This is the second part of the interview with Gowthama Sannah, Propaganda Secretary of the VCK – Chennai, 26th September 2012 (Please read the first part here)
[This interview was first published in Vol 2, No 1 (2013) issue of ‘The South Asianist‘]
Hugo Gorringe: Just a quick question. Is it right that parties like the RPI never contested on their own symbols but on those of their allies like the DMK or ADMK?
Gowthama Sannah: Yes, in the early stages (in 1952 and 1957 elections) the Republican Party did stand independently on the Elephant symbol, and on same elections period stood in Assembly election with the Commonweal Party on another symbol – the rising sun- which the DMK later inherited. After that as Dalit parties were unable to muster a large enough vote bank to stand alone they were not able to contest on their own symbols. Since their opportunities were so limited – 1 or 2 seats – if they stood with the ADMK they campaigned on the twoleaves, if they stood with the DMK they adopted the rising sun; this is how their movements were suppressed.
Hugo: Is this why the movements that emerged after 1990 boycotted elections and attempted a more radical mobilisation of the people?
Sannah: Yes that is true. If you ask what happens then in elections, Dalits have continuously been unable to claim their share. There are two issues here. The first is that they failed to gain separate electorates in 1935 following the decree in 1932. Instead of separate electorates they gained reserved constituencies. What this means is that the representative in each of these constituencies must be Dalit, but each party puts forward a downtrodden candidate who becomes a party representative rather than a spokesperson for this community. In this manner the political rights that were gained by the Dalits have come to primarily benefit the non-Dalits. This led to a gradual decline in trust in the electoral process and a belief that they needed to shore up Dalit power by some means. Basically, the people were repeatedly frustrated by elections, and continuously felt cheated by them. This was especially the case amongst the youth who felt that no party represented them or gave them a voice. At this point, as soon as the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal adopted its election boycott it was taken up with great enthusiasm and radicalism in southern districts particularly in and around Madurai and subsequently it spread across the major part of Tamil Nadu. In addition, boycotting elections continues to be an emotive issue even today.
Another factor was communal atrocities. In the 1990s Miss Jayalalitha came to power and promoted several prominent members of the Backward Caste Thevar or Mukulathor Castes. This occasioned great arrogance among the entire Mukulathor castes who felt that they are ruling class and have the right to rule over and dominate the Dalits. Dalits, however, did not accept this mind-set which led to multiple caste clashes. In that severe situation Scheduled Caste reserved constituency members were sitting in Assembly as silent spectators and they did not react against communal atrocities. As far as Dalits are concerned, particularly the Dalit youth, this led to immense frustration and a feeling that the present electoral system could not save them. They were, therefore, naturally attracted to the electoral boycott and the radical political mind-set which was articulated by the DPI. That was the social background.
Hugo: Has this casteism now lost its virulence, and have caste-Hindu atrocities diminished?
Sannah: No, not possible, it is still alive. Even now so many incidents are being noticed every day.
Hugo: Is education the key to eradicating untouchabilty? With increased education will the protection of caste identity and practice of untouchability – at least in virulent forms – slowly decline? I think and hope that education may help to this end.
Sannah: No, I don’t think so, because caste-Hindus today are actually educated caste- Hindus. How can they lose their privileges which have been given to them by the caste system? It is because they want to protect their identity for that, that they profess untouchablity. In addition, there are two kinds of untouchability; one is open untouchablity and another is a more abstract form of untouchablity.
Hugo: What do you mean by this?
Sannah: In future the main challenge will be to identify and contest micro-level, abstract expressions of untouchability. This micro, abstract form of untouchability is particularly prevalent in cities. I strongly draw your attention to the abstract forms of untouchablity so that they can be taken into the political scenario as so academics may also map and find their dynamics and impact in future.
Hugo: We may even be unaware of it.
Sannah: Yes. But it is only if you discover this that there is any opportunity to speak about caste eradication. They can say: ‘Look at me I’m a big man. I have left behind old feelings and am sitting here eating with a Dalit. I am having tea with him’. Just saying that is a form of caste dominance in some ways. This goes on all the time. Then you may come to Madras and live in apartments and say that you are going to talk about Dalit rights, but there will be huts right next to your home and you will not once open your mouth to speak about or to those slum-dwellers. When questioned you will say: ‘These are very ugly people’! This sort of hypocrisy is rife amongst the intellectuals.
