Dalits contesting non-reserved seats too
By Radha Venkatesan
CUDDALORE, OCT. 14. Call it Dalits' new-found assertion or aggression. But, the communally-sensitive Cuddalore district presents a refreshing contrast to villages in southern belt where Dalits fear to contest in wards reserved for them. Dalits in the district are not only fighting the reserved seats in panchayat elections, but also taking on the upper caste in general wards too.
If Melavalavu in Madurai district stands as a notorious symbol of caste oppression, visit the Melkavarapattu hamlet near Panrutti for an insight into the growing might of Dalits. The hamlet, which has over 500 Dalits, has always elected either a Muslim or a Vanniar as its panchayat president so far. And, Dalits here never dared to fight the election, though they were in a majority. For, it was not reserved for the SCs.
But this time round, Dalit youths in the village refused to be cowed down by either the Muslims or Vanniars. Defiantly, nine Dalits jumped into the fray. And the SCs asked the two Muslims who had filed nominations, to withdraw from the contest. When they showed reluctance, the Dalit youths warned them that they cannot step into their colonies to canvass for votes. And, the threat worked. The two contestants pulled out and so did eight other Dalits too, unanimously electing 47 year-old Mrs. T. Muthulakshmi, the first Dalit panchayat president of the village.
Muthulakshmi knows only to sign and does not know to read or write. But, she is determined to ensure that Dalit colonies in the village get proper roads and regular water supply. ``Why should we allow ourselves to be treated like bonded labourers. This time, we were determined to elect only a Dalit. And, we will not allow anyone else to become a panchayat president in the future too'' says 31-year-old Dharma, a mason. And, Muthulakshmi lugging her grandchild, gives a confident grin. Dalits from the village are contesting for the panchayat union ward councillor too.
The story of Dalit assertion does not end in the tiny village of Melkavarapattu. In several villages in Cuddalore, a stronghold of the DPI, Dalits are in a belligerent mood. They are not only contesting non-reserved seats, but some of them are also ``defiantly'' canvassing for votes in the `upper caste' areas too. And, particularly, in the panchayats and panchayat union wards reserved for women, the Dalits colonies are fielding its candidates. ``As the local upper caste leaders file complaints of theft against the Dalit men who show interest in contesting the election, we have decided to field women candidates,'' Dalit youths say.
In Sundaravandi village near Nellikuppam, three Dalit women have filed nominations for the panchayat union councillor post , which is not reserved for Dalits. The Vanniars and Dalits are almost in equal numbers in the village. Says 25-year-old R. Varalakshmi, one of the Dalit candidates: ``The upper caster people are mounting indirect pressure on us to withdraw. A few candidates are trying to woo the Dalit voters by promising to build a temple in the village. But whether I win or lose, I am determined to contest.'' For about four hours in the evenings, she campaigns along with her husband and local women, but keeps off the ``upper caste colonies''.
However, in the neighbouring Thirumanikuzhi village, the two Dalit women contestants fearlessly canvass for votes in the Vanniar- dominant areas too. Says an elderly Vanniar, T. P. Ramalingam of the village: ``Dalits are not meek anymore. And, we have also come to terms with social reality. They enter our temples and colonies. And, so we have allowed them to contest in non-reserved wards too.'' The fear of violence and yearning for social harmony have certainly forced the upper caste to ``tolerate and accept'' the Dalits, if not consider them as equals.
And, what was remotely unthinkable in the last local bodies elections is happening now. In a few villages, Vanniars are canvassing for Dalit candidates too. As a Dalit candidate, K.Sengeni, in Kuchipalayam near Cuddalore walks along with Vanniar youths to campaign in an upper caste strong-hold, it appears that the district which has the largest number of ``untouchability atrocity-prone villages'' in the State, is preparing for a crucial social change.