Taming the Dalit Panthers? Dalit Politics in Tamilnadu’
Posted on November 19th, 2019

Gorringe, H Courtesy Journal of South Asian Development Vol. 2 (1): pp51-73

Abstract: Although Dalit orators and slogans threaten (or promise) to
‘turn Tamilnadu on its head’, the 2006 state elections offer Dalit
analysts pause for thought. In compromising its principles and allying with established parties, the Dalit Panther Iyyakkam (Movement) – the largest Dalit movement in the state – has come full circle since 1999. In alternately backing the two dominant parties in the state (the DMK and the AIADMK) the DPI appears to be increasingly institutionalized. Excavating the future of Dalit action from past trends and contemporary politics I suggest that Dalit parties are following an established political repertoire in which a phase of militant activism gives way to ‘politics as normal’. In the face of this analysis
the paper asks whether such an approach is sustainable or can carry the
majority of Dalits with it. If Dalit politics is a continuation of
hegemonic politics, it argues, the liberatory promises of Dalit activism
will have been betrayed.

Keywords: Dalits, Caste, Tamilnadu, Elections, Democracy

Introduction: Tamil Politics and the Dalit Challenge

In the seemingly surreal world of Tamil politics, the Southernmost Indian state, anything is possible: sworn enemies make up before clashing again; film-stars become politicians, turning fan-clubs into party organisations; a convicted politician became Chief Minister before securing an appeal verdict; the leader of the opposition assured party activists that she would not attend the Assembly unless absolutely necessary (Hindu 2006a); and a key manifesto pledge of a winning alliance offered a colour TV to households meeting certain criteria. Parties routinely split, merge and reform in an endless kaleidoscope; arch-secularists ally with Hindu chauvinists; and people (claim to) vote 17 times for their candidates despite the ‘indelible ink’ used to identify voters (cf. Subramani 2006). An insult (perceived or intended) to one leader can reshape political coalitions overnight and contingency and compromise prevail. As the political stability accorded by the predominance of two main parties has been challenged, the shifting panoply of electoral alliances and the colourful jostling for position have added further complexity.

Until recently, however, one feature has remained constant (albeit unacknowledged) in the post-independence Tamil political system: it has been dominated by Backward Caste (BC) parties and interests.[1] Commentators, such as Subramanian (1999), recognise this but argue that Dravidian parties have created an open, democratic and plural society. This paper argues that the egalitarianism of Dravidian rhetoric has not translated into social practice and the incorporation of marginal groups into a system of state patronage does not equate to an extension of democratic participation (cf. Harriss 2002). T. Subramanian (2001a) notes the irony ‘that such a large number of caste parties should sprout in Tamil Nadu, the cradle of the Dravidian movement’, but it is because the interests of marginal social groups were not served by established politics, that they have mobilised for a share of political power. The innumerable Dalit (formerly untouchable) and caste-parties emerging over the past decade are an attempt to extend or, in the case of parties emerging to counter Dalit assertion, limit the scope of Tamil politics.

Subramani, a Dalit activist, summed up this process: ‘without protest we cannot achieve anything. One cannot claim anything from the government without protest. Only if we protest is there an opportunity for our community to do anything’ (Interview, 27 April 1999). When the Dalit Panther Iyyakkam (DPI – Movement), the largest Dalit movement in Tamilnadu, abandoned its electoral boycott in 1999, therefore, it promised to redraw the ‘political map of Tamilnadu’ (Gorringe 2005: 301). Seven years and two State elections later, the DPI’s radical rhetoric looks as tattered as old election posters – clinging torn and dishevelled to walls and billboards.

This paper charts the changing face of Tamil politics, focusing on the subaltern challenge. Drawing on fieldwork with Dalit movements and analysis of subsequent state elections, this paper assesses the entry of autonomous Dalit parties into the body-politic.[2] Having charted the rationale behind political participation, and the opportunities that this engagement offers, I argue that the radical possibilities suggested by the initial foray into electoral competition have evaporated. Rather than reforming the institutions they entered, Dalit movements have been institutionalised. In closing, therefore, I will consider where Dalit politics goes from here. First, however, a brief introduction to the intricacies of Tamil politics is required to contextualise the ensuing discussion.

Dravidianism, Dalit Marginalisation and Emergence

Tamil politics is bewildering to those familiar with its ideologies, parties and characters; for the uninitiated, it is a welter of nigh-identical acronyms and political fluidity. Any comprehension of current trends, therefore, requires the historical background without which all Tamil politics is ‘sound and fury’.[3] The starting point must be the non-Brahmin movement which dominated state politics in the 1920s and, in interaction with the colonial power, set the template for subsequent engagements in the political sphere (Irschick 1986). In the protracted exchanges between Brahmins who monopolised administrative power under the British, and a rising Backward Caste elite, caste was established as the mobilising strategy par excellénce and elections as the vehicle for its expression. Into this heady mix, the Self-Respect and Dravidian parties introduced the emotive issues of Tamil nationalism and autonomy from the expansionist ambitions of Hindi-speaking northern politicians, which continue to inform contemporary politics (cf. Subramanian 1999).

Though the Congress party dominated post-independence Tamil politics, each election saw their vote-share eroded by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (Dravidian Progressive Federation – DMK) – a regional nationalist party which played on language nationalism and espoused populist/socialist policies that were successfully mediated to the electorate through cinema and an efficient party-machine. In 1967 Tamilnadu became the first Indian state to elect a regionalist party, heralding the decline of Congress pre-eminence and the rise of the region (Pandian 1992, Kohli 1990). Indeed, the DMK victory was hailed as the end of ‘Brahmin’ rule and the birth of a new nation of ‘Tamils’.

Under its founder, Annadurai, and his successor, Karunanidhi, the DMK ruled until 1976. The party became increasingly conservative and centred around the leader, however, and the DMK split in 1972 with M.G. Ramachandran (MGR), a Tamil screen legend, founding the Anna DMK (ADMK – ‘Anna’ by reference to Annadurai) which claimed to be closer to the party’s original ideals. The ADMK gained power in 1977 due to MGR’s popularity and populism (as typified by his provision of free school meals for children), and dominated Tamil politics until MGR’s death in 1987. Since then both parties have alternated in office. Corruption and a personalisation of politics in the personages of MGR (or his successor Jayalalitha) and Karunanidhi, has pervaded Tamil government in this period and populist politics (to maintain power) have prevailed over ideological or fiscal concerns (Kohli 1990, Pandian 1992).

