Ilavarasan: At a deadly new junction of caste and electoral politics: Rajan Kurai Krishnan

ilavarasan_divya-350_070513040519This is a guest post by RAJAN KURAI KRISHNAN

The gruesome death/alleged murder of Ilavarasan, a Dalit youth, at the outskirts of Dharmapurai on the afternoon of 4th July has come as a shock to all those who have heard of his case. Murders, ironically called honour killings, and socially abetted suicides as outcomes of inter-caste marriages are of course as common as catching cold in most parts of India. However, what has made Ilavarasan’s case something that could penetrate the armour of the middle class everyday plated with trained nonchalance to extract a possible expletive under their breath is the fact that his case has been in the limelight for more than eight months now.

It was a few weeks after his marriage with Divya, a girl belonging to the caste of Vanniars, a Most Backward Caste in the official description of Tamil Nadu Government,  in October 2012, Divya’s father was found dead allegedly having committed suicide due to the “dishonour” caused by his daughter’s marriage. Making the suicide an excuse, the Vanniyars organized riots in which three Dalit hamlets, about 250 houses, were destroyed. The scale of violent destruction caught the national attention and so did the love story behind the riots. The young couple earned a media profile while trying to live in peace beyond the reach of the raging Vanniyar caste men. It was fated that was not to be. The Vanniar caste leaders used Divya’s mother to temporarily separate Divya from Ilavarasan by using the well known tactics of emotional blackmail. They then broke the communication link between Ilavarasan and Divya. When Ilavarasan saw Divya in the court on the first of July, Divya told the court that she would live with Ilavarasan after convincing her mother. Divya’s lawyer, however, managed to make her tell the press that she is separated from Ilavarasan forever. Ilavarasan, on the other hand, told India Today, that he was highly hopeful of re-uniting with Divya. After two days, he was found dead near a railway track in broad daylight. Given this history, the news had some potential to shock people.

The police said it was a case of suicide by throwing oneself in front of a running train since the body with a split head was found near the track. Very soon it was contested by everyone that it was impossible for the body to remain intact except for the split head if it was run over by a train. Nor is it imaginable that a body would only be thrown a few feet off by a speeding train if it had hit the train; it was found just within three feet from the track.  Amidst gathering protests in Dharmapuri and elsewhere, the government typically tried to re-iterate the suicide theory fearing a large scale caste conflict. The clumsy attempts by the police and administration have only incited more passion and the cry for justice is widespread now. At the time of writing, the court has ordered a second post-mortem by the medical professionals from the AIIMS, Delhi.

The incident has also incited an outpour in discourses on caste and politics in Tamil and English. While this is to be expected in a democracy, the uninformed nature of many an intervention has made large scale misperceptions possible. While everyone knows the role played by the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), in mobilizing Vanniyars before and after Dharmapuri riots, in plotting to separate Divya and Ilavarasan and launching a state wide campaign by inter-mediate castes against love marriages with Dalits, the knowledge often leads to wrong political assumptions. What is crucial to the situation is that the PMK is in a position of political desperation after getting exposed as electorally bankrupt in two consecutive elections.  The survival of the party depends on somehow managing to prove that it actually has the Vanniyar vote bank it always claimed to have. It will be educative to see the difficulties involved in the task before understanding how Ilavarasan has become a victim of a particularly sinister junction of caste and electoral politics.

The first thing that needs to be considered is that unlike what is generally assumed, consolidating a vote bank along the caste lines is not an easy task. From my ethnographic fieldwork in Tamil Nadu, I can mention two of the difficulties as follows. First is that the political mobilization under a given caste identity has to face the inherent pluralizing tendency of Indian castes. Indian castes pluralize with clan groups, different surnames, migratory histories, kinship networks and ritual systems. Though the fashioning of Vanniar identity has a history of more than hundred years now, it has not done away with the plethora of surnames and clan divisions. While it is easy to bring people to rallies and conventions, with the secret ballot it is hard to guess how loyalties work. This is particularly a problem when all parties in the fray nominate candidates from a given caste. The only logic a caste based party can offer is that the candidate from that party would be more faithful to the “interests” of the caste rather than the candidates of the other parties.

This leads to the second major problem of identifying the “interest” of the caste as a constituency. This is where the PMK faces a major hurdle. When the party evolved from Vanniyar Sangam in the late eighties, the struggle for a special quota in reservations and the success of the struggle gave sufficient content to a the idea of the collective Vanniar identity. Once that phase ended, the sharp difference among land holding rich Vanniyars and the majority of landless labourers became something that was hard to be suppressed.  As is well known to observers, in most places the poor Vanniyars have nothing to differentiate themselves from the Dalit caste of Paraiyars who mostly share the administrative unit called a village, spatially segregated into an upper caste residential area known as “Ur” and Dalit residential area called “colony”. In fact, Dalits have started faring better than poor Vanniyars in many places and there have been many cases of Dalit youths marrying Vanniar girls out of love. However, one should rush to add a caveat that no such general statement can be made since each village presents a different scenario. As a result, we have a highly variegated life situation of Vanniars, including income and sustenance. The demands of poor Vanniars find no resonance in the empty claims of “welfare of the caste” made by rich Vanniyars.  In my interviews among the electorate of Vridhhachalam constituency during 2006 elections, many Vanniars seethed with anger about the “false” claim made by Ramadoss to represent their interest. They categorically asserted that caste does not mean anything when it comes to the question of money and power. In that election, Vijaykant, an actor turned politician, a non-Vanniar from the south of Tamil Nadu defeated the PMK candidate against the best efforts of Ramadoss, the founder of the PMK.

