In a scene from the Tamil film Maamannan, a group of young people enters the home of the titular character, a Dalit member of the legislative assembly. When one of them remains standing in his presence out of respect, the leader insists that he sit down, and that he must always take a seat while speaking to anybody.

In another scene, later in the film, the same leader hesitates to sit on a chair in the presence of his party members, who belong to an upper caste. When his puzzled son urges him to sit, a young party member says with a laugh: “Your father will not sit down. It is a tradition we have followed for generations.”

The scenes capture something of the manner in which Dalits in Tamil Nadu who attain positions of authority continue to be discriminated against by upper castes. In the context of the state’s villages, this discrimination is usually at the hands of communities classified as Other Backward Classes. These groups, which are locally referred to as “upper castes”, dominated the state’s politics for many decades and resent more recent Dalit assertion that stems from policies such as reservation in government positions.

The discrimination that results is often insidious and sometimes overt, and plays out in the ways in which certain social rituals are conducted and behaviours are controlled. As in the film, chairs, specifically, have a strikingly significant role in the way that power is delineated in these spaces.

Jyothilakshmi Kudalingam hasn’t seen Maamannan yet, but a description of the scenes resonated with her experience. The 40-year-old is the first Dalit to be the president of the panchayat of Kallakurani village, in Sivagangai district. Jyothilakshmi was elected in 2020, after the president’s seat was converted into a reserved one – in the state, such demarcation is done in rotation, with a seat remaining a reserved one for ten years.

On her first day of office, Jyothilakshmi was offered an old “wire chair” to sit on – a stationary chair with a metal frame and surfaces of plastic wicker. The others in the office also sat on the same kind of chair; the vice president, however, sat on a “suthu chair”, or turning chair, the term for a cushioned, revolving office chair with wheels.

Normally, Jyothilakshmi said, “panchayat presidents are given the suthu chair. But I was given a wire chair because I am Dalit. There was no special chair for me.” It was a clear indicator that ascending to the post of president would not mean an end to the discrimination that she had grown up with.

A wire chair in the Kallakurani panchayat office. Even after winning the post of president, Jyothilakshmi Kudalingam was only given a wire chair, rather than a revolving office chair. Photo: Johanna Deeksha

Jyothilakshmi had not aspired to get into politics. Prior to the election, she had been a sugarcane farmer and all her time had gone into taking care of her husband and two daughters. Her daughters’ education was paramount to her. But when the panchayat president post was converted into a reserved seat, her husband, neighbours and extended family encouraged her to stand for the election.

During her campaign, Jyothilakshmi, a member of the Pallar community, had to visit the homes of Pillaimars, an Other Backward Class community, and seek their votes, because they are numerically dominant in the village. Jyothilakshmi was expected to fall at their feet with folded hands and ask for votes.

“When they come campaigning they are not required to fall at our feet,” she said. “But when we go there asking for votes, we are expected to fall at their feet.”

There were also other rules Jyothilakshmi had to adhere to as she campaigned. She could not call members of the upper castes “anna” or “akka”, the words for brother and sister, which she used to refer to others she interacted with. Rather, she had to call them “ayya” and “ammayir”, the equivalents of sir and madam. “Otherwise they will get offended,” she said.

Jyothilakshmi won the election by 125 votes. She had never imagined that she would ever hold such a post, but was rearing to do her best. “Since the panchayat leaders have always been Pillaimars, they have never done anything for the Pallars or the Paraiyars,” she said. “Our part of the village has not seen any kind of development in years.” She saw the win as an opportunity to finally improve the quality of life of her people.

“I was incredibly proud of myself,” she said. “Who would have thought that an uneducated woman like me would ever be able to become a leader. Often, people like me who are from lower castes don’t get any respect. But everyone respects a leader.”

The way that discrimination manifested through the chair, then, came as a shock to her.

