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Tamil dalit literature

Punita Pantiyan

Dalit Politics: My Own Experience

Punita Pantiyan

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1North Arcot—of the districts in which Dalits live in great density, this one is particularly notable. It stands out as an area in which both Dravidian Movement propagandists and Christian missionaries operated extensively. And because of that, the Dalits here have gained some measure of representation in education and in employment opportunities. In the North Arcot town of Ambur where I was born, there are a great many leather processing plants. Here still today Dalits and Muslims get along harmoniously. Yet even in this milieu, the main village and the cheri stand separated. Nonetheless, North Arcot is a district in which you really can say that the worst of the cruelties perpetrated upon Dalits do not occur. The chariot from the Mariamman temple in our cheri makes its way in procession through the main village. It’s just that the god of those upper-caste people from the town won’t come into the streets of the cheri.

2You get your first-grade through third-grade education in a school right there in the cheri. Since my father was headmaster at that school, I got extra respect. I used that to be able to sit next to the schoolroom door, always. It was a lot if I’d stay more than half a day on any given day. Most days, after two hours, I just got up and left. Two years went by, at first in the headmaster’s office, and later at home. I remember sitting through the whole time in third grade, though. I just felt very shy in first grade, but in second grade it was that “mental arithmetic” terrified me.

  • 1 This is somewhat like “affirmative action” but applicable in many more situations. For exa (...)
  • 2 Mudaliyar is a caste name. It is quite high-caste, often associated with landowning.

3Until about ten years ago there was an evil-smelling outdoor public latrine very close to the school. Then because of a government plan that every home in the cheri must build its own bathroom, the public latrine was eventually removed. People who have lost interest in the reservation system,1 or who wonder why it is still in place, if they just looked with an open mind at how these Dalit students study and take their examinations in settings like this, would be able to see the utter necessity for it. Besides the lack of teachers in government schools and sufficiently convenient sites for schools, you simply cannot describe the kinds of locations they are in, and the plights of the children’s households. Because my father was transferred to a school right in the middle of town, I had the opportunity to live there for a few years, from third through seventh grades. The first person who came forward to rent us a house was Satthaar Baayum, then later it was Ismail Baayum. The whole time we lived in this one Muslim man’s house with other tenants as one big family, and later while we rented our own separate house from another Muslim, no kind of discrimination ever arose. It was only when the landlord’s family came back to live in their own house (he had suffered a business loss), that it so happened that we went to live in a Mudaliyar2 house.

4That’s when I met the intricate handling of the codes of orthodoxy that caste Hindus observe. They knew we came from the cheri, but because father was a headmaster, and mother was a Christian, and because we were prepared to pay extra for rent—those must be the reasons we were able to rent the house. The 60- year old woman who owned the house kept herself shut up in a separate room. Her daughter would come to stay there from time to time, with the seven grandsons and granddaughters. The grandmother and her daughter were extremely careful whenever they interacted with us. The children naturally came to feel that there was some sort of difference in interacting with us, in giving things and in receiving things. This kind of difference was utterly absent in the Muslim houses where we had been living before that. In eating together, in cooking and serving one another, there was a kind of ‘intimacy’ that ran through it all.

5Even before I was born, my father had terrible asthma attacks, and that malady stayed with him until he died. Though it eased up a little in his later years, during my school days he met with severe difficulty through that disease. For two days at a time he could not sleep, and he would be continuously gasping for breath. My mother, my older brother, my older sister, and I took turns fanning him and getting the earthen cup for him that he filled with his incessant phlegm, and then cleaning it, and leading him by the hand to the bathroom. Those are experiences that I will never forget. When he was having his worst attacks of gasping for breath, we would get to hear stories denying god, notes on the Dravidian Movement, and some of the events that happened in the lives of Periyar, Ambedkar, Annadurai, and people like that. Right through his disease, his smile would warm the hearts of everyone sitting near him.

  • 3 “Chit Funds” are small-scale savings and loan enterprises.
  • 4 There are many such establishments, run out of people’s homes.