Dravidian social radicalism, thus, was strictly curtailed. Rather than envisaging inequality in class or caste terms, both Dravidian parties used the Brahmin/Non-Brahmin divide to suggest a commitment to social change whilst drawing their leadership and core constituents from dominant, landowning BCs (Subramanian 1999). Stressing language rather than inequality the DMK (and later the ADMK) attempted to foster Tamilness and avoid acting upon politically sensitive election pledges on land-reform, dowry and caste. Over time both parties abandoned their anti-Centre and anti-Hindi positions, softened their anti-Brahminism (to the point where a Brahmin could succeed MGR) and failed to implement meaningful redistributive policies. The DMK’s progressive reforms resembled ‘charity from above’, and the ADMK disproportionately taxed the poor to finance populist programmes (Pandian 1992, Harriss 2002).

Subramanian’s admiration for Dravidian pluralism, therefore, seems misplaced. Indeed, he shows (1999: 58) that state politics are dominated by BCs who have become jealous of their power as new entrants to Tamil politics have eroded their authority. This is evident in the ‘increasingly overt conflict between lower-caste Hindus and Dalits’ (Harriss 2002: 97).[4] Faced by frequent violence, Dalit movements voice grievances and highlight atrocities rather than campaigning proactively for social change. Their protests, petitions and demonstrations demand the enforcement of the constitution, and seek to de-legitimise a polity that does not adequately represent or serve them.

The subsidiary position of Dalits is evident in that 84 per cent of Dalit land-holdings are marginal (under 1 hectare) and only 4 per cent are over 4 hectares, as opposed to over 10 per cent for others.[5] Dalit land is seldom irrigated (Gorringe 2005). Thus, while 80 per cent of Tamil Dalit workers are in the agrarian sector, 64% are agricultural labourers.[6] The failure to implement effective land reform has curtailed Dalit autonomy by rendering them dependent upon others for work. This deprivation is compounded, and alternate opportunities are limited, by poor education. Literacy, as Mendelsohn and Vicziany observe, ‘lends confidence and expands mental horizons. It leads to a more assertive, less compliant, community’ (1998: 35). In 1991 the 58 per cent literacy rate for Scheduled Caste (SC)[7] men compared to 74 per cent for Tamil males. 35% of SC women were literate opposed to 51% overall (Rath and Konlade 2000).[8] These inequalities render Dalits vulnerable to social boycott (denied work, access to shops and common resources), intimidation, assault and murder if they resist caste norms.  

Faced by socio-political marginalisation, Dalit movements in the 1990s mobilised extra-institutionally before entering mainstream politics. Puthiya Tamizhagam (PT, New Tamilnadu) – the second largest Dalit Party in TN – arose as a Pallar movement and, despite its casteless title, remains strongest in Pallar strongholds in the South and West.[9] Its leader, Dr Krishnasamy, battled discrimination to qualify as a doctor and came to Dalit activism via Marxist-Leninism (Warrier 1998). Despite this, he is portrayed as Westernised – appearing in jeans and trainers – and removed from ‘ordinary’ Dalits (Gorringe 2005: 254). Krishnasamy was the first autonomous Dalit leader to win a Legislative Assembly seat in 1996. This seat was subsequently lost, but PT consolidated its vote-base in the 1998 national elections polling more votes than the victory margins in several seats (Wyatt 2002). Although PT remains a significant force, and preceded the DPI into electoral competition, this paper focuses on the Panthers for two reasons. Firstly, the DPI is the largest Dalit party in TN and, secondly, it entered electoral politics during my fieldwork enabling an analysis of the dynamics of institutionalisation.

The DPI was formed in 1982, inspired by the Maharashtrian movement of the same name. Although billed as a Dalit movement, it is preponderantly Paraiyar and is flourishes in the northern districts. Thirumavalavan, its leader, came from a poor family to gain a Law degree and a government job and entered Dalit politics through social networks (Gorringe 2005). He is famed for his oratory and for popularising the assertive slogan: ‘a hit for a hit’. Thirumavalavan lived in humble surroundings and frequently visited Dalit villages. Whilst Dr Krishnasamy faced questions about his choice of a luxury hotel in one interview (Warrier 1998), thus, Thirumavalavan cited his ‘life situation’ as evidence that the DPI had no resources (Illangovan 1998). Lacking resources, the DPI relied on grass-roots mobilisation to succeed. A decade of poll boycotts emphasised the movement’s radicalism and denied legitimacy to the Legislative Assembly, but in 1999 the DPI completed a tactical volté face and contested the polls on the slogan: ‘We are voting for ourselves’. Why, however, did they choose the electoral route and what did they hope to achieve thereby?

Entering Politics: Rationales, Opportunities and Pitfalls

Dalit movement’s reliance on exclusive identity categories constituted a defensive response to caste repression, but effectively legitimised caste actors. Contesting elections, by contrast, raised the question of citizenship and the prospect of reform. ‘India’s institutions are not only the bedrock of its democracy, providing an ordered process for the politicisation of previously marginalised groups’, as Jenkins argues, ‘but also … the means by which democracy’s change-resistant tendencies are overcome’ (1999: 224). Whilst Dravidian dominance narrowed the political agenda, recent elections confirmed the fragmentation of Tamil politics (Yadav 2001) and this erosion of political fealty offered opportunities for Dalit movements.

In 1998, Thirumavalavan averred that elections achieve little, and refused to ‘take part in something which upholds the status quo’ (Illangovan 1998). The following year, therefore, Nandan (1999)pressed him on the abandoned boycott: ‘Will you not be tainted’ they asked, and ‘is your decision … a victory for government repression’? Contradictory responses insisted that this was a change in tactic not policy; that the boycott harmed the movement; and that ‘if Dalits are to gain official power we have to vote’. He maintained that the DPI would not ‘put forward a representative’, but that ‘if we gain seats in the Centre [Delhi] we will be able to act against abuses’. ‘We are not going to support opportunist or self-serving political parties’, he maintained (ibid.).

The above quotes reveal the contingency of the move to politics. Key issues and longer-term prospects were not thought through. The attractions of politics are seen in vague references to ‘using Dalit votes’ and gaining ‘Dalit power’. The obvious forerunner here is the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP – Majority People’s Party: the most successful Dalit-based party) in Uttar Pradesh (UP). The BSP was referred to in movement speeches as epitomising the possibilities of Dalit politics, because it united the Dalit vote in UP and forged pragmatic coalitions which enabled it to take power (Pai 2002). In brief periods of office, furthermore, the BSP expedited the employment of Dalits to positions of responsibility and instituted ‘programmes of Dalit uplift’ (Pai 2002: 178).

