Two statues stood on a road between Pondicherry and Villupuram.

On the right was CN Annadurai, the first Dravidian chief minister of Tamil Nadu. On the left, Bhimrao Ambedkar.

Together, they made an arresting tableau. Annadurai's statue stood on an open cement plinth, with a red and black flag of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam jammed into its left hand.

Ambedkar's statue, no more than ten metres away, also stood on a cement platform, but inside an iron cage.

Statues in cages aren't an uncommon sight in Tamil Nadu. Sometimes, it is Ambedkar, sometimes, Annadurai, and occasionally, others like the reformist leader Pasumpom Muthuramalinga Thevar.

A relatively recent phenomenon, they started coming up about ten years ago, when the followers of the leaders felt the need to protect their statues from vandalism by other caste groups. In other places, the police, wanting to minimise riotous assembly, got the ironwork done.

The cages are instructive – they suggests caste tensions in Tamil Nadu are running high. A slew of other changes in the state point in the same direction as well.

In the last 15 years, the number of caste-based parties has spiked in the state.

The nature of caste violence in the state has changed as well. At one time, attacks on Dalits were feudal in nature, which means they were connected to disputes over land and agricultural work. In 1968, 44 Dalits were burnt alive in a village called Kilvenmani near Nagapattinam when they asked for higher wages.

In recent years, however, caste violence has been triggered by more personal decisions that people make – like whom to love. Kathir Vincent Raj, who runs a Madurai-based NGO called Evidence which works on Dalit rights, said the state has seen a sharp increase in the number of so-called honour killings, where families kill young people who have crossed caste lines in pursuit of love.

This violence, incidentally, appears to be widespread and almost normalised. In the last four to five years, he said, the state has begun to see as many as three to four attacks on Dalits every month.

While reporting on the violence, the media often traces causality back to Dalit assertion and the attempts by the state's intermediate castes – Thevars, Vanniyars, Gounders – to defend their dominance.

That is an incomplete explanation. Dalit assertion has progressed steadily over decades. In contrast, the mobilisation by the intermediate castes – the defacing of statues, the rise of caste-based parties, the honour killings – is relatively recent.

What else could explain it?

A statue of MG Ramachandran, popularly known as MGR, who left the DMK to start the AIADMK, stands in its cage.
A statue of MG Ramachandran, popularly known as MGR, who left the DMK to start the AIADMK, stands in its cage.

The road to Natham Colony

A good place to seek answers is Natham colony in Dharmapuri district.

This is where 19-year-old Ilavarasan fell in love with 20-year-old Divya and was later found dead on the railway tracks.

Ilavarasan was Dalit and belonged to the Parayar sub-caste. Divya was from the region’s dominant middle caste group called the Vanniyars. After she defied her community to marry a Dalit man, her father committed suicide. A riot followed where a thousand-strong mob descended on Natham colony and two other neighbouring Dalit bastis and burnt down most of the houses. A few months later, in 2013, Ilavarasan was mysteriously found dead next to railway tracks.

The colony is about ten kilometres from the small town of Dharmapuri, capital of the eponymous district in western Tamil Nadu. A paved road branches left and heads towards the wholly Parayar colony. All around it are villages of Vanniyars, the dominant intermediate caste in northern Tamil Nadu.

Ask Dalits about their livelihoods and you encounter a striking similarity. “Most people do not work in the village,” said Sasikala, who came to live in the colony after her marriage. “They work in Coimbatore or Bangalore, mostly in construction.” This is echoed by a fact-finding team which visited shortly after the riots. Most men, it said, work in either construction or scrap dealing. The women work in the village. A family with two working members, estimated Sasikala, will earn about Rs 7,000 every month.

It's interesting to contrast Sasikala’s answers with what the Vanniyars say.

Chinnaswamy, the panchayat president of a nearby Vanniyar village, rued that agriculture is now a loss-making activity. The village grows just one crop a year, down from the earlier two. “For paddy, we have to invest Rs 25,000 per acre and the yield is around 30 bags,” he said. With each bag selling for about Rs 700, the gross income from one acre is Rs 21,000 – less than the investment.

People in the village, Chinnaswamy said, make ends meet by working as labour in cities like Bangalore and Coimbatore. “We get Rs 300 a day and work 6 days a week.” This comes to a monthly income of about Rs 7,200, which is roughly the same as the Dalits.

This is a seismic shift.

Until three decades ago, landless Dalits were entirely tied to land, said Ravikumar, co-founder of the anti-caste publishing house Navayana and senior leader of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi, a political party which is predominantly seen as a Paraiyar-dominated party. But now, they are doing the same kind of work as the intermediate castes and earning much the same income. Which is why Dalit assertion is not the complete story.

A new equivalence

To understand the rise in caste violence in Tamil Nadu, it is important to look at the other half of the equation – how the intermediate castes have fared in the same period.