Upper-caste individuals “would come in and tell me – we are the ones who bought you that chair and allowed you to sit on it,” she said. “So you have to do what we tell you to do. Every single conversation would be about the chair. Even though it was an old chair.”

In anger, Jyothilakshmi pulled out an old plastic chair and began to sit on it. She felt this symbolic gesture would demonstrate that she did not care about having a proper chair to sit on and that she was not going to give in to their harassment. But the taunts around the chair still did not stop.

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.

Jyothilakshmi’s experience is far from unusual.

Like all states, Tamil Nadu reserves a percentage of panchayat president posts for members of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes – under the Panchayati Raj Act, the percentages have to be the same as the groups’ shares of the overall population in the state. The Act also guarantees one-third reservation for women in the panchayats – in 2016, Tamil Nadu increased this reservation for women to 50%.

But research has found that these measures do little to combat discrimination on the ground. A study from 2009, published by an institute based in the Netherlands, in collaboration with the NGOs Evidence in Tamil Nadu and Navsarjan Trust in Gujarat, focused on Dalit women panchayat presidents in the two states. It found that only one-third of the 119 women surveyed “were able to discharge their official responsibilities with freedom and independence”. When it came to fulfilling basic presidential duties, the study found that only 35.3% of women called panchayat meetings and that only 31.9% chaired them.

“Patriarchy is a problem that all women face but for Dalit women, the struggles are manifold,” said Arokiaswamy Vincent Raj, the founder of Evidence. “Because she is a Dalit woman, they don’t let her sit on the chair but because she is a woman, they will never accept that she can work independently or take the right decisions.”

The study also found that the women were victims of discriminatory practices related to water, tea and food in the panchayats. For instance, 64.5% of Dalit women reported that they were not allowed to drink water from the same container used by other elected representatives and 53.6% stated that they were not allowed to drink tea from the same cups as their colleagues.

When it came to chairs, 38% said that they were not allowed to sit on chairs alongside other elected representatives in the office. And 67.5% said they were expected to stand when upper castes entered the panchayat office.

Evidence conducted a survey in 2023 to more broadly study the experiences of Dalit panchayat presidents in Tamil Nadu, albeit with a greater emphasis on women presidents. The organisation surveyed 114 panchayat presidents from Scheduled Caste backgrounds in the state. The survey covered 79 female presidents and 31 male presidents, who were predominantly from three Scheduled Caste communities – Paraiyar, Pallar and Arundhathiyar. Among them, 11 said that they were “not allowed to sit on chairs”. Other forms of discrimination were also rampant – 12 said they were “prevented from hoisting the national flag”, and 60 that they had “faced abusive language”. Further, 58 said they were not allowed to pass any resolutions, 26 said their name boards had been destroyed, 11 said they had not been allowed to enter their own offices and six complained that they were regularly locked out of their offices.

Jyothilakshmi, who is from the Pallar community, recounted that while campaigning for the post of president, she had to fall at the feet of upper-caste Pillaimars in the village and ask for votes. Photo: Johanna Deeksha

Apart from her struggles with her chair, Jyothilakshmi also encountered some of these other problems. She explained that every time upper-caste individuals came into her office, she was expected to stand up and speak to them. “I would stand up out of respect and hope that they would tell me to sit,” she said. “But they would never tell me to sit down. So I would have to remain standing until they left. On occasions where I got tired and sat down, they would raise a hue and cry and say that I was disrespecting them.”

Upper-caste villagers would also often summon Jyothilakshmi and her husband to their houses and threaten them with dire consequences if they did not obey orders. They were expected to sit on the floor at these meetings. “I am supposed to fold my legs this way,” Jyothilakshmi said, demonstrating to me how she folded both her legs to one side of her body. “We are not supposed to sit on a chair and leave our legs hanging,” she added. “That is seen as disrespect.”

She recounted that she had also been at the receiving end of bitter name-calling and casteism. “It would be so insulting and humiliating,” she said. “Repeatedly they would remind me that I come from a lower caste.”

