Need another tsunami to wash away India’s ugly caste system

V B Rawat, Social Development Foundation, Delhi, India

When the tsunami hit Tamil Nadu, on India’s south-eastern coast, it exposed caste prejudice more clearly than ever. Political parties, non-governmental organisations and religious groups also swept onto the shore. They were all in a hurry to distribute their stuff. It was the best possible marketing opportunity, as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said. But in their search to reach the damaged and destroyed boats and their owners scattered along the coastline, some were overlooked. These were the communities of Dalits involved in fishing work. While the lives of fisherfolk were attracting interest and sympathy, very few people know that in Tamil Nadu and other parts of the country, Dalits are also fisherfolk, but they fish mostly on leased boats. Even fewer visitors bothered to stop at the ‘untouchable’ parts of villages a few kilometres away from the beach, where people might not have died but where they lost houses and daily work. In the entire scheme of things, villages in Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry are like their northern counterparts, part of the republic of the power elite, for whom Dalits don’t matter.

Unlike in northern India, where Dalits are a poor but politically strong community, in the south powerful non-governmental organisations and religious community groups are using Dalits for their own purposes. The radical movement that made Dalits strong seems a story of the past here, and the oppression level has grown in the absence of Dalit mobility.

It pains to narrate how difficult it was for me to visit these areas and try to locate the victims of this hidden apartheid. We have conquered everything except our prejudices and false nationalism. When the Asian Human Rights Commission in Hong Kong stated that Dalits in these areas were being discriminated against in relief operations, a number of non-governmental groups responded that everything was fine. Why should some of them feel jittery when someone complains that things are malfunctioning? Why does our ‘nationalism’ come into the picture when the true intentions of the authorities and their society are exposed? Below are a few stories about my visit to Pondicherry and Tamil Nadu and how I observed the treatment of Dalits in the aftermath of the tsunami there.

Karaikal is a village about 40 kilometres from Nagpattinam. Here we first saw the dangerous face of caste discrimination. Out of about 730 fishing families, some 32 people died and 19 were missing. Most of the villagers who died were fish vendors. The government of Pondicherry was quick to distribute 10,000 rupees per family for rebuilding of houses and 2000 rupees for children’s school uniforms and books. One hundred thousand was paid for each of those who died and 5000 rupees for cremation. But not everybody has received the same assistance.

Paramswamy, a local lad who can speak English comes forward to assist me. Param worked in Somalia and other places and had been on leave for over a month. He is a captain of a vessel. He and his associates want to take me on a visit to their village. As I venture to see the broken temple on the sea bank and ask them about Dalits, there is a conspicuous silence. “Please come ahead, we want you to visit our village; a lot of people have died,” says Param. I insist on seeing the adjacent village. I go to a bare-chested man rebuilding his hut. I am sure that this man is a Dalit. I ask my friends about him. “They are poor people,” he replies. ‘Poor people’: I am amazed. Normally, this is not the terminology that we use in India for Dalits. They move ahead while I focus on this village, much to their discomfort. They don’t want me to take a picture of these ‘poor people’. Their discomfort reflects their upper caste mentality. Even my driver is frustrated by my efforts to speak to local Dalits, despite language barriers.

Apparently, 132 families here had received nothing-or at least, nothing useful. Children were playing on a heap of old clothes, naively sent by the ‘charitable’ people of India. The local people rejected them. After all, who among them would like to wear torn jeans and broad shoulder tops? Such clothes are not customary for the women here. In sending such things, cultural sensibilities had been overlooked.

One of the worst affected areas, where over 300 deaths occurred in a village of 1200 families, was T K Pattinam, known as Pattinachery. Boats were lying far away in the fields, which had been inundated by seawater. The entire village looked like a ghost town. Most people were leaving. But scavengers were doing the cleaning work as usual. Here still is the institution of the ancient Varna system, introduced through the Law of Manu. Now our national laws have reinterpreted that law. They may not say it in the same words, but the fact is the entire work of public cleaning in India is done by so-called untouchables: Bhangis, Mehtars and all those who claim to be Valmikis. Even amid a tragedy no sign of progress was apparent. No local effort was being made to overcome this crime of untouchability. Here again the ugly face of the caste system was fully exposed.

