Tamil Nadu schools become battlefields of caste pride
Caste is so well ingrained in society that many Dalit students say they go to schools several kilometers away from their villages to escape discrimination.
TIRUNELVELI: Vivid shades of yellow, red, green and blue paint dot electric poles and public walls in some of Tamil Nadu’s villages. These colours are not meant to add to the vibrancy of the villages but to distinguish and assert the pride of various castes.
Caste pride has become blatant in some districts of Tamil Nadu — the state that has a history ofprogressive movements inspired by the legendary E V R Periyar, who advocated for theannihilation of caste. Today, the paradox between progress towards equality and regression is stark.
For instance, Tamil Nadu was the first state to say that caste had no role to play in the appointment of temple priests, as early as 2007. Today, caste discrimination has permeated classrooms in Tirunelveli, Thoothukudi, and Tenkasi districts. The violence that has persisted highlights the complex social fabric, where both caste pride and discrimination can coexist with the narrative of social justice and progress.
It is in this setting that members of each caste community — including the Maravars, Nadars and Scheduled Castes (SC) — proudly display these colour codes, turning even the anniversaries of freedom fighters into exclusive caste events.
For instance, Maravars use yellow and red and Nadars have claimed blue and green. The Yadavasuse yellow and blue. The Pallars, Parayars and Arunthathiyars, who are classified as Scheduled Castes, red and green, blue, and red and blue respectively. In the state’s villages, people sport threads of these colours to flaunt caste pride.
A gory incident on August 9, when a 17-year-old Dalit student and his 14-year-old sister were brutally attacked by three of his schoolmates with a sickle in Nanguneri, Tirunelveli district, underscores how caste pride can have a devastating impact. The attackers all belonged to theMaravar community, an influential Other Backward Class (OBC), part of the Mukulathors.
Mukulathors, or Thevars, is an umbrella term for three communities – Maravars, Kallars, and Agamudaiyars — that wield immense political power and are spread across Central and Southern parts of Tamil Nadu.
After multiple surgeries and a 75-day stay at a government hospital, the boy and his sister have now moved to Tirunelveli town, 40 km from Nanguneri, where the state government has allotted them permanent accommodation.
Though their wounds have begun to heal, the fear lingers.
“I do not know how I survived,” the boy said, pointing to the stab wounds, scars, and marks on his body. “I cannot lift my left hand fully, even now. It may take a couple of years for me to use my hands normally. My focus is now on writing my public exam,” the boy said.
“We want to relocate to Chennai once my son completes his plus-two. We cannot live in fear forever. That may bring peace to our lives,” their mother Ambikapathi told DH. She is an Anganwadi worker. Her children study in two different schools now, while the attackers, also minors, have been rehabilitated in a government school.
Villagers of Marukalkurichi, from where two of the attackers hail, deny the caste angle. They pin the blame entirely on the school management, claiming it fosters caste and religious differences between the students.
“These children were close friends, and they went to school together. They used to roam around together before the incident. If caste was an issue as is being projected, why did our children (Maravars) be friends with him (the survivor) in the first place?” Pandithurai, a village elder asked.
Murugan, the father of one of the three teenagers who attacked the boy, said they sent their children to a school away from their village only to ensure they mingle with other communities. “The caste angle was introduced by the school and the relatives of the survivor,” he said.
Caste in classrooms
Caste markers in Marukalkurichi and Peruntheru, where the survivors stayed, are hard to miss.
The village sports banners with Forward Bloc leader Muthuramalinga Thevar and Netaji Subash Chandra Bose, both revered by Mukulathors. The walls of Peruntheru are painted blue with images of B R Ambedkar and Dalit leaders of the state.
The Nanguneri incident is not isolated, as violence involving students from intermediary castes and Dalit communities has been on the rise in Tirunelveli region for the past few years. Most, in fact, have either gone unreported or brushed under the carpet.
Experts say that the considerable political power concentrated in the hands of intermediary castes, dominance over land, education and financial influence are some factors contributing to the violence.
In 2022, caste tensions ruled classrooms in the region, especially in government and government-aided schools, after students began wearing coloured wristbands as markers of caste.
