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Interview with Gowthama Sannah, Propaganda Secretary of the VCK (Part 3)

Interview with Gowthama Sannah, Propaganda Secretary of the VCK (Part 3)

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This is the third and final part of the interview with Gowthama Sannah, Propaganda Secretary of the VCK – Chennai, 26th September 2012

(Please read the second part here and the first part here)

[This interview was first published in Vol 2, No 1 (2013) issue of ‘The South Asianist’]

Hugo Gorringe: Where was this?

Gowthama Sannah: In a village near Dindugal. There are such problems in many places, but it is only when we become aware of these issues that everyone realises that the problems exist. There are so many villages which have not come to public attention, what can we say about them? Now we in the VCK need to tackle court cases, protest, lead struggles, stand against caste- Hindus, stand against exploiters, stand against the police, address the concerns and doubts of party comrades, address the concerns of non-Dalits in the party – it is within this multitude of concerns that we have to address any problem. We cannot directly confront any problem, but have to be mindful of all these in finding a solution. In some areas we get an immediate resolution in others – like in Munjanoor (Namakal District) – it took 20 years to get a solution. In those 20 years what will the people have said? They will have said: ‘this lot come and go, and come and go’, that is what they will have said. Today we were successful on the back of continued protests – this was not a one-off demonstration or a problem that arose the other day. Caste is an issue that has been ongoing for thousands of years and you cannot resolve that in two or three days. It takes years of sustained protests. If the VCK back off from such protests then you can condemn us. If they accuse us of selling out even when protests are ongoing then it is our job to help them understand the ground realities.

Hugo: Right, but now you have become a party. Since becoming a party have your ideals and priorities changed?

Sannah: That is, as our leader Thirumavalavan has said, we have changed our tactics but not our principles. The party’s five goals remain the same. The route we take to attain those goals may change with the times. No movement can stick to the same strategy forever – that also would not work out. So there is absolutely no scope to even suggest that we have abandoned or sold out on our underlying ideals since entering electoral politics. Our ideals remain exactly the same and we are continuously protesting towards their realisation.

Hugo: OK, if the ideals are the same has the structure of the party changed? My sense is that the secondary rungs of leaders have not yet attained state level prominence.

Sannah: This is a widespread accusation – that is true – as far as secondary leaders are concerned – whoever the media recognise are the next level leaders. More to the point, the trend in Tamil Nadu is that whoever the leader recognises – they alone are leaders. I’m speaking generally here. He will have been a cinema actor till yesterday, suddenly he will start a party and all the newspapers join as one to elevate him into a major leader. There is no room there for any questions about what he did till that point, what he has protested or spoken about in the past. It is the media that creates leaders. As far as the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal is concerned they focus exclusively on the leader who has been protesting all these years and that is Thiruma.

Hugo: It is not just the media; that is the problem.

Sannah: No, not just the media but I will explain things step by step. The media focus on him and so everyone recognises his face. At the same time within each party there will only be one person who is a mass leader. In every party there is just one mass leader. Second rung leaders need recognition within the party, only then will they gain newspaper and other media recognition. With our party the issue is that because we have emerged from the downtrodden sections everyone has a desire for leadership. This means that there is huge competition for each place. In that sort of competition it is only when each candidate recognises the other that an established secondary leadership can emerge. … If that emerges, then a secondary leadership can emerge. That is one point. Secondly, do people accept those who are already in place as secondary leaders? That is not the case. There is great resistance to accept even those four or five leaders like myself who are known as thinkers across Tamil Nadu. How do we overcome that resistance? We cannot confront it head on, each person has their own views – it is a huge matter that they have accepted Thirumavalavan. They now ask: ‘Should we recognise others and make this party bigger?’ So non-Dalits have prevented the recognition of others. Caught between these two issues, VCK’s secondary leaders are unable to get into the limelight and get stuck where they are.

Hugo: But the party could do more to promote them could it not? [Sannah: True] For example in Vaiko’s party Nanjil Sampath acts as a star speaker.5 There is no such figure in the Panthers apart from Thiruma [Sannah: Yes]. If someone other than Thiruma could be nurtured and allowed to speak in each area then they too would be imprinted in people’s minds.

Sannah: That is true enough, but you cannot say that there are no speakers, they are there.

Hugo: There is no star speaker though.