Chandra (2004) and Pai (2002) argue that the BSP successfully altered its ‘representational profile’ – by allocating seats to higher castes for example – to widen its appeal beyond its caste-base. Pai (2002) shows that the Dalit vote remained fairly constant but politically astute seat allocations and pragmatic alliances carried the party to power. Puthiya Tamizhagam echoed these tactics in Tamilnadu, fielding non-Dalit candidates in 1999 and 2001 (Illangovan 2001), and both the DPI and PT have attempted to broaden their social base by appealing to ‘Tamils’ and dropping caste terminology from their titles (the DPI renamed itself the ‘Liberation’ Panthers in 1999).

The BSP’s experience, however, is of limited relevance in Tamilnadu. Elections in UP are often contested between 4 strong parties (Pai 2002) but, though Ananth (2006) notes that Congress, Communists and Caste parties retain strong support they have failed to establish autonomous alternatives and Tamil elections are dominated by two Dravidian coalitions. Non-aligned alliances have occasionally secured a respectable vote-share, but this has failed to translate into seats. Chandra’s (2004) account of ethnic headcounts also seems simplistic in this context where 50 years of Dravidian discourse has fostered a Tamilian identity that shatters the automatic assumption that Dalits (for instance) will vote for a Dalit party. Furthermore, Dalits in Tamilnadu are divided amongst themselves. Following the fragmentation of the Dravidian vote, therefore, Dalit parties in the 1990s attempted to create an ‘ethnic’ constituency.

Given the absence of strong ‘pull factors’, Nandan is right to question whether political participation is a ‘victory for government repression’. In considering DPI actions, the compulsions of politics are more obvious than its attractions. The boycott enabled the government to cast the Panthers as undemocratic extremists, thereby justifying repressive measures which alienated the movement from the people (Gorringe 2005). Thirumavalavan concedes that political engagement is important to ‘show our strength in and commitment to democratic means’ (Nandan 1999). Secondly, despite the DPI boycott most Dalits continued to vote. Elections are exciting times, politicians seek you out and party activists distribute largesse and promises of more if they come to power (De Wit 1996). The boycott withheld the votes of activists and offered sympathisers no electoral alternative, so they voted for established parties, including those antithetical to Dalit empowerment.

Lacking a positive vision to justify political participation the DPI was in tumult preceding the 1999 Indian elections; internally they faced discontented activists, externally they confronted a casteist social environment and a political scenario in which they were isolated. Many dedicated activists were distraught: ‘Government is a sewer’, Subramani – an activist from Cuddalore observed, ‘we do not want to fall in’ (Interview, 27 April 1999). Not everyone, he insisted, would follow Thirumavalavan into politics. The DPI emerged as a radical grass-roots movement that fought back against caste oppression. Parliamentary parties were frequently castigated for failing to advance social justice and conniving in continuing caste discrimination.

Such concerns were unavoidable in 1999 because Dalits in one village had been forced to flee their homes by a casteist mob in March and, on the eve of the elections, the police violently dispersed a Dalit demonstration in Tirunelveli killing 17 people (Gorringe 2005: 297, 350). In the teeth of these incidents the DPI could not ignore the records of political parties or downplay the realities of caste. The decision to contest the elections was unpopular, and these events rendered an alliance with Dravidian parties untenable. A dalliance with the (opposition) AIADMK raised such a storm that rebuttals were issued with alacrity. The identities of social activists, Jasper (1997) astutely notes, frame how they view both the world and themselves. Having invested significance in the concept of radical action, forging links with an enemy was unbearable.

Indian elections, however, operate on a first-past-the-post system which means that parties need not secure an overall majority to win a seat. The ‘practice of electing representatives according to geographical constituencies,


… that interests are relatively homogenous within localities’ (Philips 1991: 63). The polarisation of caste-based parties illustrates the naivety of such assumptions and reveals the ‘universal citizen’ to be a myth. There are no geographical concentrations of Dalits sufficient to guarantee victory in any constituency and although certain seats are reserved for Dalits (as part of affirmative action to offset inequality) such candidates are dependent on the votes of others. Whilst voting is tied to localities, therefore, Dalits cannot neglect other castes.

DPI leaders, thus, were torn: to appease activists they needed to suggest radicalism, but to stand any chance of winning they needed cross-caste alliances. This latter point was particularly contentious given the problematic of representation. As Kamaraj, a DPI adherent put it:

Yes there are hundreds of Dalit MPs in India, but they do not win alone. They win as party people, as politicians. There is no opportunity for Dalit MPs to speak out about Dalit society and problems so we do not need them. We need our own MP who will speak for us (Interview, 10 September 1999).

This context explains why the DPI decision seemed so momentous. Dalit politicians are commonly portrayed as political pawns or self-interested careerists (Roy & Sisson 1990). ‘Suitcase politics’ was the contemptuous phrase used by respondents to denote ‘unprincipled’ and ‘self-aggrandising’ leaders who ‘sell out’ in return for resources. Against this backdrop, DPI leaders had to persuade followers of their continuing autonomy and to justify electoral participation and alliance formation.

The exoneration of police for the violence in Tirunelveli at this point encapsulated Dalit distrust of institutions but also facilitated a realignment of political affiliations. The protests surrounding the incident brought the fissiparous Dalit movements onto a common platform. They were joined by the Tamil Maanila Congress (Tamil State Congress – TMC) which had been frozen out of the main coalitions. Contingency, thus, dictated the DPI’s decision to join the (non-Dravidian) Third Front in 1999. As Viswanathan (1999) argued, the ‘consolidation of the oppressed sectors, particularly Dalits, in Tamil Nadu’ constituted a significant fall-out of the massacre. This solution to the DPI’s political dilemma was welcomed in the media but distrusted in the movement. The TMC, when allied to the DMK government, had overlooked anti-Dalit violence and so DPI cadre were sceptical of the alliance. Faced by such disaffection Thirumavalavan belatedly insisted that the DPI’s political engagement was conditional on four key demands: A share of power; political recognition; the consolidation of Dalit forces and; the attempt to force the Dravidian parties out of office (Speeches and Interview 1999).

These conditions refuted prevalent projections of Dalits as a vote-bank who could be bought with promises or hand-outs. This development, as Viswanathan (1999) opined, was ‘seen as having the potential to bring about substantial changes, not only of electoral politics in the state but in the nature of political activism in general and the approach of mainstream political parties to organisations that represent Dalits’ aspirations’. Dalit engagement in elections promised an expansion of the political sphere to include marginalised sectors of society, but also reflected the growing strength of caste-based groups and the declining appeal of Dravidian parties. Wyatt (2002) subsequently argued that a coalition government requiring Dravidian parties to share power is no longer a chimera. The DPI had abandoned revolutionary struggle, but looked set to revolutionise Tamil politics. We turn now to the impact of this move and the DPI’s gradual integration into the political system.

The Parliamentary Route to Change? 1999-2006 Elections.