6He lost a lot of money on medications to cure his asthma, (he was the only wage-earner), and he lost a great deal more through a “Chit Funds” business3 that he tried to run for a few years, but even so our financial woes did not constitute a real crisis. At the time, my older brother was finishing up his Pre-University Course; for higher education he had to go to Chennai. My older sister and I had to go to school. We had to have something to say to the people with their ‘chits.’ The rent had to be paid. At this point we decided to operate a small restaurant out of our home. Hoping to deliver meals to bank workers, government workers, and officers in the nearby leather factories, we started up our little unlicensed, unnamed “mess.”4 For two years our family members worked hard to make a go of it, but we were to meet with even worse disaster.

7People who were bringing home monthly salaries in the thousands of rupees cheated us out of the money for their food. We served lunch and supper. At that time the ‘Hindu High School’ where I went had a half-day morning session for the Plus-one and Plus-two students and a half-day evening session for the high school students. When I got up in the morning I would go to the market and buy the vegetables for the noon meal and bring them back home. Then I would go around and check with the bank workers and other office workers and figure up how many ‘carrier meals’ we’d need. Mother would begin cooking about eight in the morning, and by noon it would be ready. I’d pack it into the carriers and strap them on an old rattletrap bicycle, three on this side, three on that side, and one or two behind. Then I would have to thread that loaded bicycle through the bazaar and the other market streets.

8If you want to know what the worst part of all this was, it was that in order to keep from being loaded down with the ‘carrier meals’ title in the eyes of my fellow students, I snuck around through the tiniest of lanes and pedaled as fast as I could. Even so, a couple of them did see me. I pretended I had not noticed them, and I kept going: “I’ll escape!” It took me months to digest the bitterness of that episode. At least this made my heart pulse with the determination to study hard and become someone really important. (Even so, that didn’t work.) Many were the days I ached, wondering if I would ever make my way out of all this.

9Then, at 1: 30 I had to go to school. As soon as school let out at 5: 30, I had to go around and collect all the empty ‘tiffin carriers.’ It would be 6: 30 by the time I got home. Since it was getting dark about then, I could come home a little more slowly, a little less tensed up. Supper would be ready about 7: 30. Me, my older brother, and my father would serve supper. As long as I was inside the house I didn’t mind serving the food and taking up the dirty leaf-plates, since I was confident that nobody I knew would see me. It does not bother me in the least that I had to work so hard at that age. It’s just that why people look down on this human work is a question that incessantly bedeviled me. It took years to get my answer. Even though we can always say, “Who cares if our fellow students, even our friends, look down on the work that we do? There’s nothing wrong with this job,” and get a little mental relief, it took a very long time to have the courage to really accept that.

  • 5 B-Casbah is the name of this particular cheri. See Yalan Ati’s essay, page 140 in this vol (...)

10In the end we couldn’t pay the rent so we closed up the restaurant; we had no answer for the creditors and there was nothing else for it but to return to the cheri, to live once again in our ancestral home. We now had available the amount we had been paying for rent. But what would my friends think—I had been coming to school for such a long time from a street in the main part of town, and now I would suddenly be coming from the cheri. Once again those same harsh feelings preyed on me. From the eighth grade through the twelfth I could not shake off this feeling. “You come from B-Casbah,5 do you?” When a teacher, or one of the students, or anyone else asked me that it was their body language, their sneering tone, and their caste-based haughtiness that did it: that’s when I understood the heights of untouchability. That simple question was plenty, for those caste Hindus. If my answer was, “Yes, that’s where I come from,” they would have a separate way to look at me from then on.

  • 6 Yalan Ati, Bama, and other Dalit teachers have explained that there is no administrative r (...)

11Though no actual atrocities occurred, in a caste-based society this kind of ‘untouchability look, ’ mixed with mockery, directed over and over again at Dalits, goes a long way toward setting up a demeaning mental attitude. True, we were all made to sit together in the schoolroom, but as soon as the teacher said, “All those on scholarship, please raise your hands,”6 the very enthusiasm those caste Hindu students showed in seeing who raised a hand seems to me to equal many serious atrocities. And outside school, in public places, or when you travel on buses or trains, the pain that meeting up with this kind of interrogation inflicts is something that only people who have experienced it can understand.