Sannah: Even star speakers …

Hugo: Not just that, there is the question of what people think about others. For example, in Parali Pudur, where Backward Castes burst into the cheri, set houses alight and beat people up. When I first went there they said: ‘The VCK has done nothing for us’. When I asked further they said: ‘People from the party came and stayed here for over a week and gave us protection and food and so on, but they did not take up the issue properly’. When I asked what that meant they said: ‘No leaders came’. Did no-one come I asked. It turned out that Pandiyammal (VCK’s Madurai Urban District Secretary) had come, Ellalan (VCK’s Madurai Rural District Secretary) had come, ArtralArasu had visited. In the end what it boiled down to was the fact that Thirumavalavan had not been. ArtralArasu is a state leader [Sannah: Yes], Pandiyammal and Ellallan are City and Regional leaders [Sannah: Regional leaders yes]. For the sole reason that Thiruma had not visited they maintained that the VCK had done nothing and have yet to replace the board declaring their allegiance to the party.

Sannah: Yes, people have not yet got the mindset to accept secondary leaders and we need to change that bit by bit. That is a drawback in the party and we have to accept that. The problem is that everyone expects the leader.

Hugo: What I thought was that those three leaders are all local and well-known faces. Had a Ravikumar (General Secretary of VCK and then MLA) or a Sinthanai Selvam (General Secretary of VCK) visited at that time, they would at least have felt that ‘someone has come from the north of the state’ and even though the leader did not go they would have been buoyed by the visit of a big name from elsewhere. [Sannah: Mmm]. You could even do things like this [Sannah: Definitely]. You can send ArtralArasu to Cuddalore and send SinthinaiSelvam to Madurai. In sending them across state like this, the people will gain some belief that the party is taking their concerns seriously in sending big leaders.

Sannah: True, that should have happened but we missed that opportunity. We can change that in the future.

Hugo: OK, one other related question concerns candidates. How do you select them? In 2011 you got 10 seats. Of those 10 there was just the one who was a woman I think. Of the 10 were 2 non-Dalits? [Sannah: Yes]. How do you decide who to give a seat to?

Sannah: In elections when thinking about the candidates, the first point is that whichever party we are allied with determines which seats we will contest from. They decide the constituencies.

Hugo: Do we have no say in that?

Sannah: They determine the place – the seat.

Hugo: Exactly, can we not say that we want these constituencies.

Sannah: Yes, we submit a list. If we hand in a list of 40 then they will give us 10 out of them. That is how it works. Of these there are about five that we can really demand and fight for. But this is decided first by them. When deciding this, the situation that the DMK and ADMK have created is that we should only field local candidates. That is what they think. What that means is: whoever is the majority caste in a constituency will get the position. These two happen, and then the next consideration is whether they have the financial strength to campaign. Candidates are decided on the basis of these three criteria. This is also the procedure for the VCK. We both do and do not follow this line. They only adopt that process to some extent. What we look for within the party when allocating seats is that: they should have some authority amongst the people; they must have worked for the party for a long time; then we consider what their performance in the Assembly would be like – it is on the basis of two or three issues like this that they determine who to nominate. Even if it is the leader who has the final say, he consults widely before doing so. It is on that basis that the leader announces our candidates. This is what has happened in two or three elections. In those announcements then there will assuredly be one woman and one non-Dalit. That has to happen. If we get 10 seats then two non-Dalits and one woman – that is what they set aside. If they have to be Dalit then within Dalits it should be a woman. It is on that basis that in each election one woman would have stood for election in at least one constituency. The same with non-Dalits who could be Muslims or other castes. Seats are set aside for them and it is on that basis that nominations are made. There is nothing massively complicated about all this.

Hugo: Do you think that Thirumavalavan should be a candidate? I’m asking this as Thiruma can hardly ever visit his constituency. He is always on the go, hardly having time to sleep he travels round not just TN but now also to Delhi. This means he cannot conduct his constituency work, so who is looking after that in his absence?

