Early on January 1, a mob of upper caste Hindu villagers attacked a small Dalit colony in Ambalapattu village of Tamil Nadu’s Thanjavur district soon after its residents celebrated the onset of the New Year at midnight by playing music and cutting a cake. Six persons have been arrested for the attack.

Residents of the Dalit colony say that the trouble started soon after they held their celebration. According to the complaint filed with the police, a mob of at least 80 upper caste men from another settlement in the village arrived in the colony after an initial altercation between the two groups at about 12.30 am ended in a Dalit man being injured.

“Five people came and stood outside my house, demanding that my husband and I come outside,” said 38-year-old Ramu, recalling the events of the night, her voice trembling. “They were holding large knives in their hands. They would have definitely killed us.”

Ramu, her husband Panneerselvam, and their three children ran out from their back door and hid in a forested patch behind their home along with many other frightened villagers. “We waited for more than an hour before going back to our homes,” said Sevani, another villager. “I have lived in this village for 45 years and we have never seen such an incident.”

Trouble at midnight

The Dalit villagers live in Kudikadu settlement in the southern part of the large Ambalapattu village. This settlement consists of an upper caste section comprising at least 300 families of the Kalar community, and a smaller Dalit or Paraiyar settlement of around 60 families. The villagers in both sections are fairly well-off with at least one member of each household working in Singapore.

“This area is known as ‘Little Singapore,’ ” remarked Surendra Mohan, a Public Works Department engineer, who lives in the Dalit settlement. He said that members of most Dalit families in the colony were well educated, with many holding government posts.

As the clock struck midnight on December 31, the Dalit colony in Kudikadu erupted in cheers. Its residents had decorated the entrance of the colony with a festive arch of balloons. They celebrated the onset of the new year by boiling over milk (a Tamil tradition associated with the harvest festival of Pongal) and cutting a cake. A sound system had been organised for a dance programme that the colony’s children participated in. The young people of the colony organise this celebration every year after collecting funds from its residents.

(Photo Credit: Evidence Madurai).

At around 12.30 am, some Dalit villagers saw a group of young men belonging to the upper caste Kalar community standing near the entrance of their colony. These men were from a settlement about 3 km away, in the northern part of the village. The Dalit villagers claimed that the men damaged the celebratory arch. This led to an altercation between the two groups in which one young Dalit man was injured. The quarrel was quickly broken up.

An hour later, a mob comprising at least 80 men from the Kalar community from the northern settlement, armed with rods, knives and other weapons, arrived in Kudikadu and went on the rampage, damaging property. “Why do you lower caste dogs need to celebrate New Year?” they allegedly shouted. “Why do you need to wear shirts and pants?”

Some panic-stricken Dalit villagers, like Shanti, locked themselves in their houses as the mob allegedly broke the windows of their homes and smashed roofs. “We were crying out to them asking them to leave us alone,” said Shanti. When her husband, T Srirangan, a junior assistant at the local court, tried to reason with the mob, he was beaten.

Four Dalit men were admitted to hospital with injuries. Around 15 houses and 15 two-wheeler vehicles were damaged, said the residents of the colony. Even the speakers hired for the celebrations were vandalised.

Scroll.in was unable to contact members from the upper-caste Kalar community for their comments.

Speakers used for the new year programme were vandalised. (Photo Credit: Evidence, Madurai).

Six arrested

On Monday morning, the residents of the Dalit colony filed a complaint with the police and also protested against the attack, blocking traffic on the Thanjavur-Pattukkottai road for two hours. Following this, the police and district officials visited the village to assess the damage.

“Six persons from the Kalar community have been arrested,” said an officer at the Pappanadu police station, adding that there was only a little damage.

But the colony’s residents are still reeling from the shock of the attack. “We have not been able to eat for the past two days,” said Ramu. “We are so humiliated.”

Mohan said that the village had not seen such caste violence before. “Most of the people who attacked us were young men between the ages of 15 and 25,” he said. “This kind of caste tension is increasing especially in the new generation.”

But Dalit rights activist Kathir of Evidence, a Madurai-based non-governmental organisation, said that caste discrimination is deeply embedded in the societal structure of villages in this region, albeit in a latent form. “Thanjavur society was based on a feudal system of agricultural production,” he said. “Perhaps because many people have moved out of that feudal system, it may seem like there is no longer any discrimination. But it still exists.”

He added that the presence of many left-wing parties in the region might have also been the reason for fewer attacks recently. “But as such, Thanjavur has seen several horrible attacks on Dalits in the past few decades.”

Kathir said that such attacks usually take place either when Dalits speak up against violence or when Dalit communities prosper economically. “Because this colony has many members in good positions in the government, they have been attacked,” he said.