"Tamil Nadu should be declared as an atrocity state. The caste situation here is like in no other state," says A Kathir, executive director of Madurai-based NGO Evidence.
Caste-based violence has raised its ugly head to new levels in Tamil Nadu during the time of the novel coronavirus pandemic, allege social activists.
Since the first nationwide lockdown began on March 25, there have been at least 30 major incidents of caste-based violence in the state, according to a study by Evidence. Activists allege that in many places, some upper-caste groups are using the lockdown as an opportunity to assault Dalits.
"In a lot of incidents, there are 40-50 people attacking in groups. How is this possible in a lockdown?" asks Kathir. "In the last four days, four Dalits have been murdered. Honour killings, group attacks, murders, rape and harassment have all happened. They say domestic violence has increased in the society. Caste-based violence has also increased now, and the victims are not even able to complain properly due to the lockdown. Under SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act, if the accused moves for bail, they have to intimate the victim. The High Court has now said accused don't need to appear because of the virus. Now people are using this in their favour and moving for bail. Government should take a policy decision on this."
The severity levels of the crimes, as listed by Evidence, have seen a rapid escalation too. "On an average, 100 cases are filed under SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act in a month," says Kathir. "Most of these cases are minor incidents while four to five could be bigger crimes. But this month, the 30 incidents that we're talking about are all big. So it's a rapid increase in brutal crimes."
Among the incidents is an honour killing of M Sudhakar in Morappanthangal village in Arani. Sudhakar, who belonged to the Oddar caste, was murdered on March 29 by relatives of his lover who belonged to the Vanniyar caste. Two accused, including the woman's father have been arrested.
In another incident on April 24, a reporter of the political party Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi’s (VCK) Velicham TV channel, Adi Suresh, was attacked after he reported about a group damaging the portrait of Dr BR Ambedkar in the town.
On April 21 in Karambakkudi in Pudukkottai district, MBA graduate Muruganandham, a Dalit, married his lover Bhanupriya. Soon after the wedding, Bhanupriya's relatives attacked Muruganandham and kidnapped her. "Bhanupriya was rescued after action by Evidence," said Kathir.
On May 8 in Udayakulam village in Tuticorin, a dispute over loan led to the murder of A Palavesam and his son-in-law R Thangaraj by a group belonging to the Devar community. On the same day in Salem, Vishnupriyan, a Dalit, was murdered by upper caste groups, Evidence says.
The incidents have increased with migrant workers, most of them from lower castes, returning to villages from cities. While many of them, especially ones that have returned from Covid-19 hotspot Koyambedu, have been quarantined, their family members are facing the brunt of discrimination. In some villages in Tiruvannamalai district, upper caste people have allegedly even placed thorns outside Dalit colonies to ensure they don't move out.
These incidents, added with the general discrimination, has made life even more difficult for lower caste people, observers say.
"In Nilakottai, there have been incidents where shops have refused supplying to Dalits, because of the perception that they are not hygienic people. Sanitary workers, scavengers, maids... there is a perception that they are not clean. This discrimination, when added with the caste factor, has increased manifold. Not all have bathrooms in their houses. Government bathrooms are hardly in usable conditions, so they still use open spaces. Now they're not able to come out, and are struggling," says Kathir.
According to him, reopening of Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation (TASMAC) liquor stores will only add to the woes.
"They say TASMAC revenue hit Rs 175 crore on the first day it was opened. At least 80 per cent of that would have come through the poorest of poor people. They're people who struggle for food, so it's likely that the money is from loans. Two Dalits were murdered in Thoothukudi because of this. It's a cycle and it's all linked," says Kathir.
While Kathir calls for a helpline for caste-based violence, P Sampath, president of Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front (TNUEF), says the only way to stop discrimination is by strict enforcement of existing laws.
"Even in this pandemic, casteism has not stopped. A lot of Dalits who are workers have been returning home, and they're frowned upon," he says. "
Unfortunately, there's no specific time for caste discrimination. It'll be there at all times. There is no dearth of laws against caste-based discrimination in India. There are plenty of sections under which people can be booked. Other countries do not have caste issues, but they don't have as many laws as India does to fight racism in their countries. But the government should enforce these laws. Government should act in such a way that people who indulge in such activities are not able to live peacefully in the society."
Kathir, meanwhile, wants the authorities to come down hard on attackers by booking them in the state's Goondas Act.
"The world is in lockdown, but casteism has not been locked down. The government has not taken action. They say people attacking doctors will be booked under National Security Act. Why is that concern not there over Dalits? How are they attacking in groups? It's a shame that people are fine to die of coronavirus but won't let go of their casteism. Coronavirus is scanning the society. It's bringing out the worst in some people. Caste is even more dangerous than coronavirus."