Sannah: Now this question should not even arise … There is a PM in each country, there is a PM in India, does he go to his constituency? [Hugo: No]. Jayalalitha is there. Does she go to her constituency? Leaders are those who represent people in a political sense. There is always an accusation that their constituencies suffer as a consequence and this exists everywhere. Not just VCK leader Thirumavalavan, but for all leaders. They cannot go to their constituencies. Simple MPs and MLAs can focus on their constituencies, but leaders are unable to do so and that work needs to be taken up by the secondary rung leaders within their parties. On that basis in Chidamambaram MP Constituency the VCK has a huge team to decide what work needs to be done and what needs to happen. That group finds out what places have what issues and draws up a list noting where roads need to be laid, where tanks need to be built, where social centres and libraries are required, where schools are needed, they note all these issues in a list and then allocate funds accordingly from the Rs. 5 Crore constituency funds – they are spending that continuously. That constituency work is happening, it is ongoing – it is not like it is being neglected, but the papers do not report this in any detail. So, as far as leaders are concerned, the questions of can they stand for election or not does not even arise. Party leaders should definitely stand for election because only then will other people gain some faith in him.

Hugo: But if that work is not done, then they will not be able to win again – that is the problem.

Sannah: That’s true, that is why I say there is a team working on this. And you also need to please try to understand, that we as a party have an extra limitation. That is, as far as the VCK is concerned, we are not only interested in that MP Constituency or whatever state constituencies we have won, we are involved all over state wherever Dalit and downtrodden people are affected.

Hugo: True, but this raises the question of what have you achieved as a party? What changes have you effected? As a movement you brought about many changes. The promise to return a blow for a blow was etched in people’s minds and created consciousness and mobilisation. What have you done for the people as a party?

Sannah: As I said before, the party can only focus on issues that are raised in society. They reflect society. Back then when we spoke of hitting back, Mukkulathors and Vanniyars were vehemently and violently anti-Dalit. After Dalits started to counter-attack their predatory instincts diminished. Now they do not engage in major riots, they do not tend to set light to cheris, they do not tend to muster people to attack Dalits.6 Though small-scale violence persists in many places, the will to engage in major clashes has declined. Then why should we stick to the same ‘hit back’ slogan and strategy? You can only say that when there is a need. Now, when they are being quiet – after the war, peace is the only way. At a time when they think to be peaceful we too should adopt that path. Even so, wherever there continues to be oppression then the ‘hit back’ slogan will have resonance and will be deployed – that is happening today. We have not abandoned that.

Hugo: Ok, but as a party what changes have you brought about?

Sannah: Yes, I am coming to that question. When we were a movement the people were mobilised on the basis of emotions to become a political force. As I said before there is a need to channel this political emotion into an organisation and materialise it. If we want to gain political power then we have to become a political party. One cannot take political power as a movement. Till now we had a lot of freedom. We could oppose who we wanted, condemn who we wanted and depended on noone who we might criticise. We condemned anyone we wanted on the basis of our principles. Having become a party, however, we must abide by the norms set down by the Indian Electoral Commission and abide by their regulations. This imposes a certain discipline and we need to be disciplined about who we condemn and how we do so. We need to work within these limits and familiarise ourselves with the political culture. Till now Dalits have been shut out of that, but that has started to develop in the past ten years. Having joined the electoral path we have nurtured this political culture.

Hugo: Ok, but the voters on the ground are not looking for that. They anticipate job opportunities, houses, freebie policies/handouts – these are what they expect. As a party – furthermore, when you were in the ruling party coalition – could you offer people such opportunities?

Sannah: When we were in the ruling party alliance we were only able to do that to a limited extent, because as far as the VCK was concerned this was the first ever time for us to be in the ruling coalition. It was new and so we were uncertain about how to best use the ruling party. Not knowing, we protested and fought to get the necessary work done, but I am not sure that we were totally successful in this as both the DMK and ADMK have been in government for 50 years and grown accustomed to government. Extracting resources from them and taking them to the people was a serious undertaking and we did not fully succeed in doing so. This is for the future. We need to learn how to do this, we too are still learning aren’t we? We have created an understanding of the processes to some extent though, we have understood how to best use the ruling party.

Hugo: In many places you have also got work for people.

Sannah: We have, that has happened. In many places it has happened. We can’t talk in terms of thousands of opportunities, but certainly in hundreds.

Hugo: Now what you said at the outset was that yours was an ideologically inspired party. If you ask what ideals you have then there are women’s rights, land rights, class equality, and caste eradication. What have you done to realise these?

Sannah: Our five main goals?

Hugo: Yes, now what seems to happen is that there is a clash or a riot today and you rush to the scene and work on that issue. This happens on the one hand. On the other hand you have these ideals. What work are you doing to achieve them?

