While Tamil Nadu is hailed as the land of social justice and its ruling party is pitching for an All India Federation for Social Justice to protect the interests of the oppressed, the state is yet to “liberate” the father of Indian Constitution – Dr BR Ambedkar.
For anyone who visits Tamil Nadu, it isn’t uncommon to find the statues of Ambedkar placed inside a cage. Locals aren’t surprised at all. Though the state government claims these statues are protected only in sensitive areas to save them from desecration and vandalization, it was found that the practice of “caging” Ambedkar statues is followed widely – even at those locations where the Dalit population is high and does not have precedence of caste-based violence.
“Irrespective of the political and social scenarios of the village, statues of Ambedkar are caged everywhere. When they first placed the statue in our village in 2006, we did not want it to be put behind iron grille. We, in fact, told the local officials that no caste-based clashes took place in the village after the early 1980s, but they refused to listen to us and said it is a standard procedure. We fought and managed to remove just the front portion of the cage over a period of time,” says S Sakthivel, a resident of S Patti Village in Dharmapuri district. Most of the families in the village belong to the Dalit community.
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This is nothing but disrespect to the leader itself and is a grim reminder of the deep-rooted caste intolerance in the state, adds Patti, demanding immediate removal of the cage. The sentiment is widely shared by activists and writers.
The government claims it is protecting Ambedkar’s statues from desecration, but it is actually causing disrespect to the leader, says VCK leader and Villupuram MP D Ravikumar. “People desecrate Ambedkar statues to insult the entire Dalit community because he (Ambedkar) is seen as the only Dalit icon in the country. This shows how deep-rooted the caste system is in Tamil Nadu. By putting iron grille around Ambedkar’s statues, the state government only accepts the truth. Then what is the point of speaking so much about social justice?” says Ravikumar.
People are expressing their hatred of Dalits by vandalizing the statues of a leader who is considered their hero, says K Samuel Raj, state general secretary of Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front. “Caging of Ambedkar statues started in 1990s when Dalit parties started emerging, which made intermediate castes to panic. They are angry with Ambedkar because he is the reason why Dalits get better opportunities in education, politics and jobs. Dalits see Ambedkar as an image of liberation. It is for the same reason, his statues were attacked by vandalizers,” says Stalin Rajangam, a writer.
“Tamil Nadu is one of the states that led anti-Brahmin movement in opposition to caste-based discrimination and hierarchical social order. The movement which liberated non-Brahmins, stopped before liberating Dalits from the clutches of intermediate castes. Over a period of time, intermediate castes forgot the history and started thinking they were always superior and had the right to suppress Dalits,” Samuel explains.
“The government proactively speaks of social justice. But did the government really identify to whom the injustice was done and were they prioritized? Social justice has just become a fashionable terminology. We talk about inclusive growth but when you ask, are Dalits included in that? There is a big question mark,” says M Punitha Pandian, editor of Dalit Murasu.
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“Just like Ambedkar’s statues, even the Dalits are caged in the state. Even today many of them reside in colonies outside the village. What is it if not a cage? It is only because Caste Hindus continue to think that Dalits are unfit for human association,” Pandian points out.
“We claim to live in a democratic society, but actually we are not. We are nothing but a hypocrite and caste-ridden society,” he says, adding that the government is just a reflection of the society.
Stalin Rajangam says that for the past 50 years Dravidian parties have been ruling the state and they did nothing to make people accept leaders beyond their own castes or to help them see beyond their caste boundaries. “The society is organized based on communities and the political parties are accepting it as it is because it is only good for them. When people started desecrating the statues, the government could not take a stand and that’s why it decided to keep his statues in cages,” he adds.
Instead of putting Ambedkar statues behind iron grille, Ravikumar says the government ideally should take steps to create a secular environment in the state and take stringent action against vandals. “Only then would real protection be guaranteed for the statues and the Dalit people,” he adds.
Stalin says the government did nothing to change the mindset of the people through the ideological works or art forms. “The government should also take other measures like installing CCTV cameras and link them to the nearby police stations. When they have been installing CCTV cameras across the state, why can’t they do it here,” asks Samuel, adding that if the government could not even protect the statues of the architect of Indian constitution, how can it ensure the safety of the Dalit people.
Unlike in other parts of the state, there are no statues in the public space in the western region of Tamil Nadu and it is only now – after years of demand – the incumbent chief minister, MK Stalin, unveiled the first statue of Dr B R Ambedkar in Erode district, says C Venmani, an activist. He said the delay was largely a result of lack of political awareness among the masses.
“In Coimbatore, we have been seeking permission to install a statue on the court premises. Even though the city corporation had passed a resolution in 2007 and all outfits and political parties including BJP submitted multiple petitions, the statue was not installed,” he adds.
“Similarly, there are no Ambedkar statues in government buildings of Tamil Nadu. Whereas, one could see huge statues of the Dalit icon in Maharashtra Bhavan and Andra Bhavan. Unlike in the neighbouring states, even his birth and death anniversaries are not celebrated in a grand manner here,” Ravikumar says.
These days the government is not giving permissions to install statues, suggesting that only metal statues should be installed that too in private lands, he added.