These wristbands cost a youth (from an intermediary caste) his life when he questioned another Dalit student of the Podhukudi Government school why he wore a band. The argument that followed culminated in the Dalit student pushing his classmate, who died weeks later seemingly due to the injuries sustained in the attack on him.
The government did ban caste markers, hoping this would bring an end to differences. However, this altercation was followed by the Nanguneri incident.
Caste is so well ingrained in society that many Dalit students say they go to schools several kilometres away from their villages to escape discrimination.
A case in point is Gopalasamudram, just outside Tirunelveli. Though the hamlet has a higher secondary school, people who live in the Dalit colony stopped sending their children to the institute in 2013, after a clash with Maravars.
“Only one girl from our colony goes to that school now. The rest of us send our children to schools in nearby villages and towns. Why should we admit our kids in a school knowing that they will be discriminated against?” Rajakumari, a resident, asked.
The backstory is that a Dalit girl in Pannai Venkatarama Iyer Higher Secondary School was pushed to the floor by Maravars after she refused to accept sweets on the occasion of the birth and death anniversary of Muthuramalinga Thevar, the patriarch of Mukulathors.
The showdown claimed two lives – one each from the Dalit and Maravar sides.
“These revenge killings, sadly, have become frequent. Head for a head does not make sense, but unfortunately, people believe in it. Students are affected by this atmosphere and are influenced,” M Bharathan, a Dalit activist, who works with children, said.
A few months back, a Dalit student was attacked inside the government school in V K Pudur, Tenkasi district by students belonging to the Moopanar community. The attack occurred after the Dalit student was referred to by his caste in an argument during a kabaddi match.
“I was even more shocked when no student came forward to help me,” the survivor told DH.
Boys from intermediary communities are fed the thought from a very young age that they are superior to scheduled castes, explained Professor Samuel Asir Raj, Head, Department of Sociology, Manonmaniam Sundaranar University (MSU), Tirunelveli.
“Caste differences are visible in most educational institutions and caste hegemony extends over the entire landscape. Add to it the political power that the intermediary castes enjoy,” Raj told DH.
The school incidents are contextualised at a time when violence against Dalits is on the rise in Tamil Nadu. By the end of October, two Dalit youths were stripped by six Maravar men and were urinated upon in Tirunelveli. A group of Dalits were attacked by Gounders in Krishnagiri, and faecal matter was found in an overhead tank at an SC colony in Pudukottai district last year.
The Dalit Intellectual Collective flagged the rise in violence through a letter addressed to Chief Minister M K Stalin on November 6. They said anti-Dalit violence had become normalised and had formed a “strong political culture in Tamil Nadu.” This provided a template for atrocities against Dalits.
Professor K A Manikumar, who has chronicled caste violence in the region, blames successive governments in Tamil Nadu for not addressing the issue through “systemic corrections”.
“Both DMK and AIADMK have failed Dalits. They only see violence against Dalits as a law andorder problem, not a societal issue. There is also no Dalit solidarity in Tamil Nadu,” Manikumar, former V-C, Swami Vivekanand University, Madhya Pradesh, told DH.
In fact, it was only in 1995 that Dalit communities began vocally resisting discrimination, Manikumar said.
“The assertion of Dalits fuelled by the economic growth, thanks to the proliferation of education, has threatened all intermediary castes who have taken to different forms of discrimination against them. Classrooms are the new battleground,” he said.
The assertion and independence exhibited by Dalits, who leave the agricultural labour sector to enter the more formal industrial workforce, is found to be a challenge by the intermediary castes, said Raj.
“Dalit political assertion is also on the rise. Nadars, the other major intermediary caste, wield extraordinary clout through their enterprising nature. They are also capitalists as they control small and medium-sized businesses. Maravars, who are primarily landowners, are now besieged between the two communities,” Raj added.
Caste markers are a manifestation of the schism in society and also a cause for violence. Many in the region told DH that these markers serve as a ‘warning’ to people from other communities that they need to be careful while crossing ‘their areas’. Besides colours, social and political leaders also serve as markers of caste.