Hugo: Not just that, there is also a neglect of their history. For example there is the school of Subaltern Studies – a globally renowned group of historians – who never spoke about Dalits.
Sannah: They did not.
Hugo: But aren’t the Dalits the main subaltern group?
Sannah: Of course. It is only after we levelled these charges against them that they started to become silent and drift away. After a while they thought: ‘why should I speak on Dalit issues when I am abused like this? I’ll stop talking about it’. This is one of the key reasons why non-Dalits are so silent today within intellectual circles. Otherwise they should still be raising their voices shouldn’t they?
Hugo: There are people, like V. Geetha and others, who are writing about the Dalit movement aren’t there?
Sannah: That is an attempt to counter – well not even counter but to defend themselves against the charges we have made. So rather than seeing the Dalit movement as emerging overnight in 1990 we can see that there is a long-running process of mobilisation. Once that was given direction and energy in the 1990s Dalit politics took it up and started to run with it. If you asked what fear this created in Government; then these radical movements which were boycotting the elections were rallying the lower castes. There was a fear that they might become Naxalbari movements [radical left movements which owe their name to Naxalbari Village in West Bengal]. That was the fear that existed.
Once this challenge to legitimacy was felt by the Dravidian political parties all the political parties joined hands to put pressure on the Dalit movements. They started foisting cases on people, instigating riots and so on with the view to bringing them into parliamentary democracy through such pressure. Simultaneously we have to ask what the result of the movements who boycotted elections from 1990 to 1998-89 was. Their result was that they could organise the people, give a face to people’s sufferings, hit back when attacked but this alone cannot be the sole purpose of a political party.
Hugo: They were also important in raising awareness.
Sannah: Yes, this was a strategy to educate people politically. After this, the next step had to be an attempt to seize power from whoever was excluding the downtrodden people. This is a natural outcome of political growth. Then those parties boycotting the elections reached the point where they needed to take power away from the powerful or assume power themselves. It was in the belief that this would help further dilute marginalisation that people joined the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal and that is why they decided to take part in elections. No sooner had they done so than the necessity to engage in electoral work and consider electoral alliances arose. But it has to be said that they made full use of their thirty-year cycle – which I talked about earlier – to mobilise and protest for the people.
Hugo: Okay. Up until 1999 you said that electoral politics was the path of scoundrels and that politics was a sewer. Now you have entered that sewer. Not just the VCK but Puthiya Tamilagam and others. Having entered the sewer how have you dealt with Dalit issues?
Sannah: In the first election the leaders of the time joined hands with G. K Moopanar (founder and president of Tamil Manila Congress- Tamil State Congress) in a Third Front and tried to create a new, alternative front. The aim after that election was to create a non-DMK or ADMK force and to rally VCK, PT and intermediate castes’ parties. However, Moopanar did not agree to this and following the 1999 elections he joined hands with the ADMK. After that, in every election, whether it be the one in 2001 or 2006 or the one in 2011, the VCK’s position has been to forge a non-Dravidian alternative front. They have worked extremely hard to this end, but they have not once been successful in this endeavour. Had they succeeded then perhaps Tamil politics would have changed. There would have been an opportunity to change.
As far as the VCK are concerned, they have the desire to change, but the other parties lack the heart to recognise their efforts. For example let us take Dr. R. Ramadoss; Ramadoss tried to unite downtrodden people; fisher-folk, Muslims with the intermediate castes. He joined with us in the Tamil Protection Front and has a similar position on Eelam, but he has never been willing to contest an election with us as part of a Third Front. In 2009 The VCK tried to create a Third Front; our leader Thol. Thirumavalavan made determined efforts to forge an alternative. At the same time in 2007, a Dalit ideal emerged; that ideal stated that in Tamil Nadu; if Dalits, Muslims, Christians, Tribals, Fisherfolk, and similar minorities and then the PMK and other intermediate castes could be united as a political force then that would bring about a major change in Tamil Nadu politics.
Politically speaking such a political force would create an alternative to the DMK and ADMK. This view came to the fore, most radically in the 1996 election. Back in the 1996 election they tried to fulfil this ideal to some extent. Once they had done that then all non-Dalit castes created caste parties too. All those parties united and joined in coalition with the DMK in the 1996 election. As soon as they did they suffered a major defeat. Having been burned by the experience they determined never to ally with explicitly caste-based parties again.