I meet Saraswati, whose husband Selain died in the tsunami. She has nowhere to go. With two sons and three daughters, they received only 12,000 rupees. She is a Dalit woman belonging to the Setti community, which was originally devoted to music and dance. Her life is now a challenge. Her family doesn’t have enough food to survive. Her fear is written on her face. She does not know what to do and what will happen to her children. She had been eating at community camps but the food was too bad to consume, so she shifted to a friend’s house.

Moving towards Nagpattinam, we reached Nagore, a town famous for its miraculous temple. Here distribution of relief material was being handled more crudely. Good-looking women and men were walking off with large amounts of supplies. Local religious charitable organisations were taking care of their ‘own’ communities; organisers of relief camps trying to glorify their activities while treating people with contempt.

I walk through the railway station, where a train saved the day for the Muslim population. As I venture to cross the railway line being constructed, I see a slum completely cut off from the rest of the area, not geographically, but by social obligation. Rajlingam, a labourer with Indian Railways, takes me in. Rajlingam informs me that he has lost everything. The houses are collapsed and nobody has ventured in to see their plight, even though they are but a stone’s throw from the station.

Kannaiyan, a 42-year-old who lost his mother in the tsunami accompanies us. His house is gone. There is nothing remaining. He has two daughters and one son. His elder daughter is in university and the younger one is in 10th grade. His son is doing 12th grade. He does not know where to start. He tells me that he has received nothing so far. While the government of Tamil Nadu was so prompt in giving relief to everyone, till my visit to this area on January 10, there was no relief for him: neither the money for his lost mother, nor that for his house reconstruction.

Almost nobody was living here at the time of my visit. There were 43 families and more then 150 members in the community. None of the families had received any assistance from the government. No political leaders had visited there. Strangely enough, not even the customary rice handout had been given to them. The community had been dumped at a wayside house in front of the railway station. I went to see. Mosquitoes were everywhere. There was fear of an epidemic. There was no food, no assistance from charitable groups. Children cried and suffocated, as the place was overcrowded. There was not even space to cry, let alone play. Women were sitting in the dark. They complained that there was nothing to eat and that it was difficult to sleep at night.

We continued to Cuddalore, another of the most-affected regions. About five kilometres from this town there is a village called Devanpattinam. Most of the village, which was on the seashore, was wiped off the map. Swami Chidananda ‘descended’ from the Himalayas with promises to rebuild the entire village, along with his famous disciple Vivek Oberai. So far nothing had been done except to build some community kitchens. The swami had gone around with a few foreign disciples, cameras in hands. More then 200 families were still sleeping in the open, yet as evening sets in, the swami’s ashram remained full of light, while darkness visited the rest of the village.

I listen to Bharati, a young girl who is sitting in the ruins of her house: “The swami is not promising a house. He is promising a hut without any floor, kitchen or toilet.” She complains about the poor quality of the rice given. Her brother comes and choruses that the community food is worth eating only by dogs. “I have a severe stomach ache now,” he says. They have lost three boats. The sea is their life; they cannot go elsewhere.

What perturbed me most is that as usual we were informed that it was just the fishing community that had been the victim of the tsunami: a convenient lie that allows for business as usual, even in these extreme conditions. When some fishermen saw Dalits eating in the community kitchen they became so violent that the swami had to intervene. He was forced to start a separate kitchen for Dalits. Even in such a situation, we did not have the courage to challenge the status quo. More than 52 people died in this village, yet such prejudice has not died in the minds and hearts of the people.

Not only Hindus but also Christians cried against the Dalits. In Tamil Nadu and Kerala, a large number of fisherfolk are Christians. Many in the Christian community have upper caste backgrounds, and together with the fisherfolk they persist in their common antipathy towards the Dalits. That is one reason why a large number of organisations took offence when discrimination in giving assistance was reported. Very few Christians except for John Dayal and the All India Catholic Union admitted to violations of human rights of Dalits. Perhaps some of them did not want to take on the government when it mentioned that everything was ‘superb’. Of course, the government was prompt in its relief efforts, but Dalits did not benefit.

