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Tsunami and the Ugly Relic of the Varna System
Tsunami Disaster & Tamil Nadu
Tsunami and the Ugly Relic of the Varna System
When Tsunami hit the coastal belt of India, one question that haunted me was about the beaurocracy and caste prejudices. Tamilnadu, among all, fascinated my imagination due to my deep respect for the leader of self-respect movement EVR Periyar. This self-respect movement, I still feel, is needed even in the northern part of India. One cannot understand Tamilnadu in simplistic terms despite a huge success of the Self Respect Movement, Tamilnadu, over the last few years became a hunting ground of the Hindutva brigade, though by a different name.
It also became a place to use the contrast between the backwards and the Dalits. While every political leader in India became victim of caste identity and hence Periyar was no exception yet the vilification campaign against Periyar had hurt all those rationalists who knew his philosophy was never castiest in nature.
And yet when a Tsunami hit Tamilnadu, this kind of contradiction became visible if you have understood the caste system of Tamilnadu.
I looked for my icon Periyar and his disciples as what were they doing to eliminate this discrimination against Dalits ? No, Periyar never wanted his followers to join the power politics because his firm belief was that power corrupt people, because he felt that those running after power will compromise it. Minorities are always a suspect in democracy and India's villages have Dalits as minority without any rights to get heard. In constitution and in Parliament we might have a very fair view of minority rights but in the villages of India ` Might is right' and minority does not mean anything. Villages in Tamilnadu and Pondicherry are like their northern counterpart, republic of the power elite. And in the entire scheme of things, Dalits don't matter.
For all those in power, Dalits represent ` poor class', they did not loose anything. Political parties, NGOs all went and swept in the Tsunami to reach the sea beach. They were in a hurry to distribute their stuff as it was the best marketing opportunity, as prime minister Manmohan Singh said. In their search to reach the boats, they forgot that all these boats don't necessarily belonged to the fishermen communities. There are communities of Dalits who are involved in fishing work. Very few bothered to visit other parts of the villages which were a few kilometers away from the beach where people might not have died but where people lost their houses and routine work.
It pains to narrate here that how difficult it was for me to visit these areas and try to locate people victim of this hidden apartheid. We have conquered everything except our prejudices and false nationalism. When Asian Human Rights Commission Hong Kong reported that the Dalits were being discriminated, a number of NGOs a responded that everything was fine. Why should some of them feel jittery when some one complains about malfunctioning? Why our `nationalism' comes into picture when we expose the intention of the authorities and society. I am giving a few stories about my visit to Pondicherry and Tamilnadu and how Dalits were treated.
Karaikal : It is a village about 40 kilometer from Nagpattinam but part of Pondicherry. In the village Karaikal Medu we saw the face of untouchability in a more dangerous way. In this village of about 730 fishing families about 32 people died and 19 were missing. Most of the villagers who died were fish vendors. Government of Pondicherry was quick to distribute a cash of Rs 10,000 for rebuilding the houses and Rs 2000 for children's uniform and books. One lakh to those who died and Rs 5,000 for cremation but not all have got the same.
The relief material was being handled by fishfolk's community organizations from the community temple. Paramswamy, a local lad who could speak English comes forward to assist me. Param has worked in Somalia and other places and has been on leave for over a month. He is a captain. He and his associates want to me to take a visit to their village. As I venture to see the broken temple on the sea bank and ask them about Dalits, there is a conspicuous silence. Please come ahead, we want you to visit our village. Lot of people have died said Param. I insist to see the other village adjacent and come to know later from speaking with the people that it is a village of Vanniars. In this village about 32 people have died and most of the locals have left the village to stay at community centers. Some of them started working on their houses. I go to a bare-chested man making his hut. I am sure that this man is a Dalit while I ask my friends who is he. " They are poor people', he reply. `Poor people', I am amazed as normally this is not the terminology that we use in India for the Dalits. They move ahead while I focus myself to this village much to the discomfort of my guides in the village. They don't want me to take up the picture of `poor people'. A few CPM workers are being seen to help erect the bamboo houses for them.
According to a CPM workers one hundred thirty two families have not got any thing. They need immediate assistance. Children are playing on the heap of the old cloths, so naively send by the `charitable' people of India. These cloths have been rejected by the people. After all, who would like to wear torn jeans and broad shoulder tops which is not a part of the life of these women. We failed to understand the cultural sensibilities of the people. Most of the people have gone to nearby shelters but the local religious charitable organizations are taking care of their `own' communities.
