Shanti Priya/ Chennai
Madurai district in Tamil Nadu used to be the epicentre of caste clashes. Though gradual, situation is changing for the better
Clearly signs are changing, for the better. Madurai, which used to be epicentre of caste clashes in Tamil Nadu, is slowly witnessing a change. Recently, a 102-year-old Dalit woman, Thadagathi, was elected a ward member in Pudukulam panchayat of Madurai district. She was the oldest elected member in the local bodies in the state.
"Revered as Maruthuvatchi (village doctor conversant with traditional medicine), she has excelled as a midwife, having had a hand in the delivery of nearly 1,000 babies," said panchayat president P Muthuramalingam.
Her rivals were 70 years younger. "My commitment is that I will not take away a single penny of the public money. I have been serving you and I will continue to do so," was Thadagathi's door-to-door campaign theme in Pudukulam, where she arrived as a 10-year-old child bride.
Madurai has witnessed severe caste clashes in Tamil Nadu. Dalits were not allowed to contest or in some cases vote in local body elections by upper caste Hindus. In several villages, Dalit candidates were attacked after they came forward to file nominations. In about five such villages, elections could not be held for nearly a decade. Out of these, in some villages where elections were held elected panchyat presidents resigned under pressure from caste Hindus.
A large number of elected Dalit and women panchayat presidents suffered humiliation at the hands of the vice-presidents and co-members and even government officials. In many cases it was found that the Dalit presidents had to take orders from caste-Hindu leaders and that a substantial number of women presidents were proxies for their husbands or other men of their families. The provision in the Act that the president and the vice-president should sign cheques jointly was often used by the vice-presidents to put pressure on the presidents. In fact, in 1997, caste-Hindu hostility led to the massacre of six Dalits, including Murugesan, president of the Melavalavu village panchayat in Madurai district. Caste-Hindu panchayat presidents who were sympathetic to Dalit causes were also not spared. One such panchayat chief was hacked to death in Coimbarore district.
For rural women and Dalits, most of whom were elected to these posts for the first time, it was an uphill task. Fear of facing hostile people prevented them from even convening the mandatory gram sabha meetings. The police and the administrative machinery only added to their woes. The only redeeming factor was that some departments of the Central and State governments and numerous non-governmental and inter-governmental agencies tried to help them.
The fact, however, remains that no Dalit can expect to win without the support of at least a section of non-Dalits. With Dalits coming to power, differences among them have surfaced in several places.