The arrest of Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) leader and Rajya Sabha member RS Bharathi on Saturday (May 23) morning for making an insensitive comment on Dalits has yet again brought into focus the question: Where does the party stand on Dalits?
Bharathi, who is the organising secretary of the party, made the remark at a function organised by the Kalaignar Reading Circle at Teynampet in Chennai on February 15. He had claimed that the elevation of some Dalit judges in the Madras High Court was “alms given by the DMK” to the community.
After facing criticism from Dalit outfits, Bharathi apologised for the statement. However, ST Kalyanasundaram, the chief of a fledgeling political party named Adi Tamilar Makkal Katchi, had filed a complaint against Bharathi under the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.
Based on the plaint, the police arrested Bharathi at his residence but was granted bail in a few hours from the Egmore Metropolitan Magistrate Court.
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Bharathi told reporters his arrest was a “conspiracy by the Tamil Nadu government”. He said the arrest had happened due to DMK’s filing of a case against Deputy Chief Minister O Panneerselvam over a COVID-related corruption.
Interestingly, Bharathi’s arrest comes just a day after VP Duraisamy, a senior Dalit leader of the DMK, had joined the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Duraisamy, a former Deputy Speaker of the State Assembly, had served as DMK’s deputy general secretary, which was the highest post held by a Dalit in the party.
For a long time, Duraisamy had been expecting an MP seat from the party. However, in the recently-held Rajya Sabha elections, the party nominated Anthiyur Selvaraj, another Dalit, for the Upper House. This is said to have irked Duraisamy, who was since then planning to quit the party.
The right time came on May 18, when Duraisamy called on BJP state president L Murugan. Following the meeting, the DMK stripped him off from the post and he immediately joined the BJP. Later, the party leadership appointed Anthiyur Selvaraj as its deputy general secretary.
Amid these issues, another DMK leader and Lok Sabha member Dayanidhi Maran came under fire for his comment that allegedly insulted Dalits. On May 13, he, along with other senior leaders like TR Baalu, met Chief Secretary K Shanmugam to make some demands under Ondrinaivom Vaa, an initiative of the DMK to provide COVID-19 relief measures.
The leaders claimed that Shanmugam had treated them badly during the meeting. Maran went on to tell reporters that the Chief Secretary had treated them like “untouchables”. Later, BJP state president Murugan demanded the arrest of Maran under the SC/ST Act.
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The DMK was earlier too entangled in an issue over the allegation that the office of the party’s mouthpiece Murasoli was built on Panchami land, which was distributed to the Dalits in Tamil Nadu during the British rule. Such land cannot be sold to non-Dalits. However, DMK chief MK Stalin had refuted the allegation.
Mostly, it has been fledgeling political parties that file cases against such leaders. Even in Bharathi’s case, the case was filed by a party that claims to work for the upliftment of Arunthathiyars, one of the most-oppressed sub-castes within the Scheduled Castes. Selvaraj is also from that community.
But political observers say such remarks will taint the image of the DMK, especially when it is an alliance with Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK), a major Dalit party in the state. It also has two Lok Sabha members. With a party, backed by Arunthathiyars, filing the case against Bharathi, the observers say the already existing friction between Pallar, Paraiyar (Two other Dalit communities in Tamil Nadu) and Arunthathiyar may sharpen more.
However, the DMK has always been seen as a party for backward classes and it has also brought Dalits under its wings over the years.
Before the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the VCK was portrayed as a party against OBCs, says party’s deputy general secretary Aloor Shanavas. “So, many people advised the DMK not to form an alliance with us. But we did prove our strength. Now, the same people are trying to portray DMK as anti-Dalits,” he says.
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Every time when Dalits get abused by caste Hindus with an intention to discriminate them, we have to argue with police officials to get a case registered under the SC/ST Act. But whenever a DMK leader utters some words without intention, the state government acts mush faster, alleges Shanavas.
“These kinds of acts are nothing, but politically-motivated. The BJP can appoint Dalit leaders to top posts. But will it speak for reservation ever?” he asks.
An individual’s stand will never be the stand of the party, says DMK spokesperson and writer Manushya Puthiran.
“Whenever leaders speak, they inadvertently use some olden words that have a different usage now. The party never justified the usage of such words. Whether it is Bharathi or Maran, both have apologised for using such words. Their comments should not be treated as party’s comments,” he says.
When you criticise a party, you should look at whether it had worked for or against a particular issue. On issues of social justice and reservation, the DMK has took favourable stand for Dalits. So how would it act against Dalits, asks Manushya Puthiran.
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“The failure of the state government’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis has been laid bare. The DMK had continuously been opposing the Centre’s discrimination. We are actively exposing the state government’s corruptions. Because of all these, the image of DMK gets boosted. In order to damage that, the government is taking such actions,” he says.
However, AIADMK leader Semmalai denies the party’s involvement in the arrest. “There is nothing wrong in arresting Bharathi. But the case was not filed by the AIADMK. It was filed by a Dalit group and the police have taken the action accordingly,” he says.
“Investigation will take time and that’s why the police have arrested him (Bharathi) after three months. Everyone is equal before the law. So (DMK president) Stalin’s claim that we have ulterior motives is baseless,” he says. The DMK has started to criticise the AIADMK as the elections are nearing, says Semmalai.