Reporting 2017

The backstory: Crossing an invisible barrier to report on caste violence in Tamil Nadu

‘They will tell you the wrong version of the story, you should not write that.’

In October, I travelled to a village in Virudhunagar district, six months after members of the upper caste Thottinayakar community had allegedly attacked a Dalit hamlet and set homes there on fire.

The local media had covered the incident for a week or two after the attack. But months later, local activists reported that the Dalit villagers still feared for their safety. I was in the village, K Thottiyapatti, to try to understand events that had followed the attack.

Like most other villages in Tamil Nadu, K Thottiyapatti was divided into two settlements. The larger one had the homes of around 250 land-owning Thottinayakar families. The Dalit section had around 40 families. The settlement still bore traces of the attack: the charred remains of huts, and the presence of two policemen. The tension was visible in the behaviour of the Dalit villagers. As they recalled the violence, they constantly peered over their shoulders towards the Thottinayakar settlement, claiming that they were being spied on.

I had come to K Thottiyapatti after someone had made me an introduction to a person in the Dalit section. But for my report, I also had to speak to members of the Thottinayakar community to understand their version of events. When I explained this, some Dalit villagers first were suspicious. A few of them voiced objections: “They will tell you the wrong version of the story, you should not write that.” But the village leader explained to them that as a journalist, I had to represent all sides of the story. After some discussion, they requested a constable on patrol to accompany me to the other side. Naturally, none of them would venture that way.

It was hardly a distance of 100 metres but invisible barriers stood firm, strengthened by years of mistrust. I could feel the gaze of the Dalit villagers behind me. Across the way, some onlookers from the Thottinayakar community were already gathering outside their homes.

Meanwhile, the constables had already called up the local police station and a couple of inspectors arrived on their motorbikes. They were curious to learn about the presence of a reporter and gave me their version of the events, pinning the blame for violence on both communities.

The constable introduced me to the Thottinayakar leader. “She has come to report on the problem here,” he said. “You can speak to her if you want to. If you don’t want to, that’s also okay.” He turned to me and asked, “Isn’t that right?” I nodded.

Seeing both sides

As it turned out, the Thottinayakars were eager to narrate their story. “Those people must have lied to you,” one man said. “Please take note of what happened.” Just like the Dalit villagers, they too offered a cup of tea and insisted I sit on a chair instead of on the ground. They posed for photographs, agreed to send me more information on WhatsApp and watched me head back to the Dalit settlement.

The Thottinayakars and Dalit villagers had filed several criminal cases against each other over a period of six years, for which they had to make trips to the district court almost every month. They also had to spend a large sum of money on transport and lawyers, adding to ever-growing debt burdens. But despite this, they understood that it was my job to capture all sides of the story. Both communities were able to look beyond their bitter relationship, and cooperate with me.

The villagers of K Thottiyapatti treated my presence as an opportunity to present what they believe was an accurate version of the events. This empathy with my responsibilities as a journalist was refreshingly different from the mistrust that my colleagues and I often encounter, both in real life and on social media, where our attempt to be fair is crudely criticised by people who don’t agree with our reportage –
and who dismiss it as biased or motivated. It was the simple trust of the villagers of K Thottiyapatti that allowed me to traverse the barriers that they would not cross themselves.

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