Caste atrocities in Tamil Nadu have increased nearly fivefold in lockdown: Dalit organisations

Vishnupriyan (left) and Sudhakar (right), two Dalit men, were murdered in two different incidents in Tamil Nadu during the nationwide lockdown. There is a rising number of atrocities against Dalits and Adivasis in the state that have taken place during the lockdown. LEFT: COURTESY Muthukrishnan; RIGHT: COURTESY Murugesan
10 June, 2020

On 29 March, Sudhakar Murugesan, a 24-year-old of the Kullathur community—classified as Scheduled Caste in Tamil Nadu—was murdered by a group of men, in Morrappathangal village of Thiruvannamalai district. In September 2019, he had married Sharmila, a woman from the caste-Hindu Gounder community, classified as Backward Class in Tamil Nadu. “Sudhakar and Sharmila, from the neighbouring village, had gotten married without anyone else knowing,” Murugesan, Sudhakar’s father, told me. He continued, “She belonged to an upper-caste community and her family kept troubling us.” Fearing for their life, the couple fled to Chennai, where Sudhakar began working as a mason. However, 16 days after their wedding, Sharmila’s family managed to find her and forced her to return to her parents’ house. Sudhakar however, remained in Chennai fearing for his life. “He came back home because of the lockdown. His wife’s family, who had threatened to kill him, were waiting for this opportunity,” Murugesan said. 

That morning, Sudhakar had left his house to go to the fields. “Fifteen minutes after he left, we got a call that he had been attacked” Murugesan, said. “By the time we reached the spot, he had died. His mother has been bedridden since then. She doesn’t eat, and is crying all the time,” Murugesan, who broke down frequently while speaking over the phone, told me. “We want justice for our son.”

The murder of Sudhakar is one among the rising number of atrocities against Dalits in Tamil Nadu that have taken place during the national lockdown to combat the coronavirus pandemic. The lockdown brought not only a daily struggle for food and employment for Dalits in the state but also a sharp uptick in caste-based murders and public humiliations. Under the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, the SC/ST Protection Cell of the state chaired by the director general of police is required to collect and publish data every month on the number of atrocities that have occurred. However, the body has not published any of the relevant statistics for the duration of the ongoing lockdown. The office of JK Tripathy, the DGP, directed me to Thamarai Kannan, the assistant DGP for welfare. Kannan’s office did not respond to our queries about the number of atrocities that have occurred in the state and why the administration had not published the data.

The missing data on the rise of anti-Dalit atrocities in the state has however, been carefully collected by Evidence, an organisation which works on Dalit rights and is based out of Madurai. Vincent Raj, the founder of Evidence and commonly called Evidence Kathir, told me, “We have been collecting data of atrocities from the police and from Dalit organisations for years now. The lockdown has seen a clear rise in the number of brutal atrocities. If you count brutal atrocities, against SC and ST communities, like rape, murder and lynching, those have sky-rocketed.” Kathir told me that in January, February and March this year, the number of brutal atrocities in the state were five, eight and six respectively. “According to our studies, which we conduct on a regular basis, every month in Tamil Nadu there are about 100 to 125 cases filed under Atrocities act, five to seven of them being brutal,” Kathir said. “During this lockdown period the brutal cases alone have shot up to thirty.”

Several Dalit organisations in the state told me that this high number was despite the systematic under-reporting of atrocities during the lockdown and the Tamil Nadu police’s unwillingness to register atrocity cases. “It becomes very difficult for the victims to reach out to police stations because of the lockdown,” Kathir said. “The police, on the other hand, cite the pandemic as a reason to avoid filing FIRs or take action. Some form of atrocity is being committed against Dalits every day till date. Perpetrators look at this lockdown as an opportunity to unleash atrocities against the vulnerable communities,” he added.

On 8 May, Vishnupriyan, a 30-year-old from the Adi Dravidar Dalit community, was killed by upper-caste youth just outside his house in Pudhukadai, a Dalit colony in the Salem district. Muthukrishanan, Vishnupriyan’s uncle, told me that on the day, a group of Vanniyar youth, a dominant caste in northern Tamil Nadu, had an argument with some locals. “It started when some drunk Vanniyar men rode into our village on two-wheelers with poles and sticks,” Muthukrishnan said. “When the Dalit youth questioned them, a fight broke out. Vishnupriyan stepped out of his house on hearing the commotion. The Vanniyar gang attacked him with knives and rods, and he immediately lost consciousness.” Naveen Kumar, Vishnupriyan’s brother, and Vasantha, his mother, who tried to rescue him, were also attacked by the mob. Vishnupriyan succumbed to his injuries before he could reach a hospital. Naveen Kumar was admitted to Manipal hospital, in the Dalmia board township on the Salem highway, and was discharged a week later.