Issues of Dalits
The problem of the Dalit bustee here seems to be overburdened. The lack of dynamic leadership with in the community has made the community immobile. More over, the insensitive nature of the caste system has also made them redundant. Unlike, north India, where Dalits might be poor but politically powerful community, in the South they are being used by the powerful NGOs and religious community organisations. The radical movement which made Dalit powerful seems a story of past and the oppression level has grown In the absence of Dalit mobility, the upper caste are using the space cleverly. It is a country where death of a Dalit is not considered as death. Since every one talks about fishermen and we have full sympathy with fisher family, very few know that in Tamilnadu and other parts of the country, Dalits are also fishermen but they fish mostly on the leased boats. The issue of Dalits have been relegated because of various reasons. One of that is the prevalent caste system where.
A fairly large number of fisher folks in Tamilnadu and Kerala belong to Christian community. Apart from this, a big number of Christian folks have their upper caste back ground resulting in common antipathy towards the Dalits. That is one reason why a large number of organizations took offense to the reported discrimination against Dalits. According to information provided to us by local activists here, 132 families of the villages Karaikalmedu-aman kovipathu, have lost their livelihood. In all, about 32 people died. They all belong to Vanniar community who are landless labours as well as fish workers.
The visibility of anguish among the Dalits reflects the upper caste mindset. My friends who took me to the village uncomfortable and not even willing to properly interpret things for me. My driver is frustrated by my efforts to speak to Dalits despite my linguistic problems.
One of the worst affected areas reported over 300 deaths in the village of 1200 families. Known as Pattinachery, one could see the `Tandav' of death here. Boats lying far away in the fields and influence of seawater.
Selain h/o Saraswati died in the Tsunami. She has nowhere to go. With two sons and three daughters, they just got twelve thousand rupees only. She is Dalit woman belonging to Setti community. Setti is originally a community devoted to music and dance. Her life is now a challenge. Food security is under severe threat. Saraswati's fear is palpable from her face. She does not know what to do and what will happen to her children. She had been eating at the community camps but the food quality was too bad to consume and hence she shifted to a friend's house.
The entire village looks a ghost village. Most of the people are leaving. At village the work of cleaning is being done by the Scavengers as usual. It was institution of Varna system by the laws of manu. Now our national laws which may not say it in so many words but the fact is the entire Safai work in India is done by one community of Bhangis, Mehtars and all those who claims to be Valmikis. Unfortunate part is that even in this tragedy a state like Tamilnadu could not show its progressive signs. Even in this tragedy, there is no local effort to over come the crime of untouchability. This tragedy has exposed the ugly face of caste system in India.
Moving towards Nagpattinam, and we reach Nagore. As we reach this temple town famous for its Dargah, distribution of relief material is being handled in a more crude way. Nagore's famous Dargah is known for its `miracle's where `people' from every walk of life come in and seek blessing. As the relief material is being distributed, I could see good looking women and men taking ample amount of material along with them. It pains when we find the organizers of these relief camps trying to glorify their activities and treating people in contempt. I am still trying to find the Dalit stories and my colleagues and driver particularly is trying to avoid. I decided to walk through the railway station of Nagore where a train saved the day for the Muslim population. And as I venture to cross the railway line being constructed, I see a bustee completed cut off from the rest of the area. Not through the landways but through our social compulsion.
Camera attracts and here also a large number and a few of them starts coming. Rajlingam is a coolie with Indian Railways and he takes me to his area. He could understand my pain of reaching the Dalit area but his pain is more then my pain. I have found the way. I move towards this area crossing the railway station of Nagore. This area is Rail kel Puram, Nagore. Rajlingam informs me that he has lost everything. The houses are collapsed and nobody has ventured in to see their plight. Remember this area is not far away from the railway station but stone throw.
Kannaiyan, 42 is accompanying us. He has lost his mother in the Tsunami. His father is already died long ago. His house is thoroughly gone. There is nothing inside. He has two daughters and one son. His elder daughter is doing B.Sc and younger one is in 10th. His son is doing 12th standard. He does not know where to start. In pains he tells me that he has not got a single pie so far. When the government of Tamilnadu was so prompt in giving in relief to everyone, till my visit to this area on 10th of January, there was no relief for him.