‘If, after Thirumavalavan has spoken and left, you listen to what the DMK lot or the AIADMK lot or any other political party people are saying and are scattered, then the Dalit Panthers cannot protect you. It is necessary for us all to unite. It is necessary for us to cast our votes for our own sake. We need to show our opponents that we are a united political force’ (Thirumavalavan, Speech, 16 June 1999).

After all the posturing and positioning accompanying the move to politics, how have the Panthers fared at the ballot box? To what extent have they maintained the united front that Thirumavalavan extols above? As analyses of earlier elections have been provided elsewhere (Wyatt 2002, Gorringe 2005), I confine myself to a brief summary before turning to more recent developments. The TMC-led Third Front (above) fared poorly in the 1999 elections. Despite polling heavily in several constituencies it failed to win a seat, thus emphasising the electoral pre-eminence of the Dravidian parties. Significantly, the Front was not humiliated and Thirumavalavan came second in Chidambaram constituency, forcing the AIADMK candidate into third place. The ability of a non-Dravidian, Dalit-based coalition to mobilise significant votes was established and the easy assumption of Dalit loyalty to the status quo was shattered.

Despite intimidation and violence, thousands of Dalits voted for Thirumavalavan. Press coverage increased noticeably as did the political recognition accorded to the party. In playing on the issue of representation, the DPI persuaded many Dalits that it was their ‘duty’ to support them. Sakthidasan an agricultural labourer from a remote village in Chidambaram constituency was typical: He insisted that the political process was the only means for leaders to gain more ‘respect, attention, and power’. Dalits here primarily depend on other castes for work as agricultural labourers, and Sakthidasan was forthright in his analysis:

We do not have that much faith in democracy, but for the first time a Dalit has stood as a Dalit and we have done our duty by voting for him. Whether he does anything for us or not is the next question, but our votes are for ourselves (Interview, 26 September 1999).

Sakthidasan’s assertion reveals both the cynicism that characterises Dalit views of politics, and the fact that the proactive election campaign succeeded in raising consciousness even if it failed in the polls. The quote also adds complexity to Chandra’s (2004) notion of ethnic head-counts in emphasising that material concerns need not determine electoral choices. The symbolic and emotive reasons of pride and duty can outweigh expectations of reward.

The publicity and votes gained by the DPI (especially in northern districts) persuaded leaders that the electoral process was worth pursuing. The fluid nature of Tamil alliances, however, meant that the Third Front was precarious. There was no guarantee that the TMC would remain independent and without the resources and credibility of an established party the Front would be undermined. Furthermore, the question of what the DPI hoped to achieve came to the fore. Persisting with a non-Dravidian Front would radicalise voters and offer a critical alternative: pursuing the same ends using institutional rather than radical (often criminal) means. Contesting elections, however, proffered new opportunities (cf. Coy & Hedeen 2005): Strategic alliance building, for example, could lead to financial resources, extensive networks, a wider pool of voters, and Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) status. To be most effective, though, this path required a Dravidian alliance which seemed impossible since neither was trusted in 1999:

Yesterday the AIADMK fostered the BJP, now it is the turn of the DMK. Yesterday Jayalalitha, today Karunanidhi. We need to question which is the scoundrel and which is the rogue (Thirumavalavan, Speech, 16 June 1999).

The implication was of a Hobson’s choice, since both had betrayed their ideals and fostered the Hindu nationalist BJP which is antithetical to Dalit interests. Furthermore, Dr Krishnasamy re-iterated the concern for autonomy: ‘Dalit leaders should retain the leadership of Dalit campaigns … and that mainstream political parties should not derive undue political mileage from the struggles of Dalits against caste oppression’ (Nambath 1999). Despite the compelling logic of Dalit assertion, Krishnasamy’s principled but unrewarding offer of autonomous action was rejected by the TMC and DPI who allied to the AIADMK for several bye-elections in 2000.

The DPI’s dramatic volteface invited accusations of ‘suitcase politics’ and outraged activists felt betrayed, but it is worth considering the decision more dispassionately. The votes garnered by the Third Front highlighted that shifting from movement to party entailed more than a ‘tactical’ shift: It altered the constituency to whom the DPI appealed. The 225,000 people who voted for Thirumavalavan far exceeded those prepared to engage in social protest. This wider constituency was, by definition, less radical and more interested in the bread-and-butter issues of political participation. Activists spoke of Thirumavalavan turning parliament on its head, but most voters wanted him in office as a symbol of Dalit assertion and as a source of patronage.

Election campaigns require resources and organisational infrastructure that Dalit movements lack and established allies can provide. Finally, Pandian (1992) notes how Dravidian parties (the AIADMK in particular) have successfully mediated subaltern consciousness and secured active consent despite neglecting their interests. Whilst autonomous Dalit movements increasingly counter Dravidianism, interviews and observations confirmed his analysis. Allying with the AIADMK, therefore, was a pragmatic recognition of Dravidian hegemony. Thirumavalavan continued to critique Dravidian policy and his exhausting schedule of engagements and relatively obscure and humble accommodation suggested that he had not profited personally from the new strategy. The alliance with the AIADMK was the lesser of two evils since the DMK was portrayed as most opposed to Dalit liberation and the AIADMK is traditionally more popular with Dalits and women. The main drawback was that the coalition isolated PT (which was at loggerheads with the AIADMK) and splintered the Dalit vote.

The results of the 2000 bye-elections threw the wisdom of pragmatism into doubt, however, when the ‘DMK gained from Dalits’ apathy to the AIADMK’ (Nambath 2000), suggesting that real-politick could alienate principled actors and blur the distinction between a Dalit party and an established one. The DPI emerged as a radical response to parties that saw Dalits as pawns to be bought off before each election. In 1999, the campaign slogan (‘our votes are for ourselves’) resonated with many Dalits and encouraged them to vote for the first time or to back an autonomous Dalit candidate. In 2000 Dalit voters refused to be the pawns of their own leaders either, and rejected the AIADMK-DPI combine because they saw Dravidian parties as ideologically opposed to them.

Despite failing to persuade their supporters, the DPI remained in alliance with the AIADMK preceding the 2001 Legislative Assembly elections. PT mooted a principled alternative before succumbing to the politics of pragmatism themselves when their attempt to initiate a Congress-led Front failed. Unwilling to contest without a mainstream partner, PT sought an electoral pact with the DMK. The fragility of alliances and electoral understandings, however, came to the fore in this election when disputes over seat sharing (how many seats each alliance partner should be allowed to contest) disrupted both coalitions. The DMK was not accommodating (retaining most seats for itself) and alienated its main electoral allies who swapped sides. The major party to defect was the Vanniyar (a Backward Caste) dominated Paatali Makkal Katchi (PMK – Toiling People’s Party) which is seen to hold sway in northern Tamilnadu. The DPI was formed partly as a defensive reaction against Vanniyar assertion, so when the PMK joined the AIADMK, the DPI jumped ship.