Vishnupriyan worked at an IT company in Chennai, but had returned to Pudhukadai because of the lockdown. “Vishnupriyan had gotten married only two months ago,” Muthukrishnan said. “Just because we are Dalit anyone from an upper-caste can even kill our youth even without any particular reason. We need justice for his death. Think about the girl who just got married, who lost her husband, and a mother who saw her son beaten to death right in front of her eyes.” On 9 May, a case under the Prevention of Atrocities act was filed against 19 people for Vishnupriyan’s death. Deepa Ganiker, the superintendent of police for Salem district, said, “We have arrested fifteen people so far. We are on the lookout for other accused too.”  

The data on caste violence in Tamil Nadu shows that anti-Dalit atrocities are frequent in areas where Dalits head the local government. Tamil Nadu has a long history of anti-Dalit violence by dominant castes, many of whom are officially categorised as backward-castes in the state, to stop Dalits from controlling local government. In 1997, following the election of Murugesan, a Dalit candidate, to the position of panchayat president of Melavalavu village in Madurai district, a group of Kallars, a dominant-caste community, beheaded Murugesan and murdered five other Dalits. Melavalavu—which has since been renamed Ambedkar Nagar—has not had any Dalit panchayat presidents after Murugesan and atrocities against Dalits are still frequent. Similarly, in 2012, R Purushothaman, a Dalit man who was elected as the panchayat president of Mannivakkam, a suburb of Chennai, was hacked to death by a dominant-caste mob.

Local government officials from the Dalit community have continued to face verbal and discriminatory attacks even during the lockdown. In 2019, S Amsavalli defeated a candidate propped up by the dominant-caste Vellala Gounder community to become the panchayat president of T Konakapadi village in Salem district. Amsavalli belongs to the Arunthathiyar community—among the most disadvantaged Dalit communities in the state. “Since I was elected, I have not been allowed to carry out any of the panchayat work,” Amsavalli said. “One of the ward members, Mohan, belonging to the Vellala Gounder caste and the husband of the former president, verbally abused me on 22 April.” Amsavalli said that Mohan used casteist slurs and words so demeaning she was afraid to tell me. “We filed a complaint on the same day but the FIR was filed only on 25 April. Things are better now, but I had to undergo this traumatic experience just because I belonged to the Arunthathiyar community.” When asked about why the police took so long to file an FIR, Baskaran, the deputy superintendent of police for Omalur, under whose jurisdiction T Konakapadi is, refused to answer. He instead said, “The case is under investigation. We are conducting detailed witness inquiry since there seems to be previous issues between the parties.”

“Our panchayat is a reserved constituency,” R Selvi, the president of the Kavundachipudur panchayat in Tirupur district, said. She belongs to the Hindu Kuravan community, which is classified as a Scheduled Caste in Tamil Nadu. Out of the nine ward members of the Kavundachipudur panchayat, seven hail from dominant-caste communities and two are from SC communities. On 4 May, at around 4 pm, Selvi had gone to the panchayat office to distribute uniforms and safety gear to sanitation workers. “Kuppusamy, a dominant-caste ward member, started questioning the vice-president and kept complaining that he had not been informed of the distribution of uniforms,” Selvi said. “He started abusing the vice-president and when I intervened, he started using swear words and called me names, mentioning my caste. He even tried to attack me but others stopped him. Kuppusamy threatened to kill me and left the place. I was extremely humiliated and came back home after distributing material to the sanitation workers.” 

