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Dharmapuri is not a faraway place

The death of a young Dalit points to the persistence of casteist structures,and a politics that fattens on them

Next month would have marked the first wedding anniversary of E. Ilavarasan and Divya. Instead of celebrations,his family took his broken body to the burial ground. As far as the law is concerned,this young Dalit from Dharmapuri,Tamil Nadu,committed suicide. In reality,he was killed by the politics of anti-Dalit casteism. There are other Ilavarsans in different corners of our country. We have known them in Haryana,in Punjab and in Maharashtra,and their brutal deaths mock our claims to being a modern,democratic,secular republic. We live in a society where casteism is systemic and endogamy enforced as an instrument to maintain purity against pollution by the untouchables.

There is also the patriarchal nature of dominant thinking with respect to women’s sexuality. The assertion of sexual autonomy by a woman is seen as a challenge to the “honour” of a family or community and,therefore,is to be suppressed/ controlled/ eliminated. When a girl from a non-Dalit family,like Divya,the wife and now widow of Ilavarasan,who belongs to the Vanniyar caste,chooses a Dalit as her partner,she is rebelling against ideologies and practices rooted in the intersection of caste and patriarchy in India. Sometimes she wins her battle,often she is defeated. Today,there is a new category of missing girls,those who disappeared after they chose to cross the caste barrier,killed by their own families,brothers or male relatives or by their so-called community.

We hear about such cases and speak of them because the human tragedy involved is deep enough to awaken at least our sympathy,though not our solidarity. What we do not question,confront,fight and change are the underlying causes,the political economy of anti-Dalit casteism.

With the advent of neoliberalism,theories of market-based strategies as the most effective leveller against social inequalities have gained traction. A section of Dalit intellectuals also subscribe to this theory and have demanded equal access to infrastructural support for capitalist enterprise. While caste-based inequality in any sphere should be fought and such demands supported,the market is far from caste-neutral. The market has kept Dalits out of decent,regular employment and decades after Independence,Dalits are still at the bottom of the employment ladder,except for the limited benefits of reservations in the government sector,which are now being reduced because of increasing privatisation.

In India,capitalism has co-opted caste to ensure the supply of a stream of cheap labour of Dalit men and women. Even today,in the sectors where Dalits find work,in agriculture for instance,a Dalit worker is paid between one-third and 50 per cent less than a non-Dalit. In industries run by our top corporations,which oppose reservation in the private sector,Dalits are employed as contract or casual workers at much lower wages and no benefits. In India,the so-called modernising features of capitalism have utterly failed to break the chains of servitude present in the segregated “unclean” professions reserved for Dalits. On the contrary,Indian capitalism has used and strengthened them to its own advantage. Ilavarasan’s father is a Class 4 employee in a government hospital doing what is considered the menial work of removal of hospital waste. Here,we see the second intersection,namely the intersection between caste and class,with the Dalit family on the lower rung of the economic ladder.

Yet another underlying cause (in this case,most overt) lies in the nature of our politics. Radical movements for social change in India know well the linkages between caste,class and gender in the systemic structures of exploitation. But narrow identity politics practiced by caste-based parties claiming to represent the OBCs more often than not ignores these linkages as a matter of policy. The post-Mandal movements for social justice have become a caricature of their stated goals,a shadow of the social vision of,say,Ram Manohar Lohia,who wrote and spoke strongly for the rights of women of oppressed castes and classes and linked the struggle for social justice to a wider socio-economic framework. Today,they are based on extremely narrow interpretations of a community’s interests,sans justice for the poor or women,even within the community they claim to represent. A consequence of the relentless pursuit of vote banks is the mimicking of precisely those casteist structures and socially retrograde practices that such platforms were formed to resist. In large parts of India,Dalits are the victims of not just their traditional oppressors among upper castes,but also those “backward” castes that had once led the significant and progressive movements against upper caste hegemonies.

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In the case of Ilavarasan and Divya,it was the PMK,claiming to represent the Vanniyar community,which mobilised against the inter-caste marriage,with mobilisations of screaming youth through hate speeches that finally led to the suicide of her father. While regional caste-based parties are open about their agendas,national parties like the Congress and the BJP practice casteism no less. The Haryana government under the Congress has openly and shamelessly extended patronage to khap panchayats and other caste-based institutions representing the most politically powerful caste in the state,who have hounded Dalits in case after case in a state that leads the country in so-called honour crimes. In Madhya Pradesh,even elected leaders of the BJP have been accused of anti-Dalit practices. In addition,the BJP’s brand of Hindutva promotes rituals and practices based on Hindu scriptures that sanction,if not ordain,untouchability,including bans on entry into temples.

The impact of this politics is shown in the increasing figures of atrocities against Dalits. On average,93 Dalits are subjected to a caste-based atrocity every day. Out of 1,10,000 such cases in the courts,there were only 3.6 per cent convictions last year,since most of the cases remain pending for years. Of the 35,655 cases decided,in 77 per cent of the cases,the accused walked free.

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Ilavarasan,in his last note,is reported to have written to Divya,“I pray we are born in the same caste in our next lives”. Could there be a stronger indictment of the state of our democracy and politics?

The writer is a member of the CPM politburo

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