M Augustine, a DMK man in Mitta Dhinnahalli village, didn’t vote for his party only once — when it aligned with the BJP in 1999. Fifteen years later, he still has concerns about the BJP, especially the one led by Narendra Modi, but is ready to vote for its regional ally. In another part of Dharmapuri,
C Palani, a local functionary of the MDMK youth wing, certainly won’t vote for his party’s ally this time.
This ally that is disrupting political loyalties is the Pattali Makkal Katchi, the party of Vanniyars that was accused of exploiting communal tensions after an inter-caste love marriage late 2012, echoes of which are heard even now. Its candidate is Anbumani Ramadoss, the former Union Health Minister whose crusade against tobacco and liquor brought him accolades from international bodies. But here, one way or the other, he is Anbumani, son of Vanniyar leader S Ramadoss.
It was the marriage between E Elavarasan, a Dalit youth from Natham in Dharmapuri, and Divya Nagarajan, a Vanniyar girl from the neighbouring Sellankottai and subsequent violence that gave rise to this extreme polarisation. In November 2012, a panchayat comprising elders of intermediary castes decided that Divya should return home, but she refused. Later that day, unable to reconcile with his daughter’s decision to marry a Dalit, Nagarajan hung himself, which triggered violent attacks against Dalits in the neighbourhood.
The worst affected was Natham, where over two hundred houses and huts were looted and torched, and household equipment, vehicles and documents destroyed. There were no casualties because the inmates of the village had fled when they heard about the suicide. Hundreds were left on the streets within hours.
But this was not exactly a Vanniyar backlash. Among those arrested for violence included other caste Hindu communities like Gounders, Chettiyars and others, cutting across party lines including AIADMK, DMK, DMDK and PMK. Nagarajan, for instance, was the local village secretary of the DMDK.
Clashes against Dalits spread to various parts of northern Tamil Nadu. They justified their anger with charges of “fake marriages” scripted by Dalit politicians to “extort money” from well-off caste Hindu parents. Dharmapuri town still whispers about one such marriage where crores of rupees allegedly changed hands to “retrieve” the girl. Somewhere along the way, PMK emerged as the leader of the caste Hindus and Ramadoss its loudest voice.
“I should not be going with Ramadoss because of my reservations about BJP and its policies like uniform civil code. But today I am willing to vote for Anbumani, which is a vote for his father. It is a ‘thank you’ gesture for standing with us,” said Augustine, 48. Near his tailoring shop is the teashop run by D Govindasamy, 53, an AIADMK supporter who agreed with his friend on the issue. “It is them who are provoking us to be casteist,” he said.
This tension is not exactly on the verge of exploding. Both Govindasamy and Augustine have customers from neighbouring Dalit colony. But will they consider voting for a Dalit candidate fielded by their parties? “In today’s situation, never.”
This divide is evident on campaigning. On that day Anbumani’s vehicle went through Mathemangalam, Palayathanoor and other interior parts of Dharmapuri, it had to cut through small Dalit pockets where expressionless people stood by and watched the convoy pass. There were flags of VCK, a DMK ally, and some houses were painted blue to make clear the political affiliation even louder. The campaign party made no announcements, no appeals and not even honked.
In recent weeks, stones were pelted on PMK candidates across north Tamil Nadu, including on Anbumani. “All the seven people arrested for attacking me were Dalits. But it is the AIADMK and DMK that are trying to incite communal violence by orchestrating such attacks. The first person to be arrested was an AIADMK member. They want to create communal disharmony so that there is more polarisation, and are trying to benefit from it,” Anbumani said.
The mood changed as it reached caste Hindu-dominated areas like Mittarettihalli. He was welcomed with aarti, lemon, cucumber and other such symbols of piety and good luck. At every scheduled point, the convoy stopped for a brief welcome and speech. The announcer introduced Anbumani as a WHO awardee, the common candidate of the multi-party NDA, the enlightened hero who would bring development to the backward district.
In his speech, delivered sometimes from a platform inside the van and at other times standing on a stool outside the vehicle, the candidate keeps it simple. “See me as youth, as a doctor. I promise to bring industries, employment and drinking water. When I was the Union Health Minister, I launched the 108 ambulance service. I took the National Rural Health Mission initiative and made one year rural service compulsory.”
“Politicians make all sorts of promises. Even his party has won from here several times in the past. But none has ever done anything for the district,” said 84-year-old E N Muniyappachetty. He has a huge portrait of Gandhi in his house, votes only for Congress even when it is assured of a drubbing, and does not allow his DMK-supporter son to speak his politics at home. But in Dharmapuri, where caste tensions refuse to subside completely, even he is on the other side of Gandhi when it comes to Dalits.
Vanniyars are one of the most numerically significant community in Tamil Nadu when it comes to electoral politics. Most of them are concentrated in the northern belt ending with Salem. It is no wonder that Ramadoss had proposed a bifurcation of Tamil Nadu with the Vanniyar belt clubbed into a separate state, which drew only derision from other parties. At Dharmapuri, they form around 35-45 per cent of the voteshare – depending on who you believe. And the rest are fraternal communities who share similar hostility towards Dalits.
However, that does not automatically ensure a victory for the PMK candidate. Dalits also form a big chunk of the population, second only to the Vanniyars. Most of the young ones in the community move out in search of jobs, to nearby Bangalore or Coimbatore. They are no longer dependent on the upper castes for livelihood, and with more and more youth getting educated, the community no longer feels the need to stay subjugated.
“It was not like the two communities were at each others throat all the time. We settled small disputes together with them and even used to have food together. The clashes following Elavarasan-Divya marriage was orchestrated by the PMK precisely for bringing about such a polarisation, which they are now expecting to help them win the election,” alleged Palani of Natham, 38. According to him, there were several such inter-caste marriages before and after that one, but none led to even a minor clash.
Divya returned to her mother last June, and the next month, she informed the Madras High Court that she was not planning to return to him in the immediate future. The next day, Elavarasan was found dead near the railway track. Even after two autopsies including one by experts from AIIMS under HC direction, the discovery of a suicide note and the apparent absence of any foul play according to police, the death of the boy created angst in the minds of the Dalits at Natham and elsewhere, the expression of which will be felt in the coming election.
The two families, too, are involved in this election in different ways. Earlier this week, Anbumani visited Sellankottai where he was welcomed by a group of women, led by Divya’s mother Thenmozhi. This was not a coincidence, and the news was given wide publicity by the PMK. Natham is en route, but the campaign party did not enter the colony.
Advocate S Rajinikanth, who had taken up the issue including the violence at Natham and two other Dalit colonies, is also a candidate from Dharmapuri, fielded by the BSP. Among those supporting his candidature included Elavarasan’s mother, Krishnaveni.
Rajinikanth has entered the good books of the community for his work, especially getting compensation from the government including building new houses. There are now over a 100 houses built by the government at Natham. And they all received duplicate copies of the lost documents in good time, all after an HC direction. But this may not translate into votes for Rajinikanth, even from those directly benefited from this.
“The priority is to defeat Anbumani because his victory would mean Ramadoss’ communal politics could have political benefits. That would encourage them to replicate this elsewhere in north region. We cannot let that happen,” said Kuttimani, 36, a photographer.
What this means is that the community would wait till April 24, the day of polling, to see who is the frontrunner against Anbumani and will vote for him to ensure his victory.