In the political history of the PMK, since 1998, the party had the luck of being part of the winning electoral alliance. It gave the party an ability to bargain for seats without having to prove its actual support on ground. It is well known that electoral outcomes have a complex set of reasons, those panellists in television shows talk about endlessly. Nevertheless, being on the winning side each time allowed the PMK to perpetuate the myth of its Vanniar vote bank. Both the BJP and the Congress at the national level, and the DMK and the AIADMK at the state level felt the PMK ensured the votes of considerable section of Vanniyars, who allegedly make up to 10 to 15 million population chunk. In electoral terms it is an attractive block; but the question is can the PMK claim to have their votes?

Between 1989 and 1996, the PMK faced the elections all alone hoping to gradually increase its vote share and become a substantial political force. However, it could find only it vote shore dwindling. While it secured 1.5 million votes in 32 parliamentary constituencies in 1989, it could get only 0.5 million votes in 15 parliamentary constituencies in 1996. That is in spite of focussing its strength in half the number of constituencies, the vote share was less than half of what it could manage in the first election. It hardly amounts 5% of the alleged Vanniyar population. Having found independent growth impossible, the era of coalitions and adroit bargaining started in 1998. Switching sides in each assembly and parliamentary elections between desperate coalitions, the party managed to have its members become union ministers of important ministries like health and railways. The dream run ended in 2009. The parliamentary elections of 2009 and the state assembly elections of 2011 saw the PMK backed alliances losing most seats in the Vanniar belt. In the 2009 Parliament elections, the PMK and the AIADMK were part of a third front and the coalition gained nothing because of the alleged Vanniar vote bank. The PMK lost all the seven constituencies it contested. In the 2011 assembly elections, its alliance with the Dalit party VCK and the DMK, instead of sweeping the Vanniar belt, was met with a resounding defeat. The PMK could win only three out of the thirty constituencies it wrenched in the seat allocation bargain among the coalition partners. Hence, the PMKs usefulness to any coalition has come under a serious scrutiny. Ramadoss cannot anymore perform adroit bargains in seat sharing arrangements in electoral coalitions.

Pushed to the wall and bereft of ideas, Ramadoss could only resort to time tested fascist methods. He started talking of how Tamilness and Tamil nationalism has been compromised by the idea of Dravidian race and Dravidian identity. A sizable population of Tamil Nadu, about 15 to 20 million people may be shown to have origins outside Tamil Nadu, be it Andhra, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Kerela who have been fully assimilated into the Tamil fabric in the last two centuries, apart from the minority groups of Gujarathi marwaris and Urdu speaking Muslims. The politics of pure Tamil origin can only lead to a fascistic suppression of the heterogeneity of Tamil polity. However, this is inadequate to the task of consolidating the Vanniars as in most villages they do not have to meet with any of these people with mixed linguistic origin. Hence, though fascistic in its design, his immediate electoral compulsions will not be served by the vitriolic against Dravidian identity. The only “other” that can be demonized to bring Vanniars together is the Dalit. Hence, the need to launch an all out propaganda against Dalit assertion and inter caste marriages. In creating a caste based mafia to terrorize Dalits, the PMK leadership can hope to terrorize members of Vanniar caste as well into submission to their authority. This is a copy book case of fascist mobilization which can suppress all class antagonisms. Ramadoss has the support of the Kongu Vellala Gounders of western districts who are consolidating against the political assertion of Arundhathiyars, another major Dalit caste.

While Ramadoss and the PMK appear to be losing the ground, the forces of reaction cannot be underestimated. This is particularly important since the compulsions of electoral democracy, which is all about formal equality without substantial equality, needs all such measures to survive. This will become clear, as the human right activist and Tamil political commentator A.Marx has pointed out, if we ask the question why the major political parties like the DMK, the AIADMK, the Congress and the BJP are not able to condemn the PMK and declare that they would have nothing to do with such a flagrantly anti-Dalit fascist mobilization. They can declare that they would have nothing to do with the undermining of the basic tenets of the constitution which declares all Indians free and equal. They can declare that to campaign against inter caste marriage goes against the political vision of the founding fathers like M.K.Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, B.R.Ambedkar, and for that matter even Savarkar. Whether Sonia Gandhi or Advani, Jayalalitha or Karunanithi they know very well why the PMK has abetted the suicide/ alleged murder of Ilavarasan, in spite of the attention paid by the national press. They know the vitriolic rhetoric that the party unleashed in its annual conference in February against Dalits and inter-caste marriages.  In spite of the obvious failure of the PMK to constitute a Vanniar vote bank, why are they afraid of boldly announcing a unilateral break of all political ties with the party? Is this not something we would expect of political leaders of this country however corrupt and self serving they may be? The answer is perhaps simple. No one knows how to get the actual votes in an election. All parties need votes to get enough MPs and form a government. Instead of shunning the PMK and its caste mafia, which may manage to mobilize votes, it would be easier to build a memorial to Ilavarasan. There is enough time for that.

