On a windy Tuesday afternoon in May 2022, loud howls erupted from a house in Adaichani, a village in southern Tamil Nadu’s Tirunelveli district. The sound led villagers to the home of Sundar Rajan, a 40-something man who was in a fit of rage: in one hand, he held his 16-year-old son’s collar, and in another, he had a small shovel. The son cried and begged to be let go. The women in the neighbouring houses hurriedly called the police stationed in their village to calm the angry father down.

The neighbours explained to me that the father was furious because he had found out that his son had gone to the village temple festival, despite being directed to stay at home. Things were not normal outside. “Being out during this time is not safe for us, that is why the father was angry,” a neighbour explained. “We have to be on guard at all times.”

The villagers belong to the Scheduled Caste community of Arunthathiyars. Eleven days earlier, a Class 11 student from the village, who belonged to the community, had been in a fight with a Class 12 student from another village, who was from the Thevar caste, an Other Backward Classes community. The Class 12 student, Selva Surya, had later died, allegedly from injuries that he suffered in the fight.

The incident had occurred at the Pallakkal Podhukodi Government Higher Secondary school, a kilometre away from the village. The region was already tense, and this incident had made it even more so. The police had, in fact, been stationed at the village to prevent any clashes that could break out between the two communities.

“Now that they have lost a son, they will be determined to take one of ours,” said Karpagam, a resident of Adaichani, who goes by one name. “So we are asking high school students in the village to stay home and not step out.”

Karpagam’s son missed his Class 11 exam that morning. He had been sent away to a relative’s house for his safety. He, too, was a student of the school where the incident had occurred. Karpagam and her husband have decided not to let their son return to the same school the next academic year. Instead, they plan to send him to another school, somewhere far away, where he will be safe.

“It’s okay if his studies are affected, his life is more important,” she said.

Some other parents in the village also shared these fears and said they were considering moving their children to different schools.

The fight between the two students had erupted over a caste thread. These caste threads, or bands, are worn around the wrist by people in some districts of Tamil Nadu, and are particularly common in southern districts like Tirunelveli, Thoothukudi and Tenkasi. Some caste communities in these districts have their own flags, and caste threads reflect the colours of these flags.

“It was the upper castes who used to wear these bands,” said AK Manikumar, a retired professor of history, who has studied and written on caste riots and caste politics in the state. “It wasn’t a practice among the OBC and Scheduled Castes. But slowly, the OBC castes also began to emulate the upper castes by wearing these threads.” In this region, he said, it was the Thevar community that first began to display them – over the last two decades, other communities also began to develop their own symbols.

“It was gradual,” said Marimuthu Bharathan, a Dalit rights activist in the region. First, caste associations designed their own flags, which would be displayed on streets to mark the entry into areas where that caste was predominant. “Then, young people began to wear vests in the colour of these flags,” Bharathan said, adding that the vests sometimes had caste names printed on them. “They would wear the vest under their uniform, so it would be easy to identify who was who. Then they came up with bottus” – decorative dots on the forehead – “and caste threads in the same colours,” he said.

Caste threads have become increasingly common over the past two decades in southern Tamil Nadu. They reflect the colours of a community's flag, and are seen as an assertion of identity. Photos: Johanna Deeksha

These caste markers “are a way to hold on to the identity and to the past,” said Karthick Ram Manoharan, a scholar from the University of Wolverhampton and author of a book on Periyar. “It isn’t even about superiority, it is just a way to show they are ‘different’ from other castes.”

Bharathan said that he had noticed young people, especially students, wearing these threads from the late 2000s onwards. But members of Scheduled Castes started to sport the threads only in the last ten years, he added.

“Subaltern assertion is vital in a political democracy,” said Vignesh KR, a doctoral scholar from King’s College London who researches Tamil Nadu politics, caste and democracy. He observed that the success of the Dravidian and anti-caste movement have in different ways helped ensure access to education for Scheduled Caste students, which resulted in a newfound confidence, and a desire to assert caste identity.

“The fact that Scheduled Caste students are also wearing the thread is unsettling the OBC students, who feel that the caste thread is exclusive to them,” he said.

Some accounts suggest this tension was the root of the Adaichani incident. Salim Amir, the father of a student in the school who was friends with the Scheduled Caste student, said his son had told him that Surya had been harassing the Scheduled Caste student for some time over his caste thread. He had allegedly demanded that the Scheduled Caste student remove his thread because he belonged to a lower caste. (The names of the Class 11 student, other students accused in the incident, and their families, are being withheld because the Juvenile Justice Act prohibits the disclosure of any identifying information of juveniles accused in crimes.)

