Death of democracy

A national public hearing exposes the blatant violation of democracy in the panchayats of Keeripatti, Nattarmangalam, Pappapatti and Kottakachiyendal in Tamil Nadu


For almost a decade, democracy has been blatantly and injuriously violated in the panchayats of Keeripatti, Nattarmangalam and Pappapatti in Madurai district and Kottakachiyendal panchayat in Virudhunagar district. Since 1996, caste Hindus have prevented legitimate elections from being held in these constitutionally-designated reserved panchayats. The failure to implement the democratic norms laid out in the Constitution comes at a great cost to the Dalits in these panchayats, and to society at large. Though grassroots structures, including the rotational reservation of select panchayats, are in place, democracy is faltering where it is most needed. Rights are meaningless if other ill-intentioned members of society can so easily take them away. Therefore, the government must address the systematic silencing of Dalits by strictly enforcing its policies.

On June 14, a public hearing was held in Madurai to address the failure of the Constitution in Keeripatti, Nattarmangalam, Pappapatti and Kottakachiyendal. Year after year, Dalits have been unable to take up their rightful positions in these panchayats because of disruptive acts by caste Hindus, including boycotts, fear tactics and puppet candidates. To date, presidential and various other posts in these panchayats remain vacant, and still no one has been held accountable.

At the end of the public hearing, the esteemed jurors unanimously claimed to have learned a great deal from the proceedings, namely that the Constitution was not at work in these panchayats. The jury consisted of Justice Mr. K. Ramasamy (former judge of the Supreme Court of India), Mr. MS Janarthanam (former judge of the high court of Chennai), Dr. Mohini Giri (former chairperson of the National Commission for Women), Dr. N. Markandan (former vice chancellor of Gandhigram Rural Institute – Deemed University), Prof. Gopal Guru (Jawaharlal Nehru University), Dr. George Mathew (director of the Institute of Social Science, New Delhi), Dr. G. Palanidurai (senate member of the Gandhigram Rural Institute – Deemed University), and Dr. M. Thangaraj (Madras University).

Provisions for positive discrimination to uplift India’s most backward communities are inherent in the Constitution. Thus, women and SC/ST communities have a fundamental right to be represented in public institutions in proportion to their numbers. Moreover, the Constitution (73rd and 74th Amendments) Act 1992 was passed in the national Parliament to redistribute political power within the three-tier panchayati raj structure – village panchayats, panchayat unions and district panchayats – thereby forcing state governments to amend their panchayat laws. Since 1996, the Tamil Nadu Panchayat Act 1994 ensured that the representation of Dalits in the state’s panchayats was to be proportional to their percentage within the population, which is over 25 per cent.

In August 1996, Keeripatti, Nattarmangalam, Pappapatti and Kottakachiyendal were selected by the Tamil Nadu state government to have their panchayat posts reserved for Dalits for five years. Since this announcement, caste Hindus living in the villages in these panchayats have protested against their reserved status and have regularly boycotted elections. They have also instilled fear in potential Dalit candidates by threatening to ostracise and even kill those who defy the boycott.

The status of Dalits

Dalits depend on caste Hindus for their economic and social livelihood. They also suffer from the real and psychological effects of centuries of untouchability. In the named panchayats, several forms of untouchability survive, including: forbidding Dalits from entering temples or using village streets in caste Hindu areas; providing Dalit children with separate seating and different lunches at school; and denying Dalits the right to take water from the common panchayat pump. As a result of these and other forms of untouchability, Dalits have limited access to public utilities and services such as ration shops, government offices, public toilets and polling booths, which are located in caste Hindu areas. Moreover, they are commonly the victims of physical and sexual assault by caste Hindus.

In the face of caste Hindu resistance, Dalits cannot be expected to have the courage to participate in the panchayat elections, either as candidates or voters. Their fear increased further in 1997, when Murugesan, Mookkan and four others were brutally murdered by a mob of over 60 people after the former two men were elected president and vice-president, respectively, of the reserved Melavalavu panchayat in Madurai district. The Melavalavu incident created terror in the minds of potential Dalit candidates and has been subsequently used by caste Hindus to taunt Dalits into submission.

