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Gokulraj, the dalit youth, would have never expected that a casual trip to Tiruchengode Arthanareeswarar Temple with a woman friend – a college mate from the gounder community – on June 23, 2015 would cost him his life. The 21-year-old’s life was snuffed out by a caste outfit and his body was found at the railway track near Pallipalayam in Namakkal district on June 24, 2015. The special sessions court at Madurai, after a period of seven years, pronounced ten of the 17 accused as guilty and sentenced them to life imprisonment on March 8.
The sensational case rocked Tamil Nadu as the main accused Yuvaraj from Dheeran Chinnamalai Peravai, a caste outfit of gounder community, kept the police on tenterhooks by evading arrest for more than 100 days. The Investigating Officer of the case DSP Vishnu Priya died by suicide and allegations were leveled that she faced pressure from political parties to go soft on the investigation.
PUCL’s national secretary S Balamurugan from Coimbatore terms Gokulraj a soft target. Yuvaraj, an accused in the Emu bird scam, was trying to become popular as a gounder caste leader. He had spearheaded the protest against author Perumal Murugan for his novel Madhorubagan and the author, unable to bear the pressure, declared himself dead. Having arm-twisted Perumal Murugan, a progressive author from the gounder community, Yuvaraj needed a target to project himself as a big shot and Gokulraj ended up victim, says Balamurugan.
Yuvaraj had apparently created sources in colleges and these sources would tip him off about gounder girls showing interest in dalit boys. Dalit studies scholar J Balasubramaniam from Madurai Kamaraj University, who was part of a fact-finding committee that probed Gokulraj murder, noted many belonging to the gounder community had extremely intolerant towards inter-caste marriages. “I met people justifying Gokulraj’s murder while I was returning from that fact-finding trip. Even the ordinary folks of the region felt that such murders should put dalit people in their place,” he says. The consolidation of intermediate castes has resulted in these killings and such a trend is dangerous not just to dalits but to the same community and the society on whole, he says.
Dalit caste groups and gounders have a social relationship that runs into many centuries in this part of the state. Among dalits, arundathiyars are more in number in the western belt of Tamil Nadu. After them are parayars to which Gokulraj belonged, followed by pallars who are not many in number here. In a feudal set up, gounders and landless arundathiyars and paraiyars were integral elements as agricultural labourers.
Dalit studies scholar J Balasubramaniam from Madurai Kamaraj University, who was part of a fact-finding committee that probed Gokulraj murder, says: “I met people justifying Gokulraj’s murder while I was returning from that fact-finding trip. Even the ordinary folks of the region felt that such murders should put dalit people in their place.”
Arundathiyars made the Kamalai – water bag – used for irrigating the farm lands. Till the electric pumpsets replaced the water bags, there was an interdependence between arunthathiyars and gounders. Paraiyars, meanwhile, had an upward movement after the British captured India. Increasing political awareness and migration to urban areas helped paraiyars escape the feudal system. But arundathiyars stayed put. The bond between dalits and intermediate castes started coming apart when education access improved.
Balasubramanian says there is something behind Ramadass saying dalit boys wearing modern outfits are out to woo girls from intermediate castes. Dalit boys have embraced modernity and study hard in school and college to come up in life leveraging support such as reservation, free hostels and other government schemes. Feudal pride is keeping the youth from intermediate castes away from modernity. “And, they feel that the government is giving everything free to dalits while their community is working hard to empower themselves with whatever they get. This friction is drawing youngsters from intermediate castes to caste leaders like Yuvaraj,” he adds.
As farmers, the gounder community is bogged down with multiple issues like failing agriculture, unfriendly agriculture policies, gas-pipeline protests and so on but have little support from other communities because of their recent track record. When incidents such as the Gokulraj murder happen, many in the gounder community including the elders and leaders maintain a silence. Few voices of condemnation are raised.
When incidents such as the Gokulraj murder happen, many in the gounder community including the elders and leaders maintain a silence. Few voices of condemnation are raised.
Ironically, the custodian of the Dravidian movement, Periyar hailed from the same region where caste consolidation is in full throttle. Western Tamil Nadu did not quite take to Dravidian ideology. It remained a Congress bastion that communists tried to take over using the large working class population in industrial Coimbatore. Inter-caste marriages promoted by Periyar through DK or the policies of DMK in support of such marriages did not penetrate the region. Loyalty from the Congress shifted to the AIADMK, a splinter group not so keen on Dravidian principles by and large.
Nevertheless, the AIADMK and affection MGR are two areas where gounders and arundathiyars shared common ground. After MGR acted as Madurai Veeran, the folk deity of arundathiyar community, arundathiyars felt connected with the actor who founded the AIADMK.
The special sessions court has confined the accused in the case to life-term imprisonment. But, the question remains if the misnamed honour killings such as that of Gokulraj will end in a part of the state where caste is still the dominant political factor. “Unless, there is a consistent fight against caste prejudice, nothing much is going to change,” says PUCL’s Balamurugan.
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