Dalit panchayat chiefs vow to fight caste domination
(By Our Special Correspondent)
Chennai, April 13 : Last month’s murder of Menaka, Dalit panchayat president of Urappakkam village near here, has sparket a new form of activism among Dalit panchayat heads.
Four-and-half years after assuming office, the Dalit panchayat leaders came together in Chennai on Wednesday and resolved to fight more vigorously against caste discrimination. “We will no longer brook violence and discrimination by the dominant castes”, they decided at the first conference of Dalit panchayat presidents of Tamil Nadu.
They blamed Menaka’s murder at her own office on the Government’s “failure” to provide adequate protection to Dalit and Adivasi Panchayat chiefs. Only when caste discrimination was abolished would democratic decentralization of power would have any meaning.
They decided to form a State Federation of Dalit presidents of panchayats and to strengthen the district associations of the Federation. This body would play an active role to ensure free and fair election of Dalit candidates and present rights violations in local bodies elections slated for end-2001.
Coming weeks before the Assembly elections, the new found Dalit activism could send signals to political parties, as the delegates were beyond party affiliations and asserted the Dalit identity in a more pronounced way.
The meet, organized by the Human Rights Forum for Dalit Liberation and the Human Rights Advocacy and Research Foundation, sought statute changes to secure more legal, administrative and financial powers to the elected Dalit heads of rural local bodies – specifically to ensure that they functioned effectively as leaders in grass roots democracy, without interference from other castes.
It wanted the Government to use the Protection of Civil Rights Act effectively against members of “dominant castes”, especially those who prevented the effective functioning of SC/ST panchayat heads; payment of an honorarium of Rs. 4,000 and power to give caste certificates.
Another unanimous call was for removal of Section 205 of the Panchayats Act, which gave power to Collectors to dismiss elected heads. The Act should be amended to protect the Dalit communities’ legal and traditional rights over water, fish and timber; and to enable retrieval of “Panchami” land for distribution among the disserving.
The meet was intensely critical of the State Gopvernment not giving adequate financial and administrative powers to the elected heads in the past four and a half years. What was provided were only mere supervisory and recommendatory functions, not real powers.
Symbolising their indignation against the State police machinery was another resolution which wanted the police to enter a Dalit hamlet for taking legal action only after obtaining due permission from the Dalit panchayat head or ward member concerned.
Mr. Christudas Gandhi, Secretary, Social Reforms Department, said the entire outlook of Dalit panchayat heads towards the administrative systems had to change. The present structure, where a senior officer’s main function was to suspect and consequently supervise a subordinate’s work, was antithetical to democracy. Calling upon the rural local body heads to stop acting as government contractors, he said they should unite and form a powerful interest group to protect collective interests.
Mr. V. Karuppan, Convener, Save Panchami Land Movement, Mr. S. V. Rajadurai, writer and activist, Ms.Sudha Sundaraman, State Committee Member of CPI(M), said besides other administrative hurdles, being Dalit was an added hindrance to the SC/ST rural local body heads..