Will Pallars, long victims of oppression, now embrace the BJP in TN?

The Lok Sabha passed a bill on Friday and clubbed the seven sub sects — Devendrakulathan, Kudumban, Pannadi, Kaladi, Kadayan, Pallan and Vathiriyar – into one group. It would henceforth be called the Devendrakula Vellalar

BJP
The Pallars have a key presence in 28 of the state’s 33 districts, with the vast majority of members living in the southern districts. Yet despite their numerical strength, the Pallars have suffered untold violence and discrimination throughout history.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent announcement of accepting the demand of bringing seven sub-sects of the Pallar community under one umbrella is a social engineering of sorts aimed at fetching electoral dividends for the BJP in the forthcoming assembly elections in Tamil Nadu. 

The Lok Sabha passed a bill on Friday clubbed the seven sub-sects — Devendrakulathan, Kudumban, Pannadi, Kaladi, Kadayan, Pallan and Vathiriyar — into one group. It would henceforth be called the Devendrakula Vellalar. 

The announcement fulfils a long-pending demand of the Pallars, notified as a Scheduled Caste. Their second demand of taking them out of the Scheduled Caste list and bracketing with Backward Communities is still unfulfilled. 

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The Pallars demand is one of a kind because in the rest of the country while various communities are seeking movement from general category to backward, most backward or minorities, the Pallars were seeking delisting from the Scheduled Caste category. This they believe would bestow them with a respect in the society which is long denied.  

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The Pallars have a key presence in 28 of the state’s 33 districts, with the vast majority of members living in the southern districts. Yet despite their numerical strength, the Pallars have suffered untold violence and discrimination throughout history.

There are three major Dalit or Scheduled Castes community in Tamil Nadu, namely: the Pallars, the Paraiyars and the Arunthathiyars. Together, they comprise 20.01 per cent of the state’s population, as per the 2011 census. The three castes are found, respectively, in the southern, northern and western parts of the state.

While some Paraiyars and Arunthathiyars are associated with manual scavenging (which is banned across the country but still widely prevalent), the Pallars have historically been landless agricultural labourers.

“The Pallars claim superiority to the Paraiyars and the Chakkiliars [the latter now part of the cluster of caste groups called ‘Arunthathiyars’] because, according to Robert Deliege [a Belgian anthropologist], ‘They are not associated with specific degrading ritual tasks and mainly work as agricultural labourers.’ Yet the Pallars were treated as untouchables by the caste Hindus,” says K. Ragupathi, assistant professor, Department of History, Thiru A Govindhasamy Government Arts College in Tindivanam, whose doctoral thesis was about the Pallars. 

A history of oppression

During the British Raj, slavery affected close to 20 per cent of the population in the Madras Presidency – most of them lower-caste communities. The landlords were predominantly upper caste, including Brahmins. In 1967, when the Dravida Munnetra Kazagam or DMK swept to power, it promised to create a new social order. CN Annadurai, DMK’s first chief minister, took measures for the upliftment of subaltern classes. Following his death, M Karunanidhi took over as the CM in 1969 and built on his predecessor’s legacy. In his second term (1971-1976), Karunanidhi implemented land reforms, which resulted in Brahmin landlords transferring their properties to middle caste groups such as Thevars and Nadars. Gradually, the lands they owned were transferred to caste groups like the Pallars. These changes were a result of a long history of affirmative action in the state; the new leaders were only adding new chapters to that history.

Reservation, a lifeline:

“Take reservation, it is a lifeline,” says Alagu Raja, a resident of Puthiamputhur village in Thoothukudi, who completed his M Tech and now works as a software engineer in Delhi. “All my three siblings and I studied in Tamil-medium schools. We got the opportunity to enter government professional colleges through the reservation.”

Read also: In TN’s deep south, marginalised Pallars wooed by BJP stay divided

Social reforms and access to education did more for the Pallars than any politician ever did, according to Raja. “Take just one constituency, Ottapidaram, and the various villages that fall within its boundaries, such as Akkanayakkanpatti, Puliampatti, Kodiyankulam, Ottudanpatti and Thenkalam. At present, there are about 250 government officials working in various departments there, all Pallars,” Raja says.

“I hope the change in nomenclature to ‘Devendrakula Vellalar’ will make people from other castes look at us in a more respectable manner,” he added.

That could be wishful thinking. Caste organisations and communities that have the word ‘Vellalar’/‘Velalar’ ( agriculturist) in their name (Kongu Vellalar, Isai Vellalar, Sozhiya Vellalar, etc) who are basically defined as Backward Communities or BCs oppose the change. The Federal spoke to some of these organisations, who did not want to be quoted. 

“You can lift them from the SC category and drop them into another category, we don’t have any problems. But don’t call them ‘Vellalar’”, said a member of such an organisation – a reminder that dominant communities are not ready for even token changes.