Upper-caste men went so far as to try and control her gestures. Jyothilakshmi explained that when she spoke, if she moved her hands, they would yell at her.

“They would ask me how I dared lift my hand while talking,” she said. This, she added, even when she made sure to gesture only broadly – she demonstrated by stretching her palm out. “See, I didn’t point with a single finger, but with my palm out,” she said.

Tired of not being allowed to her to carry out her duties without hindrances, Jyothilakshmi complained to the district’s collector about a year ago about how she was being harassed. Soon after, the assistant director of rural development (panchayat) visited the village to investigate the matter.

“He walked in and sat down,” she recounted. “Immediately, the upper-caste men barged in with a list of complaints about me. The vice president, who is upper caste, complained that I made decisions without consulting him.”

She recounted that the official calmly asked who they were and “what gave them the right to barge into the president’s office this way”. He then directed them to leave.

Next, he asked officials if the panchayat office had a separate room which the president could use. When they replied in the affirmative, Jyothilakshmi said, he demanded that the room be opened.

“He then told everyone that that room would henceforth be mine,” she recalled. “That a suthu chair and a proper desk should be installed inside the room and that people had to seek permission before they entered. From then on, my life has improved drastically.”

Today, a maroon revolving office chair is placed behind a desk in the room. Six plastic chairs are placed on the other side of the desk for visitors. The old worn-out wire chair, Jyothilakshmi pointed out, was now placed in another part of the office. “Ironically, I barely sit on my chair these days because I am always running around,” she said, laughing. “My work always keeps me on my toes.”

Then she added, tearing up, “This is the first time I’ve talked about my experience without crying. These three-and-a-half years have been hell.”

On August 15 this year, police arrived at the panchayat office to provide protection to Jyothilakshmi, as they have done every Republic Day and Independence Day for the last three years.

The protection is necessary because in her first year as president, Jyothilakhmi was not allowed to hoist the flag in her village on Independence Day. “The upper-caste villagers said that a senior member of their community would hoist the flag and not me,” she said. “But after the police intervened, they let me hoist it.”

Despite these changes, residents of the village continue to display their prejudice in numerous other ways. Jyothilakshmi explained that it is a tradition in the village for the panchayat president to be invited to the inauguration of village events or festivals. “The panchayat president will be invited to light the lamp or do some of the rituals for temple festivals,” she said. But Jyothilakshmi has never been invited to any such events during her tenure. “People would rather not celebrate these festivals than invite a Dalit woman to do the honours,” she said.

Through all the trouble, Jyothilakshmi has sought to focus on work – she said she has ensured that a tap is installed in front of every house in the village, and constructed communal bathrooms. And despite all the harrowing experiences she has endured, she wants to stand for election again.

I asked her if, in her time as panchayat president, she had ever been invited to the home of any upper-caste person and asked to sit on a chair. She chuckled. “They won’t even let me sit on a chair in an office I was voted into,” she said. “Do you think they will allow me to sit on a chair in their house?”

Most Dalit presidents Scroll spoke to were not as immediately forthcoming as Jyothilakshmi. Typically, they would initially dismiss the idea that they faced discrimination pertaining to the use of chairs – but then open up after we discussed other matters related to their work.

Arokiaswamy Vincent Raj, the founder of the organisation Evidence, said that this was because the presidents were nearing the end of their term, and that with elections around the corner they were wary of losing upper-caste votes in their villages. “They are scared to talk about it now,” he said. “But these issues plague and worry them.”

Arokiaswamy Vincent Raj, founder of Evidence, noted that presidents were wary of speaking out because elections were due soon and they were wary of losing upper-caste votes. Photo: Johanna Deeksha

This was evident in my interaction with Gowri Maharaja, panchayat president of Muthuvandhidal, a village about half an hour’s drive from Kallakurani. Like Jyothilakshmi, Gowri’s village was also converted into a reserved post in 2020, and Gowri was the first Dalit to become president of the panchayat.

