Tamil Nadu Police uses teargas, lathi and guns on unarmed dalit protesters.
11th September, 2011 was the day Paramakudi resident Valiswamy’s wife Gayatri gave birth to their first child. He was a dalit while she was from an upper caste family. In a caste sensitive area like Paramakuddi, inter-caste marriages are rare and they have to survive immense social pressure to come together. Valiswamy and Gayatri had fought hard and negotiated a truce with these forces. He was on his way to the hospital when he was caught in the Paramakudi firings, a widely reported incident in which the Tamil Nadu police opened fire on a group of unarmed dalits who were staging a peaceful protest. Valiswamy would not survive to see his newborn.
“The families of the bereaved have received their compensations from the government but other than that, nothing has happened. The perpetrators are scot free. In fact, the chief minister has since been effusive in her praise for the state police. And the dalits are continuing to live in a stifling atmosphere of violence and fear. The
incident has been a backlash to dalit morale in Tamil Nadu.”
Dalit activist and IndiaUnheard Community Correspondent Mani M. aka Makkal Sevakan sounds angry and weary as he describes the situation in Paramakudi 5 months after the police’s attempts to disband a peaceful protest against the incarceration of popular dalit leader John Pandian resulted in the murder of 6 dalits and injuring many others.
The incident caused uproar in the country. Dalit and Human Rights Organizations from across the nation condemned the attack and called for investigation. The media covered the incident extensively. The fact finding team set up to probe the incident made a strong case against the actions of the police but still as Mani puts it ‘nothing has happened.’
54 years ago, Paramakudi was witness to one of the biggest caste riots in the country, a skirmish that cost the life of dalit iconoclast and leader, Immanuel Sekaran who was amongst the first Tamil Nadu dalits to advocate for dalit empowerment and rights against 3000 years of upper caste oppression. On 11th September, John Pandian was scheduled to arrive to pay his respects at Sekaran’s memorial. But using the sensitive atmosphere caused by recent murder of a dalit high school boy for allegedly writing offensive graffiti against the upper castes as a pretext, the police pre-emptively arrested him.
When the crowd gathered to receive Pandian heard news of the arrest, they protested by peacefully occupying the road. The police’s diplomatic response was teargas and a lathi charge. The mood soured and the crowd turned unruly. A few protestors began pelting stones against the police. The police responded with gunfire.
“It is not like the police could not handle the situation. There is an upper caste festival in Paramakudi each year that goes smoothly without the need to resort to pre-emptive arrests and lathi and gunfire. But the first time the dalits try to get together and organize a festival, it ends in tragedy,” says Mani.
Mani was in Chennai on the fateful day when he heard of the Paramakudi firings. He immediately got on the first train. When he arrived, he saw a wasteland of police barricades, empty streets and burning vehicles. Some of Mani’s friends who had been part of the protest had managed to record footage of the police bashing in the heads of the people and shooting at unarmed civilians. The footage, which offers a birds eye view of the incident, justifies the statements of the fact finding group but there has been similar footage before and witness accounts and reports and photographs and yet, ‘nothing has happened.’
Of all the cases filed in the Tamil Nadu Courts under the Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribes Protection Act, 95% are acquitted. It is a disturbing figure that makes the atrocities seem insignificant or routine.
In the 1969 Kilvenmani massacre, 44 landless dalit labourers were burnt alive for demanding better wages. In 1997, the dalit panchayat president and others were murdered in Melavalau. In September 2002, at Kaundampatti in Dindigul district, a dalit worker was forced to drink urine for having lodged a complaint of trespass with the police. In May 2002, two dalits were forced to eat human excreta in Thinniyam village in Tiruchi district.
In 2011, on the 54th anniversary of a dalit massacre and the subsequent murder of Immanuel Sekaran, 6 dalits are killed in broad daylight by the state police. And not a single perpetrator has been brought to justice. Almost as if nothing had happened.
For a brief account of the dalit struggle in Tamil Nadu, read http://www