(CRI commentariat is extensively analysing the series of  state elections scheduled for the year 2011. We began with a primer on the prospects of two principal players-ruling DMK and  opposition ADMK in the state of TN.  Fellow CRI contributor  Amar Govinarajan  wrote on caste cauldron that is TN politics. In this post GirishLN analyses the Dalit equation in Tamil Nadu)


Tamil Nadu has a relatively high Dalit population. As against the national average of 16 %, 19 % of Tamil Nadu’s population consists of Dalits. Despite these numbers which should easily help them breach a critical electoral threshold, Dalits have not been able to politically mobilise themselves successfully. Incidentally with  just a 2% higher share of the population, Dalits in UP have achieved much higher influence. Even in the foreseeable future Mayawati type figure emerging in TN appears to be beyond the realm of possibility. We will continue to witness the phenomenon of Dalit parties and firebrand leaders like Thirumavalavan largely operating as inconsequential fringe players in TN political scenario. They would have to reconcile playing second fiddle to Jayalalitha or Karunanidhi by negotiating election eve crumbs that comes by way of few seats.

Socio-economic status

Some of the social indicators  of TN Dalits are truly pathetic. To sample, 80% of Dalits in Tamilnadu live in villages and the vast majority of them do not own land. Most of the Dalits are involved in agriculture and leading lives as landless agricultural labourers. While, overall, in Tamilnadu about 30% remain illiterate, as high as 50% of Dalits remain illiterate. Among women it is worse – compared to a nearly 50% literacy rate for non-Dalit women in Tamilnadu, not even 30% of Dalit women have become literate. (Source: Dalits in Tamilnadu, Tamilnadu Social Development Report, 2000). Dalit Christians,  who by certain estimates constitute more than 70 per cent of the Christian population in Tamil Nadu, have been systematically discriminated by various denomination of Christianity after luring them by selling duplicitous emanicipatory notions.

A brief history of Dalit Movement

Spectacular failure of Tamil Dalit movement is even more striking given that state pioneered a vibrant activist tradition as early as 18th/19th century. Iyothee Thass, a cerebral Siddha doctor from the Paraiyar clan, mounted an impressive challenge by attempting a Buddhist reconstruction of quintessentially Hindu history of Tamil Nadu. Thass, much like Ambedkar later, categorically rejected revoltist reformatory idea like conversion to what he saw as alien faiths (Christianity and Islam) . He synthesised Buddhist doctrine and ancient Tamil literature to locate the Tamil tradition in Buddhist ethos.

Its pretty unfortunate that the populist Dravidian movement completely subsumed  Dalit ideological strand which had much better emanicipatory ideas for marginalised section of the society. A view widely shared by many independent Dalit scholars is that   Dravidian movement has turned out  to be greatest barrier for Dalit empowerment in TN. Lineage of Dravidian movement  can be traced essentially to social justice movement vanguarded by few wealthy OBC elitist caste of neo-saivate disposition to access educational /employment opportunities for their own kinsmen. Sections of Brahmins had opportunistically aligned with British ruling class to corner clerical opportunities by pursuing English education. During the British rule, power completely shifted away from ruling ‘OBC’ communities who have been historically the ruling class in TN(also land owning castes). They saw themselves completely marginalised under British dispensation. Dravidian movement basically sought to establish a reverse discrimination regime. It was populist movement shorn of idealism it never intended to establish an anti–caste, liberal, rational social order. It essentially stood for elitist upper OBC hegemony. Many OBC groups that constitute Dravidian movement were in the forefront of physical intimidation and violence against Dalits and continue to be so

Electoral potential

Dalits are spread across the state and if successfully mobilised can determine electoral success of political parties. Since the 1960s they have tended to support the AIADMK and DMK, but have not managed to create a space for themselves in either of the parties. Given the dominance of the OBCs in these political parties, Dalit voices therein have been smothered under successful sloganeering. Both parties aggressively promote the ‘platform of social emancipation of the downtrodden,’ but have managed to crowd out the interests of the Dalits. The communist parties especially the CPI have managed to mobilise landless agricultural labourers (predominantly Dalit) around Thanjavur / Tiruvarur. Since 1990s Dalit oriented parties have sprung up but these have all been compromised by the DMK and AIADMK so far. They have traded their mobilisation strengths for electoral tickets. Aligning with AIADMK or DMK, which themselves represent the interests of their ‘social antagonists,’ these parties often do not fight elections on their own symbol, choosing DMK’s or AIADMK’s instead. Consequently they have become more of rabble rousing, muscle groups rather than mature political formations systematically defending their constituents’ interests.

For the forthcoming   TN elections we have plethora of political parties that will enter the fray claiming to represent Dalit constituency. Among them  two parties which wield considerable influence are DPI (Dalit Panthers of Tamil Nadu ) led by an energetic Thirumavalavan and Pudhiya Tamizhagam of Dr Krishnanswamy. DPI has been able to capture the imagination of Dalit youth in Northern districts of TN through high voltage in campaign centered around emotive Pan Tamil nationalist issue. However its growth potential has been capped by strategic maneourves of Dravidian parties. While Thiruma has the potential to emerge as an important political figures, DPI politics lends an impression of being nothing more than an commissioned stormtrooping.

For a Mayawati like phenomenon to emerge in TN Dalit parties have look at challenging conventional political discourse, look at alternate mobilisation platforms, steer clear of dissipating too much political energy on pan Tamil issues and focus on sustained interventionison domestic livelihood issues and structural inequities.

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