“Every community has exclusive songs played at marriages and at temple festivals. When these songs play, you can conclude that the person who is getting married belongs to a particular community. And you can see youngsters wearing t-shirts with images of caste icons,” Kannan, a resident of Tirunelveli, told DH.
After the Nanguneri incident, district administrations in Tirunelveli, Tenkasi, and Thoothukudi have embarked on a massive drive to erase the caste markers on government properties in villages across the region.
“The drive is ongoing but there is resistance at some places. We are trying to convince the people and make them erase these markers themselves,” a government official said. But the initiative has received opposition from some communities.
V Maharajan, founder of Netaji Subhash Senai, a Thevar outfit, opposes erasing the caste markers in entirety, saying it would only lead to more problems.
“They can take off the colour codes on public properties. But there should be a board or some marker to tell us which caste is dominant in that village. This will serve as a warning sign to us to be careful when we cross a village that is dominated by other communities,” Maharajan told DH. Government intervention
Government interventions also need to change significantly. Manikumar frowned upon the government for solely relying on rehabilitation and compensation in addressing caste violence.
“They should also find ways to prevent such incidents. Not just move on by providing compensation. The conviction under SC/ST Act is very less in Tamil Nadu,” he added.
Manikumar suggested systemic changes from the government, opening more schools, and improving infrastructure in existing schools, besides empowering Dalits in every possible way as the solution for the problems in the region.
Raj suggests all-around development in the district, which already has two industrial parks where Tata Power and other major companies have set up shops.
“Caste pride will break down when there is development. The character of the place changes with development. Economic prosperity is vital to nullify the challenge,” he said.
Bharathan attributes the sudden rise in caste-related violence in schools to the increasing presence of caste outfits on social media. “In these WhatsApp groups, everything boils down to caste. This is the case with every community. Since caste is everything that children see and hear in their homes and societies, it is reflected in classrooms too. The majority of the victims of caste-based violence are Dalit students,” he told DH.
But Maharajan rejects the contention that violence against Dalits inside classrooms is on the rise.
“Introducing caste angle to crimes after they take place has now become a fashion. Dalits do this often because they know they are being protected under the SC/ST Act. Such protection isn’t there for OBCs. They (Dalits) also get more compensation than those from other communities. They blow things out of proportion,” he claimed.
A government school headmaster, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said caste is now the major problem inside classrooms with students identifying themselves by their community.
“There is not much of a problem in primary classes. However, students from 7th to 12th standard tend to believe what they see and read online. We see school students making reels with songs that eulogise their caste. Unhindered access to social media is becoming a huge problem in classrooms. Though we confiscate phones, they are of little use,” another headmaster said.
The way forward Identifying usury as one of the major reasons for increasing violence against Dalits, Raj said the government should end private money lending by creating other kinds of institutional lending for marginalised communities.
“The land is owned by the intermediary castes and they control the informal money lending market too. Serious steps should be taken to ensure that people are protected and their basic rights are not trampled upon,” Raj added.
After the Nanguneri incident, the Tamil Nadu Government appointed Justice (retired) K Chandru to study the issue in detail and come out with measures to eliminate caste and racial differences among students in educational institutions.
“Our committee has just started its work. We are receiving comments and suggestions from different quarters. We will be issuing specific questionnaires to different groups soon,” Chandru told DH.
Tirunelveli district collector K P Karthikeyan told DH that consistent efforts are being taken to eliminate caste feelings among students, besides a massive drive to erase caste markers in public spaces.
The district administration, through an elaborate consultation process with teachers, students and parents, has come up with about 48 factors that lead to caste differences.
It has commenced a special project “Anbadum Mundril” which includes counselling sessions for students and parents among others, at 45 government and government-aided schools to sensitise them on the issue, Karthikeyan said “We have teamed up with Chellamuthu Foundation and an NGO for this pilot project. A two-day long workshop has been conducted for headmasters and in-charge teachers on handling issues.
Experienced counsellors will talk to the students and parents and counsel them. We will complete this pilot by April 2024 after which we will extend this to other schools,” he told DH.
The administration has also constituted teams for all 11 blocks in the district consisting of Tahsildar, child protection officials and police officers. The district administration has also formed WhatsApp groups with headmasters to keep track of the developments.
Courtesy : DH
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