[Rajan Kurai Krishnan teaches film studies at the Ambedkar University Delhi. He writes both in Tamil and English on cultural and political phenomena.]

8 thoughts on “Ilavarasan: At a deadly new junction of caste and electoral politics: Rajan Kurai Krishnan”

  1. Incisive, Rajan. The question of how a caste claims to be a “group” with stable “interests” is a question that is easily neglected in most analysis of caste. Hopefully this will change as more of us pose such questions and attempt sober analysis.


  2. It is high time that we realized that castes have not been obliterated. Equally clearly we must accept that castes have now been re-configured. A caste signifies roughly equal economic status, same profession, same style of living, not vastly different customs and so on. Originally castes were formed on roughly these lines. The same criterion holds even today. However to stick to the old configuration is a mistake. Now the public sector townships are one caste. A neighbourhood in a city is a caste by itself. People working in a particular profession is also a caste. Ilavarasan and Divya belonged to this newly re-configured same caste. It is the vested interests in the old caste configuration that objected. Basically they are Status Qupoists. The leaders of a society, instead of harping alone on economic transformation, must also strive for a social transformation. In fact, social movements like the one the Periyar initiated need to be taken further and re-configuration of castes as a first step in the final goal of obliteration of castes, must be taken at the present stage. In fact, it is better if social transformation precedes economic transformation.


  3. The basic fact here is that there is no System as in Caste System. These are different jatis, clans etc which have graded superiority / inferiority and the resulting conflicts. This is an inter Bahujan conflict. There are inter dalit murders and atrocities which happen day in and day out. It is the way you see and the framework you impose. Just using the lens of caste system is missing the whole point. Neither Periyar or the Dravida parties have any solution for these.


  4. Yes, Sir. I agree the reality what was going. These are all the factors are true. But, inter caste platforms are come to openly apologist the past happenings in Dharmapuri. These issues, which can broadly be, characterised as secularisation, collectives and upward mobilisation of caste, has detached caste from the political status hierarchy on the one side, and has imparted it a character of the power-group functioning in the competitive democratic politics on the other. So we need another debate about ‘Caste: Today’ in the contemporary socio dynamism. If so will be debate, How the Vanniyar caste is try to upward ‘kshathriya’ power catching the caste hierarchy equal with so called Vellaala, Udaiyar, Chettiyar, Mudhaliyar, Nayudu etc… These kind of peril development is breaking the convergence of social democracy.


  5. I would like to thank the author for the article, as it sheds light on the wider political context of the tragedy that has taken place in Dharmapuri. I think, though, that the side the author has taken on the case of Ilavarasan’s death, trying to convince the reader that it couldn’t have possibly been suicide, is quite difficult to maintain. The case was quite meticuously investigated, after all, by experts in this field – and even this, not mentioning the fact that there were two direct witnesses of the event. We may of course engage in creating the conspiration theory around Ilavarasan’s death, but conspiration theories assume a’priori that all the information we have about a given event is falsified, and thus do not contribute to our knowledge.

    I am quite surprised that the author has not mentioned the alleged suicide letter of the young man, since the mystery of this “finding” does provoke questions about the whole incident and the interference of third party. The document was supposedly found – around a week after the suicide has taken place – in a way that has not been clarified. In the letter Ilavarasan has allegedly claimed that no one is to be blamed for his decision. I am very much curious about opinions on this doubtful contribution to the Dharmapuri case, since, because of language barrier, I have a difficulty accessing independent Tamil media.


  6. Whether it is a suicide or murder, a life is killed by communal discrimination and that illavarasan never gonna be returned.

    1)Why did the court dint send the wife with her husband when they are legally married?

    2)Till July 1st Divya clearly stated that She loves Illavarasan and he is treating her good after marriage. How did she suddenly changed on July 3 refusing to go with Illavarasan.

    If the cast “Vanniyar” is discriminating Illavarasan as Dalit, then remember “Vanniyar” is not a superior caste it is Most Backward Class ultimately meaning they are “Dalit” for forward caste.

    What step Indian Government is going to take? Where is democracy? Where is individual freedom? What happened to what Mahatma Ghandhiji taught us?

    India is the worst country i could ever imagine. Killing a life just for communal discrimination proves that we are still living in an uncivilized country ruled by uncivilized people.

    Worthless Country!


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