Francis L, the deputy superintendent of police of Tirunelveli, told Scroll.in that teachers from the school had previously called Surya’s parents, “complaining that he was causing communal issues”. But he had not heard anything specific about Surya targeting the Scheduled Caste student.

On the day of the incident, Amir said, Surya had allegedly picked a fight with the Scheduled Caste student during their lunch interval, and his son and another Muslim student tried to defend him. “They were friends since class six,” he said, of his son and the Scheduled Caste student.

According to Amir, Surya’s friends also joined in the fight. In the course of the fight, Amir said, the Scheduled Caste student allegedly threw a stone at Surya, which hit his head. Amir’s son returned home that evening with a wound on his head, and told his parents that “he could not stand by while his friend was being beaten up”.

Meanwhile, Surya was taken to a hospital, where “the doctors stitched up the wound instead of doing a scan,” Surya’s mother said. The family found out the next day that he had internal bleeding. Five days later, he passed away. His family alleged that delayed medical attention and irresponsibility on the part of the school resulted in Surya’s death. Police arrested the Scheduled Caste student and the two Muslim students on murder charges. School authorities declined to comment for this story.

Surya’s family has a different version of the events that preceded the incident. They told Scroll.in that Surya had only asked the accused student to remove his thread because the school had prohibited it. The police are still investigating the incident.

Currently, the Scheduled Caste student and two Muslim students are in a juvenile home.

“One life has been lost and another three hang in the balance,” said Vargis Rani, a social worker who works with the Arunthatiyar community.

After the student’s death, police seized caste threads from shops and warned students against wearing them. Since exams were on, they threatened to disallow students from attending them if they arrived wearing the threads. “They just cut it with a scissor before we enter,” a school student said.

This story is part of Common Ground, our in-depth and investigative reporting project. Sign up here to get a fresh story in your inbox every Wednesday.

Nearly a century has passed since EV Ramasamy, better known as Periyar, founded Tamil Nadu’s self-respect movement in 1925, aimed at dismantling the caste system. At that time, Brahmins occupied most positions of power in the state, then known as the Madras Presidency.

According to the 1916 “non-Brahmin manifesto” of the South Indian People’s Association, in one provincial civil service exam, “15 out of the 16 successful candidates were Brahmins” although “not less than 40 out of 41 and a half million, who form the population of this presidency, are non-Brahmins”.

In 1927, Madras Presidency became the first province in India to implement reservations in government jobs. That legacy endures till this day: Tamil Nadu reserves 69% of seats in government educational institutions and government jobs for disadvantaged communities, higher than any other state. It ranks among the top in the country in terms of development indices, for which many credit its reservation policy.

Periyar, the philosopher and social activist, subsequently went on to lead the Justice Party, the parent of Tamil Nadu’s two major political parties, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. Governance in Tamil Nadu has historically been guided by his work and thinking, and leaders have strived to provide equitable access for communities that were ranked among the lowest in the caste system.

But even in this relatively progressive environment, caste tensions surface frequently. While formal political power may have moved away from Brahmins, it has come to be concentrated in Other Backward Classes, a diverse category marked by wide disparities. In recent years, social and economic change has further created a churn, helping Dalit communities progress, but making groups in the lower end of the spectrum of OBCs grow resentful.

The result is that caste tensions are now seeping into schools, with even children developing a strong sense of caste identity. The manner in which these tensions develop and spill over into violence is revealing of how deep-rooted the problem of caste is in the country, and of just how challenging it is to try and tackle it.

The prominent castes in southern Tamil Nadu are the Nadars, a Backward Class community, and the Thevars, also a Backward Class community, which is divided into three subcategories – Agamudaiyar, Kallars and Maravars. (Of these three, the Kallars and Maravars are significantly disadvantaged groups – both were previously classified as “criminal” and were subsequently denotified.) The three main Scheduled Caste communities in this region are Paraiyars, Arunthathiyars and Pallars.

According to responses to Right to Information Act applications filed by Evidence, an NGO based in Madurai, 300 murders were registered in the state between January 2016 and December 2020, under the provisions of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Act, 2015. In one particularly violent period, in September 2021, four beheadings were reported in a span of ten days in southern Tamil Nadu – most of the incidents involved members of the Thevar community and Scheduled Castes.

This violence is also mirrored in a rise in tensions between schoolchildren.

“What students see in their homes and neighbourhoods, they replicate in their school as well,” said Rani, the social worker. “Where else will children learn these things?”

