An incident in 2011 in which a Dalit resident of a Tamil Nadu village was barred from buying fish from the village market has developed into a long-term struggle by Dalit residents of the hamlet to assert themselves. Subsequently, Dalits in the area have also shunned Dravidian parties for being apathetic towards their struggle.

The village of Kovadi in Tamil Nadu’s Viluppuram district lies just off National Highway 32 on the route from Puducherry to the town of Tindivanam. There are around 800 households here of which 85 live in the Dalit colony. A road separates the Dalit colony from the main village.

The movement by the village’s Dalits to assert themselves was sparked after an incident in 2011, when 28-year-old Settu, a Dalit, was not permitted to buy fish from the local market. He said he waited in line for five hours, but was not even allowed near the stalls.

“I went up to the villagers and asked for at least a couple of fish, even the smaller fish, so we could make lunch in time,” said Settu, adding that the villagers told him that people from the Dalit colony had no right to demand fish that belonged only to the Vanniyars, the dominant caste in the area, classified as a Most Backward Caste by the Tamil Nadu government.

“This was when I realised that the lake was not just theirs, it belonged to all the residents of Kovadi,” he said.

Trouble over fish

Until that incident, the relationship between the rest of the village and the people of the Dailt colony was amicable, recalled Dilli, an elder in the colony.

“People from the village used to come visit our temple, which is considered to be very powerful,” he said. “We have always been friendly with the people in the village.”

But the fish incident changed everything.

“It showed how deep-seated the hatred against the Dalits was,” said Dilli. “Until that day, none of us had ever asked for a share [of the fish] in the lake. Settu’s action showed that these villagers were unwilling to sell us fish, even if we paid for it. It was a wake up call for the people in the colony.”

Settu, a member of the Dalit-centric Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi party, began to rally the people in the colony to demand their right to the fish caught from the the lake, and to the money made from the fish auction.

Matter of rights

The lake in the midst of this controversy is controlled by the state’s Public Works Department, and is located just beyond the main village, around 500 metres from the Dalit colony.

The village residents have auctioned fish caught in the lake since the 1990s. There were two main auctions that took place every year: an auction by the Public Works Department and one by the villagers, which usually yielded a larger sum of money. Depending on the yield of fish, the private auction brought in a few lakhs of rupees.

“We realised that the villagers owed us a share of the auction proceeds, since the lake belongs to all the residents of Kovadi,” said Parasuraman, a villager. “In the past, we would occasionally get some money from the PWD’s auction, but the villagers have refused us a share of the main auction.”

A delegation from the Dalit colony then met the villagers from the other side of the road in 2011 and asked for their share of the auction proceeds. But the villagers denied that Dalits had any rights over that income. The Dalits then approached the Public Works Department, and finally the tehsildar, a district level tax officer, who conducted a peace meeting. After that meeting, it was decided that the auction would be stopped, and the department issued an order banning fishing in the lake.

R Manivannan, the village panchayat head, said that the villagers were a bit surprised that members of the Dalit colony were asking them for something they had not interfered in for so many years. “For a couple of decades, villagers had been selling fish from the lake, and nobody had ever asked for a share,” he said. “Nobody had even shown any interest in the fishing.”

Fresh tension likely

The village and the colony maintained a tenuous peace, and both sides refrained from fishing in the lake; until this year.

Earlier in March, a few people from the Dalit colony filmed their fellow villagers trying to catch fish in the lake, and reported it to the tehsildar. The government then stationed police personnel near the lake to ensure that nobody went fishing there. In July, however, the villagers were again caught fishing.

The police registered a complaint on July 21, but according to the villagers, no action has been taken.

Said Velayutham, a village resident: “Apart from government officials, we also approached the local MLA, senior party leaders in the DMK [Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam], AIADMK [All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam] and the DMDK [Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam] to help resolve the issue. Although everyone listened to our complaints, nobody took action.”

Subsequently, the Public Works Department also issued an advertisement stating that the fish auction, which had not been conducted for four years, would resume this year.

The panchayat head said that this would lead to fresh tension in the village.

“I tried talking to the villagers and the people in the colony, and said that we could all fish in the lake and use the fish for personal consumption,” said Manivannan. “Both sides agreed, but then the auction was declared. If the PWD auction takes place, then the private auction will also take place, which would again raise the issue of a fair share for the colony.”

Government officials, however, say that the auction was declared because some villagers approached them to conduct the auction again.

Said an official from the Public Works Department on condition of anonymity: “They told us they had spent a lot of money to repair damage caused by the 2011 floods, and asked that we re-open the auction.”

Dalits targeted

In the past few years, the struggle over the lake has translated into a number of other problems for the people of the colony, said the Dalits of Kovadi.

They said that there has been an increase in incidents targeting the community, however minor, and that this was not the case a decade ago.

For instance, said P Jaya, the Dalit colony’s children have to cross the main village to attend school. “When our children walk by, they are often hit by cricket balls and stones,” said Jaya. “Sometimes the villagers even throw stones into the classroom when our children are inside.”

People from the Dalit colony have also been prevented from visiting the Draupadi Amman temple in the village. “As a young girl, we used to be allowed to worship the deity from a little distance away,” said Jaya. “Now, whenever they see anyone from the colony near the temple, the villagers have started abusing us and so we have stopped going near the temple.”

Political protest

In the beginning of August, fed up with the apathy of the Dravidian parties over the issue, residents of the Dalit colony staged a protest outside an Ayyanar temple along the National Highway.

Around 40 people, who were previously members of the Dravidian parties gave up their membership, and joined the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi. “The Ayyanar temple is in the neighbouring village, where there is a strong Dalit population,” said Pavadarayan, who lives in the Kovadi Dalit colony. “The people from that village have supported us through our struggles, which is why we chose that location.”

Pavadarayan was formerly a member of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam.

R Boobalan, an advocate and Dalit activist, said that the issue was of rights over common property. “This is a common problem in villages where there is only a small population of Dalits,” said Boobalan. “They are often not given their share in common village property, and have to fight for their rights.”

One of the reasons for apathy by politicians, said Boobalan, is that of Kovadi village’s 1,600 voters, only around 300 voters are from the Dalit colony. “With such a poor voting strength, they do not have enough power to garner help from the Dravidian parties,” he said.

The lake still continues to be an issue, with people of the Dalit colony saying they have approached the tehsildar to conduct another peace meeting. They have also approached Thol Thirumavalavan, the chief of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi, and asked him to lead another protest outside the sub-collector’s office in Tindivanam. “All we want is a fair share of what is our right,” said Settu.

The lake in Kovadi is dry until the next rainy season, and is now home to lush green bushes. “The lake is dry for around three months in the year,” said Settu. “This is the only time that we have any peace in our village.”