In Tamil Nadu, assertion of caste identity has peace hanging by a thread, even in schools

by mcdix

The death of a student in a village in Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu has heightened fears of caste conflict. Udhav Naig reports on the incident and explains why, across the region, the issue of caste identifiers has school authorities and the administration on edge.

A month after a Thevar boy was allegedly killed by a Scheduled Caste boy in a Government Higher Secondary School, fear was still palpable in Adaichani, a quiet village in the picturesque Ambasamudram Taluk of Tirunelveli district. The houses in the Dalit neighborhood of the town in Taa Scheduled Caste boy allegedly killed Thevar boye residents are laborers with modest means. They hope that the younger generation will get a shot at a better life. They equally dread the possibility of an explosion of caste violence.

The incident occurred on April 25. M. Selva Suriya, a Thevar boy studying in Class 12, was allegedly attacked by a teenager from the Arundhathiyar community and two Muslim boys from Class 11. While the Thevars are a socially and politically dominant Other Backward Classes community, the Arundhathiyars are among the most disadvantaged within the SCs spread across western and southern Tamil Nadu. Selva Suriya, who had suffered a serious injury on his head, was treated in a hospital for five days for internal bleeding. He died after failing to respond to the treatment. While the two Muslim boys are out on bail, the Arundhathiyar boy is in a juvenile home.

In filmmaker Vetrimaaran’s 2019 hit, Asuran, adapted from the book Vekkai by Poomani, Sivasamy, played by Dhanush, flees his village with his son to save the child from a retaliatory attack by a landlord from a dominant caste. Similarly, some parents of Arundhathiyar boys in Adaichani village have sent their children to other towns. Others who continue to send their children to school said they live with the constant fear that they may have to pay the price for the Thevar boy’s death. The history of caste violence in southern Tamil Nadu shows that the apprehension of an eye-for-an-eye payback prevails in these areas. “They will seek revenge,” an activist feared.


“Sending the boys away is not an overreaction,” said a relative of the accused in this case. “We hear all kinds of rumors. Recently, we heard that they (the Thevars) would attack our village after the Rekla race (a century-old bull-cart race). Students are receiving threats on WhatsApp. We cannot ignore them as just rumors.”

Caste animosity and a death

The provocation for the latest fight, many suggested, was a ‘caste thread’. Selva Suriya, who had allegedly always been heckling the Arundhathiyar boy, had apparently objected to him wearing a caste thread on his wrist. TSeveral dominant OBC and SC communities wear the caste thread on their wrists to signify their sociopolitical identities. Over the years, many other SC groups have also started wearing these caste threads. City between Selva Suriya, who many described as boisterous, and the Arundhathiyar boy had been growing. But Selva Suriya’s grieving mother, Uchimahali, denied these accounts. She held that her son would never have caused any hostility between students of different caste groups in school.

The school authorities and management refused to speak about the case. However, one staff member said there had been an altercation between Selva Suriya and the other group a few days before the fateful incident. “It probably happened on a Saturday somewhere outside the school premises. None of the students told us about it. We could have done something had we known,” he said.

Uchimahali said that the school authorities had never alerted her about their disciplinary issues with her son. “Not once did the school tell us about the fights he was [allegedly] involved in,” she said. “They say the problem was because of the caste thread. That day, I heard the teacher shout at him and ask him to leave the class. He had gone to the restroom in the afternoon. The boys in the bathroom had assumed that he had come to pick up a fight with them and pushed him to the floor.

Two of them climbed on top of him, and one of them hit him wit,h a ‘cudaone. Cuppa him to a clinic where he was given first aid. The doctors there suggested te should be taken to Ambai GH (General Hospital). There his wound was stitched up. Then he was taken to the police station,” said Uchimahali, recollecting all she had heard from her son’s friends and the school authorities. She said she met her injured son at the police station and took him home. Later, she and her husband rushed him to the hospital, realizing he needed more treatment.

“But we don’t know exactly what happened. There are cameras everywhere in the school. But they say that a particular camera (which could have captured the fight between the students) wasn’t working. We haven’t seen the video,” she said. Uchimahali accused the school authorities of not administering proper first aid treatment to the injured boy and not informing her about the incident. “The incident happened in the afternoon, but we went to the Tirunelveli Medical College and Hospital only at 11 p.m.,” she said.