Bharathan, who noticed that many school children had begun wearing caste threads, petitioned the National Human Rights Commission in 2015, seeking its intervention in the matter. That same year, the Commission issued a notice to the Tamil Nadu government, directing it to look into the issue of caste threads and other caste markers among school students in Tirunelveli. Four years later, a 2018 trainee batch of IAS officers appealed to the Tamil Nadu government, seeking its intervention in the matter of caste threads. The subject had come up for discussion during a training session, following which the batch decided to make the representation. In 2019, the Tamil Nadu government issued a circular banning the wearing of the threads, and directing authorities to identify and crack down on schools where they were being worn.

A flag of the Pallar community, a Scheduled Caste communty, in Gopalasamudram village. The assertion of Scheduled Caste groups of their identities has led to resentment among other communities.

The BJP leader H Raja called the move “anti-Hindu” and condemned the circular. The next day, the then education minister K Sengottaiyan, of the AIADMK government, which was an ally of the Bharatiya Janata Party at the Centre, did a U-turn and claimed that it had been issued without his permission. A day later, he backtracked. The Hindu reported him as saying: “Necessary action will be taken if complaints are received in this regard.”

Bharathan explained that the interventions have had little impact. “Students continued to wear the caste thread,” he said. “In some instances, teachers who are casteist allowed it to continue, in others, the administration simply failed to implement the rule.”

Those teachers who are trying to enforce the rule struggle to discipline students who are determined to display caste markers.

At around 1.30 pm on a Thursday, high school students of a government school in the village of Nadakallur in Tirunelveli strolled out of their classrooms after an exam. Outside at the gates, on the busy highway on which the school was located, middle school students waited to be let in for their exam. As I stood at the gate, speaking to a physical education teacher, he pointed out a student who had one palm wrapped around the wrist of his other hand. “See, he knows we’re watching so he’s trying to hide the caste thread,” the teacher said. That student slipped away but the teacher managed to stop another student and make him wipe out the bottu on his head.

A school in Nadakallur. Though authorities have issued instructions to students not to wear caste threads, many continue to do so. On the ground, teachers struggle to enforce the rules.

“It’s not easy,” the teacher confessed. “When I ask them to remove it, they do it immediately but the minute I turn away, they put it back on.”

Many teachers said that social media had had a role to play in reigniting children’s feelings of caste pride, often referred to as “jaati veri”, in Tamil, which literally translates to “caste mania”. Caste pages and caste-related videos on YouTube were contributing to this mania, teachers told me.

The problem can be dealt with if school administrations take effective steps, noted R Shankar, the principal of the Nettoor Government School in Tenkasi. “But the teachers and principals are scared,” he said. “They are scared of the students and their parents, so they do not take strict steps. That is why these practices continue to take place.”

Shankar said that he himself took about six months to ensure students were not wearing caste threads to class. If students threatened to call their parents, he asked them to go ahead. “I would ask the parents, do you want your ward to sit on a chair like me?” he said. “If they said yes, then I would tell them to let me do my job and not interfere.” Currently, he said, no students wore these threads to his school – but he added that sometimes, he observed some wearing them outside the school.

More than 80 km away from Nadakallur, in the village of Palavoor in Tirunelveli, too, the directions of school authorities appeared to have had some effect. As I passed bright green agricultural fields and entered the more populous part of the village, I came to a small shop adjacent to a temple. In its shade were three schoolgoing boys, two in school uniforms.

The children did not have any caste markers. They said that their school did not allow the markers, and that they only wore threads during temple festivals.

But soon, their friends joined in the conversation – they ranged from Class Six to Class Nine students and were enrolled in government schools. One of them, a Class Seven student, had a yellow circle around a red dot on his forehead – the mark of a ‘Thevar’.

This boy said he often wore the caste thread, even to school.

When I asked him what his response would be if someone from another caste asked him why he was wearing one, he said – “Adi thaan” (I would beat him).

I asked if it was acceptable for other caste students to wear caste threads – “No, they shouldn’t be wearing,” he said. He said that he would not give up on the thread even if he was threatened with expulsion.

Another student said it was only within the village that they could display their caste pride freely. “It is simple,” he said. “If we go to a village where they” – referring to Scheduled Caste communities – “are larger in number, then we are not safe. And when they come here, they are in danger.”

The yellow circle around a red dot is the symbol of the Thevar community. Scholars have noted that it was the Thevar community that first began to display these caste markers, and that other groups followed suit.

