Guest post by BOBBY KUNHU
Between the occasion of the memorial anniversary of Immanuel Sekharan that falls on 11th September and that of Muthuramalinga Thevar on 30th October are 30 odd road kilometers, 49 days, incalculable castiesm and this year (2011) 7 more Dalit lives. Almost the entire Big Media portrayed the 11th September, 2011 murders at Paramakudi as retaliatory State violence to an unruly and violent mob – to the convenient delight to the defenders of the State administration. Dissenting voices mostly Dalit – located the violence squarely where it belongs – in caste. In his note “Paramakudi Violence: Against Dalits, Against Politics”, inthe November 5th, 2011 issue of the Economic and Political Weekly, Muthukaruppan Parthasarathi clearly outlines the historical and current context in which the this year’s spate of violence that claimed 7 lives happened!
On the 29th October – the day before the final and State sponsored Memorial ceremony for Mutharamalinga Thevar, I happened to be driven from Ramanathapuram to Madurai. Paramakudi is located on this highway (NH49). For Kamuthi, one takes the state highway 47 that branches off to the left from NH 49 at Parthibanur and proceeds for another 20 Kms. The driver of the car I was travelling in – an ex-serviceman – belongs to the Vellalar Pillai community and is from Paramakudi town. We struck up a conversation in the backdrop of the September 11th violence and the Muthuramalinga Thevar festivities. I thought the driver’s impressions about the social structures between Paramakudi (Immanuel Sekharan’s memorial) and Pasumpon near Kamuthi (Muthuramalinga Thevar’s memorial) reveals some facets of entrenched castiesm and therefore important enough to be shared with a larger audience. (Reference to the driver withholding his given name is deliberate)
But briefly, and for the sake of continuity let me run through the spatial, historical and physical stages on which this macabre caste drama is staged and introduce the dramatis personae. Ukkirapandi Muthuramalinga Thevar, from the dominant Thevar caste belongs to the Tamil textbook apart from mainstream cultural forms like the Tamil cinema. He was one of the co-founders of the Forward Bloc and was charismatic enough to hold together Thevar votes till his death in 1963. Ironically Thevar was also one of the leaders that attracted the forces pitted against the Congress leadership in Tamil Nadu. In fact along with the Communists he attempted to form a non- Congress coalition government in the then Madras legislative assembly in 1952 after the first general elections, this was thwarted by the Governor. The neighbouring district of Sivagangai which was bifurcated from Ramanathapuram in 1985 was named after the Thevar and was renamed only in 1997 when the DMK government decided to do away with all caste and personality names of districts in Tamil Nadu.
On the other hand, the man allegedly killed by Muthuramalinga Thevar’s henchmen, Immanuel Sekharan/Devendiran belongs to the increasingly assertive Dalit political consciousness particularly in South Tamil Nadu. As against his bête noire, he was a self made man with no landed or feudal trappings to fall back on. Born to a school teacher, he was imprisoned for his participation in the Quit India Movement, followed by a stint in the Indian Army as a Non-commissioned Officer. He returned from the army to plunge into politics working within his community. During Immanuel Sekharan’s lifetime – assertion of Dalit politics within the geographical area of his politics being defined by Pallar relationship with the Thevar community – veered towards the Congress. He was murdered at Paramakudi on 11th September 1957, a day after the District Collector had convened a peace meeting in the wake of the Ramnad Riots. Regardless of who killed him at the age of 33 – he was prominent enough as an assertive political voice and adversary that needed to be silenced. This is also the reason that a political cult evolved around his death.
Both Muthuramalinga Thevar’s and Immanuel Sekharan’s tombs have become shrines that attract large amount of pilgrims particularly during their memorial days respectively. Apart from what might appear as cult or religious symbolisms around the evolution of these two shrines – at the heart of the matter is a feudal contestation for political power between a traditionally dominant caste and an increasingly assertive Dalit caste – a contestation between status quo and change. I am hoping the below table and explanatory note would give a sense of the political equations in this contestation.
Population figures for Pallar and Thevar Communities: (The figures are compiled from the Joshua Project and need to be cross verified.)
The Thevars form around 7.56% of the total population of Tamil Nadu, while Pallars form around 4.92%. In terms of Ramanathapuram, Pallars have a clear edge with 17.43% and Thevars 12.55% of the local populace.
