On March 23 at around 11.30 am, 13 men sat down to a meeting in a small room near the railway hospital in Madurai district of southern Tamil Nadu. They were retired government officers, businessmen, lawyers and bank officials. Most had travelled in from various across the state, including from the state capital of Chennai.

The 13 men did not necessarily share a political ideology but they did have one thing in common – they were all the Devendrakula Vellalar community and were at the meeting to discuss their voting strategy for the 2019 elections.

In the government’s records, they are part of the Pallan community (which is more commonly called Pallar), which is listed under the Scheduled Castes category in Tamil Nadu. The Pallan community has seven subcastes. A section of the community wants all seven sub-castes of the community to be recognised as Devendrakula Vellalars. But other members want the community to be moved out of the Scheduled Caste category altogether.

Many attribute this demand to the stigma associated with the term, and the community’s desire to be seen as peasants and not as manual scavengers who clean toilets and drains. This is considered a lowly job that has traditionally been done by members of the Arundhathiyar community, which is considered the lowest in the hierarchy of Scheduled Castes.

The Bharatiya Janata Party, which is in alliance with the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in the state, recently promised to fulfil this demand. It said it would include the community in the Most Backward Classes category instead. But this has made some Devendrakula Vellalar community leaders uncomfortable. They view the BJP as a communal party that wants to exploit their demand for sectarian ends.

With elections to the Lok Sabha and 18 Assembly constituencies scheduled for April 18 in Tamil Nadu, the divide within the Devendrakula Vellalar community is politically significant.

The community has a key presence in 28 of Tamil Nadu’s 33 districts, with the vast majority of members living in the southern districts.

According to the 2011 Census, Scheduled Castes comprise 20% of Tamil Nadu’s population. Pallans constitute 17.07% of the Scheduled Caste population, but this figure goes up to 76% in rural areas.

“This is an emerging dominant caste,” said K Raghupathy, assistant professor of History, Thiru Govindasamy Government Arts College in Tindivanam, who has written a thesis on the history of the political movement in the community.

Given their internal divisions over the question of identity, which way is this community likely to vote?

Members of the Devendrakula Community Protection Federation at a meeting in Madurai, Tamil Nadu, on March 23.

The case of Tenkasi

This question is the sharpest in Tenkasi constituency in Tirunelveli district, where K Krishnasamy, 62, founder and leader of the Puthiya Thamizhagam Katchi, a political party that claims to represent the Devendrakula Vellalar community, is contesting under the two-leaves symbol of the AIADMK.

The 13 men had gathered in Madurai on March 23 to discuss his candidature. The meeting was held under the aegis of the Devendrakula Community Protection Federation, a coalition of three organisations.

After an hour-long discussion, the group decided to campaign against Krishnasamy.

“He is a corrupt and a self-centered man,” said M Oorkavalan, 72, coordinator of the coalition. “He is misguiding the people by focusing on the demand for a separate identity of Devendrakula Vellalar.”

A first-generation graduate from a village in Virudhunagar district, Oorkavalan claimed Krishnasamy was ignoring the core issues of economic and social backwardness that afflicted the community. “Only 2% of the community members have economically moved up, while the rest 98% are still economically and socially backward in rural areas,” he said.

While the group supports the demand for the Pallan community to be officially renamed Devendrakula Vellalar, it opposes the demand that the community be moved out of the Scheduled Caste category.

The rise of Krishnasamy

The demand for a separate identity for the Devendrakula Vellalar community gained momentum after 1993 when the Devendrakula Vellalar Federation, a coalition of four organisations representing the community, was formed. Krishnasamy was part of it along with popular community leaders John Pandian and Pasuapathi Pandian.

A physician by profession, it is said that Krishnasamy was an accidental leader. He joined the Dalit Panthers in 1982 but quit the social organisation after two years. He was then associated with the DMK for about nine years between 1984 and 1993, when he joined the Devendrakula Vellalar Federation.

