The Rediff Interview/ R Thirumalvalavan
It was during the 1999 Lok Sabha election that the Dalit Panthers of India, under R Thirumalvalavan, became a force in Tamil Nadu.
It was then part of the Third Front led by the Tamil Maanila Congress. That forum fared badly in the election, but the dalit outfits, Puthiya Thamizhagam and DPI, emerged strong.
The DPI was a response to the alleged atrocities on dalits by the Vanniyar community. Naturally, the Pattali Makkal Katchi, represented by the vanniyars of the north, was its major opponent. The PMK was then part of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam-led front in the state.
The Third Front under G K Moopanar became an ally of the All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam's Secular Front in the assembly by-election. But when AIADMK chief J Jayalalitha decided to have the PMK as a major ally, the DPI walked out.
The DPI recently joined Chief Minister K Karunanidhi's front after he assured that it was the DMK that was in control and not the Bharatiya Janata Party. Shobha Warrier quizzes Thirumalvalvan on his move:
You had said earlier that you would not join a front that had the BJP in it. But finally you joined the DMK-led front.
Yes, it is true that we had said a couple of months ago that we would not be a part of an alliance that had the BJP and the PMK in it. But the moment we came to know that the PMK had joined the AIADMK front, we decided not to be a part of that alliance at all. But we did not immediately rush to the DMK-led front either.
On the 7th of February, we came out of the AIADMK front. Till the 5th of March, we waited for a Third Front to be formed under the leadership of Moopanar. Unfortunately, it did not materialise. We waited for a Third Front to emerge because the BJP was with the DMK in the other front and we didn't want to be part of such a front.
It was then that the DMK leader Kalaignar Karunanidhi invited us to join his front. We held discussions about the invitation in our polit bureau meeting and then came to the decision that we would join the front if the alliance changed the name NDA. The NDA at the centre is led by the BJP, and why should we have a NDA here in Tamil Nadu too, as Tamil Nadu politics is different from national politics?
We wanted the DMK to lead the front, a front that would not have any caste outfits, and a front that would not have the BJP as the dominant partner. We had no problem in having the BJP in such a front but only as a minor partner. So, we told the chief minister that we were willing to join such a front.
The CM responded to our concern. What he said was, the BJP did not dominate in the DMK-led front and the front in Tamil Nadu was an independent one under the leadership of the DMK. He also told us that the NDA would not rule Tamil Nadu, and only the DMK would. That was how we got convinced. Soon after that, we decided to join the front.
You called the BJP a communal party and the PMK casteist. Do you think the BJP is a lesser evil? What are the differences between these two parties?
Both are the same! There is no difference between the two. Even though the BJP talks about communalism, it tries to unite all the Hindus, those belonging to the upper castes and those from the lower castes. They call the brahmins as well as the pariahs the Hindus. But casteist parties like the PMK are trying to divide the Hindus on the basis of caste. They are suppressing dalits, burning the huts of dalits and thus trying to divide the Hindus in the name of caste.
All the so-called secular parties support casteist outfits and more and more parties based on caste are being formed. What could be the reason for this?
PMK is the model for all these people. All of them want to unite those in their caste under one umbrella, and then they want to form a political party and ultimately come to power. They feel only if they come to power, they can work for their caste. That is why I say that the PMK is dangerous to the country, to democracy and the people as a whole. They are dangerous not only to dalits or the Dalit Panthers but also to the entire nation.
So, I told Moopanar to fight the PMK. I told the Communist leaders. I told the Dravida Kazhaka leader, Veeramani. I also asked the Leftist parties and other secular parties, 'You shout loudly against communalism but why are you not opposing casteist parties who divide people on the bases of caste?'
How did they respond?
Do you know what Veeramani said the day after our meeting with him? He issued a statement saying that with the entry of the PMK, the secular front has strengthened. Even after our warnings, if he were to issue such a statement, what does it mean? That he wants to help caste parties to grow.
Do you know what the communist parties said? They said they didn't like the presence of PMK in the secular front, and that they were concerned and disappointed. But their concern was, who would go and tell all this to Jayalalitha! It really surprised me. If these people can't even tell her their concerns, how are they expected to control her? I told them then, okay, you need not go alone. All of us will go and meet her together. But they did not accept my suggestion. Not only that, they told me, 'you need not worry. We will take care of you. We will work as your saviour'. We felt insulted. That was the reason why we decided to leave the front.
After you joined the DMK-led front, you said, 'I have reached a respectable destination.' Why did you say so?
We first thought the AIADMK was a good party. You will recall we were first with the TMC in the Third Front, and not with the AIADMK front. Both the fronts joined hands and faced the assembly by-election. After the election, it was called a secular front. We thought they would give proper respect to the dalit movement. We don't need any help from any party or any front; we only want respect. When I say 'we expect respect', I do not mean respect to me, Thirumalvalavan, but respect to all the dalits, all the downtrodden.