12To weed out and destroy all those cruelties, to engender a change in our way of thinking, to raise our consciousness, to foster a feeling among Dalits that we are at war, undeniably books by Ambedkar and Periyar, and magazines and workshops that encourage thoughts of demolishing caste are very, very necessary. In particular to rescue school age Dalits from the bonds of slavery, what is desperately needed is teachers and professors who have Dalit feelings at heart.

13It is worth pointing out that it was my college life that got rid of my own feelings of inferiority.

14That was the period during which a massive amount of literature was published by the Tamil Tigers. In 1987 the Indian Army began to cover the land and the people of Eelam with the blanket of its “peacekeeping force.” In order to tell the outside world about their feeling of liberation, and about the victories they had achieved, Tamil Tiger officials decided to publish news briefs, pamphlets, and books, along with magazines like Tamil Eelam and Liberation Tigers, and, in English, the book You too, India? which describes atrocities of the Indian Army.

15During my college years, thanks to Professor Ay. Ilangovan, I gave my complete attention to this kind of publications. I began to collect them all. I read every one, not missing a single letter, and I shared them with others. These Tamil Tiger publications and newspapers, the way they were constructed, their writing style—it all appealed to me immensely. I lost interest in my studies. Occasionally I would still sit at home and study, determined to “become someone really important,” but my attention to my education really began to crumble.

  • 7 A satirical political fortnightly magazine with Hindu fundamentalist leanings.

16Professor Ilangovan figured out the answer to all this confusion. “Instead of studying hard to become someone really important, you could become an honest journalist. That way you could really be of service to society,” he kept on telling me. The ‘journalist’ dream caught hold of me. Then what should come to my attention but Junior Vikatan’s student journalist program. At that point this weekly magazine ran a cover story about the Tamil Tigers and other Eelam news twice a month. I collected them all and began binding them into volumes. It took many years for me to realize that the magazine was running this program merely as a marketing strategy. In fact, it took even longer than it took for me to finally see through the “objective perspective” charade of the magazine Thuglak.7

17It was my opinion that, as far as Tamil Nadu was concerned, only Periyar’s Dravidian Movement was able clearly and accurately to understand caste, Brahmins, and Brahminism. Periyar’s hammer was that powerful. As far as the Tamil context was concerned, once you begin reading Periyar, Ambedkar’s life and works naturally sidle up close to you as well. This was my experience: While I was doing my Plus 2, I read Ambedkar’s The Annihilation of Caste. I could see that the central themes of that work agreed with what I found while reading Periyar’s books. Later, I came to know that these two great revolutionaries agreed in about 90 percent of their thinking. And still later I saw the two of them standing together in a photograph. Their meeting drew me to the conclusion that they were the ‘North Indian Periyar and the South Indian Ambedkar.’

  • 8 A well-known environmentalist, human rights activist in Tamil Nadu. Many political leaders (...)

18While I was debating about the Tamil Eelam freedom struggle, I was able to learn about ethnic struggles that have taken place in many different countries. And so my outlook on human rights, on nationalism, on liberation, and on struggle widened. After I began reading Dr. Ambedkar’s and Periyar’s books I also gained some understanding about the eradication of caste, social justice, rationalism, human affection, social change, and feminism. During the past 15 years in Tamil Nadu, with no control by any particular person and without the useless tangles of ‘intellectual politics, ’ a great many young people have quietly formed ‘Friends of the Earth’ (Pūvulakiṉ Naṇparkaι) groups in activities for the Tamil language, for ecology and human rights, and for a changed society. These groups had human rights as their signature movement, and I joined with them. It was through them that I came to appreciate the wide horizons of ecology and world history. Illusions of the separateness of people began to break down. Comrade Nedunchezhiyan8 (1958- 2006) pointed one thing out very clearly: “All these experiences and these things you’ve read, you do not need to take them to Eelam in order to struggle. They are taking care of that. Think, and try to use what you have read to find a solution for people’s problems right here. We stand by you,” he said. That is when the full dimensions of the slogan ‘Think Globally, Act Locally’ became clear.