In the last 30 years, the economy of Tamil Nadu has seen structural changes like urbanisation and industrialisation. Seeking to benefit from them, each caste in the state made different choices. The Vanniyars, said S Anandhi, an associate professor at Madras Institute of Development Studies, stayed with agriculture. They bought land from the erstwhile elite who were moving to cities, and sought to replace them. The Gounders moved into manufacturing, entering industrial clusters like Tirupur and Coimbatore. The Parayars, the Dalit sub-caste, migrated out of their villages. “They used education and urban employment as weapons,” said Anandhi.

These gambits have not worked for everyone. The Vanniyars' hopes for upward mobility through farming were scuppered by Tamil Nadu's agricultural crisis. In the industrial enclaves of Tirupur, power cuts, economic slowdown and overcapacity in yarn production has hurt the Gounders. In contrast, the Dalits have fared better.

The fallout of these changes is a newfound equivalence between some of the intermediate castes and the Dalits, said M Vijayabaskar, who teaches economics at Madras Institute of Development Studies. “A large chunk amongst Vanniyars and Thevars is not too dissimilar in economic status from the Dalits,” he said.

Even the terms of agricultural work between intermediate castes and the Dalits who stayed in the village have changed. In the last ten years, said V Mohanasundaram, who heads the economics department in Coimbatore's PSG College of Arts and Science, Dalit farm labour has organised itself into groups of contract workers.

“Earlier, they were attached to a farmer,” he explained. “In the new system, they are able to charge as much as 50% more. This is something they learnt from construction work.”

In some places, Dalits have stopped working in the fields entirely. This was a big jolt for the middle castes, said Anandhi. “Caste and landedness is very important for middle peasants. But that status doesn't get enhanced if they have to work on their own fields as labour.”

At one time, the Dalit sub-caste of Arundhatiyars worked as permanent labour for the Gounders. Their decision to seek work in Tirupur, said Anandhi, has resulted in a “common grievance that the Arundhatiyars do not work for the Gounders any more”.

A loss of economic status brings other changes with it. As Sharada Srinivasan wrote in the Economic and Political Weekly, Kongu Vellala Gounders from a farming background are finding it hard to get married. “Currently the most desirable groom is educated and has an urban or government job.”

An intensification of caste feeling

Anxiety and anger over this erosion of status shows up in several ways. It shows in riots that destroy the property of Dalits.

The fact-finding team that probed the violence in Natham colony, for instance, found: “Nowhere had we heard anybody being hit by the mob. It had clearly targeted property of Dalits, particularly the symbols of their prosperity like motorbike, cycles, refrigerator, almirahs, and furniture.”

There is a greater effort to control the women. In a college in Dindugul which had 1,200 girls in the first year, Kathir found that 230 had been married by their parents before they were sent to college. “This was to ensure the girl would not fall in love,” he said.

The intensification of caste feeling in Tamil Nadu is similar to the newfound religiosity we saw in Punjab. Faced with economic difficulty, that state has seen people turn to godmen and religions. In Tamil Nadu, in the absence of material resources to assert their power, said Anandhi, people are falling back on caste.

It is partly about how people see themselves. According to a Tamil novelist who did not want to be named, the people of the state – especially the men – are seeing an identity crisis. “Before the 1980s, people used to get a political identity by joining the DMK or the AIADMK," he said. "At the same time, there were a lot of fan clubs for filmstars like Vijay, Ajith, Rajini, Kamal, etc. These would do blood donation. And this is one way people got their sense of identity – as the secretary, treasurer, member, etc.” But, in recent years, the role of the party structure has reduced, there are no fan clubs, there is a rising financial equivalence between them and the Dalits. Given all this, he said, people are going to caste.

Agreed Anandhi, “There is very little in terms of revenue difference. And so, people hold onto cultural differences to tell themselves apart.”

It is also partly about plugging into social support. Said AR Venkatachalapathy, a professor at Madras Institute of Development Studies, “For the first time, girls are travelling alone. They are making their own decisions. This comes with greater anxiety for parents. At times like this, one source of comfort is the community.”

The fallouts of this move towards caste

In the Vanniyar village near Natham Colony, Chinnaswamy and his friends were convinced that the Dalits were better off than them. “Most of them are working with the government, in the electricity board, police, clerks. We are not getting those jobs,” said a young man. “We have to work in Bangalore or Coimbatore as contract labour.”

This isn’t true since most people in Natham Colony also work as labour in Bangalore and Coimbatore. Nonetheless, the belief among the Vanniyars that they are being left behind is fuelling a demand for a greater share in reservations in jobs and colleges.

Chinnaswamy said: “Us Vanniyars are MBCs [most backward classes]. We get 20% reservations. But there are 108 MBCs in all and we have to share this with them. In contrast, Pallars and Parayars get 16% of reservations but they are just two communities.”