Even before the election, we came out with a slogan that we would not have anything to do with the BJP or the PMK. But Jayalalitha didn't bother about our feelings at all when she decided to have the PMK in the alliance.
Did you meet Jayalalitha and voice your concern?
No, I did not meet her personally. But I conveyed my concern through the media and also at various platforms. In fact, when she was with me on the same platform, I spoke that the PMK was a dangerous party and that we should not let it grow. But she was not bothered about our concern at all. She insulted not only me but Moopanar and the Communist leaders also. It appeared she wanted only the PMK and not the other parties. Only the PMK seemed important to her.
As we were not respected, we decided to come out of the front. That is why I said, we have come to a place where we hope to get respect. If we were not respected, we would get out. See, all parties want to purchase the dalit movement, the dalit leaders and the dalits. We don't like to be treated that way.
Unlike the PMK, which is strong in eight northern districts, we are a strong force in all the 234 constituencies, in all the 30 districts. There are three major castes in dalits: the pallars, sakliyas and pariahs. Pallars support the Puthiya Thamizhagam but both the sakliyas and pariahs support us, the DPI and in some areas, the pallars also support us. More than 70 per cent of the dalits support the Dalit Panthers.
You called the PMK a casteist party as it has only the support of the Vanniyars. But you said among the dalits also, there were three castes and parties for each caste.
But whenever there is a crisis, we unite and fight for the cause of all dalits. We have been doing that. We are fighting as separate identities only in the elections.
In Tamil Nadu, it is only recently that the dalits have created such strong organisations to represent them politically. In what way will this help the dalits as a whole?
Yes, we have a political identity now. For the first time, we are recognised as a political party. We are invited to attend meetings along with other parties and we have the freedom to air our views in such forums, which I feel is a major gain for us. Our next aim is to capture power and with power in our hands, we can help all the dalits to come up in society.
Do other political parties treat you as vote bank like the Muslims are treated by many political parties in India?
See, there are more than 1.5 crore [150 million] dalits in Tamil Nadu and nobody can ignore us. Other political parties also have understood this fact. Our aim also is the consolidation of dalits. It can happen either in Puthiya Thamizhagam or in Dalit Panthers. We were together in the Third Front for the Lok Sabha election. Now also, we are together. Here, let me tell you that between us, there is no animosity or enmity.
Now that the PMK has joined the AIADMK front, Jayalalitha and also some political pundits say that she is on a winning wicket, as all the Vanniyars of the northern district will vote for her and also the Thevars of the southern districts.
That is the main weakness of Jayalalitha. She believes that all the Thevars of the south and all the Vanniyars of the north are with her. Now, what will happen is, all the non-Thevars and all the no-Vanniyars will join together and vote against her. This will definitely happen. Take my word for it. Do you know the PMK has only two per cent people of the state supporting them? Does that mean they are a formidable force?
Jayalalitha also thinks that the PMK is a major party in the northern districts. She also thinks that AIADMK is very strong in the south. All these are her false notions. I am telling you, Puthiya Thamizhagam and Panthers together can defeat all the other candidates in the south as 25 per cent of the population belongs to the dalits and more than 18 per cent of the voters are with us.
Do you think the time has come for a coalition government in Tamil Nadu?
It will not happen in this election. Had there been a Third Front, there was a chance of a coalition government here too. But Moopanar is still thinking and there are no signals from him that he would start a Third Front. That was the reason why we joined the DMK-led front.
If Moopanar joins the AIDMK front, will it not be very strong? How will the contest be then, according to you?
We can expect very tough fight throughout Tamil Nadu.
You have many caste-based parties in Tamil Nadu now. What will happen to the Dravidian parties?
What the Dravidian parties had been doing all these years was indulging in caste-based politics. They exploited the caste factor to their advantage. Whenever they fielded a candidate, they saw to it that the candidate belonged to the dominant caste of that region. They even created problems between various castes. That was the reason why we have new parties based on castes now. Nobody can deny that. Even though I have joined as an ally of a Dravidian party, I have to say that the Dravidian parties are responsible for the origin of caste-based parties in Tamil Nadu. I will not say that only they are responsible but they are the major reason.
Another reason I can cite is the rise of the PMK. Now, all the other communities feel that they also can have their own parties.
It was reported that in the northern districts, there were a lot of problems between the dalits and the Vanniyars. Do they really suppress the dalits of that region like it is said to be happening in the southern districts?
Suppression of dalits is there not only in the south or the north but all over the state. Caste atrocities are there in all the districts. Yes, it is more in the south, as the struggle is more violent there.
Photographs: Sreeram Selvaraj