In yet another case of caste discrimination, a Dalit village panchayat president in Tamil Nadu’s Cuddalore district has alleged that she was made to sit on the floor while other panchayat functionaries and even officers with lower ranks occupied chairs during meetings.
S Rajeshwari alleged that she was made to sit on the floor in at least four panchayat meetings held in the last four months in the Therkuthittai village in Cuddalore. The village has a predominantly Vanniyar (Most Backward Community) population. She was elected in January as the president of the panchayat reserved for scheduled caste.
Rajeswari alleged that panchayat vice-president Mohan Raj, belonging to a dominant caste, forced her to sit on the floor in the meetings stating that it would be disrespectful to the others if she also sat on a chair.
“I got elected in January and we have had four meetings until now. In all the four meetings, the panchayat vice-president asked me to sit on the floor as I belong to the SC/ST community. He and the other members belonging to the upper caste sat on chairs and conducted the meetings,” she said.
Rajeswari said the vice-president wouldn’t allow her to speak even on important decisions. “When I, as the president, would try to take part in important decisions being taken during the meetings, he would question my authority and say that either I should speak or allow him to. My husband and I have been silent for so long. But, now things are going out of control. Casteist slurs are hurled at us daily and it’s haunting.”
A picture of Rajeshwari sitting on the floor in one of the meetings surfaced in social media on Saturday (October 10) and gained the attention of the public. District officials, including the collector, and other revenue officials reached the village on Saturday to inquire into the matter.
Rajeshwari said she was threatened not to complain against the other panchayat functionaries. “Even the photograph circulating on social media was taken stealthily by my husband to record the ill-treatment meted out to me. If there is no proof, they will easily get away with it,” Rajeshwari said.
“We have stayed quiet for almost two months. This incident (the photo of which is now circulating) took place in July,” said Saravanakumar, Rajeswari’s husband. “I had to take the picture from a window while the meeting was going on as no one is allowed to take pictures inside. But the incidents of the last few weeks have really hurt us. They started to abuse us in public and hurled all sorts of casteist slurs against us. My wife was not even allowed inside the panchayat office,” he said.
Therkuthittai village consists of about 500 families, mostly Vanniyars, and there are 100 scheduled caste households.
Cuddalore district collector Chandra Sekhar Sakhamuri said the panchayat secretary has been suspended following the incident.
Media reports said that the panchayat vice-president is absconding. He has been charged under the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act and will be arrested soon, the police said.
This is not the first case of a Dalit panchayat president being discriminated against by a dominant caste.
On August 23, V Saridha, the Dalit woman president of J Krishnapuram panchayat in Coimbatore, had said that she faced many problems due to caste-based discrimination. She alleged that a caste Hindu, who was an AIADMK member, hurled casteist slurs at her in public and that none of the panchayat functionaries, all caste Hindus, stood by her.
A week earlier, a panchayat president in Tiruvallur district near Chennai was not allowed to unfurl the national flag on Independence Day. However, V Amurtham, the president of Aathupaakam village panchayat, hoisted the tricolour five days later after the district administration intervened.