A long-festering rivalry

Incidentally, Sekar (name changed), the uncle of the accused, with whom the boy has been staying after the death of his parents, was also upset about the missing video. “I think there were two groups in school: one of that Thevar boy and two Konar boys and the other of our boy along with two other Muslim boys. The school has cameras inside. If four people were involved in the incident, the camera should have captured the whole incident, right? The school authorities are covering it up, saying they don’t have the footage,” he alleged.

Also read | Two teachers suspended for talking to the student with caste overtones

Sekar said the incident did not happen because the caste thread and hostility between the two groups had been simmering for a while. “The Thevar boy was said to be unruly. He had joined this government school from another school because the other school had some disciplinary issues with him,” he said.

Uchimahali denied this claim. “He moved to the government school from a private school because we couldn’t afford the fees given my husband’s meager monthly in meager she said.

The father of another Arundhathiyar boy in the village, who studies in the same school, said that the video evidence from the school was crucial as it would reveal the caste atrocities against the young boy.

Sekar said, “Selva Suriya had thrown dirty water at our boy from the plate on which he ate. We need to see the video evidence from the CCTV cameras. We don’t know what exactly happened.” He also denied that Arundhathiyar boys wore caste threads in the village but could not confirm that they did not wear them in school. “We don’t let them do that when they are here,” he said.

Sekar also believed that Selva Suriya first threw a stone against his nephew, after which the Arundhathiyar boy used the same stone to get back at him. “The other side (Thevars) have money, political clout, and muscle. So, whatever they say becomes the truth.”

Sekar said that though Selva Suriya’s mother had urged the school authorities to prevent caste issues in school, people of the dominant caste standing outside the gate were “loudly” demanding that the Arundhathiyars pay for what had happened.

While the uncle of the Arundhathiyar boy said that the situation has become less tense two months since the incident, police personnel continue to be stationed in the Arundhathiyar quarters of Adachani. Selvaraj, a village resident, said his son had to go to school with police protection to write the exam after the incident. While the police were cooperative, there was uncertainty about what may happen when police protection is withdrawn, he said.

The staff in the school were equally concerned about their safety. One of them said, “Some are saying that they (Thevars) could attack the school teachers and aalso attack the school teachers. We did everything possible to prevent these caste issues from erupting in school. Around five teachers, including the headmistress, would stand near the gate, check every student for caste threads and chains, and make them remove these accessories. Despite our efforts, students would smuggle these accessories inside to show off. What happened was unfortunate. The students returned to school after COVID-19 [closures], and it has become difficult to enforce discipline in school.”

Activists said that the whole incident is being conveniently reduced to a conflict over a caste thread when the underlying reason was the assertion of identity by the SCs in ways similar to how OBCs asserted their identities in the past. This assertion, they said, has become the flashpoint for conflict.

Asserting caste identity

ABesidescaste threads, chains, and T-shirts printed with photos of leaders and icons are common indicators of caste identity. Sometimes, so are electric poles in the villages. In Thevar neighborhood, bars are painted yellow and red. Dalit communities are painted blue and red in areas where the Paraiyars live and red and green in places where the Devendra Kula Vellalars live. Threads, bands, chains, T-shirts, and other caste-related accessories are available in small and big-town shops. While several dominant OBC communities exhibit their identity in public through caste organizations, flags, political leaders, colors, and by invoking celebrity icons, SC communities have also begun doing the same using their banners, colors, icons, and organizations. For instance, if Thevars celebrate Muthuramalinga Thevar and Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose as their icons, Devendra Kula Vellalars celebrate Immanuel Sekaran, and the Arundhathiyars celebrate Madurai Veeran. Such assertion of caste identity by the SCs has often led to reprisal and conflict.

CColoredelectricity poles are an identifier of caste—a street in Adaichani in Tirunelveli district.
| Photo Credit: SHAIKMOHIDEEN A.

The strong Dalit uprising in Tamil Nadu in the 1990s saw influential SC political leaders and political parties emerging from the most prominent SC communities: the Devendra Kula Vellalars, the Paraiyars, and the Arundhathiyars. While the Dravidian and Left movements in Tamil Nadu helped push back against Brahmin domination in all spheres, political parties, including the two main Dravidian parties, have not adequately addressed the conflict between the socially and politically dominant OBCs and the SCs, especially in the southern districts, experts argued.

The dominant OBC communities, such as Vanniyars in the northern districts, Gounders in the western districts, Thevars in the southern districts, and sometimes other OBC communities have had frequent conflicts with SC groups such as Paraiyars who are spread across Tamil Nadu; Arundhathiyars, who are concentrated in the western and southern parts of the State; and Devendra Kula Vellalars in south Tamil Nadu.

