to claim that they are the ones who have been historically fighting for the alleviation of the Dalits.

    But the reality is that it is the Dravidian types who are finishing off any possible effort from the Dalits to emerge clean and free. Imagine the travesty, the Dravidians have been ruling the state for the last six decades claiming that the Dalit lot has been ameliorated, when in reality it has plumbed more depths.   

    It is also not uncommon for the Dravidian political forces to seek out vulnerable Dalit youngsters and force them to carry out violence and crime on their behalf. But if caught, these youths are left adrift and have to fend for themselves.

    The Dravidian types have been using and misusing the Dalits in every possible way. Any effort from the Dalits to distance themselves from the DMK's self-serving methods, is met with instant and felicitous branding. They are quickly stamped as 'neela sanghis' (blue Sangis) by the DMK's dirty tricks department. 

    In that sense, the Dalits are caught in a cruel cul de sac.

    Socially, the Dalits start with a disadvantage. Caste killings (Dalits being killed by the intermediary castes of Tamil Nadu) are unabating. Crimes against them are getting murky and the state government is looking the other way even when pulled up by the court.

    Politically, it is worse for the Dalits. They aren't allowed to rise by a callous system and its gatekeepers. In the event, the Dalits get trapped without an escape in a world of crime and blood-letting. 

    The story of Armstrong is a cautionary fable. It is a never-ending tragic narrative. If Armstrong had to choose an undesirable path, it was because he was forced to by the political realities of the state. To answer the question posed to Velu Nayakkar, Armstrong may well reply that he wasn’t allowed to remain good.

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