Wearing caste on the wrist — green for Dalits, red for Thevars

Last month, a 12-year-old Dalit boy in Jodhpur was beaten up by his teacher for allegedly taking a plate from a stack meant for upper castes. The Indian Express visits schools across the country where lessons in caste differences start early.

Written by Arun Janardhanan | Chennai | Updated: November 5, 2015 11:41 am
Dalit, Dalit student, dalit beaten, discrimination, dalit discrimination, caste discrimination dalit tortured, Dalit, Dalit student, dalit beaten, dalit tortured, dalit jodhpur, dalit rajasthan, non-Dalits, dalit jodhpur, dalit rajasthan, non-Dalits, india news, indian express Sivakani , a 15-year-old from Gopalasamudram, had to quit studies after the Dalit school in her village shut down and her parents couldn’t afford to send her elsewhere. (Express Photo by: Arun Janardhanan)

IN the schools of Tirunelveli, about 650 km south of Chennai, caste comes in shades of red, yellow, green and saffron. It’s what students wear on their wrists, on their foreheads, around their necks, under their shirts. It’s who they are.

At the Government Higher Secondary School in Tirunelveli town, a Class X student extends his hand to display his green-and-red kayaru, a wrist band of interwoven threads. “The upper castes have yellow-red bands, so we have these,” he said.

In this belt in southern Tamil Nadu known for violent caste conflicts between OBCs and Dalits, these wrist bands are markers that tell children who is a friend, who isn’t. Though there are no written rules, students usually know their ‘colours’ by the time they reach high school.

It’s red and yellow for Thevars, blue and yellow for Nadars, saffron for Yadavs — all socially and politically powerful Hindu communities that come under the Most Backward Classes (MBC) category — while students of the Dalit community of Pallars wear wrist bands in green and red and the Arundhathiyars, also Dalits, wear green, black and white.

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In August, while investigating the increasing number of clashes between student groups, the district administration found that wrist bands were often used to target on the basis of caste. The district collector then asked the education department to ban wrist bands in schools in Tirunelveli. There was no written order, only a direction issued at a meeting of the education department. A headmaster, who was present at the meeting, said, “It was a verbal direction but a strong one,” he said.

dsChief Educational Officer of Tirunelveli R Swaminathan confirmed that they had issued such a warning. “We have already directed all schools to ban such bands following reports of caste clashes based on colour. Not just wrist bands, any colour that they use to identify their caste is banned,” he said.

But it’s easier said than done. These kaiyarus can be confused for sacred threads handed out in temples and it’s hard to impose any such ban. Besides, there are more ways to talk caste.

A Dalit student of a school in Tirunelveli town said the pottu (bindi or tilak) worn by students were also colour-coded. “If you wear a pottu with yellow sandalwood paste, with a dash of vermilion on it, I know you are a Thevar,” he said. The other dominant castes, like the Nadars, have their own colour-coded tilaks; Dalits, he said, usually don’t wear them.

The 13-year-old likes yellow — “it’s my favourite colour” — but he can’t wear it because he will be “questioned” by the Thevars. “We get a yellow kayaru from temples, but I can’t wear that on my wrist. If I did, they would taunt me and call it a ‘rowdy band’,” said the Class X student.

He says he can’t risk the wrath of the upper-caste students because he is new to this school. This year, he moved to Tirunelveli town from the Dalits-only school in Gopalasamudram village. The school in his village was once part of the Pannai Venkatramaiyer High School, but in November 2013, after a caste tension in the village, a separate branch was set up for Dalits and he was among the 140 students who moved there. But in June this year, the district administration refused to renew permission for the Dalits-only school, forcing most of the students to drop out. One of the students, 15-year-old Sivakani, was forced to quit studies as her parents couldn’t afford to send her to a school outside the village.

C Lakshmanan, an assistant professor of the Madras Institute of Development Studies and a leading researcher of Dalit issues, said such practices in Tamil Nadu could be attributed to the lack of political representation for Dalits. While the Scheduled Castes make up 20 per cent of the population in the state, they have poor political representation.

“These practices emerged in the 1990s. When we were working to implement the Panchayati Raj Act in the state, we came across a series of instances of Dalits being barred from local body elections. Around the same time, political movements representing OBCs also began to take shape, giving these OBC communities better social clout. So while these dominant communities used markers such as wrist bands to single out and subjugate Dalits, for the Dalits, these were ways of asserting themselves,” he said.

