The COVID-19 outbreak and subsequent lockdown have successfully minimised the toxicity in the environment. But they could not reduce the toxicity in many human minds. Tamil Nadu has not only been witnessing a spike in COVID-19 cases, but also in caste atrocities. In the last 45 days, more than 30 cases of gruesome caste atrocities have been reported in the state, say activists.
“The atrocities include verbal abuse using caste names, desecration of statues of Dalit leaders, discrimination during relief works, physical attack on Dalits, and even caste killings,” says K. Samuel Raj, general secretary of the Untouchability Eradication Front, which documented the caste atrocities during the lockdown.
A chronicle of caste atrocities
On March 29, a youth named Sudhakar of Morappathangal village in Vellore district was killed allegedly by caste Hindus after they came to know that he had been in love with an upper caste girl. The girl’s father, Murthy, and relative Jayakumar, were later arrested.
On March 31, police officer Easwaran attacked and abused a youth, named Gauthama Priyan, of Thokkavadi village in Namakkal district as he had been wearing a t-shirt printed with Dr Ambedkar’s picture. Easwaran was later suspended.
On April 23, Adhi Suresh, a reporter from a television channel, was attacked by caste Hindus in Kallakurichi district for telecasting news over the desecration of Ambedkar’s statue in Ulundurpet. At least 10 people were arrested in connection with the incident.
On May 4, a caste Hindu, named Kuppusamy, was charged with making casteist slurs against Selvi, the president of Kavundachi Pudur panchayat, and prevented her from engaging in COVID-19 relief works.
On May 8, Cuddalore had a different dimension to casteism. The district has been affected by COVID-19 due to the Koyambedu cluster. In Elusempon village, a Scheduled Caste (SC) member tested positive. So, shops in the vicinity allegedly stopped selling essentials to people from his community, residing in two particular streets of the village.
Recently, in Mela Mangalam village of Villupuram district, caste Hindus allegedly attacked six SC members and set their four motorcycles ablaze. The victims were later admitted to the Government Mundiyampakkam Medical College and Hospital.
On May 9, Balavesham and his son-in-law Thangaraj of Thoothukudi district, were hacked to death allegedly by caste Hindus for seeking their land deeds after paying the debt amount received from Muthuraj, a caste Hindu.
Reluctance by police
According to Murugappan, state coordinator of Villupuram-based Social Awareness Society for Youth, Villupuram and Tiruvannamalai districts have been witnessing a large number of caste atrocities in the state.
“When we approach the police, they say the cases will be taken for inquiry only after the lockdown is lifted. They are reluctant to look into the cases immediately,” he alleges.
Amid the pandemic, the existing notions like the Dalits are polluted and unclean have become stronger. This has led to most of the attacks against the community during the lockdown, said Pandian, founder of Witness for Justice, a Dalit rights research and advocacy initiative in Madurai.
If the existing laws to protect SC/STs are implemented strictly, half of these atrocities could be prevented, says Pandian.
“During this crisis, the government has taken proactive steps like turning marriage halls and colleges into quarantine facilities. Similarly, had the Chief Minister and bureaucrats held regular meetings with all stakeholders to ensure that SC/ST laws are properly followed from the first step of filing an FIR, it could have discouraged the perpetrators from indulging in caste atrocities” says Pandian.
Need for a helpline
Echoing his view, Samuel Raj says the Chief Minister should condemn such atrocities and courts must come forward to take suo moto cognizance of these issues. “It is only because of the constant pressure and interference of Collectors, most police stations take cognisance of the offences,” he says.
According to Samuel, caste atrocities have bee happening because caste Hindus take pride in their dominance. “Unless the pride gets subdued either by education or by stringent punishments, these atrocities will continue to happen,” he says.
Like we are having separate helplines for women and children, the government should bring in exclusive helpline numbers for the victims of caste atrocities, says Pandian.