Selvi told me she could not digest the humiliation and that Ramesh, her husband, had suggested that she file a police complaint. The police asked them to write a complaint in the register and asked them to come back the next day. “We filed a complaint on 5 May, but till 7 May the police did not register an FIR,” Selvi told me. “I had to complain to the collector’s office and the SP after which an FIR was filed.” Selvi said that Kuppusamy has still not been remanded in spite of the police charging him under the Prevention of Atrocities act. Gopinath, the inspector of Dharapuram police station under whose jurisdiction Kavundachipudur falls, refused to answer when asked about why Kuppuswamy had not been detained. “The case is under investigation by the DSP. Since it’s an SC/ST case, we can’t reveal more details about it,” he said. Selvi told me, “I need justice so that nobody who comes to this position after me has to go through this trauma and is allowed to work peacefully.”

The delay in registering complaints and arresting the accused points towards a historical reality in the state—negligence by the Tamil Nadu police. In some incidents during the lockdown, policemen have even participated in anti-Dalit violence. In late March, Gowthamapriyan, a 24-year-old, had just returned to Chengam town in Thiruvannamalai district, from Bengaluru, where he had recently finished a polytechnic course. “I sent him with my daughter to Kilaiyur”—a nearby village—“to hand over some medicines to his aunt,” Arumugam, Gowthamapriyan’s father, said. After dropping his sister, Gowthamapriyan had stopped in Kuppanatham village, to speak to one of his sister’s friends. He was talking to her near a shop when Easwaran, a policeman from the Vanniyar community which is dominant in this region, questioned him. “As Gowthamapriyan was wearing a t-shirt with the image of BR Ambedkar, Easwaran understood that we are from the Paraiyar Dalit community and started assaulting him,” Arumugam said. He continued, “He used abusive words and kicked Gowtham, even though passers-by tried to stop him.”

“For no reason, he assaulted my son who was extremely humiliated,” Arumugam continued. Gowthamapriyan was admitted in the nearby government hospital and was discharged after two days due to the coronavirus crisis. Gowthamapriyan told me he had been called by the police for an enquiry on 2 April. However, it was only 15 days after the incident, under pressure from several Dalit organisations and political parties, that the police finally registered an FIR, on 4 April. The police have not remanded Easwaran yet, though he was booked under Prevention of Atrocities act. “He still roams around freely while my son is not venturing outside because he was publicly humiliated,” Arumugam told me. Arumugam added that the police were using the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to not take action on those committing caste supremacist crimes.

When asked about why Easwaran has still not been put under remand, Chinnaraj, the deputy superintendent of police for Chengam, said, “We have initiated departmental action against Easwaran and he has been suspended. We are conducting a fair investigation according to the rules. Because of COVID-19 we are tied up with other issues but definitely we will take action and arrest him post lockdown.”

I Pandiyan, the executive director of WITNESS—an organisation working against caste atrocities in Tamil Nadu—noted that the state government has failed to appoint a special officer under Rule 10 of the Prevention of Atrocities act. This rule demands that states appoint an officer below the rank of an additional district magistrate to coordinate the relief and protection for Dalit communities. “Special Officers have been appointed only in 13 states among 29 states and none of the union territories have appointed a special officer till date,” Pandiyan said. “This is a great evidence of state negligence and lack of commitment and political will to implement the atrocities act and ensure protection of Dalits and Adivasis,” Pandiyan added. The DGP’s office did not respond to queries regarding this, either.

Members of several Dalit organisations I spoke to said that government apathy was a major reason for vulnerable communities facing increased violence during the pandemic. “The Dravidian parties”—the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the state’s prominent political parties—“have been ignoring the welfare of Dalits for years,” Neethirajan, one of the founding members of the Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front, said. “Both have not implemented schemes meant for Dalits.”

He was referring to the special-component package in the state budget meant for Dalit welfare. This package is meant to guarantee funds in all welfare and development ministries in proportion to the population of schedule castes in the state. The special component package was advocated for by PS Krishnan, the architect of the Prevention of Atrocities act. However, the special package in Tamil Nadu has been always combined with general social welfare schemes and funds, and not used specifically for the welfare of marginalised communities.

“Economic empowerment of the marginalised communities has never been given priority by the State government,” Neethirajan said. “An effect of this lack of economic upliftment is that Dalits often need to migrate to cities for employment. Any form of economic assertion in rural Tamil Nadu by Dalits when they return from cities is resented and attacked by dominant-caste communities. The lockdown has greatly increased the frequency of this happening and the state’s police and administration are using the pandemic as an excuse to look the other way,” Neethirajan told me. “Being oblivious to such atrocities is a bigger crime than untouchability.”