A headmaster at a school near Tirunelveli town said there were other markers. “Like you have different houses — green house, yellow house, etc — in city schools, children here wear coloured vests. We cannot ban everything, definitely not what children wear under their uniform. These vests come in handy during a game of basketball to draw up teams based on caste lines, but they are as effective to settle scores,” said

The headmaster said anything, even a song, can trigger caste tension among students. Recalling one such instance, he said, “Recently, a Dalit student on a bus played a song on his cellphone hailing Ambedkar. A Thevar student responded by playing a song in praise of his caste from the Kamal Hasan movie, Thevar Magan. This led to a clash between students representing both communities,” he said.

Students also wear lockets with photographs of leaders representing their castes. K Kamaraj lockets are popular among Nadar students; the Thevars wear lockets with photographs of U Muthuramalingam Thevar, a veteran political leader for Thevars; the Yadavs have claimed Veeran Alagumuthu Kone, one of the first freedom fighters, as their own; while in Coimbatore and Namakkal regions of the state, Gounder students wear lockets of Dheeran Chinnamalai, one of the commanders in the Polygar Wars of 1801-1802.

People here say such caste markers were unheard of until two decades ago. “These practices coincided with the rise of several caste-based political parties (such as the Samathuva Makkal Katchi of Nadars and the All India Moovendar Munnani Kazhagam of Thevars) and movements. While such practices are particularly visible in Tirunelveli, you will find them across the state,” said M Bharathan of the Human Rights Council based in Tirunelveli.

“Wrist bands and coloured vests are just what you see. There’s much more to this conflict,” said Lakshmanan. Tirunelveli district collector M Karunakaran said he ordered the ban on coloured wrist bands and other things used to identify caste following a police report on the increasing number of caste-based clashes in schools. “We banned all sorts of things, including wrist bands, after a police report studied the pattern of violence in schools and colleges. The police sought help from the district administration. Not only schools, college officials too were called for a meeting where we asked them to ban such things,” he said.

