It was a quiet morning in October in K Thottiyapati village in Tamil Nadu’s Virudhunagar district. The women herded goats in the fallow fields behind their homes. The men had left for work in the nearby mills. The only sign of discord in this otherwise tranquil picture was the sight of two policemen patrolling a stretch of road dividing the homes of 43 Arunthathiyar families, a Dalit community, and 250 families of the upper caste Thottinayakars.

But underneath this calm exterior simmered caste tensions that had erupted in violence a little over six months ago and actually went back six years.

“They could come and break our homes again any time,” said 35-year-old M Pappammal, pointing towards the Thottinayakar settlement. She was referring to an incident on March 30 when upper caste residents allegedly entered the Arunthathiyar colony, burnt down three homes and damaged others. They also assaulted Dalit villagers, 11 of whom had to be hospitalised for 10 days.

The attack was not an isolated case. The districts of Virudhunagar and Madurai report the highest number of attacks on Dalits in Tamil Nadu every year, according to A Kathir, executive director of Evidence, a human rights-focused non-governmental organisation.

While the attacks get media attention, the aftermath does not. Neither do the discriminatory practices in temples and public spaces that precede the violence.

Since the incident in March, suspicion and mistrust between the two communities has grown. With a furtive glance at the Thottinayakar homes, Pappammal said, “Just wait, they are going to send someone this way to spy on us.”

A fight over water

The violence was the fallout of a squabble over water. The Dalits claim their regular supply from the panchayat, which came from a water tank near the upper caste settlement, was cut off in February. So, they started drawing water from another tank near a burial ground used mainly by the Thottinayakars. When the upper caste group objected to the Dalits using a tank they claimed as theirs, panchayat officials worked out a compromise. The Dalits would be allowed to draw water from the tank between 2 pm and 4 pm every day while the Thottinayakars would get access for six hours a day, since they were a larger community.

On March 30, most of the Dalit residents did not turn up at the water tank at the designated time as they had gone to a neighbouring village for a birth ceremony. When they returned, they called up the panchayat officials to ask if they could still draw water. “They [panchayat officials] told us we could, so some of us went to the tank,” said Karappusamy, a resident.

But this led to an altercation with the upper caste villagers, who were drawing water at that time. It is unclear who started the fight. The Dalit villagers say some of the Thottinayakar men started beating them up. The police back the version presented by the Thottinayakars, that the Dalits were the instigators. However, no police officer was present when the fight broke out.

Soon after, the Thottinayakars allegedly barged into the Dalit colony, damaged property and assaulted residents. Over six months on, M Sumathi has not forgotten the terror she felt as she huddled in the corner of her home with her four children. “I have a teenaged daughter and I was worried what would happen to her,” she said. A gaping hole in her roof serves as a reminder of that day.

Members of the upper caste Thottinayakar community in Thottiyapati village.

The Thottinayakars deny the charges. They say some of them merely gathered near the Dalit colony as they were working in the fields nearby. “The Arunthathiyar people set fire to their own property to seek government compensation,” said KC Alagarsami, a Thottinayakar leader.

But a police officer from Sriviliputhur police station, who was the first to arrive at the spot, confirmed that the upper caste villagers had damaged Dalit homes and assaulted residents. The officer, however, added, “There were faults on both sides.”

The aftermath

After the incident, both communities filed cases against each other.

The Dalits accused 150 members of the Thottinayakar community of violence and harassment. But eventually, charges were filed against 33 people, including 17 women. They were booked under the Indian Penal Code for attempt to murder, assault on women, and mischief by fire with intent to destroy house among other charges, and under the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, for using the caste name in a public space and intentionally touching a woman of the Scheduled Caste.

The Thottinayakars, in turn, filed cases against five Dalit villagers under sections of the Indian Penal Code, including for rioting with a deadly weapon, uttering obscenities, voluntarily causing hurt using instruments, and criminal intimidation.

The cases are scheduled to come up for hearing at a court in Srivilliputhur, a town in Virudhunagar, in November.

The Virudhunagar district superintendent of police and the collector visited the village on the night of the incident and announced relief measures. “But it is only when the National Commission for Scheduled Castes visited the spot three days later that relief work picked up,” said Ponnusamy, a social worker in Srivilliputhur.

The Dalit residents received Rs 9.5 lakhs in compensation, according to the records of the tahsildar of Rajapalayam, another town in Virudhunagar. The injured were hospitalised and a new borewell was fixed for the community. “We have given them a lot of money and undertaken all repairs,” said the tahsildar.

The villagers said they could not enter their damaged homes for close to a month. For a few weeks, the community slept under a tree. And their children did not go to school for several days.

Six months on, some of the homes still showed signs of damage. The charred remains of the three huts remained.

In the Thottinayakar settlement, several men fled the village for a few months fearing arrest. “Some ran off to the hills nearby, some went to other villages and towns,” said Alagarsami, a resident. “We were also living in fear, but nobody reported about this.”