He shot to the limelight in 1995 after caste-related violence in Kodiyankulam in July and August that year, which was followed by a brutal attack on the community by a 600-strong police force on August 31.

The clashes between Pallars and Thevars, the dominant caste in the region, were triggered by an altercation between a bus driver, who belonged to the Pallar community, and a student of the Thevar community at a village in Tirunelveli district. After the disfigurement of a statute of U Muthuramalinga Thevar, a leader revered by Thevars, the violence spread to the adjoining Thoothukudi district. More than 20 people were killed in the overall violence.

Following the violence, Krishnasamy led a campaign against the J Jayalalithaa-led AIADMK government. He also filed a writ petition in the Madras High Court demanding an independent enquiry into the case and adequate compensation for those affected.

In Assembly elections held the next year, Krishnasamy won Ottapidaram constituency in Thoothukudi district after contesting as an independent.

“At this point, Krishnasamy emerged as a sole leader for this community,” said John Pandian, who founded in 2000 the Thamizhaga Makkal Muneetra Kazhagam, another political party representing the Devendrakula Vellalar community. John Pandian’s activism in the southern districts since 1987 has helped him build a strong support base in the region.

In the 2001 Assembly elections, Krishnasamy’s party formed an alliance with the DMK and contested 10 seats, but lost in all.

But he is a sought after political player for the state’s major parties because of his performance in the Lok Sabha elections.

Krishnasamy has contested from Tenkasi parliamentary constituency five consecutive times – four times on his party symbol and once as part of the Janata Dal (United). Though he was unsuccessful in all attempts, he garnered more than one lakh votes each time. In the 2014 elections, he got close to 2.63 lakh votes.

The AIADMK has allied with him in the hope that he can swing votes of his community in its favour. But Krishnasamy’s base is eroding.

John Pandian, founder of Thamizhaga Makkal Muneetra Kazhagam.

Dissensions within party

Krishnasamy is known to have an autocratic style of functioning, which has alienated many party workers.

“He favoured his family members over his cadres who have risked their lives for the party,” said a former district secretary of the Puthiya Thamizhagam Katchi, who joined the DMK in March after working 25 years full-time with Krishnasamy’s party. “Cadres would be left to fend for themselves if they were imprisoned for participating in a protest.”

Krishnasamy upset party workers further when he elevated his son as the president of the Puthiya Thamizhagam Katchi’s youth wing in February.

“Krishnasamy has never shown interest in grooming the second-rung leadership who are committed to the cause of the community,” said the former district secretary. “He has acquired enough wealth for his family in the name of the community and done nothing for the upliftment of Devendrakula Vellalars.”

S Akhilan, who contested from Namakkal Assembly constituency as the Puthiya Thamizhagam candidate in 2001, was also critical of Krishnasamy. “There is no party structure at all in his party,” said Akhilan.

Those close to Krishnasamy said it was natural for any leader to trust his own kin. “We are fighting a war,” said Kopma Karuppusamy, leader of the Pandiar Periyyakkam, an affiliate of Puthiya Thamizhagam. “Only family members can be trusted with the important posts. The leader has to be autocratic, if he wants to realise his ideals.”

But the faith members of the community have in Krishnasamy is wearing thin.

“We have always waited for him to guide us in making our choice during the elections,” said Arul*, a resident of Chinnaudaippu village in Madurai. “He has never been keen on meeting us. How will people trust him if he does not visit and talk to us?”

A new alliance

Some believe Krishnasamy is trying to revive his political career by ingratiating himself with the BJP.

In January, when the Union government introduced 10% reservation for the economically weaker sections in the general category, several Dalit leaders in Tamil Nadu criticised the government.

Krishnasamy, however, welcomed the decision, which some say helped him get the nomination for the Tenkasi seat from the AIADMK.

Former Krishnasamy associate John Pandian said he will support the AIADMK-BJP alliance in the state. “We will extend our support to the BJP because they have promised to recognise our identity,” said Pandian. “The DMK has never heard our demands.”