When I entered the small, empty panchayat office and asked Gowri about her experience with casteism, and if she had had any problem with being allowed to access a proper chair and table, she immediately said she hadn’t. “Yes, there was some problem initially,” she said. “Everything is going well now. I have no problems.”

A few minutes later, she began to slowly open up about some of the challenges she had faced – but as she did, she placed one hand in an odd position just over her mouth. “There’s a camera here,” she said. “They will know what I am saying. I cannot risk it.”

She recalled that when she invited some upper-caste individuals for a flag-hoisting event, they were hesitant. “One person said, ‘You will call us and we’re supposed to come?’” she recalled. “They meant how could I, a person from a lower caste, hoist the flag while they just stood and watched it happen.”

When we decided to take a walk outside the office, she opened up a little more. I asked her what campaigning was like. Her experiences echoed Jyothilakshmi’s. Referring to upper-caste members of the village, she said, “We have to fall at their feet and ask for votes. Otherwise, they take offence.” She added, “If I gave any directions, other members of the panchayat would refuse to listen. They would say that they were the ones who voted me to power, so I had to follow their orders and not vice versa.”

She too faced troubles with protocols surrounding her chair. Like Jyothilakshmi, she was also expected to get on her feet when upper-caste villagers came to see her in the office. “Yes, they did make a bit of a fuss when I started,” she said. “But I reached out to higher officials and sorted it out.”

When I prodded a bit more, she grew reluctant to elaborate. “You will write about it and yes, it is a good thing,” she said. “But then I have to continue living here with the same people. We have to go back to them and work with them.” Like Jyothilakshmi, she too is keen on contesting the upcoming election.

Like many panchayat presidents, Gowri Maharaja faced difficulties when it came to protocols surrounding flag-hoisting: upper-caste individuals rejected her invitations to these events. Photo: Johanna Deeksha

In the neighbouring district of Madurai, however, Vaniselvi M has made up her mind not to contest the next election.

For years, Vaniselvi, from Vadapalanchi village, had been a worker in the village under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, 2005. “Many people knew me because of this and so when the elections came around, people suggested that I stand,” she said. “I also felt that it would be something that I could excel at.”

As we sat in her room at the panchayat office, the headmistress of a government school nearby spoke at length about how dedicated Vaniselvi had been to improving the standards of the school. “I have worked here for 23 years and this is the first time I’ve developed a close relationship with the president because of the amount of interest she has taken in the school,” she said. “I walk in and out of the office frequently and can easily approach her with any challenges that we face.”

But Vaniselvi has weathered significant challenges to be able to do this work – including challenges pertaining to her chair.

She said that usually a new chair and desk is bought for a newly elected president, but that she was not provided with a new set.

“Actually, it was only two or three months after I joined that I got myself a chair and desk,” she said. “The collector’s office kept calling me and asking me to buy myself a chair because there were so many incidents of Dalit presidents being denied chairs.”

After she was elected, Vaniselvi had to redo her name board three times. “I would reach the panchayat office some mornings and find my name board destroyed,” she said. “Then a few months ago, we installed a good one with cement, so it is difficult to destroy easily.” Today, it stands strong. But, she said, when repairs or construction were in progress, it was common for individuals to cause damages in the middle of work. “People like to cause some problem or the other,” she added.

Vaniselvi M was not provided with a new desk and chair for months after she was elected. Her office name board was also repeatedly destroyed, till she ensured that it was made in cement. Photo: Johanna Deeksha

Just as frustratingly, she said, work was often blocked by authorities such as village administrative officials and block development officials. “Nothing is possible without the support of the higher-ups,” she said. But, she observed, “Nobody wants to take a Dalit woman seriously. Every time I am told to ‘adjust’ and never given the time of day.”