Bereft of other allies, the DPI allied to the DMK, thus abandoning a key rationale for electoral contestation. In 1999, Thirumavalavan pilloried the PMK leader for swallowing his pride and rejoining the DMK despite being insulted. He also insisted that: ‘Karunanidhi’s complete government has been against the downtrodden and remains so. He is only concerned in nurturing the dominant castes’ (Speech, 01 November 1999). At the time (Gorringe 2006a) I saw the acceptance of Dalit parties into the DMK Front as significant for 2 principal reasons. Firstly, Karunanidhi had been the subject of personal attacks by movement orators: ‘Karunanidhi is a scoundrel and we need to oppose him first’, as Thirumavalavan had said. Granting 18 seats to the DPI and PT, therefore, constituted a loss of face for the party. Defections and splits are endemic in Indian politics, and the colourful language used at the point of departure has rarely precluded reconciliation, but swallowing the insults of an untested group is uncommon. Secondly, the two Dalit organisations were given more seats than established parties (Hindu 2001). In retrospect this significance was overstated. The bargaining for seats suggested the DPI would only enter alliances on the basis of a share of political power, and wresting so many constituencies from the DMK signalled that Dalit parties are now considered capable of delivering votes. Beyond this, however, the import is limited.

The accommodation of the Dalit parties must be viewed in context: as a desperate attempt by the DMK to attract more votes after the departure of other allies. Dalit parties are now treated as vote-banks that can be won over at election time, and the asymmetry of power was emphasised by seat allocations. Though the PT had proved itself in previous elections the DPI reached a swift agreement over seats because it opted to campaign on the DMK symbol of the rising sun. The PT, which demanded its own flag, was engaged in protracted negotiations (Nambath 2001). The DPI, thus, acted as a pawn and did not gain autonomous political recognition. Its allocation of 8 seats testifies to the caste-based logic of electoral competition rather than its strength. Caste informs the electoral outcomes of many constituencies and five decades of rhetoric on ‘Tamilness’ has not constrained its salience. If anything, caste figures more prominently in contemporary elections due to the caste-based parties that have arisen in the past two decades. The Dalit Panthers were welcomed by the DMK as a possible counterweight to the PMK.

The rise of minor parties has meant that neither Dravidian party can win unaided in several constituencies. The PMK, for instance, is seen to dominate in the north-east and has broken the Dravidian duopoly in a way that Communist and Congress parties failed to do. The DPI’s heartlands are here, reflecting the fact that they campaigned against Vanniyar caste domination. Sure enough, the DPI’s lone success was in Mangalore where Thirumavalavan emerged victorious although the DMK-Front was routed in the polls. PT did not win a seat, but their strongholds in the south are where the DMK has struggled to make inroads. Paradoxically, far from furthering their ultimate objective of eradicating caste, the DPI victory emphasised the importance of caste considerations.

This was most evident in the fact that Dalits voted en masse for DMK candidates (Subramanian 2001b, Yadav 2001) whilst other caste voters shunned the ‘Dalit-friendly’ parties. Even DMK cadres neither campaigned nor voted effectively for their Dalit allies (Subramanian 2001b, Venkatesh 2001). Kamaraj, a DPI activist from Madurai insisted that BCs have an ‘allergy’ to Dalit mobilisation, and his crude analysis gained credence in 2001. ‘The social aversion” on the part of DMK candidates, mostly belonging to Mukkulathors and other OBCs, to be identified with Dalit leaders and cadres’, Illangovan (2001) reported, ‘has made the DMK an untouchable” among its own rank and file’.[10] As Dalit organisations have entered politics, the social ostracism associated with untouchability has informed the electoral process. Indeed, caste sentiment has been exacerbated as Dalit movements have confronted BC dominance (Pandian 2000) ‘The DMK’s gamble with the Dalit card … failed’, Illangovan concluded, ‘thanks to the sharp polarisation of Dalits and non-Dalits, where the party affiliations became irrelevant’. Untouchability at the ballot box is arguably part of a backlash ‘resisting Dalit efforts at claiming their human rights and dues’ (Rajadurai and Geetha 2002: 119).

The heightening of caste sentiment helps explain why, despite entering politics later, the Dalit Panthers have surpassed Puthiya Tamizhagam. The social antipathy to Dalit interests dictates that Dalit parties are a default option to mitigate the loss of key allies. The Panthers have an advantage since they offset the PMK vote-bank, whilst PT has no equivalent opponent. Poll results, thus, have established a pecking order based on electoral arithmetic. The DPI are a natural second choice if an alliance with the PMK fails. Their secondary status became apparent, however, when their Dravidian ally canvassed their support for the 2004 Lok Sabha elections but denied them any representatives. The Legislative Assembly has 234 members whereas Tamilnadu only has 39 representatives in the Lok Sabha, but the failure to grant even one seat to the Panthers was telling. Thirumavalavan resigned from Mangalur (which he had contested on a DMK ticket) ‘on principle’ and joined an alliance of Dalit and non-Dravidian parties:

A majority of the mainstream parties in the State, such as the TMC, the Congress(I), the PMK and the two Left parties had already allied with the AIADMK. The DMK then had only the BJP with it. Karunanidhi was left with no option but to accommodate the DPI and the P.T. along with some small caste-based parties. But now, because Kaunanidhi has had the support of some much bigger parties, he has ditched Dalit parties,” Thirumavalavan said (Viswanathan 2004).

The message is clear: Dravidian parties use the DPI as a vote-bank when necessary and abandon them when more tested alliances appear. Karunanidhi’s call for the DPI to support the DMK alliance from the outside was rightly perceived as an insult, but the hastily assembled Dalit alliance was a washout, coming third in most seats except for Chidambaram where Thirumavalavan again came second.

Given the repeated ability to secure thirty percent of the vote without the main parties it cannot be long before the DPI contests national polls in a Dravidian Front. The reticence of the main parties to offer the Chidambaram constituency to the DPI supports the argument (above) that this would alienate Dravidian cadre. Until they contest national constituencies, however, the Panthers will remain the Cinderella of Tamil politics and lack adequate political recognition. This was emphasised in 2006 when the DMK compounded its earlier insult by requesting unconditional DPI backing for Assembly elections. The DPI’s actions at this point are noteworthy. Rather than reviving the Dalit alliance that unsuccessfully contested the 2004 polls, Thirumavalavan led the DPI back into the AIADMK fold.