Travelling in the state, it appeared that the Dravidian political parties and the Left lack the imagination to address these concerns. Said Vijayabaskar, “Earlier, the state had been polarised into Brahmin and non-Brahmin. The intermediate castes were together. But now, the single anti-Brahmin positioning doesn't work any more.”

As a result, Tamil Nadu politics has seen a double movement. Seeing Dalits move ahead, some of the poorer members of the intermediate castes have turned away from the Dravidian parties towards single-caste parties which they feel can better represent the community's interest.

Dilli Babu, a leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) said: “People began feeling that political parties are not permanent. Maybe, the community party is more permanent.”

At the same time, this grievance has created conditions for the emergence of new multi-caste parties that are focused on Dalits as the common enemy, said K Ramakrishnan, the secretary of a political organisation called Thanthai Periyar Dravida Kazhagam, which supports those who want to marry someone from another caste.

Social historian V Geetha, however, pointed out that these parties lack clear ideas on how to reverse the slide in their voters' fortunes. Instead, these parties have used controversies to position themselves – like, say, an inter-caste love affair and violence.

This is a template first articulated by S Ramadoss' Pattali Makkal Katchi. It is Ramadoss who triggered much of this recent wave of mob hysteria around love jihad by Dalits when he made a speech in 2012 accusing Dalit youngsters of “wearing jeans, T-shirts and fancy sunglasses” to lure girls from other castes with their “bogus professions of love”. Its resulting popularity has triggered the rise of similar, single caste-based parties.

Nothing illustrates their modus operandi better than the politics that breaks out whenever there is an elopement. Imagine a political landscape where multiple outfits are jockeying to become the voice of a caste. In each of these outfits, there are multiple people trying to position themselves as the leaders of local communities. The fallout is the competitive whipping up of passions.

For instance, in a public meeting, another senior PMK leader, Kaaduvetti Guru, reportedly goaded Vanniyar men to chop off the hands of any man touching a Vanniyar woman.

Said Ramakrishnan: “50% of parents do not encourage these honour killings. It is the close relations. They are making parents separate or kill the couple. Goondas are now relatives and community leaders.”

This is the other big change. Said Venkatachalapathy, “Earlier, intercaste marriages were a family affair. But now, they are a supra-local event. The honour of the whole community is affected now.”

How the politics of the state is changing

Caste-based parties practise majoritarian politics.

The best instance of that is Pattali Makal Katchi. Now the party of Vanniyars, it started as a workers' party but found that neither Dalits nor Vanniyars consequently trusted it. Which is when Ramadoss turned hardline and began focusing on intercaste marriages and the law on atrocities against Scheduled Caste and Tribes, which intermediate castes say is used to foist false cases against them. Said Ramakrishnan: “It is not that mass ideology is following Ramadoss. It is the other way around.”

As PMK gained vote share, other single caste parties began to follow it. Some of them, said PV Srividya, a journalist in Krishnagiri, went one step further. “Some of these parties maintain a cadre which picks up newlyweds and forces them to break up,” said Srividya.

That said, these parties have not made much headway in the recent assembly elections. This might have something to do with the fact that the Dravidian parties almost always choose members from the local dominant intermediate caste as their MLAs. This splits the vote, and as a subsequent story in this series explains, results in a majoritarian streak in how Tamil Nadu is administered.

Young supporters of the DMK.
Young supporters of the DMK.

In response, the state has seen several attempts by the single-caste parties to come together with the Bharatiya Janata Party. The Dravidian parties, said ER Easwaran, the leader of the Gounder party Kongunadu Makkal Desia Katchi, have ruled by dividing the castes. What is needed, he said, is a Hindu consolidation.

And the costs of it all

Back in 1925, Tamil Nadu had mounted one of India's biggest challenges to caste – Periyar's Self-Respect movement. Seeking to create a society which did not discriminate along caste or gender, he challenged both brahminism and the notion of a society which slotted people as superior or inferior.

But look at the state now and caste is still very much around. The two-tumbler system of keeping separate glasses for Dalits continues. A study by Kathir's organisation found “40 different kinds of discrimination in temples alone – Dalits cannot participate in temple festivals, cannot collect festival tax, have to stand outside during the temple archanai, and have to follow the caste hindus.”

Altogether, the study documented 370 different forms of discrimination in Tamil Nadu. "In anganwadis, for instance, if the cook is Dalit, caste hindus refuse to let their children eat that food,” Kathir said.

The impact of these anxieties goes beyond caste. Take that Dindugul college where girls are married off before being sent to study. “These are pre-emptive marriages,” Srividya explained. “They are also the reason why a lot of girls elope right after class 12 exams. They're willing to embrace an unknown, insecure future given the fear of being married off.”

In that sense, Tamil Nadu has a lesson for the rest of India.

“Back in 1925, the state was seeing a powerful humanistic rationalistic movement,” said Father Francis Jayapathy, the vice-chairman of Loyola College. “But unless you address inequities, caste lies low but comes back again.”