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Caste apart

When Dalit children are victimised in Tamil Nadu, why does the state’s political leadership remain silent?

The slapping of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act on five Dalit children below the age of nine in a Tamil Nadu village is a bizarre example of caste discrimination and blatant misuse of a well-intentioned law. The children now stand accused of sexually harassing children from the Thevar community, a politically influential OBC group. Reportedly, the local police filed the case following pressure by an AIADMK MLA, though he has denied the allegation. Clearly, the police stepped over a line and action must be taken against errant officials. A minor scuffle among children, which would have been resolved by teachers in most places, is now headed for the courts. Officials have since promised that the children facing charges will be protected but they have had to endure the trauma of being questioned by the police. They may have to face the juvenile justice board before the case is closed.

At the heart of the case is the animosity between Thevars and Dalits in the village. Dalits, who are in a minority in Ulaipatti in Madurai district, have been discriminated against, in public places like the local anganwadi. Ulaipatti, unfortunately, is not an exception in Tamil Nadu, a state where parties born out of the anti-caste Dravidian movement have been in office for more than half a century. Caste discrimination, including denial of the right to worship, right of way and so on, have been reported frequently from the Madurai region and its neighbourhood. Dalit empowerment and mobilisation coupled with changes in the political economy have only deepened the faultlines.

There are, of course, laws to deal with discrimination. But in the absence of firm and constructive political intervention, these laws are unlikely to be effective. With the collective Tamil identity facilitated by the Dravidian movement crumbling, Tamil Nadu is witnessing a revival of caste and communal identities. Political parties have only played along with such sentiments, when not actively encouraging them or mobilising around them. The disquieting silence of the political leadership in the state on caste issues points at its collaboration with the regressive forces of society. Be it the assaults on inter-caste couples or the censure of a writer like Perumal Murugan, the silence of the political class is conspicuous. Laws may help prevent caste conflict but political action is necessary to facilitate reconciliation among warring communities, which, unfortunately, seems missing in Tamil Nadu.

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First published on: 11-08-2016 at 12:02:06 am
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