More than 25 activists born into the Dalit caste have been murdered over the past year in Tamil Nadu, said a press release issued by Evidence, a human rights NGO in Madurai.

For the last 12 years, the organisation has been investigating atrocities against Dalits in the state. Each year, they come across about 150-180 cases, including murders and rapes. For the first time this year, the organisation also looked at murders of Dalit activists who were targeted because of their involvement in social causes, such as conducting inter-caste marriages, fighting for rights of village common property or protesting against the illegal sale of liquor or sand.

“They have not been killed because of personal enmity,” said A Kathir, the founder and executive director of Evidence. “Each one of them was killed because they fought for a public cause.”

A senior official of the Adi Dravidar and Tribal Welfare Department of Tamil Nadu, which is responsible for the development and welfare of Dalits and Adivasis, said the report of 25 Dalit activists being murdered over the past year has not come to their attention. This is despite the fact that mainstream newspapers carried reports on Evidence’s findings.

“We receive daily reports from the Additional Director General of Police on the situation,” said the senior official, who did not wish to be identified. “Everything is under control.”

Activists targetted

The most recent case that Evidence looked into was that of 21-year-old Kathiresan, who had been fighting for Dalit rights in his village of Tirupanjali in Trichy district. On July 8, Kathiresan was attacked by group of men who tied him up and publicly beat him to death with an iron rod, according to the NGO’s press release.

Kathiresan had married Nandini, who was born into to a caste Hindu community. The accused were caste Hindus who claimed that Kathiresan had broken a plastic tap in one of their houses. However, while physically assaulting him, they reportedly yelled, “You lower caste dogs think you can form a party? By marrying girls from our community, do you think you will be equal to us?”

The assault was reportedly led by three men and five others later joined in. However, only the three men were arrested and charged with murder, wrongful confinement, criminal intimidation and uttering obscene words in a public place.

Executive Director of Evidence A Kathir visits Tirupanjali village. Credit: Evidence Madurai

Another case featured in the report is that of the murder of Dalit activist C Palanivel. He was killed last year allegedly because of his efforts to campaign against illicit liqour trade in the Periakotai in Dindigul district of Tamil Nadu.

On August 21, Palanivel was on his way to pick up his wife Kaleeswari from a nearby hospital where she worked as a nurse when he was attacked by a gang outside a local wine shop and hacked to death. The gang, headed by two men of the caste Hindu community, had been allegedly selling illegal liquor in the village.

P Rathinavel, Palanivel’s cousin, said several school-going boys and young men had been taking to alcohol and engaging in crimes in the area in recent years. So, Palanivel also began a social welfare organisation in the village to meaningfully engage the youth. Palanivel also visited the district officials and police several times over the past 10 years to complain about the illicit liqour trade in his village.

Of the five men who attacked him, only two were arrested, both belonging to the Dalit community. Ever since, Palanivel’s family has received threats and intimidation, causing them to leave their village and move to Dindigul town.

“Even here, I’m scared to leave my home and go out to get just a cup of tea,” said Rathinavel. “When I stepped out the other day, some gangs selling illicit liquor threatened me saying, ‘You think you can file cases against us being a Dalit? We’ll never leave your family in peace.’”

In 2015, Evidence had examined the chargesheets filed in cases pertaining to the murder of 100 Dalits. The accused had not been arrested in 51% of the cases, the organisation found.

Political pressure

D Ravikumar of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi, a Dalit political party, said the murders point to a breakdown of the police machinery, which has failed to check inter-caste violence. He said that the absence of a strong leadership in the state meant that provisions of Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, were also not being strictly enforced. “That is why atrocities on Dalits in increasing day by day,” he said.

Dalit scholar Stalin Rajangam said that ever since the community’s political mobilisation in the 1990s, the hostility of caste Hindus towards them has increased manifold. When Dalits began protesting against discrimination, demanding temple entry and their share of common village lands or water bodies, the caste Hindu communities resented their new-found voice, Ranjangam said. This led to violence and the killing of several local Dalit leaders.

In the past, he pointed out the government claimed these murders were linked to petty corruption cases and crimes committed by Dalits and were not incidents of caste-based violence. Dismissing such claims, he said: “With their entry into politics, Dalits may also have engaged in corruption or sale of illicit liquor on a smaller scale. But this was not the reason for the killings, it was the fact that they were resisting oppression.”

Even today, the community is being targetted for challenging discrimination, Rajangam said. “The ones who are being killed may or may not be in a political party. It may just be a regular educated person in the village too.”

Ranjagam said murders of Dalits are now treated as commonplace even by Dalit political parties. While parties dominated by caste Hindus allege that the murder was a result of personal enmity or a crime committed by the victim, Dalit parties organise a small protest, make a few speeches and hand money to the family.

“It has become a routine,” said Rajangam. “Dalit parties should take up this issue more forcefully and put more pressure to ensure protection against atrocities...Otherwise, it will always end the same way.”