Struggle for equality

Historically, the Pallars have been subject to violence by two groups–caste Hindus and political parties/state governments, says Ragupathi.

The Mukkulathors and Pallars both share the legend that they came from heaven. The former are known as ‘Thevars’ and are the dominant caste. The Pallars’ demand for equality, and that they be known as ‘Devendrakula Vellalar’, did not go down well with the Thevars, he says.

“In the past, the sources of livelihood of Pallars were derived from their slave labour. These slaves could be bought and sold between palaces by temples and landlords. Pre-colonial sources such as inscriptions, copper plates, and colonial collectors’ observations reveal the servitude of Pallars,” Ragupathi has recorded in his thesis.

During colonial times, the Pallars benefitted from their proximity to the British. Robert Caldwell, a Scottish missionary who wrote a comparative grammar of the Dravidian languages, in his book The Tinnevelly Shanars, praised the Pallars, says KA Manikumar, former professor of history, Manonmaniam Sundaranar University, Tirunelveli. “He (Caldwell) records that he will keep them (Shanars) next to the Paraiyars and above Negroes. To this, the Shanars, who are now called Nadars, reacted vehemently…” he says. Nadars, who are an assortment of various sub castes are categorised as Other Backward Communities by the government. 

In the 1980s, R Deva Asirvatham, an intellectual, claimed that the Pallars descended from the Moovendhar (Chera, Chola and Pandya) – a claim made by Thevars as well.

“Following the publication of Asirvatham’s books, the claim of ‘Aanda Paramabarai’ (once rulers) strengthened,” said P Chandra Bose, general secretary, Thiyagi Immanuel Peravai, Ramanathapuram district.

Political and militant movements

If demand for equal rights led to violence against the Pallars during the pre-colonial period, in post-colonial India it was the emergence of political and militant movements that became the reason for subjugating the community.

“During the Sangam Age (the period of history of ancient Tamil Nadu spanning from 6th Century BCE to 3rd Century CE), the Tamil society was categorised into five types of landscapes. The Pallars came from ‘Marudham’, a region of farmlands. The deity for the landscape was Indira. That’s why the Pallars today claim that they are ‘Devendrar’ (Deva – heaven +  Indirar – Indra). The word ‘Vellalar’ refers to the community that had some relationship with agricultural land,” says Bose. Some Pallars also use the term ‘Mallar’ to refer to their community, he believes. Following the arrival of Aryans, the Tamil god ‘Senon’, or ‘Vendhan’, was Sanskritised to Indra, Bose affirmed.

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According to him, after the entry of Naickers, whose ancestors were soldiers in what is now Andhra Pradesh, into Tamil Nadu, the Pallars were enslaved; Naickers also gave the title ‘Polygar’, a class of territorial administrative and military governors, to the Thevars.

Some Pallars also became the Man Friday of Thevars, like Solai Kudumban. He was with freedom fighter Muthuramalinga Thevar, who later went on to become the Tamil Nadu representative of All India Forward Bloc.

“In that kind of situation, Immanuel Sekaran, a Pallar and an ex-serviceman, founded the Odukkapattor Urimai Kazhagam (League of Depressed Classes) and started working for the three main Dalit communities– the Pallars, the Paraiyars and the Arunthathiyars. He later joined Congress party and stood against Muthuramalinga Thevar in the 1957 by-election. Then on polling day, Pallars claimed that they were prevented from voting by Thevers. Even though Forward Bloc candidate won, Thevars carried out attacks on the Pallars and the latter retaliated,” Bose says. This led to the murder of Sekaran and the subsequent Mudukulathur riots, in which 42 Dalits were killed.

The next few decades saw a spate of riots in the state.

“In 1968, the Keezhvenmani massacre happened in Thanjavur, in which 44 Dalits were burnt alive. In 1981, due to constant caste discrimination, hundreds of people in Meenakshipuram village in Tirunelveli converted to Islam. In 1985, caste violence took place at Thoddakurichi in Trichy. In 1989, Bodi riots happened in Theni. In 1995, violence broke out in Thoothukudi. In 1998, it was Dindigul district. 1999 saw a massacre in Manjolai, Tirunelveli. In 2011, police opened fire in Paramakudi, Ramanathapuram. Both the state and the Dravidian parties perpetrated violence,” Bose says.

“Before Karunanidhi came to power, there were a lot of intercaste marriages. That is not the case now. On the other hand, the AIADMK has completely given up on Dravidian ideology. The various movements started by the Pallars have sharpened caste differences. The parties have become institutionalised. Both Dravidian parties gradually lost the confidence of the Pallars. The BJP saw a space and has now moved in,” Bose believes.