The outset of the 2006 elections, therefore, saw a complete reversal of 2001. This time the AIADMK was isolated and its allocation of 9 seats to the DPI (1 more than it contested in 2001) must be read against this backdrop. ‘The AIADMK considered us a political force and invited us to join their front’, Thirumavalavan insisted, but had roles been reversed there would have been no place for them. The incremental road to political recognition took another step, however, when the DPI stood as the Viduthalai Ciruthaikal Katchi (Liberation Panther Party), not under the AIADMK banner. The Electoral Commission allotted them a ‘bell’ as a campaigning symbol, because the DPI have no established emblem. The political significance of visual imagery cannot be overstated in a society where most voters identify the symbol they intend to vote for rather than the party. The emotive force of such markers was apparent when the fledgling Desiya Morpokku Dravida Kazhagam (National Progressive Dravidian Federation – DMDK) was assigned a drum in 2006, leading several Dalit women to align themselves behind Vijayakant: ‘It is our symbol’ they are quoted as saying – since beating drums made of polluting leather is traditionally a Dalit task (Hindu 2006c). The DPI’s allocated marker rang no such ‘bells’. That a film-star with no history of Dalit activism should elicit such a response is an indictment of Dalit parties and raises questions about the current strategy.

The 2006 results favoured the DMK-led ‘Democratic Progressive Alliance’, forcing Jayalalitha to resign as Chief Minister. The DMK, with 96 out of the 234 seats, became the largest single party, but remained 22 short of an overall majority raising the real prospect of coalition government in the state. The most likely coalition partner (the Indian National Congress which secured 38 seats), however, overrode the desires of the state wing of the party and brokered a deal whereby they shored up the minority government in return for a similar favour in Pondicherry. The AIADMK alliance gained 69 seats of which the DPI gained 2 (double its previous return). The remaining 7 DPI candidates all finished second but the Dravidian alliance would account for this. The Panthers unerringly backed the loser again, but how much choice did they have? As a second choice ally, they are limited to the weaker coalition. Perhaps the strategy needs to be rethought.

Caging the Dalit Panthers?

Seven years after entering the elections the arguments, tactics and results remain static. Whilst the exigencies of political competition require political parties to compromise and agree to a minimum common platform, if this exhausts the DPI’s ambition then political participation will accomplish little. Indeed, their participation merely legitimises the political system and buttresses the politics of contingency. The repeated assurance that elections are a ‘tactic’, not a ‘principle’ (Warrier 2006), is increasingly tenuous. The DPI now routinely gains press coverage of speeches, meetings and its manifesto, and the number of seats it has contested has risen. It has, however, become a stock player. Although Dalits are prevented from standing in at least four panchayats, this was not central to the party’s manifesto. ‘We may have come to the elections’, Thirumavalavan insisted in 1999, when trying to persuade followers, ‘but our warrior spirit has not changed … we will not give up our struggle for liberty’ (Speech 07 August 1999). Political opportunism, it seems, has tamed the Dalit Panthers.

The DPI, I contend, is becoming institutionalised and losing the mantle of radicalism. Institutionalisation essentially refers to the process whereby movements ‘develop internal organisation, become more moderate, adopt a more institutional repertoire of action and integrate into the system of interest representation’ (Della Porta & Diani 1999: 148). As Coy and Hedeen (2005: 407) argue, institutionalisation may lead a movement to become ‘bureaucratized and technique centred, losing its adaptive vitality’. They observe that assimilation into institutional practices can involve a dilution of movement critiques and tactics.

The institutionalisation of the DPI is evident in the formalisation of the party (a rule book outlining roles and responsibilities was prepared) but also in the actions and expectations of leaders and participants: Firstly, its willingness to support alternate Dravidian parties indicates an attenuation of ideological principles and an adaptation to the prevailing political environment. Secondly, the disappointment when Thirumavalavan decided not to stand in 2006 (Hindu 2006b) suggests that activists are increasingly focused on elections rather than sustained anti-caste activism. Thirdly, the choice of candidates for the nine constituencies in 2006 highlighted a growing distance between the leadership and the grassroots. Dedicated local activists were passed over in the nominations (ibid.) though the party promised to bring the Assembly closer to the people. The four ‘key demands’ on which political involvement was predicated (see above) have disappeared: Institutionalisation, Piven and Cloward (1971) observe, can entail co-optation and demobilisation.

Alert to this danger, Thirumavalavan argued that ‘if the gap between the

[people and movement]

widens too far, the people will be alienated from the movement’ (Interview, 03 November 1999). Opportunist politics, however, will widen this rift. Already the sympathisers inspired by the DPI’s radicalism in 1999 have begun to look elsewhere for a Dalit revival. ‘Thirumavalavan is finished’, a Jesuit priest and one-time supporter opined (Father J, Personal Communication, 27 April 2006).[11] The decision to join a Third Front in 1999 breathed air into the stultified atmosphere of Tamil politics. The failure to consolidate the Dalit vote, and the support for Dravidian parties, has re-instated the status quo. The dilution of radicalism is illustrated in the neglect of local activists who cultivated constituencies and established movement strongholds. They were by-passed in the selection of candidates, suggesting that the calculations of a party-machine are eroding the DPI’s grassroots basis.

In recounting the costs and motivations for action Subramaniam, a Tamil Dalit Liberation Movement activist, encapsulated a problematic now confronting the DPI: ‘None of us have saved a penny in our activism. This movement is our asset. The liberty of the people is our future. In that context it is unjust for someone to say: This is my movement”’ (Interview 11 October 1999). The top-down allocation of seats and alliances, and the move from a movement responding to ideological imperatives and social injustices to a party with a set agenda renders the DPI increasingly leader-centred. Father J noted the frustrations occasioned by this trend and spoke of DPI youth, imprisoned due to previous radicalism, plotting revenge against Thirumavalavan because they felt abandoned and betrayed (Personal communication, April 2006). If the groundswell of support that was evident in 1999 evaporates then the tactics will have back-fired. Supporting the main parties has yet to ensure elections in reserved panchayats, let alone objectives such as land-reform. Were Thirumavalavan to become an MLA or MP then members would at least feel that they have a voice, but in 2006 the two DPI MLAs were not only on the losing side they were parachuted into the constituencies they contested. Is political engagement a failure then?

The Social Impact of Politics?

Judging the decision to contest elections solely on the basis of vote-share and seats gained, would be mistaken. Democracy, Lefort (1988) shows, is as much about social practice as political institutions, and it is arguably in social terms that the greatest impact of DPI politics can be seen. Dialogue with political opponents since their entry into the electoral sphere, for instance, potentially offers a more inclusive politics: that of Tamil nationalism. Rajadurai and Geetha (2002: 121) claim that ‘Dalits have a quarrel with the very notion of Tamilness’, and Nambath (2005) regards the DPI’s adoption of Tamil nationalism as a deliberate ‘attempt to grow beyond identity politics’ enabled by the low social status of the dominant castes in Tamilnadu who ‘owe no allegiance to Hindutva’. What they neglect is the long-standing attachment to Tamilness occasioned by Dravidian ideology and anti-Hindi agitation. The DPI, thus, aspires to a ‘nation of Tamils undivided by caste’ (Thirumavalavan: 18 July 1999).