Chidambaram Taluka of Cuddalore district was one of the most damaged areas. Passing through, I see a small hoarding, ‘Dalits’ and go to speak to the people. In the absence of any translator, I realise that those sitting there are protesting against discrimination in relief provisions. Against the wish of my driver, we go to the Dalit area. This village falls under Panchayat Killai where 60 people out of 150 families have been enrolled as fishermen. Nearly half lost their boats and nets. These Dalits normally lease their boats. They also work as sharecroppers. The entire village is pitch dark: there is no electricity. I move along with other friends who want me to see their homes. Some are in the gutter and the sand, lying on the earth with women imploring for some relief. I see a vehicle with a red siren passing through the village, not daring to stop on the way. I move in the dark to see the houses. People narrate stories. At a corner shop with a lamp, these folks bring their torn nets to show their losses.

Nagpattinam also bore the brunt of the tsunami. The havoc created here could be seen all over the city. I stood on a sea beach where people were cremating their loved-ones. Women came with offerings, young lads were shaved and put in front of a god who could not control the tsunami; Brahmins are bouncing back to work during this tragedy, in a state that threw them out several years back.

A few people complain to me of their future and ask me to visit. I move through the debris being cleared by the municipal corporation and am informed that the body of a small child has just been found. This is on January 9, nearly 15 days after the tsunami struck. On the street, several women are sitting and asking for assistance. They ask the municipal sweeper to uncover the child. I am not interested in looking, I tell them. He does it with his hand, anyway. I realise that these people are not locals, as locals will not even touch the corpses of their loved-ones. I start questioning them and to my shock am told that they work as sweepers in Madurai, about 250 kilometres away. They are getting 35 rupees per day for this work. There is no social security for them. Nothing else is provided. The calamity should have given us an opportunity to forget prejudices and work as human beings, but instead it has deepened exploitation. We have seen such situations in many parts of the country, but in Tamil Nadu I am disappointed because it is the land of E V Periyar, the leader of the self-respect movement for social justice. I looked for my icon Periyar and his disciples, and asked what were they doing to eliminate this discrimination against Dalits, but could see nothing.

From Nagpattinam, we were on our way to Valankini, a famous Christian town. Midway, we meet a group of about 50 women also going to Valankini. It transpires that they are Dalits from nearby villages going to seek assistance. They have not received anything. They have lost their household items and want the authorities to visit their village. As we are talking, a big four-wheel drive vehicle stops nearby. A man holding a press card from a national television channel approaches. “Can I help you? Who are you and what are you looking for?” he asks. “I am here looking into whether relief is going to the right people and whether Dalits are getting fair treatment or not,” I reply. He offers to translate, but as the women shout and tell him their stories, he suggests that they are lying opportunists. “You don’t need to speak to them. Instead, you should visit the district administration office and gather all the information you need”, he suggests. I tell him to go and do his business. “I am aware that the media collect information from those offices, but I don’t. That is the difference. We see the people’s perspective while you report the ‘national’ perspective. And please don’t say that these people are telling lies. Nobody begs unless forced to,” I say. “Even if they are lying, I am sure they have nothing. Do we need another tsunami to remember those whom we have betrayed?” The media people go away, and I speak with the women further. There is pain and anguish in their faces.

On Chennai’s famous Marina beach, I catch a glimpse of those who are the real thieves and liars. I see people on motorbikes, in cars and trishaws, carrying relief material. I move towards the shattered huts on the beach and find people sitting on their ruins. “We have nothing, sir,” says a young man in Hindi. He is an immigrant from Bihar. “Most of those who fell to the tsunami were just living by renting things. They leased their boats and houses and most of the workers living here have nothing. The trouble with the agencies is that they are giving relief to those who have identity cards, but how can those who don’t have a place in their name have the cards?” So most of the relief has been appropriated by those who have facilities at their homes, those who did not suffer deaths in the family, but are dying to take the benefits of others.

The tsunami, unfortunately, has been a victory for the status quo. Those on the margins remain on the margins, while those preaching godliness are still doing the same while strengthening their caste system and spreading the notoriety of their religion. This tsunami, about which we have all been crying, has not been strong enough even to wash away the almighty destructive caste system in India. Perhaps, we need another bigger tsunami to do this.

This text is adapted from the article, ‘Needed a Tsunami to destroy the ugly relic of the Varna system’. Photographs by V B Rawat.

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