This was the stance taken by the DMK post 1996. Then that became a separate front. So at the time when they were thinking to create an alternative, the DMK used these parties for its own ends. Once that had happened, the trust vested in the smaller parties evaporated and the trend towards an alternate front gradually disappeared. This was the time when Puthiya Tamilagam entered elections and the VCK considered following suit. After that in 1999 and the 2001 elections the DMK were very clear that they would not ally with caste parties, but they allied with parties that do not openly call themselves caste parties. The VCK did not get an opening there as a result, and were compelled to ally with the ADMK. The ideal of an alternative which emerged at that time, however, has been a central plank of VCK policy and the party – especially our leader Thol. Thirumavalavan. We have tried again and again, even up to the 2011 elections to realise such a front. Unfortunately, those attempts have failed. This is what happened in successive elections after 1999. The underlying truth is that though the VCK have entered party politics they have remained true to their ideals; they just have not been able to put them into practice.
Hugo: OK, now it is essential to work with the Dravidian parties; do they give you recognition within their coalitions? Do they engage in grassroots work during election campaigns? Do they vote for you? Do they give your leader respect on their stages? What is the situation in their coalitions?
Sannah: Now if we must look at both parties, the ADMK today has changed into a Thevar party; a Mukkulathor party. The day that Jayalalitha joined forces with Sasikila itturned into a Mukkulathor party. This side, in the north, the Vanniyar votes are split into two vote-banks: the first is the Paatali Makkal Katchi and the second is the DMK. As far as the ADMK are concerned, their Vanniyar votebase is very small. When the VCK joins forces with the ADMK, the VCK have authority in the northern districts, but the ADMK do not, having said which many of the downtrodden people are with the ADMK. For all these reasons the VCK gained a certain respect from the ADMK.
As far as the DMK are concerned, the respect that we get on platforms and stages we do not receive at the grassroots. On stages our leaders can sit on a par with Karunanidhi; we can campaign on their platforms and they will come and campaign on our stages, but the respect that we got on the platforms we did not get on the ground. At the same time with the ADMK, in southern districts the VCK gets no respect on the ground because the ADMK’s base there is the Mukkulathors. In this society we can only ask which stages we are accepted onto. When looking at it like that, having entered the sewer of politics the main difference between the ADMK and DMK is like that. Looking at it like that, though the ration might vary very slightly, we have not received full acceptance or recognition from either party. They totally see us as ‘just a Dalit party’ and it could take some time before that perception changes.
Hugo: Do their votes fall for the VCK? Look at the last election. In 2011, PMK, DMK and VCK were all in the one front. In northern districts Vanniyars are either in the PMK or the DMK, the Dalits are with the VCK. If all three sets of followers vote according to this, then we should have won in at least 2 or 3 constituencies shouldn’t we?
Hugo: But you did not win in a single seat.
Sannah: Now, in terms of vote banks. The way we should analyse the 2011 election is that – this is how everyone sees it – there is a perception that the PMK is totally a Vanniyar party, but Vanniyars are not united – this is important. There are two types of Vanniyar: the first are the Tamil-speaking Vanniyars and the second are the Telugu-speaking Vanniyars. The Telugu-speaking Vanniyars are one community force; the Tamil-speaking Vanniyars are a different group. Those behind Ramadoss are, generally speaking, the Tamil speakers. The Telugu-speaking agni-kula Vanniyars – Naidus, Reddiyars and so on, unite with other Telugu speaking intermediate castes. They do not accept Ramadoss’ leadership. That is one thing. Secondly, the Telugu-speaking Vanniyars within the DMK – the authority rests with the wealthy Telugu-speaking Vanniyar candidates; that is why they are in that party.