Socially, politically and numerically dominant castes in each district are neatly accommodated by the two major political parties in the State – the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. As a result, SCs are not provided adequate representation and a share in power. They are often overlooked for plum ministerial portfolios in the State government, said Dalit activists and members of political parties.

Human rights activist Murugan Kanna, formerly with the Left student and youth movement, said that the colors of the flags and the public icons of SCs have always irritated the dominant and upper castes. “They are unable to tolerate the fact that a Dalit is now raising flags and shouting slogans when he was previously servile with folded hands,” he said.

Kanna said that tension over a caste thread led to a murder in 1999: “A student named Esakki Raja was murdered at the Tirunelveli bus stand. He was wearing a green-red caste thread and was murdered by people from the Maravar caste (OBCs). After that, another boy named Venkatesh was murdered in November 2016 in a school for the same reason. At Pallikottai village in Tirunelveli, a young autorickshaw driver was murdered by minors in 2018 for exhibiting Devendra Kula Vellalar colors – green and red – and a picture of Immanuel Sekaran on his auto. So, it is not just about the caste thread. In the 1990s, it was about flags; now, it has moved to caste threads. When Venkatesh died, there was a big protest over the murder. People surrounded the hospital and refused to take the body. We made many demands when the district administration urged us to talk it out.” One of the demands was that the district administration set up a school monitoring committee to instill discipline among students and stop the culture of caste-based identification in schools. PHe said that physical education teachers were put in charge of these committees in schools across Tirunelveli and of holding parent-teacher meetings to resolve such issues,

Kanna added that SC students also face issues on their way to school. “In the bus, they face issues when they want a song played from actor Prashanth or actor Vikram’s movies as non-Dalits want to play songs from the movies of actors from their caste. Issues arise when songs that invoke caste pride are played,” he said.

Following caste rules

Several young people from K. Paraipatti, a village in Usilampatti in Madurai, said that while they freely mingle with students from other castes, it is common to form groups with people from the same caste, exhibit caste identity and identify with those from the same community. This is where the All-India Forward Bloc, a party with which the Thevar icon Muthuramalinga Thevar was associated, continues to be relevant.

“We are raised in a culture where it is impossible not to follow these caste rules. Though we are told in schools and colleges that caste and religion do not matter, I cannot follow those rules. We are taught to ascertain a person’s caste based on many factors. A caste thread is one of them,” said a young college student. He said other ways of ascertaining a person’s caste include figuring out which actor they like, which Gods they worship, which village they come from, and how they dress. “We are all inspired by the culture and fashion statements made by the celebrities of our caste. For instance, the Pullingo culture (a popular sub-culture of north Chennai where young people with colored hair participate in street races) has been embraced by the SC youth in our colleges as well,” he said.

Similarly, the young people of the Yadava, Nadar, and a few other OBC communities wear threads/bands in certain colors. The borders of their dhotis also have these colors. In past instances, it was observed that caste-based groups had a significant role tn encouraging, promoting, and prescribing to students what accessories they should wear in schools and colleges in the Tirunelveli, Tenkasi, and Thoothukudi districts. In turn, teenagers have enjoyed the backing of members of their caste outfits to establish themselves as “dons” on school campuses and even settle scores outside school.

These fights over playing film songs in buses and wearing caste threads have often spilled onto the streets. There have been fistfights at the bus terminals of Tirunelveli and Palayamkottai.

Seeking protection

Following Selva Suriya’s death, Tirunelveli District Collector V. Vishnu has asked the heads of all educational institutions to convene the School Advisory and Management Committee to ensure the norms laid down by the Department of School Education are enforced. These include removing bands and threads, ensuring that students have proper haircuts and wear the appropriate attire, and prohibiting the use of mobile phones on school premises.

Following this incident, Muslims gre,w concerned after sustained efforts were made by a few religious outfits in the region to paint this as an attack by Muslim boys on a Hindu. The police swiftly clarified through WhatsApp that the crime had no religious motive. This message was widely shared in the area. The Arundhathiyars in Adaichani wondered how long they would need protection from law enforcement agencies and the State administration.

While the parents of Selva Suriya and the three accused are seeking answers about what exactly happened in school that day, the Arundhathiyars in Adaichani demand to know how long they must live in fear. “We got independence from the British, but not from them (caste Hindus). They still want to dominate us,” said Sekar.

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