19I had opportunities to prepare Amnesty International’s Tamil newsletter, to translate news briefs from Friends of the Earth, and some other books, to send some translations to the magazines Freedom and Truth, and to write essays for Dalit Voice. Then, with those experiences behind me, I was able to become, in 1993, the managing editor of the journal Manitha Urimai Murasu [Human Rights Drum]. In the Indian context speaking out for human rights meant, basically, that you were able to speak about the problems of Dalits and people who have been refused opportunities, who have been repressed. And that is exactly what Manitha Urimai Murasu did. It was published by the Dalit Liberation Education Trust. The editor of that journal, Mr. Henry Thiagaraj, was someone who had had the experience of working at the United Nations. That meant that it was possible for him to speak the truth about Dalit problems at a United Nations conference. At that time the Rt. Rev. M. Azariah also, at the World Council of Churches in Geneva, spoke out about the difficulties of Dalits and brought them to an international level. Continuously preaching that “Dalit rights are human rights,” their two philosophies supported each other.

20Building on all this reading, Dalit Murasu [Dalit Drum] was begun. The main reason this magazine was begun was the man who still shines as the founder of Tamil Nadu’s “Dalit Army,” Mr. P. Chandrakesan. It happened that the former general secretary of the Working People’s Party (Pāṭṭāιi Makkaι Kaṭci), ‘Dalit’ Ezhilmalai, put his whole effort into crippling the magazine Dalit Voice, and he succeeded. I had planned to bring Dalit Voice forward, and I was completely worn out and demoralized. But Mr. Chandrakesan kept up my faith, and five years later it was possible to bring out Dalit Murasu.

21When I look back on my ten years of reading and experiences in this area, it seems that most of the magazines that were being published for Dalits just printed Dr. Ambedkar’s picture and beat his drumroll, “Educate! Organize! Agitate!” That great man’s actual ideas where not talked about very much. (A few magazines, like Ezhucci [Awakening] and Aravurai [Moral Instruction] were exceptions to the rule).

22I was determined that Dalit Murasu should bring Ambedkar’s real ideas to the forefront, and that it could show us how to use his guidance in approaching contemporary problems. And so the Ambedkar Speaks page was established. Likewise the Periyar Speaks page also took form, because, as far as Tamil Nadu is concerned in terms of problems of social justice, activism for social change, and thoughts on the annihilation of caste, Periyar’s great movement and his revolutionary thought needed to take their place beside Ambedkar’s. Dalit journals that feature Buddha, who was not a Dalit, or Jyothi Rao Phule, or Sahu Maharaja forget about Periyar and never mention him. In the same way, Dravidian Movement publications have never really tried to understand fully about Ambedkar. But two wrongs can’t make a right, can they?

  • 9 This was before Punita Pantiyan himself took on that official role.

23Nonetheless there was criticism right fom the start about giving space in Dalit Murasu for a Periyar Speaks page. Other than raising questions as to why Periyar, a non-Dalit, would find a place in a Dalit magazine, nobody to this day has enumerated any actual reasons why he should not be there. Rather, additional questions were raised as to why there were no adjectives for Ambedkar’s name on the Ambedkar Speaks page—like “Dr.” Ambedkar or “Babasaheb” Ambedkar—even though the reasons for leaving it as it was had been clearly spelled out. Eventually, under pressure from many different groups and individuals, one day the editor of Dalit Murasu,9 called me into his office. “Please put ‘Annal’ or ‘Babasaheb’ in front of Ambedkar’s name. Don’t answer me, just do it,” he said extremely severely.