Not even the formal one lakh rupees or four thousand rupees for construction of house. Virtually, no family is living here at the moment when I visit. After entering in the already damaged house of Kannaiyan, I go out and try to see others and since it is afternoon, many of them have come in. There were 43 families and more then 150 members in this village. They are not here and living in a camps whose circumstances are miserable. None of the families have got any assistance from the government. So far no political leaders visited there. Strangely enough, not even customary rice has been given to them. After visiting several houses, I go to a nearby dharmshala (inn) in front of the Railway station where these 150 people including children were dumped. See the situation, mosquitoes; there was fear of outbreak of epidemic. They are not given any food here. They have to venture out somewhere in isolation to have food. Children cry and suffocate. None of the social groups are there in this house, which is overcrowded. Children don't have space to play and even cry. Women's are sitting in dark and complain that there is nothing to eat and difficult to sleep in the night.
Cuddalore has been one of the most affected regions. About 5 kilometer from this town is a village called Devanpattinam. Most of the village on the seashore has been wiped off and Swami Chidananda, who had `descended' from the Himalaya was there to promise that he would build the entire village. As the work was going, fishermen had erected several makeshift huts. Guruji along with famous disciple Vivek Oberai promised people to construct houses. So far nothing is given except for some community kitchen. The swami was moving around with a few foreign disciples with camera in hand. Not all of the villagers decided to move. Others who were just standing in front of their houses could not understand why Swami left them. More then 200 families were still sleeping in open. As I speak to one young girl who is sitting in on the ruins of her house,' "Swami is not promising house. He is promising huts without any floor, kitchen or toilet.
Bharati who is pondering about her future complained of the poor quality of rice. Her brother comes in and complain that the community food is worth dogs. I am having severe stomach ache now. They have lost three boats. Sea is their life but they cannot go elsewhere. We don't know any other work." People appreciate Swami's concern but say that it was not enough. They were having problem of sanitation. I could see many other religious organization venturing in these areas including Sadhu Vasvani church.
Interestingly in the evening the Swami's side of the ashram remain full of light while darkness visits the fisher folks houses and huts. That is complete contrast and perhaps they did not have time to see.
Things don't end here. It was reported by several people to me that Swami's kitchen are on fire. When I try to venture in, the local followers of Swami stop me and wanted me to meet him. I avoid meeting Swami who is engaged with his close confidents and since it was evening time no point for glamorizing a work which I have already seen. What perturbs me most is that there were allegedly 6 community kitchens opened by the Swami in this area. As usual we were being informed that it is just the fishing community who is the victim of Tsunami while it is blatant lie. When some of the fishermen saw Dalits eating in the community kitchen they became so violent that Swami has to intervene. He was forced to start a separate kitchen for Dalits. Even in such a situation, we did not have the courage to challenge the status quo. More then 52 people died in this village and yet such racism has not died from the minds of the people.
Adi-Dravida Street, Pannannthittu, P.O. Chidambaram
Chidambaram Taluka of Cuddalore district was one of the most damaged areas. As I return from MG Tat area, I saw a small hoarding ` Dalits' and went to speak to the people. In the absence of any translator, I could realize those sitting were making a protest against the discrimination. We decided to visit the Dalit bustee against the wish of my driver. This village falls under Panchayat Killai where 60 people have been enrolled as fishermen. 25 of them lost their boats and nets. These Dalits normally get subleased boats from the fisher folks and work on them. They also work as sharecroppers. The entire village is pitch dark with no electricity. I move along with other friends who want me to see their homes. Some are in the gutter and the sand lying on the floor with women imploring to get some relief.
I am taken to nearby river which flows in the sea. This village has a population 500. A total of 150 families live here. To confirm my fears, I saw vehicle with red siren coming and passing through the village and not even daring to stop on the way. I move in dark to see the houses, people narrate and every one want me to be in their houses. Finally on the road when a corner shop has a lamp, these folks bring their torn nets to show the loss. As I venture out of this village, a deep sense of guilt persist in my mind about our antipathy towards the Dalits. Are we just ignorant of Dalits or we deliberately consider them non-issue.
Nagpattinam bore the brunt of the Tsunami. The havoc created there have signs all over the city. It is difficult to ask which community people died as it would amount to be seen as castiest. But as things stand in Tamilnadu, we need to ask this question as how many of the Dalits died. Whether the government, civil society consider them human being or not.
I am standing on the sea beach where people are cremating their owns. Women coming with offerings, young lads being shaved off and put in front of the unknown god who could not control Tsunami. Interestingly, Brahmins are bouncing back to work in this tragedy, in a state which threw them away several years back. A few people complain to me of their future and ask me to visit the locality. As I move amidst the debris being cleared by the municipal corporation, I am informed by a local that they have found the body of a small child. This is on 9th January which is nearly 15 days later the Tsunami. Inside the street, several women were sitting and asking for the assistance.