It is also necessary to point out an interesting trivia that has a bearing on this narrative – that the Thevars constitute around 30% of all positions in the Tamil Nadu police department! This is all the more pertinent as the Thevars claim to be a warrior community. An exclusive – Kamuthi Special Force was created in 1918 and it continues to exist with its own office at Kamuthi as an independent entity under the Tamil Nadu Special Police.
Outside its local specificities, I felt that the drive from Paramakudi to Kamuthi encapsulates how caste dominates the imagination of Indian modernity!
Traffic was unusually light when we left Ramanathapuram. Our entry into NH49 at around 11.00 AM was fairly dramatic with us narrowly missing collision with a SUV outside a closed Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation Ltd. (TASMAC) shop. The Toyota Qualis flying a Thevar flag with a leaping tiger on its flag mast (the leaping tiger is also part of the flag of the All India Forward Bloc) had at least 12 drunk and boisterous passengers with a couple of them leaning out of the rear windows waving beer bottles.
In Tamil Nadu, the State run TASMAC statutorily monopolises retail distribution of alcohol (Indian Made Foreign Liquor – IMFL). The three day run-up to the grand finale celebrations of the Thevar Thirunal was declared dry by the district administration and all the booze shops remained closed in anticipation of possible violence. Though that did not stop the flow of liquor!
Grumbling about the drunken revellers, the driver quipped that instead of closing down booze shops, the police should allow pilgrims to enter the Thevar shrine only after a breathalyser clearance. In the same breath he added that half the trouble at these memorials happened because of alcohol. But, what caught my attention was when he said that these events had the propensity to turn rowdy because of alcohol referring to the alleged vandalism that the police used as an excuse to gun down 6 people protesting the detention of Dalit leader John Pandian to prevent his entry into Paramakudi on 11th September.
When I expressed my dismay at any vandalism being used as an excuse to kill people, the driver decided to fill me in with the details of local politics. Around 18 Superintendents of Police and an proportional number of police personnel from across the state were stationed in Ramanathapuram in anticipation of the Thevar Thirunal the next day – which was a State organised event and around 6 Ministers of the Tamil Nadu government were expected to attend apart from a whole host of leaders cutting across the spectrum of political parties in the State. Road blocks were erected on all roads leading to Kamuthi and Police was monitoring the vehicular traffic closely The district was supposed to be in high alert.
Though the animosities predated the death of the two community leaders around whom the present conflict ostensibly revolves, the driver told me that the problem was that of late the Pallars were trying to become politically powerful like the Thevars. The problem was that the Pallars wanted the Immanuel Sekharan to be recognised by the State. In other words Immanuel Sekharan should be accorded the same status as Muthuramalinga Thevar. So much so, they wanted to appropriate the term “Deivathirumagan” ! At the heart of contestation is also the word “Deivathirumagan” meaning the favourite son of god, which the Thevars claim, exclusivity over assignation to Muthuramalinga Thevar. So much so, that a Tamil film directed by A. L. Vijay based on the plot of the Hollywood movie “I am Sam” ran into controversy because of its name and was re-christened “Deivathirumagal” meaning the favourite daughter of god! Interestingly the lead actor in the movie Vikram Kennedy hails from Paramakudi.
A small explanatory digression is required here. The run up to this year’s violence also contested this word. Quoting Muthukaruppan Parthasarathi;
“This year 16-year old Palanikumar of Pallapacheri village was killed by the Maravars of Mandalamanikkam village on 9 September. Later, the Thevars alleged that Palanikumar wrote “Muthuramalingam Thevar was a eunuch” …
On 7 September Maravar advocates of Paramakudi, with the help of local police and revenue authorities, removed the flex boards carrying the title “Deivathirumagan” put up by SC/ST transport corporation employees.4 Consequently it led to more flex boards of that kind and the local authorities were annoyed by the “disobedience” of the Devendirars.”
The driver was trying to demonstrate to me from what he presumed to be a neutral position (not belonging to either of the castes in conflict) how the Thevar- Pallar conflict had made life difficult for everyone in the region. Pointing out the residential settlements along the highway – he told me that they were strictly organised on caste lines. This according to him was to ensure physical security because of the levels of animosity between the two communities. However, he added that while it might be possible that there might be non-Thevars living in Thevar localities – it would be impossible to find outsiders in Pallar localities. Interestingly most of the Thevar localities that he pointed out were on the highway while the Pallar settlements were more off the road.