As a first step to implementing the democratic goals of the Constitution Act, during elections there must be both protection for Dalits and penalties for disruptive acts by caste Hindus. Thus far, there have been neither.

Nine years of helplessness

Between 1996 and 2001, nine by-elections were announced in Keeripatti, Pappapatti and Kottakachiyendal panchayats. None of these elections were held. And yet, without taking any action to analyse or remedy the situation, the state government gave these three panchayats reserved status for another five years in 2001.

A notable exception to this state of affairs occurred in Nattarmangalam panchayat where Yosanai, a Dalit, ran uncontested for president in 1996 and remained in office until 2001. However, after elections were announced for October 2001, the caste Hindus of Nattarmangalam also protested their panchayat’s reserved status. Saraswathi, a Dalit, was physically prevented from filing her nomination for the post of union councillor. When she discussed the incident with TV reporters, caste Hindus threw stones at her house, injuring one of her relatives. The police did nothing. After this, no Dalits have come forward to participate in Nattarmangalam’s elections.

Since 2001, in Keeripatti and Pappapatti, Dalits have courageously but unsuccessfully tried to contest in the panchayats’ presidential elections. Poongodi first ran for president of the Keeripatti panchayat in March 2002 with the support of the Dalit Panthers of India (DPI). E. Subban also contested for panchayat president of Pappapatti. Because of their efforts, elections were held for the first time since 1996 in these panchayats.

In response, caste Hindus developed a new tactic. They submitted the nominations of their own Dalit candidates – both puppets – for these posts. They also threatened the original candidates and their families, as well as potential voters, while promising to boycott the election. Not surprisingly, Poongodi and Subban lost the election to the alternate candidates. In a final assault to democracy, the winners resigned at the order of the caste Hindus, leaving the presidential posts vacant yet again.

In several subsequent elections in these panchayats, caste Hindus produced puppet candidates at the outset, and then forced them to withdraw before the elections if there were no authentic candidates. Dalit witnesses at the public hearing also recounted how, whenever elections were announced, caste Hindus forcefully took Dalits to the union office and made them stage demonstrations calling for the de-reservation of their constituencies. Poongodi said that no political parties except for the DPI have addressed these issues.

April- May 2005

Recently, in the April 2005 elections, Dalits were again punished for attempting to assume their constitutional rights. Narasingam, a Dalit, who filed his nomination for president of Pappapatti panchayat, was soon after found mysteriously dead. Although a case was registered at the Uthappanur police station, no action has been taken to investigate Narasingam’s death.

In Keeripatti panchayat, Poongodi once more contested for the presidential post with the support of the DPI. He lost to the caste Hindu-supported candidate, Azhagumalai, who thereafter resigned. Though the NGO People’s Watch – Tamil Nadu (PW-TN) sent an appeal to the state government asking that it not accept Azhagumalai’s resignation, the appeal was ignored.

Shifting tactics again, caste Hindus gathered the names of the 28 Dalits who voted for Poongodi. The 15 families of these 28 people have since been socially ostracised and are currently surviving without ready access to food or utilities.

In a state of degradation and poverty, some of these Dalit victims walked to the PW-TN office in Madurai and spoke to members of the Joint Action Committee Against Untouchability on May 4. Committee members took the victims to the inspector general of police (southern range) and the district superintendent of police at Madurai. PW-TN also helped the victims file complaints with the secretary of the Adi Dravidar and Tribal Welfare Department, the regional director of the national SC/ST Commission, the chief secretary of Tamil Nadu, and the additional director general of police (Social Justice and Human Rights).

The victims asked the district collector of Madurai for cooked food, armed protection, alternative employment opportunities, and some form of action against those who were perpetrating the social boycott. However, to date, no action has been initiated, and on May 10, PW-TN itself sent five bags of rice to Keeripatti village.