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First Published on: November 4, 2015 3:15 am
  1. j
    johntoreno07
    Feb 11, 2016 at 4:33 am
    Our Dravidian Utopia EVERYBODY! Free of evil brahmins! there is no such thing as caste discrimination in Tamil nadu!
    Reply
    1. R
      raj
      Mar 22, 2016 at 7:30 am
      Late MGR was the last man who stood for upliftment of SC/ST- tribal community and during his period incidence were very less- in control. after his death slowly many caste based parties EVOLVED - involved in killing - suppression of dalits tribals on n no of incidence especially , mainly in rural area of TN - OBSERVATION
      Reply
      1. C
        Communal Rukstales
        Nov 4, 2015 at 10:34 pm
        We peioned UN to NOT endorse India's UNSC membership till Modi regime gives GUNS to BC/SC/ST communities for their self-defense/resist oppression;
        Reply
        1. A
          Abraham Kurian
          Nov 13, 2015 at 8:32 pm
          Closing the school is a crime against the Dalit's in Thirunelveni district . Now the Dalit kids drop out of school. Lack of education in the Dalit community is the cause, why they are considered second cl citizens. The repression of the so called higher cl prevent any upward mobility of these poor people. It sad and and unjustified in a democratic state to repress poor uneducated people. India is a free nation. After more than fifty years of freedom these people Suffer the worst form of slavery in the world. I urge Amesty international to look into this cultivated discrimination.
          Reply
          1. C
            Caste_Castersted
            Nov 4, 2015 at 9:16 am
            Tamil NADU is the pioneer in eradicating caste names. The genration prior to 1965 were using caste names as their lastname. The revolution was such a success that not a single person uses caste name. Compare and contrast with Noth Hindians. For them they caste is everything! So the brahmins all migrated out of TN BECAUSE THERE WAS NO BUSINESS OF DIVIDING AND RULING IN TN. BY THE WAY DONT MESS WITH TN.
            Reply
            1. H
              Haradhan Mandal
              Nov 4, 2015 at 6:20 pm
              OK!
              Reply
              1. H
                Haradhan Mandal
                Nov 4, 2015 at 4:26 pm
                Very TRUE - " Reservation and Quota" is responsible for the caste-hatred and caste -divide from the upper caste. before that - we were blood bothers like Ram and Laxman - two equal brothers. Eating from the same vessel, fed by the same 'Hindu Matha' . Dr. Ambedkar got his first job in India thru reservation and quota. And he was not allowed to drink from the same vessel that other NON-SC professors of the college used. But before that - Dr Ambedkar and all other 'quota' people never FELT any difference in the society.
                Reply
                1. S
                  Sundar
                  Nov 4, 2015 at 1:09 pm
                  Modi is responsible. It is a pity that the English media is not blaming Modi's govt for this.
                  Reply
                  1. P
                    Pat
                    Nov 13, 2015 at 11:42 pm
                    Shame to the people who are hurting human beings, uplift them you devils not malign them do good karma is better . How can they be discriminated shocking shameful and hurt by these low ideas.
                    Reply
                    1. D
                      Driven_Out
                      Nov 4, 2015 at 9:06 am
                      Brahmins are a bane not just in India but where ever they go. They introduced caste system as s law through "KING WHISPERING" in which nobody can beat or no human can stoop. Not in the history has any collective race has done and has been doing such great ATROCITY. AND THAT IS WHY THERE ARE BO BRAHMINS IN TAMIL NADU. DRIVEN OUT.
                      Reply
                      1. J
                        J.S.Acharya Acharya
                        Nov 4, 2015 at 4:43 pm
                        How can the writer call the MBCs as 'upper castes'? I thought that one could abuse the 'upper castes' and that till recently the media used to refer Brahmins as the upper castes. So our MBCs have out beaten the Brahmins in troubling dalits. Poor Periyar ,an OBC,must be turning in his grave. He hated brahmins and look his BCs are troubling dalits.
                        Reply
                        1. H
                          Harikrishnan
                          Nov 4, 2015 at 8:07 pm
                          May be caste is the reason why people are not really killing each as some of them are considered superior compared to the rest. 70% of the Hindus don't know about any religious texts like Bhagavath Gita and 95% of them will never read it until they die. 90% of Hindus (lower caste) were never allowed to pray in temples until the 20th century end. Christians and Muslims have a single god or common god concept. However different sects of Christians fought and killed each other for centuries and for Muslims today, half of them want to Kill the other half. The irony is that a section of the educated public and media is talking about intolerance based on a single incident where as such caste situation exist all over the India since 1500 BC when the vedas were believed to be made.
                          Reply
                          1. A
                            anu
                            Nov 4, 2015 at 10:41 am
                            Periyar thought caste discrimination would die when brahmins were booted out. however, he probably did not realise that intermediate castes practise this discrimination even more strongly. There is a sorry state of affairs now.
                            Reply
                            1. A
                              AlsoIndian
                              Nov 4, 2015 at 11:07 am
                              Someone should ask Arun Jaitley what intolerance is?? But he is not the only blind-folded person. Unfortunately, almost all political parties are exploiting the people on the basis of religion and caste thereby creating more rift in the society.
                              Reply
                              1. M
                                ManojS
                                Nov 4, 2015 at 1:54 pm
                                Muslims should be made to wear Green as well.
                                Reply
                                1. S
                                  SSSSS
                                  Nov 4, 2015 at 3:09 pm
                                  First try to write against the reservation that is spreading the caste system then ask to remove it...If you do not write against government authorized caste system, then please do not write about removing it oraly...I do not support the caste system, only wish to suggest you to write to remove it from the authorized papers first.....
                                  Reply
                                  1. S
                                    SSSSS
                                    Nov 4, 2015 at 2:56 pm
                                    so funny article and its writer both....If the caste system is sustaiining on the government papers and in all the entrance examinations, and in each and every places in the form of reservation then why you people are crying against it......Support the caste system because government supports it and stop posting these foolish and garbage articles...
                                    Reply
                                    1. S
                                      sethuram Sethuram
                                      Nov 4, 2015 at 10:08 am
                                      Fantastic. Next if you are sincere drive out every polotician who uses caste. Afterall in your own words the Brahmins are out. So who is using it now and for what? Need to reflect.
                                      Reply
                                      1. S
                                        sethuram Sethuram
                                        Nov 4, 2015 at 10:10 am
                                        Tamilnadu is a pioneer in caste based politics. After marginalising one set of people, the fight is on at the next level. This will be carried forward till the end. It is true an eye for an will leave everyone blind in TamilNadu. All the best.
                                        Reply
                                        1. S
                                          sethuram Sethuram
                                          Nov 4, 2015 at 10:05 am
                                          The original basis for caste was based on professions I have heard, but in today's Tamilnadu, the profession of politics is based on caste. A 180 degree turn around. However everyone is secular.
                                          Reply
                                          1. S
                                            sethuram Sethuram
                                            Nov 4, 2015 at 2:25 pm
                                            One should be proud of the principles not of their caste. Brahmin or not that shows very demeaning mindset. How can one be proud of ones own birth. What was the effort put in to be proud of?
                                            Reply
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