This student was in Class Nine, but was 17 years old, and said he should have been in Class 11. He did not wear the caste thread or the bottu on his head. His T-shirt, however, was striking. On it, was a picture of the Tamil actor Gautham Karthik from the movie Devarattam, a film about Thevar pride. Above it was the student’s name with the caste title “Maravar”, and beneath it were the following words written in Tamil: A person who is born to rule is a god. A person who can suppress and rule over even them is a courageous “Maravar”.

He said that the headmaster in his school had become strict and students were not being allowed to wear the caste threads. “In some schools they allow it and some they don’t. It really just depends on the principal and whether they are strict,” he said said, echoing the Nettoor school principal Shankar’s description of the situation.

When asked if he makes friends with lower caste students, he said that he did. Immediately the children around laughed out loud and said, “He’s lying, he’s lying.”

“See, we are also from different castes,” he argued, pointing to the others there. However, the boys belonged to different sections of the Thevar caste. When asked specifically about Scheduled Caste students, the 17-year-old said it depended on how they “behaved”. “If they don’t cause trouble, we don’t bother about things like caste,” he said. And though he initially claimed that fights did not break out in school, in the middle of the conversation, he admitted, perhaps inadvertently, that he himself had been to the police station several times because of these “caste fights”.

An image from a film about Thevar pride. The text reads: "A person who is born to rule is a god. A person who can suppress and rule over even them is a courageous “Maravar”, referring to a Thevar subgroup.

In Mayamankurichi, a village in the neighbouring district of Tenkasi that has a mix of MBC communities, students were hesitant to discuss the issue of caste threads. A college student who was in her uniform had worn the caste thread, but when I asked her why she wore it, she smiled coyly and replied, “Just like that.”

But an adult from the village, who owned a shop on the street and wore the caste thread, urged them not to be afraid and talk openly about the matter. “Students should be allowed to wear what they want,” he said. “I wear it because I like it, what is wrong with that?”

The social factors underlying these caste tensions are intertwined with economic changes in the region.

Manoharan said the shift from an agrarian economy to a more industrial economy had also had an impact on the way that caste functions in the region. While earlier, Scheduled Caste communities were dependent on land-owning communities for their livelihoods, they are now less bound to agrarian work and have moved on to find jobs in other sectors. “Many emigrate to cities and mofussil towns for employment in industries,” he said. “Likewise, significant numbers have also traveled overseas for work. Apart from this, welfare schemes by the state government have also reduced dependency on landlords.”

Vignesh also pointed out that there was a difference in social mobilities between OBC and SC communities. “The improvement in the empowerment indicators pertaining to Scheduled Castes is translating as the narrowing of a gap between them and the Other Backward Castes on the ground,” he said.

In response, OBC communities were resorting to a “reinforcement of cultural symbols and glorification of their past,” he added.

He said that a key factor in this process was that Scheduled Caste families often sought different avenues of opportunity. Scheduled Caste groups organised “around issues of socio-economic and educational mobility over the years, while a set of OBCs steadily moved on to revivalism in the recent decades, thereby causing a certain stagnation of their politics and aspirations,” Vignesh said.

He cited the Pattali Makkal Katchi party as an example of this. Till the 1990s, the party focused on work such as installing Ambedkar statues and fighting for affirmative action, but “from there they moved to perpetuating violence against the Scheduled Castes,” he said. He added that the OBC communities’ reliance on land had been greater than that of Scheduled Caste communities. “Given the value potential from the land has decreased over the years, their shift to revivalist politics has only exacerbated the deterioration of their socio-economic and educational status,” he said.

In spite of their mobility, Scheduled Caste students continued to suffer from casteism meted out to them at their places of learning. In some instances, students have been forced to move to other schools because of it, while some students have even dropped out.

One such incident occurred in 2013 at the Pannai Venkatarama Iyer Higher Secondary School, a private institute in Gopalasamudram village in Tirunelveli. On the occasion of Thevar Jayanthi, the birthday of Pasupom Muthuramalingam Thevar, the most revered Thevar leader, children from the Thevar community distributed sweets in the school. Shiva Rajan, a 25-year-old farmer from a Scheduled Caste community, who was in Class 10 when the incident happened, recounted that this was an annual event in the school. “They would never offer us the sweets, but were allowed to celebrate the festival in school,” he said. In 2013, the Thevar students allegedly offered sweets to female students from Scheduled Caste communities.

“One of the girls refused to accept the sweets,” Rajan said. “So in anger, one of the boys pushed her to the ground and stepped on her chest.”

The issue escalated quickly. “After the school incident, a youth from this village was murdered,” said a social worker who works in Tirunelveli and Tenkasi. The following year, an accused in the murder was also killed. “Since then, the village has remained tense,” the social worker added.