Further, she noted, “You either have to be upper caste or have to have some party affiliation. I don’t have either, and so nobody will listen to me. Or you need to have money, which also I don’t have.”

As an example of stalled work, she explained that for many months, she had been talking to higher authorities to request that a shelter be built over the central pyre at the village’s graveyard. She scrolled through pictures on her phone of the damaged shelter over the pyre. “Because of the rains, people are unable to cremate bodies,” she said. “I have been working on getting this done for so long but nobody will give me an appointment. Where will I go for funds?” She pulled out several letters from a file to show me how many times she had written to authorities.

She said that since most of the concerned authorities are upper caste, she cannot hope to get any kind of support for her plans. “All of these experiences have severely impacted my mental health,” she said.

Vaniselvi, who is from the Devendra Vellalar community, which is a Scheduled Caste, said that ironically, she gets criticised for doing her work well. “The fact that I open the doors of the panchayat every day, that I stand on the road and ask people their problems and see to it that work gets done – all this angers the upper castes,” she said. “This puts pressure on those in power to also do their duties, and they don’t want competition from a lower caste person.”

Vaniselvi is frustrated, and does not intend to contest the election again. “My mental health has taken a huge toll in the last few years,” she said. “I don’t have it in me to keep running after these higher officials and keep feeling disappointed that I’m unable to fulfil the needs of the villagers.”

Almost every Dalit panchayat president that Scroll spoke to said that a major problem they faced was a lack of cooperation from their vice presidents, who were usually upper caste. Jyothilashmi and Vaniselvi both recounted that their vice presidents displayed casteist behaviour and created a hostile environment for them – they would, for instance, refer to the presidents in casteist terms and discourage others from offering them food and water, as well as ensure that they didn’t have a chair to sit on.

Despite suffering discrimination, Jyothilakshmi focused on work. She said she ensured that a tap was installed in front of every house in the village, and constructed communal bathrooms. Photo: Johanna Deeksha

Chitra, the president of Kanjapalli panchayat in Coimbatore district, and also a representative of the Dalit Panchayat Presidents’ Association said that for most presidents, their vice presidents are their biggest problem.

“I can say with absolute confidence that the only way to sort out this issue is to ensure that the vice presidents are also Dalit,” she said. “Otherwise, we will continue to suffer.”

She added that personally, she had also had similar encounters with her vice president, and that he had hindered her from fulfilling her presidential duties.

Vincent Raj, who has been working in the field for 30 years, argued that stricter action must be taken against those that block Dalit presidents from doing their jobs. He pointed to the fact that section three of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 stated that a person who isn’t from a Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe background can be punished if that person “forces or intimidates or obstructs a member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe” who holds an office in the panchayat “from performing their normal duties and functions”.

But, he noted, “most people don’t know that they can use this act to take action against the upper-caste colleagues or villagers who are discriminating or perpetuating casteist abuse against them”.

He described Tamil Nadu as “the most atrocity prone state in the country” and noted that “untouchability in our villages is a prevailing reality”.

This was despite the fact that the state had political leaders who espoused progressive ideas. “Enough hasn’t been done to protect the interests of the Dalits,” he said. “How many Dalit leaders are in prominent positions in these parties? How many Dalits are allowed to contest from general constituencies?”

Despite having suffered discrimination, Jyothilakshmi thinks there is hope for the future – as we spoke, her teenage daughter sat in a corner and watched her mother with pride but also concern. When Jyothilakshmi recalled how she was forced to refer to upper-caste men in her village as “ayya”, she looked at her daughter. “But my daughter doesn’t and will not refer to them this way,” she said.

Her daughter agreed, nodding her head confidently. “We still rely on them for small jobs and fear getting on their bad side so we cannot break away from these shackles that bind us to these practices,” Jyothilakshmi said. “But my daughter will study and become a teacher or a doctor, and will never need to call them ‘ayya’. She will be their equal.”

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