Sannah: Now you have to understand one point: Dalit politics has an agenda and a goal, but we cannot dedicate ourselves 100% to moving this goal forward 100% of the time. We have the desire to attain them; we make efforts to attain them; we have plans and policies to reach them but as we proceed towards these goals what happens is that they say: if they achieve this the movement will become too big. Not just for the Panthers I am talking about the fate of Dalit movements across India. What the ruling class think is that if we achieve our goals there will be a major change in society. As a consequence they create distractions and diversions; they register cases against party cadre, they instigate riots, once the media and other organisations instigate such conflict then our concentration on the goal is dissipated. Once that happens we end up facing in multiple directions. Then we resolve issues and get back on track only for this to recur again. Whatever the end goal or peak of Dalit politics is, when we are mired in problems time and again we are dragged down and have to wade through these first. An issue that should be resolved in 10 years takes thirty. This is what is happening with the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal, they too cannot escape this fate. Even if the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal stay true to an issue – you yourself mentioned Parali Puthur, here there is Seshasamudram and there are countless villages like this – as we proceed towards our ideals we also have to give attention to them. We have never said that problems will be resolved immediately, but we remain committed to trying to resolve them. This is one point.

The next is that the party speaks radically about Tamil Nationalism. Whilst doing so then we work together with parties and non-political organisations that are also campaigning on similar issues. We are working with social organisations and Tamil nationalist outfits for whom elections have no rewards because they are firm in their boycott of elections. We work together on an issue-basis to raise the profile of the cause. We also take up the class struggle. When tackling class inequalities even if we accept that the downtrodden people fall within a class, the intermediate castes do not agree with this analysis. Despite this we do not see the intermediate castes as opponents; we see them as working towards similar ends and join with them in protests. When fighting against exploitation we join with Tamil nationalist movements and with intermediate caste groups as well as with other democratic forces. In terms of women’s rights, these movements speak of women’s rights and we join forces with them on those issues too. Then there is caste eradication. When it comes to caste eradication, however, none of the other parties have this as an objective. The VCK alone has this goal. As far as this ideal is concerned the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal must operate alone and we have no friends whatsoever. They have no need to eradicate caste and they have their own separate agenda. So when you look at our five main ideals, we work with other parties and movements to achieve four of them but we are still in a situation where we have to stand alone and protest for the final issue. We do not believe for a moment that we can resolve all these issues immediately, but we are unerringly working towards those goals. Moreover we have taken these five demands down to the grassroots. No one in the cheris knew about Tamil nationalism; none knew about women’s rights; none knew about campaigns against oppression. If, today, these are matters that are discussed within the cheris then that is a result of the VCK’s efforts alone.

Hugo: They may speak about them, but if you take caste eradication this has yet to take root at the ground level. This is why between Pallars, Paraiayars and Arunthathiyars …

Sannah: Problems arise – that is true.

Hugo: There is no unity amongst them, no inter-marriages. Where they do marry; their families do not accept them, so how do we take these ideals to the people?

Sannah: This is what I have been saying. Now take the demand to eradicate caste: the VCK is just 22 years old. That too, we have been in party politics for about 12 years. How can you possibly expect us to resolve a 2000 year old problem in 12 years? We have created a platform haven’t we? The fact that Arunthathiyars, Pallars and other castes are now joining the party is something that we could never have anticipated before isn’t it? A party can only create that platform and you cannot condemn us on this basis alone.

Hugo: I totally accept that, but what are the next steps? That is my question. What steps are you taking towards these goals? You will have discussed this in the party and talked about how to progress.

Sannah: Now, up to the present what we have had is the leader meeting directly with the people and holding demonstrations, now technology has advanced. Now with the advance of technology there is a huge question mark over whether we can reach the grassroots without harnessing it because all existing media – if I go and speak in a village I could speak for one hour. After I have finished speaking and left they will spend 10 hours watching television. Other concepts and ideas are taken to them via the television, so the issues that I spoke about will be forgotten within the hour. Only if that message is taken to them continuously will their doubts and thoughts start to change. Only then will the ideas of caste eradication and women’s liberation begin to imprint themselves in people’s minds. While people are publicising the goals of the movement the next stage for the Panthers must be to take the media into their hands and take these issues to the viewers. If we can compete with other channels then we believe that we can turn the media into a democratic force. At present we are in the process of trying to take the media into our hands.

Hugo: OK. On a different matter – two months ago I was in Karnataka where I met M.C. Raj of REDS who is leading a campaign on proportional representation. They see the electoral system as flawed. Are you taking part in these discussions?