With a camera in my hand, they ask the municipal sweeper to uncover the child. I am not interested in seeing it, I tell them. This guy does it with his hand. I soon realize that these people are not locals and locals are not interested to touch even their owns. I start questioning them and to my shock, I am told that they work as sweeper in Madurai which was about 250 kilometer away from Nagpattinam and were getting Rs 35/- per day for this work. There is no social security for them. No other facility. One does not know whether they are given separate meals or not. Secondly, calamities like this also give us an opportunity to forget prejudices and work as human being. We have seen such situations in many parts of the country but Tamilnadu disappointed because it is land of Periyar, which all those who believe in social justice, respect.
It is not that we only had the Hindus crying against the Dalits. Very few Christians except for John Dayal and All India Catholic Union, admitted that there was a violation of human rights of the Dalits. Definitely, certain Dalit rights groups in South like NCDHR spoke about the discrimination against Dalits. It is not important here to name them but certainly caste consideration also comes in the mind of Christian Church when they speak. Perhaps some of them did not want to take on the government when they mentioned that everything was `superb'. Ofcourse, the government was prompt but Dalits did not benefit from this promptness and secondly such racial discrimination really needs social Tsunamis to be thoroughly eliminated.
Thieves and liars
From Nagpattinam, we were on our way to Valankini, a famous Christian town. This town saw a very big chunk of tourist being swept away in the Tsunami waves. The beautiful church of ` Our Lady of Hope', witnessed severe assault from the Tsunami.
But the people there did not get any help. In my quest for Dalit villages, I got stopped mid way to meet a group of women, who were going to Valankini. I asked my colleague to inform me what they want. They were Dalit women of nearby villages wanting assistance, he informed. Unfortunately, it was difficult for me to understand. I asked a little girl what she does and she said that she would want to study further. They did not get anything. They have lost their household items and wanted that the authorities visit their village.
When I was speaking to this crowd of 50 odd women who were virtually surrounding me, a big Tata Safari passed by and stopped in front of me. A man came out holding his press card from a `National' Television channel. " Can I help you', he said and asked "By the way, who you are and what are you looking for?" I am here for an investigation looking whether the relief is going to right people or whether Dalits are getting fair treatment or not and I am facing language problem." Ok, I will translate things for you, he offered. After a while, when the women started screaming and telling him the story, this guy suggested that these women were telling a lie and want to grab this opportunity. ` I don't need to speak to them. Instead, I should visit the `collectors office', to gather all the information that I needed", he suggested. I told this TV fellow to go and do his business. "I am aware the press collect information from the collectors and superintendents offices but I don't gather information from them. That is the difference. We see the people's perspective while you report `national' perspective. You therefore become embedded. And please don't say that these people are telling a lie. Nobody like begging unless he is forced to, I said. And even if they are lieing, I am sure they have nothing. Should we need one Tsunami to remember those who we have betrayed", I asked?
The press people went away, I spoke with the women further. There was pain and anguish in her face. I assured them that we would report it all over the world.
On my return from Nagpattinam to Chennai via Pondicherry, a number of places I saw big photographs and statue of Ambedkar and yet I felt pained to see nothing at the ground. The fisherfolks refused to inform about Dalits and the villages were clearly demarcated.
On Chennai's famous Marina beach, I got a glimpse of who are thieves and who are liars. It was around 1.30 pm when near a check post I saw people moving with the new material in motorbikes, cars and tempos. I move towards the shattered huts on the beach and find people sitting on their ruins. " We have got nothing, sir' says a young man who could speak Hindi. I asked him, please tell me what is your problem. Do you stay here? Yes, I am an immigrant from Bihar, a Muslim by name and have got nothing except for the Rs 4,000/- .
The thing is that most of those who fell to Tsunami were just living on rent. No fishermen live here. They have leased their boats and houses and most of the workers are living here have not got anything. The trouble with the agencies is that they are giving relief to those who have identity cards but how can those who don't have land in their name have the cards. Therefore, most of the relief has been appropriated by those who have these facilities at their home, those who did not die but those who are dieing to take the benefits of others. Tsunami therefore became an opportunity for the statusquoists to put their right wing agenda. Those on the margins remained on the margins while those preaching godliness still doing the same strengthening their Varna system and notoriety of religion. Religious people are all moving around with their Gods but refusing to accept that the God became helpless. That their Gods and `His' chelas are unable to challenge the status quo, who we wanted to demolish.
Unfortunately, this Tsunami, on whose destruction we all are crying, have not been able to demolish the most powerful and destructive system of caste in India. Perhaps, we need a stronger Tsunami to destroy the ugly relic of caste system and racial discrimination from our society.