Post-poll scene in Tamil Nadu, a mirror to recurring caste-based violence

This is not to detract from the fact that reasons for the violence in both Ponparappi and Ponamaravathi this time are entirely different.

CHENNAI: The two disconcerting incidents of violence close on the heels of the Lok Sabha polls in Tamil Nadu - one in Ponparappi in Ariyalur district falling within Chidambaram reserved constituency and the other in Ponnamaravathi in Pudukkottai district - show up a recurring pattern of caste-based violence.

In Ponparappi, police on Saturday arrested 12 persons belonging to the OBC Vanniyar community in connection with the brazen attack on over 20 Dalit houses that were damaged on polling day (April 18), even as Police have also registered a case against 24 Dalits of the same village on a woman’s counter-complaint.

On the other hand, in Ponnamaravathi it was an apparent case of hurt pride for the influential backward community in that area - the Muthurajas or Muthraiyars as they are known. An enraged group of them burst into acts of alleged vandalism, laying siege to the police station, damaging vehicles and forcing the district administration to clamp prohibitory orders in 30 villages in and around Ponnamaravathi, in the wake of a Facebook post denigrating their women.

After a by and large peaceful and brisk polling for the 38 Lok Sabha seats - as Vellore poll had been cancelled by the EC- in Tamil Nadu and an even more bubbling response to the 18 Assembly by-elections, these two incidents came as terrible eyesores, though on the surface things are under control now. A few other incidents of attempted booth capturing and bogus voting also surfaced.

In fact, the State Chief Electoral Officer (CEO), Mr. Satyabrata Sahoo had good reasons to be pleased about the conduct of the polling in 2019, notwithstanding the fact that the overall percentage of polling in this Lok Sabha election had dropped by close to two percentage points at 71.87 per cent from the 73.74 per cent registered during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections in Tamil Nadu. There could be several factors for this, he said in a television interview, indicating that one of them cited was the long weekend holidays this time which perhaps prompted more people to go home than vote at their respective stations.

In South Chennai parliamentary constituency - a vast territory now after the delimitation reflecting the expansive ‘New Chennai’ centred around the IT and automobile corridor - which recorded the lowest voting in the entire state at 56.41 per cent, one of the reasons cited by voters was that in the peripheral suburban areas, ‘booth slips’ did not reach a large number of voters in time. Many of them including women voters were put off in the hot weather as they were told to run from one place to another in trying to locate their respective booths. When some of them resolutely managed to locate the booths, polling time was almost over.
The point of these asides is that it was not voter apathy this time; the polling percentage averages even constituency-wise, except for a few Lok Sabha seats like Central Chennai, North Chennai, Sriperumbudur and Coimbatore, the extent of voting had crossed the 70 per cent mark individually. Interestingly, in all the five BJP-contested constituencies, the average tended to drop below 70 per cent.

Once the technicalities and logistical challenges of EVM-based voting have been overcome, it is a presumed pattern of voting by the Dalits and other vulnerable groups in particular that tends to spark a backlash. This is not to detract from the fact that reasons for the violence in both Ponparappi and Ponamaravathi this time are entirely different.

Rightly or wrongly, if the polling has been a good 70 per cent plus, a perceived feeling among the dominant castes/communities in the respective areas that those economically dependent on them - the Dalits and the marginal groups- have ‘gone against the grain’ in exercising their franchise, is an important factor in post-poll incidents of violence.

Tamil Nadu has been by and large lucky (also the electorate very matured and enlightened in a certain sense) not to have seen many such backlashes in the recent past. But, it may be relevant to recall that even during the 2004 Lok Sabha polls, there was a sudden burst of violence against Dalits in a colony on the outskirts of Coimbatore when the dominant caste there had sensed they had gone ‘against the grain’, to put it diplomatically. The AIADMK was in alliance with the BJP in that election with Mr. L K Advani as their Prime Ministerial candidate.

Though the PMK founder-president Dr S Ramadoss, has said that it was the cadres of the VCK (party that Thol Thirumavalavan heads and who contested the Chidambaram seat this time, which registered a high level of 77.72 per cent polling), who had “first provoked” the violence in Ponparappi with their allegedly distasteful remarks against the upper caste women (read OBC Vanniars), leaders of almost all the other parties, including the DMK, Congress, the Left parties and Makkal Needhi Maiyam led by Kamal Haasan have come down on some PMK cadres going berserk. Caste consolidation gets even stronger with even a single flapping moment of religious assertion, as the video clips of Ponparappi showed.

The manifestation of caste-based violence can take several forms, but the underlying sentiment that pushes for action is that a group of people are perceived to have voted, disregarding the preferences of the ‘dominant community’ in that area. Unless broad-based political parties with a wider inclusive vision can provide the much needed cushion for such marginal group s to vote freely- they may be Dalits in one constituency or religious minorities in another-, such incidents of violence tend to recur, particularly in segments where polarization along caste lines is very strong as seen in past elections.

The only feel-good factor in Tamil Nadu elections over the recent decades has been that the politically strong regional parties have embraced interests of all significant caste groups on the one hand, and made peace with Dalits and other marginal sections through the via media of an alliance. Even after Congress had been voted out of power in the State in 1967, the grand old party has been a significant cohesive factor in such alliances. Painful, demoralizing caste-inflicted wounds can be healed only by a broader vision of a secular, humanistic and economically bustling India.

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