Pointing out land that had been divided and marked as housing plots along the Highway in the neighbourhood of an emerging Thevar run College campus – the driver said that those plots were worthwhile investment and expected the prices in the locality to go up from INR 80 per square feet to INR 120 per square feet. He quickly added that it would be unwise to buy land in the neighbouring Pallar locality as the land prices were likely to remain stagnant for at least a decade though the going price was still the same. But, he quickly added that it would be impossible for a Thevar to buy property in the Pallar locality and vice versa!
Answering my query regarding prevalence of inter-caste marriages in the region, the driver answered that it was impossible – at least within the geographic terrain. Firstly it was very difficult for youngsters from different communities to interact – leave aside – romance. The unlikely event of romance between members of different castes, even if it happened outside the confines of the geographic region – it would end in violence and no effort would be spared to violently take the erring couple to task.
When we reached Paramakudi town the driver pointed out the spot where he believed that Immanuel Sekharan was killed. Though Immanuel Sekharan hailed from Sellur village in Mudukulathur Taluk around 23 Kms away from Paramakudi, apparently at the insistence of the then (Madurai) District Collector fearing communal backlash to the murder and given the already tense situation, he was interred in the Tamil Evangelical Lutheran Church Cemetery at Paramakudi town. The site of this year’s violence was also in the same neighbourhood.
Since the Immanuel Sekharan memorial is in the heart of Paramakudi town, the entire town and all commercial establishments shuts down during his memorial. There is absolutely no arrangements for the food, water or shelter for the thousands of his followers who throng the shrine on that day. Ad hoc arrangements are made for the day and food is prepared and served by Pallar households on the highway. Inadvertently the driver admitted that though Paramakudi is a Pallar dominated town in terms of numbers – hardly any of the commercial establishments are owned by them. Immanuel Sekharan’s shrine is one amongst the tombs in a small crowded cemetery and can hardly contain the crowd of visitors during the annual memorial.
In contrast, Pasumpon Muthuramalinga Thevar, was a major landlord and died a natural death. His final rites were held in the compound of his own house amidst his large landholdings – almost all of which was willed away to the State. The compound includes a helipad and more than enough space not only for the multitudes that gather annually to pay homage to him, but also for the security concerns of all the high profile visitors. Food for almost 100,000 people is sponsored by Dr. N. Sethuraman of the Meenakshi Mission Hospitals group (he is also the President of the Thevar political party called Mooventhar Munnetra Kazhagam) apart from other smaller donors and is served in pandals specially erected for the occasion. The driver was willing to stand guarantee for the superior taste and quality of the Sambar rice served in Dr. Sethuraman’s Pandal.
Muthuramalinga Thevar had donated some of his lands around his estate (now shrine) during his lifetime to Dalit families that were dependant on his landholdings. None of the erstwhile dependants dare to reside on the property, while most have disposed off their lands, few still do cultivate in times of peace!
As against the traffic slack at the beginning of the journey, the road from Kamuthi to Madurai was full of incoming traffic. The highway was lined with Police posts every few hundred metres. People were coming in cars, jeeps, trucks, vans and buses towards Pasumpon. Most of the vehicles travelling to the Thevar shrine were marked by either pictures of Muthuramalinga Thevar or flags with the leaping tiger motif. Even the flags of different political parties carried the superimposed motif. We could observe vehicles carrying almost all political parties of Tamil Nadu with the exception of the Dalit parties like Viduthalai Chiruthaigal and Puthiya Thamizhagam, the Indian Union Muslim League and the Communist Party of India. We even spotted a van sporting the flag of the Revolutionary Socialist Party, which has hardly any presence in Tamil Nadu.
But what was more fascinating and picturesque were groups of youngsters running with flaming torches towards the Muthuramalinga Thevar shrine all along the highway. They were coming in from various parts of South Tamil Nadu that were Thevar pockets – some of them travelling more than 200 Kms by foot. The groups seem to range from very affluent wearing the latest and trendy sportswear and shoes to barefoot joggers. Some of the groups had escort vehicles with them while others trudged along depending on roadside hospitality.
The lively conversation filled journey ended outside a restaurant in front of the Aarapalayam Bus Stand. While parting ways the driver requested me not to reveal his name if I ever were to write about the particular journey. And I decided to recount the journey because I felt that the conversation embodied a certain mindset that worked on the assumption of value neutrality – but swung wildly through biases informed by the meeting of caste with modernity!