In 2011 Vijayakant’s campaign split the Telugu Vanniyar vote. The PMK vote bank diminished and the DMK vote-bank shrunk too. In this situation the Telugu-speaking Vanniyars have no need to accept or work with VCK candidates. The Tamil-speaking Vanniyars in either the DMK or ADMK – there is little chance that they will fully endorse the VCK either. When someone who was working under them until yesterday suddenly stands as an MLA candidate, they do not have the will to view them as equals and so they withheld their votes too. As far as the downtrodden are concerned, they see voting as one of their main tasks but they are not yet politically conscientised to vote for one of their own, so their votes are still distributed amongst parties. Dalit votes fell for non-Dalit candidates, but the votes of the non-Dalits were not cast for Dalit candidates. This is the backdrop and underlying reason for the VCK’s loss in 10 seats. The Vanniyar votes and the other intermediate caste votes did not fall for the VCK. That is the truth. What should have happened is that their leaders should have given their followers requisite training. Had that happened then the chances of a DMK front defeat would have been eliminated.
Hugo: I accept the truth of this, but I’d contend that the VCK need to provide the same training too because …
Sannah: That’s true enough, it is definitely needed.
Hugo: For example in Sholavandan constituency, VCK cadres on the ground worked for the ADMK. If you ask on what basis they did that, they say that the PMK candidate there was Pallar whereas the ADMK candidate was Paraiyar and they wanted to give a Paraiyar a chance in their constituency. Many stood by their candidate but an equal number campaigned for the opposing party.
Sannah: That is, as you say, VCK comrades also definitely need that sort of political training. If caste feeling raises its head then this problem will arise everywhere. Also, one cannot say from this that all VCK cadres would behave the same if this occurred in 10 other constituencies. You also need to understand the local dynamics. When local caste frictions exist then there is a greater likelihood that cadres will work for the opposing caste candidate. We need to provide that training in future, we cannot forget that we are lacking in that department. We cannot pretend that caste equations do not matter in the VCK. We cannot expect that and this change needs to be brought about within the VCK as well.
Hugo: OK, now you have changed into a party. No Dalit party in Tamil Nadu can win with Dalit votes alone.
Sannah: They cannot, that is for sure.
Hugo: To win they need the votes of other castes. On those grounds – whether it be PT or VCK – you are speaking a lot about Tamil Nationalism now and you are bringing non-Dalits into the party and giving them posts. Could you say a bit about this please?
Sannah: Now, like you say, within Tamil Nadu people operate within a narrow sphere. There is a common perception of the VCK as a Dalit people’s party. Now if you look at Ambedkar’s writing on Dalits he refers to them as a majority people, but a ‘scattered majority’ – a majority that has been widely scattered – if you look at this scattered majority within any given locality they are a minority. So when you look at their position within a constituency they are in the minority. Across India they form a huge population, but in each area they can only be small parties. You cannot expect Dalit parties to gain power with such a vote-bank, lots more work is needed before that can happen.
At the same time there is a belief that if the downtrodden can gain recognition within wider society then they can be victorious. For example, Ambedkar started the Independent Labour Party which had both Dalits and non-Dalits as members. After a while what he does is that he changes it to the Scheduled Castes Federation (SCF). When the situation called for separate SC [Scheduled Caste] politics he thought to organise the downtrodden into a political force first of all before reaching out to others. What happened after that was that he introduced the new idea of the Indian Republican Party. Now look at these differences: first of all Independent Labour Party, then SCF, then the Republican Party. So he began by trying to create a common face – a common identity, but that did not become a success. He then emphasises caste identity, that does work to some extent but he feels that if he keeps on with this then caste identity will become a hindrance and so he forms a democratic party in the form of the RPI.
This reflection and consideration may be found in all parties in India. In some form or other they have adopted this strategy. Look in TN, first there was the Republican Party, then parties formed for the Adi-Dravidas, then a party for Pallars, then a party for Paraiyars and Arunthathiyars were formed. What happens is that, having formed them, they continue for a time as movements but as soon as they become parties they cannot stand on a caste basis so what do they do? Viduthalai Chiruthaigal; Puthiya Tamilagam, Paatali Makkal Katchi, etc. – they create parties with common names. Then if we are forming parties with common names and trying to rally the people we have to find common cause and we can only go to the nation. This is the only opportunity, and thus Tamil nationalism is the only possible plank.
