Love and violence in Dharmapuri

SS

The village of Nayakankottai, on the road from Dharmapuri to Tirupattur, bears the only tribute to Naxalism in all of Tamil Nadu: a whitewashed sickle-and-hammer memorial commemorating slain Naxal leaders Balan and L Appu. But the caste violence that wrecked the lives of over a thousand Dalits earlier this month has forever tainted the image of Dharmapuri district as a former Naxal stronghold that, even a decade ago, had no place for caste or class differences.

More than two weeks after three Dalit settlements, not far from Nayakankottai in this backward district in north-west Tamil Nadu, were attacked, the air is still thick with tension. In the town of Dharmapuri, about two dozen policemen stand guard at an agitation by the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (Liberation Panthers Party, or VCK) and its president and MP, the fervent orator Thol Thirumavalavan.

Peace, however brittle, prevails at the gathering. The front of harmony that existed between the two majority castes—Vanniyars, a Hindu caste politically represented by S Ramadoss's Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), and Parayars, one of the Scheduled Castes whose cause the VCK purports to champion—now lies shattered. Observers say the fragile accord soured over the past few years upon incitement from caste leaders. They allege that the attack, apparently triggered by an inter-caste marriage, was politically engineered.

When N Divya, a Vanniyar from Sellankottai village, and E Ilavarasan, from the neighbouring Dalit colony of Natham, fled due to parental opposition to get married, a caste panchayat held on the morning of November 7 by leaders from both communities ruled that the girl be returned to her family. Distraught at her decision to stay with her husband, Divya's father, G Nagaraj, who worked at a cooperative bank, allegedly committed suicide by hanging himself. The discovery of his body later that day is said to have provoked a 1,500-strong mob to rampage through Natham and two smaller Dalit settlements, Kondampatti and Anna Nagar, where it set ablaze over 200 houses, damaged at least 50 others, and allegedly looted valuables and cash worth lakhs of rupees.

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