The locality of Avaniapuram in Madurai, best known for being the centre of the bull-taming sport of jallikattu, is also home to a unique form of untouchability. Abolished under Article 17 of the Constitution, untouchability in Avaniapuram, an area known for inter-caste violence, has metamorphosed into something completely new – a discrimination that plays out through simulacrum.
It now involves the upper castes installing statues of their icons in cages, to keep them away from the 'polluting touch' of the Dalits. Avaniapuram is a locality divided among caste lines, where the lowest of India's castes, the Dalits, stay in a pocket called Ambedkar Nagar. While the upper caste Thevars, classified as Most Backward Class (MBC) in Tamil Nadu, stay separately in other pockets down the road. Numerically, both the Dalits and the Thevars are almost equal in number. The show of caste strength and dominance is exemplified by the number of statues of the leaders of these two castes.
The Dalits installed the statue of their icon BR Ambedkar, the father of India's Constitution outside their pocket on September 14, 1993. The figure installed in Avaniapuram is a typical Ambedkar sculpture – a man wearing a blue suit with a red tie, a book in his left arm and the index finger of his right hand pointing towards the sky.
A few years later – October 23, 1998 -- the Thevars installed a statue of their icon and former Parliamentarian Muthuramalinga Thevar outside their pocket. The difference between the Ambedkar and Thevar statues are that while the former sits atop a pedestal open to elements, the latter is enclosed in a cage. There are two statues of the Thevar icon installed in the village. The other one is 'protected' by a sliding steel shutter.
Periyaswamy (80), a wizened resident of the Thevar pocket, says that their icon's sculpture was caged to "protect it from Dalit miscreants." Ironically, Muturamalingam Thevar was one of the most vocal supporters of the Temple Entry Movement in the 1940s vociferously advocating for the entry of Dalits to Hindu shrines.
Pandi (32), a CPM worker and a Dalit himself, points to an affiche pasted on the wall adjoining the statue of Muthuramalinga Thevar. The poster depicts the Maruthu Pandiar brothers – icons of India's independence movement in Madurai. The two brothers mounted on stallions and charging with swords in hand have now become a symbol of the Thevar's aggression towards the Dalits. A few metres down the road and adjoining the state highway are the busts of the Maruthu Pandiar brothers. Surprisingly, even these have been caged by the Thevar community. "The Thevars paste the posters and cage their icons to intimidate Dalits and to show their superiority" says Pandi.
"It just takes a small spark to ignite caste violence in this locality. When tension erupts, even local buses do not ply in the area" explains Velmurugan (37), a resident of Avaniapuram. The sensitivities of the castes about the sanctity of the statues of their leaders came to simmer in Madurai in August last year when a truck rammed into the pedestal of yet another Muthuramalingam Thevar statue at a busy intersection in the city. Though the damage caused by the truck to the pedestal was cosmetic, protests erupted in no time and the police were called in to restore order.
Madurai has always been a caste tinderbox waiting to explode. Earlier this year, Dalit houses were burnt during Pongal celebrations. Last year, inter-caste violence broke out over temple festivities in the district. There have been several instances involving lynching of Dalit men and dishonourable killing of Thevar women across the state.
National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) figures show that Tamil Nadu recorded 77 murders of Dalits in 2014, which was higher than the murder rates against Dalits in Bihar, the other hotbed of caste violence in India. What exacerbates the situation in Tamil Nadu is that the Dalits themselves are a divided lot. Dalits in Tamil Nadu are divided into three sub sects – Pallars, Parrayars and Arundhatiyars. The Arundhatiyars are the "lowest of the low" among the Dalits and are frowned upon by the other sub sects.
In the 2016 elections, the party that represents the Arundhatiyars called Puthiya Tamilagam (New Tamil Nadu), is an alliance partner of the DMK. The party representing the superior Dalits like the Parrayars is the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) led by former Lok Sabha MP Thirumavalavan. The VCK is fighting the elections as part of a third front called the People's Welfare Alliance (PWA). The two Dalit parties have never joined hands in elections and have been content with splitting the residual Dalit votes among themselves.
Kumaraiah , a local DMK leader at Avaniapuram says, "As long as Dalits remain divided they will continue to be intimidated like they have been in Avaniapuram. The real freedom will come to this place when the upper castes take their leader's statue out of the cage and put it on a pedestal like that Ambedkar statue."