So some parties of the downtrodden have adopted the concept of Tamil nationalism. This is one step on the journey towards a common identity. At the same time, when the Tamils were oppressed in Sri Lanka, generally speaking it is oppressed people who gave a voice to the oppressed; whilst other parties here all gave Tamils a voice politically, their emotive connection with the issue of Eelam was lacking. Here it is the downtrodden people who have experienced oppression and there the Tamils are most oppressed – whether they be in the Tigers or in other organisations, 80% of the people are downtrodden people. When they took up Tamil identity in the face of Sinhala oppression it was felt that this identity could secure a common identity for us here. It is in that belief those downtrodden parties are advancing the concept of Tamil nationalism. Even though there is a serious question as to whether Tamil nationalism would deliver liberation, this is a journey towards a common identity.
If this is recognised and accepted then caste feelings will really diminish, caste politics will lessen and this will facilitate the emergence of a truly democratic politics – that is the hope with which Tamil nationalism has been adopted. As far as the VCK are concerned, even when they were radically opposed to elections they spoke of Tamil nationalism. Whilst speaking like this even, they viewed other Tamil nationalist speaking movements with scepticism and wondered how committed they were to the cause. Since entering electoral politics they have continued to speak of Tamil nationalism. Having entered electoral politics there is no need for Tamil nationalism is there? They do not need to speak of this. So to some extent they have established some trust on this issue and Tamil nationalism has afforded the VCK an opportunity to gain some acceptance and recognition in the public sphere. This was accepted as a matter of course in the party.
Between 1998 and 2008, they spoke of Tamil nationalism but they also spoke of downtrodden leadership. Only the downtrodden can lead, just as the labouring masses called for labour leaders, so the downtrodden called for the downtrodden to lead on the issue of Tamil nationalism. At that point even some intermediate caste parties accepted that argument. At this point the VCK spoke of Dalit leadership, but there were no non-Dalits in the party. Whether they speak of this or not, Dalits are leaders in this party. Then the party has to be democratised and brought into line with other democratic parties; if we bring non-Dalits who truly desire Tamil nationalism into the party then the concept of Dalit leadership would make sense. On that basis what do they do in 2008 – they focus on this concept …
Hugo: The Velachery (VCK headquarters) declaration?
Sannah: The Velachery declaration. They bring that declaration forward in September 2007. Following that, all posts in the party were dissolved and in all areas people were asked to apply and new post-holders were announced in which Dalits, Muslims, and non-Dalits were included from 21st March 2008 and new postholders took office. Tamil nationalism was one reason for the integration of non-Dalits into the party, and this also created an opportunity to democratise the party.
Hugo: This is a welcome change, but what the cadres in the party are saying is that ‘we have been running round working for this party for twenty years; we have been beaten; we have been to prison. Suddenly, because we are now a party, non-Dalits are joining the party in order to get posts’. Have the grassroots members of the VCK accepted the non-Dalits?
Sannah: Now just as there is scepticism over whether non-Dalits can accept Dalits or not, that same scepticism exists amongst the Dalits of the VCK. It is not going to be absent there. We also cannot pretend that it is not there. If you ask why I am saying this, then a party is merely an expression of society. When you finish your party work you have no option but to go home. When you go home, likewise, you cannot abandon your party work. Party and society are one; so whatever problems you encounter in society you will also find in the party. You cannot look at them in isolation. If someone near his house is excluding a Dalit; burning his house; creating caste clashes, and doing all this sort of stuff. Then why would scepticism not arise within the party? It will definitely be there.
Only when society changes will this scepticism diminish within the party. Whilst social organisations retain this emphasis, caste-based outlooks will remain. What needs to happen is for those in leadership positions to understand this and create opportunities for a change of heart. As an organisation we need to give training to that end; we have been doing so and are going to redouble our efforts in this area. When doing that, as you say, you get people saying: ‘I’ve been in the party for 20 years, why am I not recognised?’ That very thought is mistaken, because this is political recognition in some ways. If we see it as non-Dalits accepting their leadership and entering the party then it is a form of recognition and we need to get this point across, but it will take time.
Hugo: Now, non-Dalits are coming into the party. Are they joining as individuals or as part of a group?
Sannah: Non-Dalits, in the current trend, are joining as individuals.
Hugo: Then this is not a major boost for electoral prospects; but if we leave elections aside for the minute is there any social gain to the inclusion of non-Dalits in the party?
Sannah: Now, only after we entered electoral politics and embarked on the democratic process has such an opportunity arisen. Had we maintained the election boycott then opportunities for such interaction would have been very limited, because though non-Dalits are joining us it is highly unlikely that they are joining us with a radical mind-set. They are a democratic force that is all.