Meenakshipuram, a jolt to Hindutva groups

On February 19, 1981, 800 Pallars converted to Islam in Meenakshipuram thrusting the village into the national spotlight. The event is still fresh in people’s memory, but that was not the first instance of mass conversion in Tamil Nadu.

According to Ragupathi, a Pallar conference held in Trichy in 1931 adopted a resolution asking Hindus, Christians and Muslims to work together to escape caste discrimination.

“The Pallars of Seethaikurichi, a village in Tirunelveli, who experienced untouchability, converted to Islam in 1944. In 1945, about 2,000 families from several other villages in the district converted,” said Ragupathi. These conversions came as a jolt to Hindutva groups and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) soon conducted a winter camp in Tirunelveli.

“The Hindu Mahasabha sent a paid agent to Tirunelveli in 1945 to do propaganda work following the conversion of 2,000 families. Some Arya Samaj leaders attempted to reconvert them, but their efforts failed. So, with the support of the Thevars, they attacked the Pallars,” Ragupathi believes.

The conversions did not stop. In Bodi and Theni, between 1969 and 1978, not a year went by when Pallars did not desert their faith. Following the Meenakshipuram conversions, Hindutva groups continued to pit the Thevars against the Pallars. The result was a weeklong battle between the communities in Puliangudi village, in 1982, which left nine people dead.

“The caste organisations founded in the 19th century worked for the welfare of their communities. But the organisations floated in the 20th Century are more focused on driving a wedge between communities. The BJP, through the RSS, cannily exploited the issue. M Thangaraj, founder of the Devendrar Voluntary Trust, was shaped by the RSS. He claims to be the first petitioner to the state government on the issue. This is not a recent development. This has been going on since the 1990s,” Bose says.

According to Ragupathi, the lack of unity among Pallar leaders was one reason the community never gathered under a single umbrella. “Sub-castes and regional consciousness of the Pallars killed the solidarity of the movements during colonial times,” Ragupathi says. Even now while the BJP government at the Centre has clubbed the seven sub-castes into a new category, there is no consensus among these castes over the issue. 

“During the post-colonial period, they attempted to organise under one banner, but to no avail. In the 1980s and in the early 1990s there was an upsurge amongst Pallars but the leaders were not ready to accept a common umbrella organisation. In mid-’90s some significant steps were taken to work under one single organisation. These efforts did not fructify. The federation of Devendrakula Vellalar Associations floated by K Krishnaswamy (who emerged as a leader during Kodiyankulam violence) could not get the splinter groups federated either. New organisations were hardly willing to work under one individual. Hence total solidarity among Pallars seems to be elusive,” Raghupathi says.

Focus on key seats

There are five constituencies in South Tamil Nadu where the Pallar vote plays a decisive role. They are: Tirunelveli, Nagercoil, Colachel, Ramanathapuram and Vilavancode. BJP has fielded its candidates in all the five constituencies this time.

In 2016, Nainar Nagendran contested from Tirunelveli on an AIADMK ticket, and lost to the DMK’s ALS Lakshmanan Pillai by 601 votes. He has joined the BJP and is its candidate from Tirunelveli.

In Nagercoil, Colachel, and Vilavancode BJP has fielded MR Gandhi, P Ramesh and R Jayaseelan, who are runners up in their constituencies respectively.

AIADMK won in Ramanathapuram in 2016. This time it has ceded the seat to the BJP, which is fielding D Kuppuramu, its state vice-president.

The BJP is confident of winning at least three of these five seats, though Ironically the candidates belong to dominant communities. 

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In the western parts of Tami Nadu BJP is targeting constituencies with substantial Pallar populations, including Aravakurichi and Coimbatore South. But the change in nomenclature to DKV has not generated much heat in those areas.

Culture, pride, social recognition

Among political circles Thangaraj, of Devendra trust, is often portrayed as a BJP man, but he says  he faced similar comments in 2011. “At that time people said I was a Congressman. When the DMK was in power, in 2009, they changed the names of Chakkiliyars to Arunthathiyars. Why did the DMK not change our name? Had they done that, we would have supported them,” Thangaraj told The Federal.

Thangaraj claims he played a major role in BJP’s choice of constituencies in the current elections. His 2015 initiative resulted in Amit Shah, then BJP president,  attending a meeting of Devendrar Thannarva Arakkatalai in Madurai where a resolution was moved seeking Devendra Kula Vellalar status to the community. 

“In this election DMK votes would shift whereas AIADMK won’t lose any voters”, he says. Devendra Kula Vellalars see this election as a means of reclaiming their lost culture and pride. They want social recognition. It doesn’t matter if candidates are from dominant communities,” he says.

BJP’s audacious attempt to field candidates from dominant castes and yet hope to win the votes of newly named Scheduled Castes is on test in southern districts of Tamil Nadu. 

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