24This is the question that confronted me then: A Dalit magazine ought to be able to handle Ambedkar’s principles. Why, then, do people who are not all that keen about spreading his actual ideas and principles throughout the eight directions, suddenly get worked up over this name issue? As far as I know, this kind of critic has to this day never seen fit to lay down such a demand to any of the other Dalit magazines. The directors of the Dalit movement, the directors of groups that are formed in Ambedkar’s name—to them even if their movement’s stance and beliefs were diametrically opposed to Ambedkar, it would not seem like a big deal, as long as his name and title were intact. But to them, Periyar’s movement seems stuck in a rut. “Periyar is useless to us,” is the flag they are waving these days.

25Furthermore, Periyar incessantly castigated both Brahmins and Brahmanism, but isn’t it strange that among Dalits that has become a reason to stir up hatred of him! Dalits sometimes approach Periyar with a kind of ‘pseudo-common-sense, ’ developed by Brahmins in some magazines, saying that Periyar, who tolerated the non-Dalit “Backward” Castes that have directly attacked Dalits, reserves all his criticism for Brahmins, who have not taken up attacks on us. Actually Ambedkar’s railing against Brahmins is every bit as strong as Periyar’s. But, conveniently forgetting that fact, the explanation given is that Ambedkar criticized Brahmanism but not Brahmins.

26Dalits need Ambedkar, and they need Periyar, because both of these revolutionaries had the fortitude to deal with social change and the annihilation of caste. We just have to dismiss these kinds of cirticisms. To be clear about this, I see no way other than reading Ambedkar and Periyar. Once we begin reading books by both of them, these people who are smearing them will be out of work!

27‘Dalit intelletuals’ continuously proclaimed that Dalit Murasu was really a ‘non- Dalit Murasu, ’ but the bookshops and the society at large still see Dalit Murasu as a magazine for Dalits. “You could sell Dalit Murasu through one of the leading distributors in Chennai; they will certainly sell it,” Suba. Veerapandiyan told me three years ago. But two days after he said that, he called me up on the phone and said, “I am really sorry and upset, Pantiyan. That agent, who has sold the magazine Nandan all over the place, says that Dalit Murasu is a caste magazine, and he won’t sell it.” A few months later another agent (he introduced himself to me as a Nadar by caste) promised me, “I will get Dalit Murasu sold. But first give me one or two issues. I will read them, and as long as they do not incite violence, I will sell them.” The very next day he came to our office and said, “Sir, this is a very good magazine. It’s nothing like I had feared it might be. Give me a thousand copies to sell in Chennai alone.” He kept that up for another three months. Then one day he told me, “I am sorry, but the shops where I distribute these magazines are refusing to put them up on display. They ask why we should distribute a caste magazine, and they return over half of them.”

28It may strike many of you as surprising that even today Dalit Murasu meets up with this kind of untouchability cruelty in the sales arena. But ‘The City of Chennai’s Untouchability’ found other ways to touch Dalit Murasu indeed. From 1997 to 1998 the magazine operated without an office, but beginning in 1999 Dalit Murasu had an office in Chennai—in K. K. Nagar, to be precise. It took a very long time to find that office. The reason was that Dalit Murasu has ‘Dalit’ in its name. Some people are satisfied that untouchability is not practiced in big cities like Chennai, but how would they reply to that? It’s worth noting that, in the end, we got the use of the house of a Dalit man.

29Early in 2003, because of opposition from the Tamil Nadu Housing Board we had to go looking for another office. We found three rooms for an office in an apartment building in the Kodambakkam section of town, and put down a deposit. A week later we moved half of the things from the old office and put them inside the new one. At four o’clock that afternoon we brought the rest of the things, but the owner had put a big padlock on the door. The office workers, standing there in the street with the things, could not figure out what was going on.

30The owner came out. “I was out of town. Without my knowledge, my wife rented you this house. She said it was for some magazine or other. But just a little while ago I found out that it is a Dalit magazine. I will not rent my house to any kind of a Dalit magazine like this. Here is your deposit,” he said, and returned it. No matter how we struggled, he would not change his position. After four hours of struggling, he gave us permission just to store our things there for one week. Dalit Murasu was more or less standing in the middle of the street.