For the first few weeks, over 50 police officers were stationed in the village. “We had to ensure the situation did not escalate again,” said a sub-inspector at the Srivilliputhur police station.

Two peace meetings were also organised. But both communities said hostilities did not subside. Even now, they accuse members of the other side of passing derogatory comments whenever they cross paths.

The Arunthathiyar settlement in Thottiyapati village is home to 43 Dalit families.

History of tension

The caste tensions in Thottiyapatti go back six years. And each side has its own version of how it all began. The Dalits say it started with a cricket match between the communities. After the Arunthathiyar team won, the friendly game turned ugly. “They swore at us asking how we lower caste people could beat them,” said Dalit leader Pandiyan. In the altercation that followed, 13 members of the Thottinayakar community and 18 from the Arunthathiyar group were charged with inciting violence and criminal intimidation. A chargesheet was filed in 2015 and the case is pending in court. Social worker Ponnusamy said it had not yet reached the trial stage.

In the Thottinayakar version, a Dalit man photographed an unmarried couple of the upper caste community meeting in secret. He blackmailed the man and extorted Rs 5,000 from the couple twice. This led to the fight between the two sides on the day of the cricket match, and the excuse of the game was used to protect the young woman, claimed P Chinnaiah, a member of the upper caste community. The police backed this version.

Whatever its origin, that initial altercation forever changed caste equations in the village. For one, the system of a common village council underwent a change. “For every small problem, from a family quarrel to a water problem, we would go and fall at the feet of the elders of the other community,” said Dalit villager Karappusamy. “We slowly decided to solve our own problems.”

The Arunthathiyar men stopped working for the Thottinayakars and found employment in textile mills in nearby towns. The women, too, stopped working as farm labourers for upper caste employers. “We either go for NREGA work or we sit at home,” said Sumathi, referring to the Central government’s National Rural Employment Guarantee Act that promises 100 days of work in a year to all rural households.

Some of the younger community members started working with a Dalit party, the Adi Tamilar Katchi, and became vocal about their unwillingness to depend on the Thottinayakars economically or socially.

The growing economic independence and political activity of the Dalits affected the Thottinayakars, who own most of the land in the village. Over the years, this farming community suffered other setbacks as a result of inadequate monsoons, drought, falling production and the worst rainfall in 140 years of the state’s history last year.

Some wish to go back to the days the communities lived in harmony. “Before, when we were dependent on each other economically, we all lived well together,” said Chinnaiah, a Thottinayakar. “Now, outsiders are turning them against us, otherwise they would not behave with us in this manner.”

The Arunthathiyar community, however, prefers the current arrangement. They say they felt suffocated by the hostility they faced after the cricket match. “They began insisting that we not wear slippers near their area, that we not ride vehicles,” said Karamusamy.

The Dalits say their children were made to sit separately in school. This prompted an inquiry by the tahsildar, who concluded that apart from a stray incident, no caste discrimination was practised in schools.

The police, too, denied the existance of discriminatory practices in the village.

The fact that the Dalit villagers have filed cases against them has angered many in the upper caste community. “They feel that because they have all the government schemes in support of them, they can do anything,” said Alagarsamy. “They threaten us by saying they will book a case against us for insulting them.”

The charred remains of a house in Thottiyapati.

Slow recovery

Summing up the situation in Virudhunagar district, the tahsildar said, “Caste is the main problem in this district. People here will want to know your caste before they ask you your name.”

He said altercations such as the one in Thottiyapati took place frequently in the district, and the administration could do little to prevent them.

Social activist A Kathir said the reason for this was the lack of a deterrent. Under the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, the perpetrator of a crime has to pay a fine. But this never happens, said Kathir.

“Just compensating victims is not enough,” he added. “To prevent a crime from taking place again, fines should be imposed. If each of the accused were to pay Rs 5 lakhs, nobody will burn down houses again.”

Kathir also pointed out that the government is usually slow to respond to such incidents. Ideally, the collector and superintendent of police ought to visit the spot immediately and hand out relief material such as rice, pulses and money. The accused ought to be arrested immediately, witnesses identified, a damage list created. The officials should also check for incidents of harassment, and whether the education of children has been affected.

In the case of the violence in Thottiyapati on March 30, it took the police five months to file a chargesheet, despite their promise to prioritise the case. “We needed to do a thorough investigation, so it took time,” said one police officer.

Writer V Geetha said it is difficult to keep track of tensions between communities over a long term, and it is rarely done. But the damage they cause lasts a long time. “None of these very petty, humiliating customs go away,” she said. “At the end of it, the children are the most traumatised and their education is interrupted.”

According to Ponnusamy, it is the everyday problems that build up and result in violence. “The police and administration tend to ignore these small tensions,” he said. “But if attention is paid to small acts of discrimination, no houses would be burnt.”

All photographs courtesy Vinita Govindarajan