The public hearing

In light of the above occurrences, the DPI, PW-TN, the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights, and the Human Rights Forum for Dalit Liberation – Tamil Nadu worked together to organise the public hearing. Its purpose was:

Ø to publicise the continuous violations of the 73rd and 74th amendments of the Constitution in Pappapatti, Keeripatti, Nattarmangalam and Kottakachiyendal panchayats;

Ø to create awareness about the present state of Dalits in these panchayats;

Ø to expose the government’s wilful shirking of its duties for the past nine years;

Ø to inform civil society organisations and the media about the negligence of the national and state SC/ST Commissions, so that they may help in the attainment of justice for the victimised Dalits;

Ø to stress to the government that these panchayats should continue to be reserved after the designated 10 years are up; and

Ø to investigate the shocking assault to democracy that is taking place, because though elections have been announced 19 times in nine years and though civil society organisations have intervened, Dalits in these panchayats continue to be prevented from occupying their rightful positions.

At the hearing, Poongodi, members of his family, members of the dead Narasingam’s family, and other Dalits recounted what had happened. Members of several political parties also spoke.

Administrative and police officials did not come to the hearing, nor did they even acknowledge the event.

Karuthakannan, who resigned after defeating Poongodi in the March 2002 Keeripatti panchayat election, spoke on behalf of the Kallar caste Hindus. He said that he was not forced to resign, but voluntarily resigned because he did not want to risk losing his only source of livelihood, which was working on the lands of the Kallars. When jury member, Dr. Giri, asked him why he contested in the election in the first place, Karuthakannan was unable to provide a satisfying answer.

In a particularly telling exchange, Karuthakannan said, "When Poongodi filed his nomination, none of the people in our community felt safe because they were afraid of the Kallars’ assault. So most of our people fled from the village. Only after I filed my nomination did all of them come back, and peace returned to our village." To this, former judge of the high court of Chennai, MS Janarthanam, asked, "You did get peace but have you got self-respect?" Karuthakannan replied, "But we do not believe that we have the requisites or the wealth to become a panchayat president."

GK Mani, president of the Pattali Makkal Katchi and MLA, called the fact that elections have not properly been held in the four panchayats "shameful." The jury asked him why his party had not taken the initiative to hold an all-party meeting to address the problem, and he replied that it would be most appropriate for the ruling party to take such action. Thereafter, the jury stressed that political parties should do more to encourage people to participate in elections.

At the end of the public hearing, each jury member individually denounced the state of affairs in the panchayats of Keeripatti, Nattarmangalam, Pappapatti and Kottakachiyendal.

Notably, former Supreme Court Justice Ramasamy disagreed with Surendran, general secretary of the Forward Bloc, who had earlier testified that the failure of the elections was not a human rights issue but an issue of poverty. Ramasamy held that "the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights make this (hearing) absolutely relevant" to the issue of human rights. He also emphasised the fundamental importance of the right to vote, and called it the duty of the State to see that reservations are enforced and to hold wayward officials accountable. He placed the burden on political parties and NGOs – which are less prejudiced than administrative and government officials – to educate people about the necessity of reservations.

Former chairperson of the National Commission for Women, Dr. Giri, focussed on the problem of prejudice amongst officials. She questioned why the national SC/ST Commission had not sent any representatives to the hearing.

The remaining jury members also spoke about the various enemies of the panchayat system. They strongly advocated for the abolishment of untouchability through education and enforcement.

The jurors left the discussion moved and with open eyes. Formal recommendations from them are forthcoming. Even though the recommendations will be non-binding, they will carry the weight and wisdom of the country’s premier authorities on justice. Because all of the enforcement mechanisms have tragically failed, there is no concrete remedy for the Keeripatti victims or for democracy in these panchayats. The public hearing, its publicisation and the jury’s recommendations provide one source of hope for the victims and for democracy in India. Knowledge and acknowledgement of this denial of basic human rights is the first step, it is hoped, towards correction and radical alleviation.

Archived from Communalism Combat, June 200 Year 11    No.108, Dalit Drishti 1




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