On 1 November, 2023, a shameful event unfolded in southern Tamil Nadu.
Two individuals from the Scheduled Community (SC) had come to the Tamirabarani river for a simple act of bathing. However, their day took a horrific turn when they were brutally assaulted, humiliated, and robbed by a gang of six.
This incident is not a standalone occurrence, but rather part of a series of ongoing attacks on the SC community in Tamil Nadu.
There seems to be a visible increase in such crimes of hatred against the SC community with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) government in power in the state.
Here one thing has to be emphasised. Using this incident to score social-justice points over the DMK is highly inappropriate. The issue runs deeper than any political party or ideology. However, it must be acknowledged that the Dravidianists' approach to addressing the crime and injustice of untouchability faced by SC communities has failed to tackle the underlying causes of this problem.
October 2023 also saw another under-reported incident of concern.
A DMK functionary and Panchayat president of Thirumalaigiri, Salem district, who was arrested for threatening a Dalit teenager and hurling casteist slurs on him, was granted conditional bail by a Salem court.
In a video that went viral on social media in January, the DMK functionary was seen scolding the youth, obscenely, in front of the community. This was because that young man dared to enter the local temple.
The DMK functionary was suspended and removed from even primary membership of the party. However, in less than a year, he was released on bail, and then Durai Murugan, a Minister, announced his reinstatement.
The Dravidian movement used the inhuman sin of untouchability to demonise Hinduism and attack Brahmins. But it never really cared to remove the root problem which penetrates the deep and dark zones of our collective psyche.
Vote bank politics of caste groups has distorted our society. Every community desires representation in fields that are seen as conferring social status, financial gains, and authoritative power. From medical seats to civil services, every community wants to have its share. This desire leads them to try to adjust reservations in their favor, which in turn requires the community to have bargaining power through vote bank politics.
To achieve that bargaining power a community needs sectarian political solidarity which is obtained through calls for caste unity. At the grassroots level, this translates into the invention of caste identities with claims of supremacy, such as 'we were once the rulers' or 'we are the rightful holders of political power'.
Such claims inevitably come with narratives of decline and victimhood. The more forceful the claims, the more pronounced the narrative of decline becomes. This can often lead to neighboring communities being viewed as rivals. A direct conflict over tangible resources can symbolize an imagined historical enmity and betrayal.
Both Tamil chauvinism and Dravidianist racism are fueled by and draw political sustenance from these complex dynamics
This is the issue at hand: The pursuit of power and representation by communities in contemporary spheres exerts a centripetal force. In contrast, the modern society, where individuals are valued for their unique contributions in workplaces and educational institutions, exerts a centrifugal force. The former leads to a contraction of the community, while the latter allows individuals to flourish.
When constant interactions in modern settings challenge the perceived notions of community isolationism based on factors like caste heritage, it leads to violence.
This is a challenge that the Hindu society grapples with. The Dravidian ideology takes a deceptive approach to tackle this issue by placing blame solely on one community, the Brahmins, and one religion - Hinduism. Regrettably, those who link this distorted caste politics and caste identities with the theoretical concept of Varna have inadvertently aided the Dravidianists by endorsing their fundamentally incorrect assessment of society.
The Dravidianist's claims of social justice through anti-Brahminism have failed. However, this doesn't give a Tamil Nadu Hindutva supporter a reason to celebrate or score points. They haven't distinguished themselves either.
During the Universal Brotherhood Day event, the former state president of the VHP, RBVS Manian, made a troubling statement about how Scheduled Communities often engage in conflicts. He argued that one SC community in Tamil Nadu wouldn't celebrate Dr Ambedkar if they knew he belonged to a rival SC community. In response, the DMK Government promptly arrested him. This quick action was however a contrast with their handling of more serious issues related to social justice and harmony.
But the RBVS Manian incident is an indicator as to why the Sangh and related organisations could not take a proactive role in caste eradication in Tamil Nadu. They can't assert that caste is synonymous with varna today, given their reliance on Ramakrishna-Vivekanand Vedanta, which rejects birth-based varna, and their own Savarkar-to-Deoras heritage, which condemns caste distinctions. However, there are fringe elements that insist varna and jati are equivalent. These voices sometimes come from worryingly influential fringe groups.
Then there's the seemingly serious claim that 'caste is social capital.' This claim is to casteism what 'Intelligent Design' is to creationism. Just as 'Intelligent Design' disguises creationism, 'social capital' masks casteism.
In the 1980s, the Parivar organisations had no such baggage and could genuinely bring about social change. They could combat untouchability and eradicate it from the minds and villages where their workers were active. However, from the late 1990s to the present, the RSS has become a weak force in the realm of social justice in Tamil Nadu.
The DMK in particular and Dravidianist parties in general are to be held responsible for their inability to eradicate untouchability, a veritable crime against humanity. This culpability is doubled because they always use these evils to essentialise their antipathy for Brahmins and Hinduism. But at the same time the responsibility is equally upon Hindutva organisations in Tamil Nadu which have been conspicuously consistent in their inability to address these issues except in a few low decibel statements.
This is unfortunate because one would expect Hindutva to be a panacea for the removal of untouchability and related crimes and sins.
Time is running out.
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