This is the second part of the interview with P. Sivakami, ex-IAS officer, writer and politician who founded the political party, the ‘Samuga Samatuva Padai’, to work ‘on the principles of Dr Bhim Rao Ambedkar, as a forum for social equality’. She is also the founder of the Dalit Land Rights Movement in Tamil Nadu.
Sivakami had talked to Kuffir during the National Dalit and Adivasi Women’s Congress held at TISS, Mumbai, on Feb 15-16, 2013.
Continued from here.
Kuffir: We are disturbed by the Dharmapuri violence, one of the greatest tragedies in recent times, so many families were brought to the streets. What are your views on this? The Vanniyars are supposedly a backward class who are equally poor in some ways, but why did this happen? Their discourse seems (to indicate) there are more such things in the offing.
Sivakami: Actually, there have been inter-caste marriages between Dalits and Vanniyars earlier also, nothing happened there. Of late, a frustrated Ramadoss and his MLA Kaduvetti Guru, with ulterior motives, have been carrying out campaigns against inter-caste marriages and the repealing of the SC ST Act. Not only with ulterior motive of stopping of inter-caste marriages but they were also instigating caste violence, saying that, whoever tries to grab our girls should be murdered.
So they go on campaigning like that, and they were unchecked by the government, because these kinds of talk warrants arrest under normal circumstances. But the government did not do anything; plus because everybody knows what the attitude of the government towards the Dalits is. None of our requests are even heard by the government. Because we ask for promotion in vacancies, filling up of backlog vacancies, and we want new hostels for the students and increased allowances in hostels and infrastructural facilities in the villages, like basic amenities in the villages, drinking water, electricity and all that. And increased allocation for many requests like toilets and we are also asking for buying land from the Special Component Plan and give it to us. At least for self-help groups give some land because in Karnataka they have given land to the self-help groups.
None of our requests have been even listened to. Because we have hardly ever been sitting across the table, talking a few things, either with the Chief Minister or the ministers. We (keep) asking for appointments — unless and until we are given appointments how are we to express (our views)? We write letters after letters, nothing gets replied to.
So people know that this is a vulnerable community, even government is in the hands of the dominant castes and here this Ramadoss and Kaduvetti Guru are saying that you should kill them, it implies that there is no one for this community. And you can easily escape (if atrocities are committed) and cannot be booked under (the relevant) acts. So, I think they have the strength to come and attack, otherwise why should they come in large numbers and attack the villagers?
Kuffir: That is the point: they organized (attackers) from across the villages.
Sivakami: Yes, they had a meeting.
Kuffir: They had (also mobilized) other dominant communities?
Sivakami: No, no, other castes were not involved in this particular incident. So they set ablaze nearly 268 houses and as you say (now) they are all homeless. They are living in the open. The weather is not good for health. It is not cold, but in the month of December, January it is particularly bad. Most of them suffer from cold, fever etc including the children, and the newborns, and the pregnant women. Old people and young people, all sleep together like refugees from foreign countries.
Our initial action was to bring it to the notice of the SC ST commission. A number of demonstrations and agitations took place; any organization worth the name took out a struggle for Dhramapuri. It is not only me, everyone (did). But the result was zero. There was no announcement for building the houses, immediate relief of 50,000 (to affected families) was given. But we were demanding about 7 and half crores, we filed a case in the court. But nothing happened. (Then) what we did was that we had an all-party meeting, all organizational meeting, and joint (meetings) also.
From our party, namely Samuga Samatuva Padai, we organized a padayatra from Dharmapuri to Chennai. We walked nearly 169 Km in 7 days with all the victims. We went through villages and small towns and explained to people what had happened at Dharmapuri, we got the sympathy of the fellow Dalits. There was great reception for this padayatra, especially in Vellore district. Even the press reported that the government started finding out who is funding this padayatra, who is supporting, who is giving accommodation for these people etc. To that level, it was a successful thing (effort).
We handed over a memorandum to the Governor. Immediately after that, Government had released 7.5 crores, as ordered by the High Court of Chennai. Though the high court had ordered, for several days they did not pass the govt order, (only) because we took out the padayatra we got it. Now, there are two major demands remaining: one is the arrest of Ramadoss and Kaduvetti Guru under the National Security Act and secondly the building of houses of the same size that they were living in, minimum 300 sq.ft., or whatever size they were living in. This was the condition.
Also 2500 people attacked them but less than 200 people were arrested. Since there was no charge sheet filed, after 90 days they were let out on bail. And they have not taken action against the District Collector and district SP who did not prevent this atrocity. So for all these demands we are planning to stage a dharna in front of the parliament in the month of March; we also asked (for an) appointment from the PM to meet the victims. We are expecting (a response) any day, an appointment; so we will continue to keep this issue alive till the central and state governments meet our demands.
