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Dalits in Ambalapattu were attacked by upper-caste Kallar’s on New Year’s eve

by January 13, 2018 General

An arch had been erected and festoons were up. It was New Year’s eve and a Dalit colony in Ambalapattu village of Tamil Nadu’s Thanjavur district was preparing to celebrate. But at around 11.30 p.m. a group of men, many inebriated and on two-wheelers — upper-caste Kallars from the area — attacked the colony’s residents, who belong to the Paraiyar community.

What started as verbal abuse soon spiralled into vandalism. The group began to tear down the decorations. Some elders intervened and an uneasy peace was restored.

A few hours later, Kamaraj, a resident of the colony, returned home. All was quiet, he says, until he heard a sudden din of voices. It grew louder and closer and then there was the frightening noise of objects being broken.

Something amiss

“It was a mob of around 40 men. They seemed to be in a frenzy. They pelted stones at our houses, ransacked them and damaged whatever they could lay their hands on — even our two-wheelers. They beat the men of the colony, and verbally abused the women,” recalls Kamaraj, a medical sales professional and a victim of the attack that night. “‘How can you lowly Paraiyars dare to celebrate,’ they asked us.”

The Dalit men implored the gang to spare their families, as the women fled into homes and bolted the doors. The attack lasted for 30 minutes, before the group returned, satisfied with having taught the residents “a lesson”.

“When the first stones shattered the window panes of my home, I thought it was an accident,” recalls D. Amudha, a farm worker. “But loud abuse followed and I realised something was seriously wrong. When I peeped out, I saw a gang damaging two-wheelers parked in front of my neighbour’s house.” Amudha shouted for help and pleaded with the attackers to stop.

Two days later, six men from the Kallar community were arrested and the search is on for 10 more people.

The reasons for the attack are obvious, according to Kamaraj. “Obviously, they could not accept our progress. We are educated today, we have government jobs or jobs overseas. Our dependence on them has vastly reduced.”

The Cauvery delta continues to be largely feudal , with lower caste and poor labourers working in fields owned by upper-caste families. Dalits continue to live outside villages, in separate “colonies”. The significant difference in Ambalapattu or Ambal as it is called is that the 100-odd Dalit families here, mostly belonging to the Paraiyar community, have seen unusual economic progress. Practically every second family has, or has had, a member who works in Singapore.

And, for over six decades, the region has been a communist bastion, with residents resisting exploitation by zamindars and encouraging amity and economic progress for all classes. Perhaps because of this, Ambal’s Dalit families have lived amicably with the 700 Kallar families here, a land-owning community. There has been peace even as other areas in the district have witnessed frequent caste clashes.

Families here cite stories of a Kallar man who married a Dalit woman, and the Sri Then Thiruvannamalai temple in the village where a Dalit priest assists the head priest. A Dalit woman manages the rural library, while students of both communities study in the Government Higher Secondary School.

Deep fissures

Just 300 metres from the temple is a settlement of around 20 Dalit families and just beyond this is Amarar Podhiyan Park, dedicated to the memory of a Dalit farm labourer called Podhiyan whose environmental activism is still recalled by the villagers. The park was created in 2006 with contributions from the whole village.

“We have never practised caste discrimination in Ambal,” says G. Appangan, a panchayat president for more than 20 years and widely respected. Another village elder says, “We have supported Dalit students financially for their education besides sharing all village facilities and benefits equally. I am aghast at what happened that night. It was liquor and the failure to groom our youth that caused it.”

As always, politics seem to have played a role. There are fissures within the Left here, which seem to have come to the fore that night. The Communist Party of India finds favour with the Kallars and Velallars, while the Communist Party of India (Marxist) has a formidable base among the Dalits.

But, as activist Kathir of the Madurai-based organisation, Evidence, says, such attacks usually take place either when oppressed people become more vocal or prosper economically.

Appangan has since led a team of Kallar villagers to the Dalit colony to promise the victims compensation, assuring them that the erring young men youths would be counselled.

Villagers are eager to restore the area’s fragile social harmony, but it might be harder in these times. “We want criminal action against all the offenders, and adequate legal compensation for the damages,” says S. Shanthi, a victim showing me her mangled TV set and shattered window panes.