Reservation a path to social justice, not easing poverty

Over breakfast, the leader of Tamil Nadu’s Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) explains Sushila Ravindranath why caste is still a vital force in Tamil Nadu. He adds that society has changed in the last few decades, and will continue to change if communal forces do not gain ground.

Thol Thirumavalavan (portrait: shyam kumar prasad)Thol Thirumavalavan (portrait: shyam kumar prasad)
Thol Thirumavalavan (portrait: shyam kumar prasad)

I was not really meant to have breakfast with Thol Thirumavalavan, the leader of Tamil Nadu’s Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK). I have been wanting to talk to him for months ever since he came out strongly against the recently announced 10% reservation for the economically backward among the upper castes.

Thirumavalavan is the most important Dalit voice to emerge from Tamil Nadu. He has genuine charisma, practises nuanced politics, and has great following amongst the young, especially the aspirational young Dalits. His party, in its 29 years of existence, has evolved into not just fighting for Dalit rights, but also for many other issues, creating a broader agenda including rejection of caste, state rights and women’s empowerment, among others.

He has struggled for years to become part of mainstream politics. The two Dravidian parties have always had their favourite Dalit members, but they have not done enough for the Dalit cause. The Dalits form 18% of the population of Tamil Nadu, which is predominantly an OBC, MBC (most backward class)-dominated state.

I am asked to come and meet him by 8:30 in the morning at his office-cum-residence in a Chennai suburb to avoid the crowds. As it happens, there are people who have come much ahead of me, and I have to wait. I am being plied with hot cups of coffee and vadais from local shops. There is a carnival atmosphere and a pre-election air of excitement, although the VCK is contesting only two seats in the elections. It is now part of the DMK-Congress alliance. Thirumavalavan is contesting under his own symbol from Chidambaram, and his colleague Ravikumar under the DMK symbol.

When he calls me in, he insists on offering me breakfast from the popular Sangeetha restaurant. We have mini tiffin (a very Chennai concept) consisting of idli, vadai, pongal, mini dosa and sambar.

The VCK entered electoral politics in 1999 when Thirumavalavan transitioned from an educated Dalit leader, holding on to his job, to a full-time politician. Congress leader GK Moopanar, who then headed the rebel Congress in the state, persuaded Thirumavalavan to join his alliance and contest elections from the Chidambaram constituency. Although he ended up second, he attracted attention by getting 2.25 lakh votes.

Ever since, it has been a roller-coaster ride for the VCK as far as elections are concerned. The party has been part of several alliances. “If we are not part of an alliance, we get isolated. Growing small parties do not have much of an option now,” he says. The VCK has been with the AIADMK-BJP alliance during an earlier election. “We have taken the decision that we will never be part of an alliance with the BJP. They are committed to the Sanatana Dharma. The RSS never talks about doing away with caste.”

Thirumavalavan has also declared that he will never be part of an alliance that has chosen the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), led by Dr S Ramadoss, as a partner. The PMK is a caste-based party representing the Vanniyars who come under the MBC category. The PMK has alienated itself from other castes. It is considered to be strong in a few northern districts of Tamil Nadu.

There has been traditional rivalry between the Vanniyars and the Pallars, a Dalit community. The PMK has been accused of instigating honour killings to prevent intercaste marriages involving the Dalits. The PMK, however, accuses the VCK of stirring up violence. “Caste is still a vital force in the state. There are people who humiliate us and we get compromised. Caste and communal forces create law and order situations, and we fight to maintain peace. We have maximum number of cases foisted upon us. We are helping people challenge the accusations. There has been no proof that we have been behind any violence. So much of my time is spent on getting them legal assistance. The PMK believes in politics of hatred. It turns social issues into communal issues,” Thirumavalavan adds.

People keep walking in and out of the room. Although he shows no signs of impatience, I know that I have to hurry up. I ask him why he is so totally opposed to reservations based on economic criteria. “Reservation for SCs, STs and backward castes was a way to implement social justice, to set right years of suppression. It was not meant for poverty alleviation. Economic criteria will slowly eliminate social justice. Most opposition parties have welcomed this move. The RJD and the SP in north India, and the DMK and the AIADMK in the South, are the few major parties opposed to this move. There are other ways of eliminating poverty. The Centre can provide them financial assistance, ensure free seats in educational institutions, reduce farm distress.”

I ask Thirumavalavan why Tamil Nadu has not seen the emergence of a mainstream Dalit party like the BSP in Uttar Pradesh and a leader like Mayawati in spite of the state being the pioneer of the self-respect movement? “There has been no DMK or AIADMK in Uttar Pradesh. These two mainstream parties were not founded on the basis of caste. They are parties consisting of OBCs, MBCs and others. They have not been dominated by one caste. Contests such as the DMK versus the PMK or the AIADMK versus the DMDK are not possible in Tamil Nadu. Here we can only be an alliance party.”

Although after years of efforts Thirumavalavan is now accepted as a mainstream politician, electoral success still eludes him. He has not been able to retain his seat in Chidambaram. Going by the 2016 assembly elections, it appears as though VCK’s vote share is coming down. He explains: “The vote share depends on how many seats we get. We have been contesting only two seats in the Lok Sabha elections. We have not stood for elections independently to establish our vote bank. Nor have we contested beyond 10 seats in assembly elections. You can’t judge us by these numbers. We have our branches and supporters in all the other constituencies…

…We get branded as a Dalit party. Caste abolition and putting an end to untouchability have to be part of mainstream politics. We have not been able to do that yet. We are facing elections for the first time in Tamil Nadu without charismatic leaders. Somebody else has to emerge. I think this election will throw up other personalities.”

The room gets more crowded. Before I leave, I ask Thirumavalavan about the challenges of bringing all the Dalits under one umbrella. They still remain splintered in the state. “We are not a sectarian party. Social improvement will happen with more and more acceptance by intellectuals and opinion makers. This will convert our party into a mass movement.”

There is no time to finish breakfast. “In 50 years, society has changed, and it will continue to change if communal forces do not gain ground. Tamil Nadu may not be ready for a Dalit chief minister now, but it will happen,” he says as he sees me out.

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First published on: 18-04-2019 at 00:43 IST