Sannah: Definitely, definitely. Now in Sri Lanka, the Sri Lankan government is extremely oppressive, but at the same time there is the necessary representation for Tamils. Even if Rajapaksa’s government wins with an overall majority, there is the opportunity for opposition MPs to enter parliament and it is their proportionate electoral system that is the reason for this. Here we do not have that. Here it is numbers alone. It is a majoritarian electoral system. There is a vote. If there are 100 votes then whoever gets 51 votes is the winner, but I will give you a small example. Let us assume there are 100 votes. 3 or 4 parties compete together in a coalition. In terms of voter turnout we have yet to cross 70% in India. In general it is 68 or 65% that is all. Then that means that 30% of the people do not vote in elections. Of the remaining 70%, the ruling party gets some, the opposition party some and the third parties pick up votes as well. All in all at the end of the day when we add up how many votes the ruling party has received it is between 25 and 30% of the vote. What this means is that in truth the government in India is a minority government. Even if they gain 30-40% of the vote that means that 60% of the voters are against them. Then how can we call this a democratic country? So we oppose this voting system. If MPs and MLAs were distributed on the number of votes each party receives then everyone would get the opportunity to enter parliament. Therefore we wholeheartedly support the campaign for proportionate electorates and are thinking of launching a campaign on this issue. Although we have taken part in existing campaigns we are considering launching our own dedicated mass movement on the issue.

Hugo: This is important, because if this occurred then there would be no need to rely on coalitions.

Sannah: Exactly, there would be no necessity of that at all.

Hugo: I have taken a lot of your time and learned many issues from you. Many thanks.


5. Ironically, the spokesman mentioned here fell out with Vaiko shortly afterwards. In December he switched allegiance to the ADMK (cf. “Nanjil Sampath joins AIADMK”, The Hindu, 4 December 2012, Chennai (Tamil Nadu). Retrieved from:

6. Again, note that this interview occurred before Dharmapuri.


 Dr. Hugo Gorringe can be contacted at: 

 J. Gowthama Sanna at:

 More information about Mr. Sanna may also be obtained at


About Gowthama Sannah: J. Gowthama Sannah, 39, M.A. (History), M.L is a writer and ideologue of Dalit politics and sociology. He has published over 80 articles in several Tamil magazines since 1995. He has also written several books on Dalit and social issues:

1. Anti-Conversion Act – history, socio-political background and its impact published by Marutha Publication (2006).

2. Ayothidass Pandithar, A brief monograph in Tamil, published by Sahitya Academy, a unit of Social and Cultural Ministry, Govt of India (2007)

3. Pandithari Kodai (Gift of Pandithar Ayothidass) – on the leader who gave the Reservation concept to modern India from the south. Published by Kalkam Publications (2007)

4. Edited the ‘Liberation of Menfolk‘, an address delivered by Meenambal in 1930 at Tirunelveli. She was the first women leader in South India. Published by Krisal Pathipagam (2009).

5. Compiler and publisher of Tamil Uyir (Tamil Life, 2009) a collection of eminent artists’ paintings based on the suffering of the Sri Lankan Tamils.

Forthcoming books

1. Kalakathin Maraiporul – a collection of articles which have been published in various journals.

2. Tamilan Ozitha Sathi – (Tamilan who destroyed caste)

3. Mathavilasa Kandanam (A refutation of Matha Vilasa Prahanasam (the humour of the insane) which was written by King Mahenra Varma Pallavan, 630AD

4. Kurathiaru – fiction; a mythical history and magical realistic account of the river Kotralai.

As well as writing about caste and politics in Tamil Nadu, Sannah has been heavily involved in campaigning both before and since joining the VCK. His activities include:

1. Founder, SANGAM – a Dalit and Buddhist archive and a platform for propagating Ambedkar’s thoughts (1996)

2. Founder, Dalit Student Federation- for uniting Dalit students all over the state. (1999)

3. Founder member of AKMK – All Colleges Student Federation (1999)

4. Founder member and Treasurer of SIDWA – South Indian Dalit Writers Association (2003)

5. One of the founder members of International Institute of Dalit Studies, Chennai (2004)

6. Founder, Young Buddhist Association (YBA) (2005)

7. Founder Member, Creators for Social Harmony (2012) – a coalition of writers, poets, artists and play-wrights who came together in the aftermath of the violence in Dharmapuri.


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