Another thing is — in the case of Delhi rape, the government immediately announced some relief, suspended those policemen and also gave her parents a house. But we are asking – because these people have lost their entire livelihood, and all the villages surrounding these 3 villages belong to the dominant castes, these people cannot go to work with them – therefore we requested the government to give them some cultivable lands. There is a provision in the law itself, but so far the TN govt has not given (land) to anyone, this we are trying to insist on.
Kuffir: In Lakshimpeta, which happened a little earlier, if you remember, there the special court has been okayed, compensation was announced earlier, but that was a brutal killing. They (mass organized attacks) seem to have somehow tapered down during the 90’s but have again started picking up now. In Paramakudi also the State itself was taking up the role of the dominant caste, there should be a national thinking on this. Because the national parties don’t seem to be even referring to these atrocities, the local parties face these, but the prominent national parties don’t seem to have evolved any strategy to deal with this.
Sivakami: Very true, the chief ministers should review this act every year, so that the loopholes could be plugged. If there is any threatening of the witnesses, the govt could think of giving protection to them. There may be an action committee in each of the district to assist these victims to file cases etc. If we suggest any measures, committee etc, in all those committees only the ruling party people will be there. they will listen only to the party head. They will not see the interests of the people, so there has to be a kind of a human rights (agency), a machinery (that) can be an independent or autonomous body.
Kuffir: You were talking about Panchayat status….that was a very vital intervention you made yesterday about separate panchayats for Dalit villages/colonies.
Sivakami: This concept is not new, Ambedkar had asked for separate settlement — the government should allocate some lands to them and earmark some money, so that they can live peacefully. Because they live in minorities, the dominant communities come and set their houses ablaze, attack them violently. So if they live in large numbers, they can combat atrocities much better than living in seclusion, in small numbers.
From that we can derive this principle of separate panchayats. In the Panchayat Act itself there is a provision. A gram sabha consists of 500 members, it (the Act) does not say caste members and untouchable members. The main component of a gram sabha is the gram, that is the village, and the number of people living in it. If that gets satisfied (if there are enough Dalit villagers to constitute a gram sabha) each of the Dalit bastis can be a separate panchayat. But wantonly govt, even in a bigger panchayat with more than 500 people living in the Dalit basti, they would like to partition it and include it within the caste hindu village so that the Dalits are always under the control of the dominant caste panchayat leaders.
Another disadvantage of living together is there are 29 items of expenditure involved or spent on the panchayat. Most of them relate to public properties which are located in the main village. The Dalit village has no worthwhile buildings, no temple, no ponds of its own and therefore all the benefits go to the dominant castes.
So if separate panchayat is declared, they will have their own priorities, set up primary schools, set up work share (arrangements), creating playgrounds for boys and girls to play, health clinics. If they want they can build a temple or vihara or whatever they want.
The main thing in panchayat raj is autonomy, self-reliance and self-governance. All these three things are not possible if you link it (the Dalit basti) with the caste village. The caste village will also be comfortable in its own way. Like a mother, she gives birth to the baby, immediately the umbilical chord has to be cut, nobody says why the mother and child should be separated. It is not the question of separation, as such there is (already) a geographical separation, and if you put governance under them (the caste village), the better off will eat more than the weaker sections.
Kuffir: Adivasi autonomy is not so questioned as the issue of Dalit separation.
Sivakami: Where will they go, in the village only they are living, they cannot have a separate land.
Kuffir: Cultural connections are also too many, in a way.
Sivakami: If the Dalit basti is developed, maybe there will be interaction with the village.
Kuffir: On an equal basis. That is necessary.
Sivakami: If there is no water in the main village they can come here.
Kuffir: Right now they would like to take both, as in Tsunduru.
Sivakami: Yes, everything they would like to take.
Kuffir: In one case, TN has been unique (with its history of) anti-caste politics, which has degenerated into dravidanism as you pointed out yesterday (a race theory). But it has also thrown up very vibrant leadership, right from Iyothee Thassar’s time. They were very strong figures and very independent figures who started their own journals and newspapers also, so early.
Now also we have the same kind of politically charged atmosphere wherein we have three parties, including yours, devoted to Dalit (emancipation) and the Dravidian parties have split several times and each caste has its own party, so where does the future of this mainstream politics, in which Dalit politics is also playing a part, lead?
Sivakami: Again going back to Ambedkar, because he said the minorities, Dalits, Adivasis and the small communities which are not accommodated in the OBC, MBC, you know, effectively…
Kuffir: There are (nearly) 300 OBC castes in TN, we get to hear about only a 10-20 OBC castes and they seem to be very dominant.
Sivakami: Rest of the communities don’t have any support, like Yadavas, Meenavars (that is the fishermen), and several other communities, like Sengunthar Mudaliars etc., Mudaliar is a dominant community, but Sengunthar Mudaliar is a weaver community. So several small communities are there, if their interests are taken care of, if we are able to decentralize power, we will be able to take the confidence and support of these smaller communities, (then) there is a possibility of political power…..
Kuffir: That is there, but political power seems to have reversed and gone back to…
Sivakami: I consider it this way, ours is young democracy, it is so new to us..