The radically-minded intermediate castes were with the VCK even when we were boycotting elections and remain here now. They did not join with the aim of gaining electoral positions or success and do not expect such rewards now. They are working behind the scenes in the party and at the grassroots. We can say that they are one of the pillars of the party. But the small groups of people joining now, they are merely democratic forces. The party can use them and they use the party. This is continuing as a mutual understanding at present and we hope that this will gradually change over time.
Hugo: But since they have joined the party, and because we are allying with other parties such as the PMK, Moovendra Munnetra Kazhagam (Thevar Progressive Federation – a Thevar-dominated party based in South TN) or Kongu Nadu Munnetra Kazhagam (Kongu Land Progressive Federation – a party run by intermediate Gounder caste people from western TN), has caste violence reduced?
Sannah: It has definitely reduced!2 If you look at things from a different perspective then the fact that we are giving non-Dalits posts within the VCK sends a clear signal to other parties and castes: ‘Your people are also in this party’. Hitherto our opportunities to get close to other castes and parties were very limited; we could not speak directly to leaders. Such leaders do not have the heart to speak to Dalit leaders, there is a mental block. What this means is that when it comes to discussing coalitions, bargaining for seats or negotiating issues then the non-Dalits in our party are extremely useful. What this means is that if there is a caste clash anywhere or a problem then it is easier for our non-Dalit leaders to speak to non-Dalit leaders on the ground. This helps us to keep the peace and to resolve issues, and non-Dalits in the VCK have played a huge role in this. We should recognise and respect that role and realise that this is one path towards a more harmonious society.
Hugo: Okay, good, but at the same time if you look at what happened in Paramakudi [where 6 Dalits were killed in police firing and baton charges in September 2011] – at the heart of that conflict was the assertion that Dalits should not use the term Guru Puja, or DeivaMagan (Son of God) as they see these terms as reserved for their own leader. Thevars asked how Immanuel Sekaran could be spoken about in such terms. At that point couldn’t the non-Dalit comrades in the party intervene to resolve things?
Sannah: You are right, the problem that arose there was not one that happened suddenly or unexpectedly. In that area what the Mukkulathors think is that Guru Puja is a term reserved for Muthuramalinga Thevar and they are militant about this. It is since the Guru Puja for Immanuel Sekaran has begun to rival their one that the problem has arisen. The Paramakudi shootings did not just happen on that day, the roots of the shooting go back to when the Immanuel Sekaran Guru Puja began. They see it as a competition and are determined to stop it. It is a clear case of competition; and it is a very emotive issue. You cannot resolve these emotions just by having two or three leaders sit down to discuss the matter.
This is a continuation of the conflict between Muthuramalinga and Immanuel Sekaran that began in 1950. The two have both died now, but the conflict persists and we cannot expect to intervene and resolve it immediately. The people with the opportunity to stop this are in this party alone. That is why even in the 2011 election we gave the Madurai Mayoral seat to Mukkaiah Thevar’s (All India Forward Block MLA and Thevar leader) son Ganesan (in the party his name is Thiruma Pasumpon which is a combination of Thiruma = Thirumavalavan and Pasumpon = Muthuramalinga Thevar’s birthplace). He left the party – that is a different matter – but because he stood on our behalf then Mukkulathors outside of Paramakudi had faith that caste riots would not emanate from the Panthers, and trusted that the Panthers would not cause problems for them. Though he left the party many had already had a change of heart.
To my knowledge in one village there were 500 Pillai castes who switched allegiance en masse to the VCK. That was during the VCK membership campaign. Following our party president Thol. Thirumavalavan’s advice, we held membership drives between 2009 and 2011 and recruited more than 45 lakhs members into the party in Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry within two years. I am the organiser of that great mission and it is continuing and furthering the cause of the movement. In this membership drive many Mukkulathors joined the party, many Pillaimars joined, many Naidus joined, many Gounders joined – this is a result of the membership drive that we held and the elevation of non-Dalits to leadership positions. So the non-Dalits in the VCK play a vital role in controlling caste clashes and riots.