The cross-cutting nature of social descriptors, led Pandian (2000: 515) to question the analytical utility of catch-all caste categories, arguing that the complexities of political coalitions and social mobility cannot be captured by reference to ‘Dalits’ and ‘Backward Castes’. We have seen that Dalit castes have their own leaders, and cannot assume that Vanniyars share interests with other Backward Castes (Radhakrishnan 2002). The dominant discourse is restricted to caste categories, obscuring the contingency of identity claims:

A Vanniyar, however he may assert his specific caste identity, also claims a Tamil ancestry and in this, rhetorically at least, is willing to be part of a common nation that is transcendent of caste (Rajadurai and Geetha 2002: 123).

The contingent nature of identity formations and the possibilities of non-caste activism were emphasised between 2004 and 2006. Having been locked in implacable conflict with the PMK for a decade, the DPI began 2006 in alliance with them. The roots of this rapprochement lie in the party leaders’ attempt to mitigate spiralling caste violence, and their ability to forge a common identity around the supra-caste issue of Tamilness. Since 1999, the DPI have courted – and been courted by – various political interests. In this process, a commitment to Tamil self-determination took Thirumavalavan to Sri Lanka to support the fight for a Tamil nation. The PMK shares this objective and both parties agreed to campaign jointly as the Tamil Protection Movement (TPI).

Tapping into an emotional political current, both parties have called for Tamil medium education and the eradication of English titles for shops and films (MyTamil.com 2004, Tamil Info Daily 2005). Political immediacy colours the cognitive template of DPI politics and the naïve expectation that communities can be re-imagined so speedily reflects this. Thirumavalavan argued that the TPI had fostered more harmonious social relationships: ‘You will see that there is no brutal violence against Dalits there now. There are no law and order issues also there. The northern districts are quite peaceful’ (Warrier 2006). Whilst the TPI has enabled DPI/PMK (commonly seen as proxies for Paraiyars and Vanniyars) dialogue, the rosy picture painted by Thirumavalavan is misleading. The lack of physical (brutal) violence against Dalits does not mean that the structural inequalities which render Dalits dependent upon the dominant castes have been addressed. Rather it bolsters arguments that much collective violence is politically organised.

The truce between the rival parties is welcome, but unless and until the structures of mind, body and resources are reconstructed Tamil Dalits will live under the shadow of caste discrimination. Caste clashes are not spontaneous eruptions of communal sentiment, rather they feed on everyday processes of identity formation, misunderstanding and the cultural concepts of honour and shame (Gorringe 2006b). Establishing the humanity of the Dalits in the eyes of caste superiors requires more than a political alliance as the 2001 results testify. Even granting the reduction in caste enmity, though, there are grounds to question whether the TPI advances Dalit objectives.

In articulating a ‘Tamilian’ identity, in fact, the TPI could compound the marginalisation of the most vulnerable Dalits. The politicisation of a linguistic ethnicity, marginalises Telegu-speaking Chakkiliyars further, and obscures the fact that Tamil nationalism has done little to mitigate untouchability. Furthermore the TPI’s nationalism has been accompanied by a moral conservatism and ethnic chauvinism that clashes with a theoretical commitment to women’s rights. The stress on chastity and the virtues of ‘Tamil women’ that greeted a film actress’ comments about pre-marital sex are in direct contrast to earlier critiques of patriarchy and the cultural constraints placed on women. ‘All women wish to enter politics, wish to stand on the front line of such protests, do all husbands permit that?’ – Thirumavalavan asked at a movement wedding. Addressing the Women’s Struggle Committee’s protest against poll violence he went further still:

‘Woman’ is taken to mean being the handmaid of her husband, women have yet to enter politics. Whether it be the Communist party or the Dravidian parties they see women as objects to be kept within boxes (Speech, 1 November 1999).

In pursuing the TPI agenda, however, Thirumvalavan has joined the ‘morality police’ trying to impose an idea of virtue and rectitude onto Tamil women (cf. Anandhi 2005). This confirms the sense that the demand for women’s rights was tokenistic. It is pertinent, here, that none of the DPI candidates in 2006 were women. Thirumavalavan said he would ‘sacrifice anything for the cause of Tamil’ (My-Tamil.com 2004), but if the Tamilian ‘solution’ to exclusive identity relegates Dalit interests it constitutes a ‘dramatic dilution of its [DPI’s] radicalism’ (Anandhi 2005: 4876). There is also a question mark over the extent to which an appeal to a trans-caste identity can be mobilised given the extent to which the political sphere has been colonised by caste concerns. Indeed, in April 2005, the joint PMK/DPI protests against the erosion of Tamil culture faltered in the face of two bye-elections (Venkatesh 2005). Is the DPI’s radicalism now confined to socio-political conservatism?

Concluding Remarks: Dalits and the Politics of Opportunism

‘Our people only think: If I don’t like Karunanidhi, I’ll vote for Jayalalitha. If I don’t like the Two Leaves [AIADMK symbol], I’ll vote for the Rising Sun [DMK symbol]. But what we need to ask is: what have either government done for the downtrodden?’ (Thirumavalavan, Speech, 7 August 1999).

Omvedt suggests that Dalit protest laid the basis of an ‘alternative Indian identity’ (1994: 340). In TN this alternate identity has withered as the DPI is increasingly assimilated into Dravidian hegemony. The centrality of caste to Tamil politics, however, makes the revival of such a project both essential and overdue. Restricting such an endeavour to the ‘Tamil nation’ reveals a blinkered opportunism that ignores the pan-Indian possibilities offered by the Dalit tag and the perils attending particularist nationalism. Whilst broader in scope than a reactionary Tamil identity, however, the Dalit struggle remains limited whilst ‘Dalit’ continues to be a proxy for ‘untouchable’. Anti-caste activism is undermined by caste-based mobilisation mirroring the hegemonic social relations it aims to transplant.