Kuffir: It is not in our ethos at all.
Sivakami: Yes, not in our ethos. We borrowed it from the west, it will take some time, and with this liberalized, global situation, our younger generations (may) see things, and it will change. The process is too slow, but depending on circumstances it can grow. So we try all possibilities, first they thought all the OBCs can stay together, but they split into several groups.
Kuffir: Only the dominant OBCs can say anything, and that becomes backward politics. That is the sum total of all backward politics, 2 or 3 castes in every states (working for their own interests).
Sivakami: Yes, now Dalits are emerging, probably under their leadership all these smaller communities (may come together). It is very difficult also, too many interests, too many sections, how to satisfy all of them.
Kuffir: Some common ground, economic situation is similar?
Sivakami: Suppose, take for example, we think that we bring about change in the amendment to the Land Ceiling Act, (allotting) say, 5 acres per family, and priority is given to Dalits because they have been denied ownership, but others also could be given (land). So this policy will satisfy most of those who are dependent on agriculture. You can make them happy (one).
Secondly, we can bring about entrepreneurship, setting up welfare boards for smaller communities where they are not able to benefit from the reservation policy for the backward classes, so they will benefit. Especially, we need to go into the specific requirements of the communities, because we cannot generalize everything. For Narikuravas, there may be separate schools required initially, till fifth standard. After that they can join the mainstream; and also there should be a kind of recruitment (in government) earmarked for Narikurava students alone, so when major recruitments (are done), on rotation basis we can accommodate them.
Kuffir: There is an interesting situation in TN wherein you have young Dalits online who are very educated, very articulate and on the other hand we have these atrocities. There is a larger percentage of young Dalits articulating in social media than in other routes, comparably. (But) this kind of violent conflict is there (offline).
Sivakami: Between emotions and intelligence, your emotion has caste affiliation and whereas your intelligence tells you that you will have to be democratic.
Kuffir: Sub-caste affiliations seem to be stronger also; I was talking to Pushpa Balmiki, before this, and she was talking about the larger Dalit movement not embracing the Balmikis or the Arunthiayars. These issues also have to be dealt with, and there are inner reservations (in TN) which might be squashed down. What are your views?
Sivakami: Like an affirmative action, wherever we find there is backwardness, we can always see it as area wise, because Arunthathiyars are living in a different belt, the western belt – Erode, Tirupur, Coimbatore, Salem, Namakkal, those areas. In those areas why don’t we strengthen the schools, insist on 100% literacy, and special coaching for children to pass the examinations so that they can compete with the other Dalit children and so they can (also) enjoy the quotas in due course. And also they are totally dependent on the Gounder community. Probably, if we distribute land to them, their economic status will be as good as any other Dalit’s. So there is a way that we can address the problems of all sub-sections within the Dalit community.
Kuffir: Many are still engaged in scavenging..
Sivakami: Yes, scavenging and manual jobs.
Kuffir: But mainstream parties in a way have been trying to work on these seeming fractures within the Dalit communities.
Sivakami: Mainstream is playing a trick; they want to take advantage of the sub-castes. So far they (sub-castes) are not inimical towards each other, nor are they very friendly, there is no antagonism; they have a parallel existence, that’s all. They do not have any marital relationships between the communities, mainly because they are geographically living in different places.
Kuffir: But the Tamil Dalits are some of the most educated Dalits..
Sivakami: When they come out of their villages they have inter-caste marriages. But on our own we are not making any effort, inter-caste marriages are happening between these three sections. But as a policy we have to encourage inter-caste marrigaes between these three castes.
Kuffir: Apart from these three castes, there are 30 smaller communities, much less known, Dalit politics have to address this issue. How do view your own political future? Yours has not been an election based party.
Sivakami: I don’t call it that, because any political party has to contest election, as I can’t preach something and allow my party cadre to work for somebody else.
Kuffir: I mean you are not totally focused on elections like other parties.
Sivakami: Yes, you can say that. What is necessary for the country, for the deprived people? That we will have to continue to do, I am sure we should be able to negotiate land matters, if we negotiate land matters, half of our problems are solved. And also sharing of budget resources, that is an important thing. Govt is spending on unwanted things in a lopsided way.
Kuffir: How about the SC ST Plan, by making it statutory and giving …. like they have done in Andhra Pradesh.
Sivakami: If you take the TN budget as….. 100,000 crores, 18,000 crores will be the share of Dalits, out of 18,000 hardly anything reaches them. We have to keep our priorities; we want land, so why don’t you earmark funds for retrieval of panchami lands? Because government runs (fights) the cases for them, so keep some amount for that, for atrocities against Dalits, (allocate some amount for that). But the main important thing is (that the) government should introduce a system of purchase of lands and giving it to them (the Dalits).
Kuffir: Land bank kind of thing.
[Photograph courtesy: Nilesh Kumar]
This interview was transcribed by Anu Ramdas.
Video courtesy: Neel Kranti Media, Ratnesh Kumar and Gurinder Azad.