He, however, disagreed with Krishnasamy’s demand for the inclusion of Devendrakula Vellalars into the Most Backward Classes category. “I have ideological differences with Krishnasamy,” said John Pandian. “I do not agree with his demand for a status in Most Backward Community. We want a separate identity recognising us as peasants.”

K Senthilmallar, founder of Mallar Meetpu Kazham, an organisation representing Devendrakula Vellalars.

Communal politics

Krishnasamy is viewed with suspicion by another section of the Devendrakula Vellalars, who believe he does not belong to the community.

S Sivajayaprakash, a resident of Tirunelveli, has filed a petition before the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court challenging Krishnasamy’s caste identity. “He is a Telugu-speaking Arundhathiyar,” alleged Sivajayaprakash.

Similar concerns were expressed by K Senthilmallar, founder of Mallar Meetpu Kazham, an organisation representing Devendrakula Vellalars, which claims to have a presence in 15 districts. “He is not our leader and does not represent our interests,” said Senthilmallar. “In the last two decades, he has not fulfilled any of the promises he has made to this community. We are not going to support this fraud.”

Raghupathy was concerned that Krishnasamy has allied with groups that are historically responsible for driving a wedge between Thevars and Devendrakula Vellalars in the state. “History has shown that the RSS and Hindu Munnani were behind the caste riots between the Thevars and Pallars [Devendrakula Vellalars] in southern Tamil Nadu,” said Raghupathy.

The RSS is the ideological parent of the BJP and the Hindu Munnani is a religious and cultural organisation based in Tamil Nadu that was formed to defend Hinduism.

Raghupathy has elaborated on his argument in a paper titled Hindutva in Violence Against Dalits published in 2009 in Puthu Visai, a quarterly Tamil literary journal.

The paper documents the role of the RSS and Hindu Munnani in caste violence in southern Tamil Nadu since the 1940s, in which the Pallar (Devendrakula Vellalar) community was targeted.

“The oppression against Devendrakula Vellalars in southern Tamil Nadu has been completely orchestrated by the Hindu groups,” said Raghupathy. “It is unfortunate that Puthiya Thamizhagam is now allying with the same forces that oppressed them.”

Scroll.in made several calls to Krishnasamy and his son Shyam Krishnasamy and sent them messages requesting an interview. They did not respond.

Backlash from Thevars

The AIADMK’s alliance with Krishnasamy could have another fallout – some members of the Thevar community, which traditionally supports the party, are not pleased with it.

“No one seems to be happy with the AIADMK’s alliance with Krishnasamy,” said Ravi Kumar*, who belongs to the Thevar community in Tenkasi. “Thevars have expressed their dissatisfaction by refusing to campaign along with Krishnasamy. Even the party district secretary of AIADMK is not joining him in the election campaign. This is likely to give the DMK an upper hand.”

A farmer in Tenkasi had a different opinion. “For me, it is always the two-leaves symbol [AIADMK] that matter irrespective of the candidate,” said A Selvam.

At the March 23 Devendrakula Community Protection Federation meeting in Madurai, though all 13 men agreed to campaign against Krishnasamy, they could not decide whether to support the DMK instead. This decision was left to the individual member organisations.

In the absence of another strong community leader in Tamil Nadu, the votes of Devendrakula Vellalars are therefore likely to be split between the DMK and AIADMK.

C Thangam, 40, who works as a farm labourer in the remote village of Chinnaudaippu in Madurai, is a member of the Devendrakula Vellalar community who is disillusioned by Krishnasamy. “Everyone is saying vote for Modi,” said Thangam. “But what has he done for us? People are ready to vote for the person whom Krishnasamy points out but he should first visit us, isn’t it?”

Kannan P, 30 a member of the Devendrakula Vellalar community who works as a driver, called for unity among community leaders, saying it was necessary if they wanted their demand for a separate identity to be realised. “One MP from this community is not going to help in establishing our identity as Devendrakula Vellalars,” he said.

All photographs by S Senthalir.

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