Hugo: Now Dalit cadres are a bit scared by this. Now there are many non-Dalits in the party meaning that non-Dalits believe that caste clashes will not arise. What Dalit comrades say about this, though, is: ‘if any problems arise then we will compromise; we are backtracking from earlier positions and have abandoned Dalits’. This is a fear that many grassroots, village Dalits have. What do you say about that?
Sannah: That is true enough, this fear is genuine because the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal is a party that has advanced the issues of the downtrodden – specifically Dalits – and acted on their grievances. As many non-Dalits are joining the party now there is an accusation that they are benefiting unduly from this. Of course there will be this suspicion and we cannot avoid that. What we need to ask is what political benefit the VCK have had from their membership; what they have achieved? Looking at that too, there are very few advantages. We have won only one MP seat and have lost 10 MLA seats.
Now only if we succeed politically can we resolve issues at the grassroots and have the opportunity to debate these issues. If we stand only as Dalits, however, we have very little chance of winning so we need the support of non-Dalits. When problems arise, as you say, we get complaints to the party leadership and what they say is that there are clashes occurring here. Even today there was an issue; it came up at the Court yesterday. In Seshasamudram3 there was a dispute between the cheri and oor over pulling the temple car. When the argument arose 44 Dalits were imprisoned, but not a single Vanniyar was arrested or imprisoned. Those creating the problem are the Vanniyars and the victims are the Dalits. When that problem is occurring who is it who takes up the issue? The VCK is the only party to address the issue.
Similarly there was a problem in Namakkal4 where they had been without a path to the cremation grounds for 20 years in a place called Munjanoor. There again it was the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal who took up the issue. As soon as the VCK stepped into the breach and took up the issue – the victims there are Arunthathiyars – no-one there made compromises with the non-Dalits. Because we protested without compromise the people have gained an access route to the cremation grounds today. I can keep giving examples like this, but in some villages there are minor or petty confrontations and we also have the responsibility to ensure that we engage in dialogue to prevent these small problems from escalating into major caste clashes.
You see the Panthers can make a fuss and then leave the village, but the villagers there need to live in peace. We cannot allow the problems caused by a few to adversely affect the entire village. In those situations we have to resolve matters through dialogue, there is no other option. In those situations one or two frustrated people might come and accuse us of compromise, but in some places such compromises are necessary to protect the people. What do we hold protests for? In search of peace and harmony, that’s why. So in some villages the party has a duty to prevent small issues from escalating and responsibilities to maintain the peace, but some people misunderstand this. That is the situation.
Hugo: That is an important point, but protests are not just to keep the peace [Sannah: No], they are also struggles for justice. If we do not gain justice then what is the point of the struggle? This accusation is also there. For example in Madurai there is Vandiyur Theerthukadu. Despite judgements from the Court, High Court and Supreme Court upper castes continue to occupy the land. Then what the residents there say is that there must be some compromise happening that means that we have yet to reclaim the land.
Sannah: They may say that, but in the place you mention who is supporting the upper castes? Are the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal behind them? [Hugo: No]. No, but the entire machinery of the government gives them support.
Hugo: Sure, but if you protest continuously will you not be able to regain the land?
Sannah: Definitely we would get it, if we protested continuously we would definitely get the land, but at the same time the VCK is not just a full time protest organisation. We protest to protect the people, but at the same time we also protest to gain a foothold in politics. There are many types of protest. This does not mean that we abandon this cause. We are still protesting about this as much as we can. Just yesterday they posted something about the issue on Facebook, about people being forced to carry shoes in their hands. This still happens today.
Please read the next part here (third and the last part).
. N.B.: This interview was conducted before the burning of over 260 houses in Dharmapuri in November 2012. The VCK have been to the fore in protests against this violence and have blamed the Vanniyar-dominated PMK of instigating the incident.
. “Dalit women begin fast unto death”, The Hindu, 9 September 2012, Villupuram (Tamil Nadu). Retrieved from: http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tpnational/
. “Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi begins indefinite fast”, The Hindu, 20 June 2012, Namakkal (Tamil Nadu). Retrieved from: http://www.thehindu.com/todayspaper/
Dr. Hugo Gorringe, Sociology Department, Edinburgh University (UK), conducted research on Dalit Movements in 1999 when the Dalit Panthers of India (now renamed Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi – or Party – VCK) was the largest and most vibrant movement in the state of Tamil Nadu, South India.
[Courtesy: The South Asianist]