The parents of about 130 Scheduled Caste children immediately stopped their children from attending the school. Vel Dorai, a resident of Gopalasamudram village, then a college student, took over the responsibility of helping Class 10 students prepare for their board exams, teaching at a temporary school that an NGO had helped set up. “All the students passed that year,” Dorai, said with pride.

A coaching centre in Gopalasamudram, opened following an alleged attack in a private school in 2013 by a Thevar student on a Scheduled Caste student over a caste issue. Many SC students left the school after this.

Bharathan’s organisation and the parents of the Scheduled Caste students demanded that a separate school be set up for them in Gopalasamudram, so that they would not have to be exposed to caste discrimination, but the government is yet to fulfil the demand. “This is a bench we bought in the hope that that school would one day become a reality,” Bharathan said, pointing to a green bench in his office.

For the last eight years, many parents from Scheduled Caste communities have refused to admit their wards to Pannai Venkatarama Iyer Higher Secondary school. Only in the aftermath of Covid-19, when schools reopened, did two or three Scheduled Caste students join the school, the villagers said. School authorities told Scroll.in that “whoever wants to join, joins”, but did not offer any comment on the impact of the 2013 incident on enrollments. They insisted that they did not have any caste-related problems on their campus.

Murugan, Shiva’s cousin, who was in Class Six at the time, was among the children who shifted schools. “I had to travel an hour every day to school,” he recalled. “It would get so late when I got home.” (Rajan and Murugan’s names have been changed for this story because the situation in the village remains volatile.)

But it wasn’t just the Thevar Jayanthi incident that resulted in the villagers’ decision to keep their wards away from the school. “There had been several incidents in the past, and we had been complaining about it to the administration but no action was taken,” said Shiva’s mother.

“This is the case of just one school, but discrimination happened in other schools as well,” Bharathan said. In 2015, for instance, rights organisations and parents of Dalit students of a government-aided school in Keelapathi village in Tirunelveli staged a protest after Dalit children were forced into manual scavenging with their bare hands by the school administration.

“In some schools, teachers do not answer the doubts raised by Scheduled Caste students,” said Rani, the social worker who has worked with the communities for many decades, and kept track of students’ progress.

A 2014 report by the National Commission for Scheduled Castes on two schools in the region, including the Pannai Venkatrama Iyer Higher Secondary school, found that Scheduled Caste students were facing discrimination at the schools. Among their observations were that other students would object to Scheduled Caste students drinking water from the same pot as them, and that teachers would more often award unfair corporal punishment to Scheduled Caste students.

The Tirunelveli police also looked into the matter and claimed that they found no instances of caste discrimination in the schools. But Murugan recounted several instances of such discrimination and aggression. “The upper caste students would draw vulgar things on the board and write filthy things about us and our caste,” he said.

Those who know the accused Scheduled Caste student in the Adaichini case described him as docile. According to neighbours, he was “just not the kind of boy to ever get aggressive”. Rani noted that the accused’s family was not keen on securing his release on bail because they were worried that he wouldn’t be safe if he left the prison.

The student had lost his mother when he was younger, after which his father had left the household to start another family. The boy was living with his uncle and did all the work around the house. “He worked in the fields all morning and night. and went to school during the day,” said Rani, who knew him.

Surya’s family, too, faced economic hardships. “It has been eleven days since my son died, but my husband is already back at work. Because we need the money,” his mother said.

“My husband breaks stones for a living. Our financial condition is dire,” she added.

The family has been unable to come to terms with their loss. They want the government to take action against the school and the hospital for not providing proper treatment to their son. The mother said the family had been working hard to educate their children and had dreamed of Surya joining the army someday. “At least if he died as a soldier, it would have meant something,” she said. “I would have consoled myself.”

In Adaichani and other villages, caste threads remain freely available and popular. At the temple festival in Adaichani, a seller wheeled in his cart. He sold toys, some cosmetic items and caste threads of all groups. Children surrounded his cart. “I buy it from the shops just like I buy the other products,” the shopkeeper said, with a slight smile.

Manoharan pointed out that it isn’t fair to pick out the OBC, MBC and SC communities as being the only ones that follow such practices. “In the top schools in Chennai, you find students who wear caste markers. Why are we not talking about that?” he said, referring to the Brahmin community’s practice of wearing the “poonal” or so-called “sacred thread”.

Vignesh argued that such practices of self-assertion were a natural outcome of the hierarchical caste system. “Like Ambedkar said,” Vignesh noted, “the caste system is a self-sustaining mechanism, there is always a need to be above someone else.”

This reporting is made possible with support from Report for the World, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.