‘The struggle for tolerance’, as Subramanian concludes, ‘will attain fuller success only if organisations less constrained by the interests of dominant or upwardly mobile groups play an important role in it’ (1999: 329). Dalit movements followed the established repertoire of protest to establish themselves on the map of Tamil politics, but ‘the existing repertoire [also] constrains collective action’ (Tilly 1986: 390). Continuing repression and isolation raises the question of what ‘politics as normal’ can achieve. The success of the BSP makes it an obvious referent here, but Pai’s analysis of the BSP raises similar dilemmas. Noting the compromises entered into by the party she argues that it has failed to implement social change. In a question with resonance for the Panthers, she insists that the BSP is ‘faced with a difficult decision: is it a movement with an agenda for radical social change, or a political party driven solely by the compulsion of achieving power?’ (2002: 1).

‘Athu meeru’ (fight back, resist), was theDPI slogan that galvanised Dalit resistance. The radicalism inherent in the assertion touched a nerve in rural TN and raised the prospect of a significant social transformation. Chellamma – a landless labourer in a village blighted by caste violence – insisted that; ‘It is only if we return a blow for a blow that the grindstone (ammi kallu) will shift’ (Interview, 20 March 1999). The assertion rests on the dubious assumption that counter-violence will make upper castes respect their social ‘inferiors’ as equals. The empirical evidence from Tamilnadu indicates that such optimism is misplaced at best and probably counter-productive. The occasional use of violent means may have discouraged groups minded to attack Dalits, but it has not prevented anti-Dalit atrocities or shifted the structural inequalities which render Dalits dependent upon higher castes for land, work, water and other amenities.

The DPI’s transition to politics is an implicit acceptance of the failure of violent protest. Politics, as Mouffe argues, is about ‘domesticating hostility’ (2000: 149), and whilst elections have occasioned Paraiyar/Vanniyar conflict, they have also facilitated (an imperfect) dialogue and the interaction seen above. The DPI certainly cannot hope for electoral success without reaching out to other groups. Unfortunately, scepticism about political involvement has been compounded as the DPI has compromised its ideals. ‘Parliamentary politics is the deciding factor’, Thirumavalavan assured me in 1999, ‘that is the centre of power’ (Interview, 3 November 1999). The flaws in such analysis were papered over in justifying the DPI’s engagement in electoral politics, but they have since come home to roost.

Pai concludes that the BSP reflects the ambitions of a class of Dalit power-seekers and differentiates it from grassroots attempts to erode the bases of caste domination. Her analysis begins to ring true for the DPI, as does her prescription for the BSP to democratise itself and articulate a new ideological perspective rooted in the material conditions of the disadvantaged (2002: 244). The DPI insists that electoral participation is a tactical rather than ideological move, but Coy and Hedeen (2005: 418) note how rarely movements ‘return to other forms of contention’. Short of the transformation outlined by Pai, however, the DPI has institutional alternatives. In 2002, Wyatt (2002: 753) noted that ‘the possibility of a viable third front emerging cannot be ignored’. In 2006, Vijayakant’s DMDK – which gained just under 10 per cent of the vote and polled more the difference between victory and second place in many instances – highlighted the viability of a serious, non-Dravidian alternative.

This example suggests that the DPI could harness the politics of principle. The Dravidian parties have fomented casteism in Tamilnadu, as Thirumavalavan avers. The eradication of caste discrimination, therefore, is not furthered by shoring them up. The real prospect of a coalition government in 2006 has punctured the Dravidian parties’ aura of invincibility. The DMK and AIADMK can no longer assume that governing the state is their birthright. Taking steps to establish an alternative can only further the democratisation of Tamilnadu and increase the credibility of the DPI. The enthusiasm accorded to autonomous Dalit candidates evaporates when ‘our votes are for another’.

Making ‘room for dissent and foster[ing] the institutions in which it can be manifested is vital for democracy’, Mouffe (2000: 150) argues. Entering unstable and opportunistic alliances with political rivals is not a sustainable means of effecting social change: ‘If a calf joins with piglets’, DPI activist Subramani insisted, ‘then the two will become one and you cannot distinguish between them – both run in the gutter’ (Interview 27 April 1999). In striking contrast to the promise of its political debut the DPI now constitutes an option not an empowering alternative. Unless it can revitalise its vision and mode of operation, the DPI’s political participation will ‘do nothing for Dalit rights’ (Father J, Personal communication, April 2006). Alternately supporting the rival Dravidian parties and placing a priority on Tamil rather than Dalit issues will not shift the grindstone of caste.


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[1] Backward Caste (BC) refers to the constitutional category of low-caste groups deemed to require positive discrimination due to their social status. Many BCs, however, are politically powerful.

[2] Empirical data was collected in Tamilnadu between 1998-9. The multi-sited ethnography focussed on Dalit movement activists, motivations, modes of operation, and ideological aspirations. The data consists of 30 group discussions, 32 formal and 30 informal interviews with activists, leaders, academics and non-participating Dalits. Interviews were complemented by participant observation.

[3] For detailed accounts of Tamil politics see: Kohli (1990), Subramanian (1999), and Wyatt (2002).

[4] See Harriss (2002: 107-8) and Gorringe (2005) for examples of mounting anti-Dalit hostility.

[5] Government of Tamilnadu, Statistical Handbook 2005. ‘Other groups’ are not disaggregated.

[6] These figures are for 1991. Source: Rath and Konlade (2000).

[7] The Indian Constitution rendered the practice of untouchability a punishable offence and reclassified Untouchables as ‘Scheduled Castes’ (SCs) by reference to a schedule of castes entitled to positive discrimination.

[8] Literacy rates vary, with urban Dalits more literate than the average and rural Dalits, especially in the West of the state trailing behind (Government of Tamilnadu 2005).

[9] Paraiyars, Pallars, and Chakkiliyars are the largest Tamil SC groups. SCs constitute 18% of the population. Paraiyars are the most populous. They live throughout Tamilnadu but are concentrated in northern districts. Pallars are fewer in number but more affluent and better organised partly due to their higher social status. They are mainly based in the South and West. Chakkiliyars, the lowest of the main SCs, are traditionally landless. Many speak Telegu and are seen as outsiders. They are distributed across Tamilnadu but mainly in central and western districts. The BC groups immediately competing against SCs are Vanniyars and Thevars. Vanniyars gained Most Backward Caste status after successful agitation in the 1980s. They are the largest single Tamil community, accounting for 12 per cent of the population, concentrated in the northern districts. Thevars have an exaggerated sense of caste pride though their educational and economic achievements are negligible. They are BCs but are a major landowning caste in south Tamilnadu. See Gorringe (2005: 58-60).

[10] Mukkulathors are one of the most prominent Backward Caste groups in Tamilnadu. OBC (Other Backward Castes) refers to those castes perceived to require affirmative action to offset caste-based inequalities. Both groups are socially ‘backward’ but politically strong in Tamilnadu.

[11] As someone who works for Dalit welfare, Father J is well placed to comment. As he works closely with the DPI and other movements, however, he preferred not to be named.

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