In what can be termed as a David versus Goliath contest in Tamil Nadu assembly election, Aathi Thamizhar Peravai (ATP), a party working towards the welfare of Arunthathiyars, is set to contest against Dravidian major AIADMK for the first time in the state’s political history.
The contest is set to take place in Avinashi, a reserved constituency in Tiruppur, which has about 2.8 lakh voters of which over a lakh are Arunthathiyars, a Dalit community in Tamil Nadu. In Avinashi, ATP founder R Athiyamaan has locked horns with AIADMK’s P Dhanapal, the current Speaker in the Tamil Nadu assembly, elections to which is due on April 6.
Interestingly, this is also the first time a Dravidian major (DMK) has accommodated the Arunthathiyar party in terms of a seat. Individuals from the community, like VP Duraisamy (earlier in DMK, now in BJP), Dhanapal, Anthiyur Selvaraj (DMK), had been given MP and MLA seats. But for the ATP, this will be a debut in electoral politics.
“The DMK government had in 2009 provided 3% internal reservation for the Arunthathiyars in Scheduled Caste category. But it has not been implemented properly in the last 10 years during the AIADMK’s regime. Only when you have power, you can implement certain things fully. It is only through electoral politics, you can become a part of power. So we decided to contest in the election,” said Covai Ravikumar, general secretary, ATP.
“We are new only in electoral politics. Otherwise, we have always been working with the public through our various activities and hope the people will accept us,” he added.
Stating that Avinashi is “an underdeveloped constituency within a developed region of Tamil Nadu,” Ravikumar said their campaigning is based on only one thing.
“Do you need an MLA who never visited you even once in the last five years or a legislator who is residing in the constituency and will be available for your beck and call? Though the constituency is surrounded by wealth-making regions such as Coimbatore, Tiruppur, Erode, and Nilgiris, the place lacks basic amenities like roads, hospitals and colleges,” he said.
It’s intriguing that while DMK has accommodated ATP in Avinashi, in Dharapuram, where BJP’s L Murugan is contesting, it has fielded Kayalvizhi Selvaraj, a Devendrakula Vellalar.
“Murugan could have contested from his native Rasipuram at least to save his face. Here, he is seen as an outsider, albeit being an Arunthathiyar himself. Though Kayalvizhi is a Pallar, she is a native of Dharapuram. So she has higher chances,” said Basheer Ahmed, a shopkeeper in Dharapuram.
Shifting of vote bank
Arunthathiyars are one of the three Dalit groups in Tamil Nadu and have been kept in the lowest strata due to their occupation. A majority of them are pushed into their traditional works such as manual scavenging and conservancy jobs.
The total population of this community is about 23 lakhs, according to the 2011 Census, distributed across western Tamil Nadu, including districts such as Coimbatore (Valparai), Tiruppur (Avinashi and Dharapuram), Erode (Bhavani Sagar), Namakkal (Rasipuram), and Salem (Attur, Gangavalli).
Except Avinashi, where ATP is contesting, in the other reserved constituencies, candidates of only bigger parties like AIADMK, DMK, and BJP are in fray from major camps. It may be noted that ATP’s Athiyamaan is contesting under DMK’s symbol and L Murugan under BJP’s Lotus symbol.
“We had decided to enter electoral politics in 2010 itself. I have campaigned in at least 40 constituencies for DMK in 2016 assembly elections and in 2019 in Parliamentary elections. Stalin understood that only when people were given an opportunity, they can grow in society. He has been watching us working all these years. So he called us and gave us a seat,” said Athiyamaan.
Of the above mentioned constituencies, Avinashi has the highest number of Arunthathiyar population (42%). Over the last 20 years, it has been an AIADMK stronghold.
“AIADMK leaders like S Mahalingam, R Prema, AA Karuppasamy and Dhanapal have been legislators (from Avinashi). They did nothing for this constituency. Dhanapal has not visited after he won. Most of the people here don’t even know the name of the MLA or can identify him,” claimed Prabhakar, a garment company supervisor.
Ravikumar explains it was because of former chief minister MG Ramachandran, popularly known by his initials ‘MGR’, the community has become a vote bank for the AIADMK.
“He acted in a film titled Madurai Veeran (1956) as an eponymous lead. For Arunthathiyars, their traditional deity is Madurai Veeran. That immediately struck a chord with them and when MGR floated AIADMK, they started supporting MGR,” he said.
Interestingly, the ATP had published a book titled ‘Madurai Veeran Unmai Varalaaru’ in 2015, alleging that the film had distorted the Dalit identity of Madurai Veeran.
“From 2009, when the DMK provided inner reservation, the community’s vote bank has started gradually shifting towards DMK, the result of which was seen in 2019 Lok Sabha elections, in which the AIADMK lost two constituencies – Pollachi and Salem – where the Arunthathiyars are thickly populated,” said Ravikumar.
Did Arunthathiyars fall prey to polarisation?
It is commonly alleged that splinter and fringe Hindutva groups are carrying out some kind of social engineering among different castes in the state. But did the Arunthathiyars fall prey to any polarisation? “Definitely not. The Arunthathiyars are basically beef eaters. How can Hindutva enter then?” Athiyamaan asked.
Such attempts (of polarisation) had failed in the past as none of the Arunthathiyar organisations extended their support, said Ravikumar.
“During Kirubanidhi’s (the first Arunthathiyar who became the chief of state BJP in 2002-2003) term, one of the Hindu groups tried to consolidate the community by saying that they were the heirs of Sambhava or Shiva. But that had no takers,” Ravikumar said.
Starting as a social movement in 1994, ATP has come a long way. It was due to this party’s effort, the community was provided with inner reservation. But why then it takes so much of time to consolidate the community under one umbrella, similar to VCK (for Paraiyars) or Puthiya Tamilagam (for Devendrakula Vellalars)?
“It is because there is no middle class in this community. Only recently, the community has started to reap the benefits of inner reservation and a middle class needs to emerge to consolidate the community,” said M Mathivannan, editor, Vellai Kuthirai, a magazine that covers Arunthathiyar’s issues.
But Athiyamaan has another view. Even Thol Thirumavalavan and K Krishnasamy were able to consolidate their respective communities only after getting into electoral politics, he said.
“We entered (electoral politics) only recently. We hope in another couple of years, we will achieve consolidation. At the same time, I don’t want to be a leader for just one community. I want to be a leader for everyone,” said Athiyamaan.