31The search for an office began again. Wherever we went, as soon as they heard the name Dalit Murasu, their shock knew no bounds. We looked at something like 50 houses. Finally through the great efforts of someone who was deeply interested in Dalit Murasu’s growth, we got an apartment a few floors above our current office. It couldn’t have taken six months before we were informed in no uncertain terms that they could not rent to us any more. And no reason was given. So the search for an office began again. In the end, we are now temporarily operating out of an apartment on an 11-month lease. And even this lease might not be renewed!

32This is how Dalit Murasu is published now, meeting up in many ways with the modern version of the curse of caste untouchability. Although supporting voices occasionally told us, “In the history of Dalit journalism, this is a good effort. Keep publishing this magazine,” it is both surprising and upsetting that its circulation has not crossed the ten thousand mark. We have not missed a single issue in seven years of publication, but subscribers don’t renew year after year. A person who says, “This is good quality stuff,” does not get anyone else to subscribe. Why? This is the big question that confronts us.

33Further, the fact that Dalit movements and groups have not encourged Dalit Murasu is a serious shortcoming. For exmple, some members of some movements have chided us for not putting the pictures of Dalit leaders on the covers of Dalit Murasu. Rather, it is just photos of working Dalit people that adorn the overs of Dalit Murasu, but how can that be wrong? Or, it is sometimes said that Dalit leaders are criticized in our issues, or that the stances of movement leaders are separated from the stances of Dalit Murasu by a wide gulf. But what would really be wrong would be to go along without giving any healthy criticisms to Dalit movements and their leaders. We worry more that our movement could stagnate than that people might criticize it in our magazine: while that may seem bitter today, it will be sweet in the future.

  • 10 Paṟaiyar, Paιιar, and Aruntatiyar, are the largest of today’s so-called Dalit castes in Ta (...)

34And finally, when people cannot level any other accusation, they try to stamp us by labelling Dalit Murasu, which works for the annihilation of caste, with the stamp of a particular caste. The cover of the magazine Mallar Malar once painted Dalit Murasu as ‘Paraiyar’ Murasu. And that very week, Professor Pannirselvam distributed widely a 20-page memorandum (and that’s not all, to this day it comes around from time to time as intellectual gossip). In that, he painted Dalit Murasu as ‘Pallar’ Murasu. Last year in Karadichittoor village during a horrifying attack on Arunthathiyars,10 when it was said that Dalit Murasu had publicized Paraiyar caste fanaticism, some Arunthathiyar groups saw Dalit Murasu as ‘Cakkiliyar’ Murasu.

35But altogether, Dalit Murasu, the destroyer of low caste-ism, continues its journey.


1 This is somewhat like “affirmative action” but applicable in many more situations. For example, it ensures some Dalit representation in both educational institutions and government.

2 Mudaliyar is a caste name. It is quite high-caste, often associated with landowning.

3 “Chit Funds” are small-scale savings and loan enterprises.

4 There are many such establishments, run out of people’s homes.

5 B-Casbah is the name of this particular cheri. See Yalan Ati’s essay, page 140 in this volume, for more on A- and B-Casbahs. Punita Pantiyan’s ancestral home is next door to Yalan Ati’s, in B-Casbah.

6 Yalan Ati, Bama, and other Dalit teachers have explained that there is no administrative reason for this kind of questioning: it is solely for the purpose of highlighting caste differences.

7 A satirical political fortnightly magazine with Hindu fundamentalist leanings.

8 A well-known environmentalist, human rights activist in Tamil Nadu. Many political leaders are called “comrade,” with no necessary connection to communism in this context.

9 This was before Punita Pantiyan himself took on that official role.

10 Paṟaiyar, Paιιar, and Aruntatiyar, are the largest of today’s so-called Dalit castes in Tamil Nadu. Aruntatiyar have been called ‘Cakkiliyar’ in the past, a term which is still used. For more on this caste name, see Itaya Ventan’s essay and short story in this volume, pp. 123- 136.


(1967) is a Dalit writer from Ambur in Velore District. He edits the prominent Tamil monthly journal Dalit Murasu from Chennai.

© Institut Français de Pondichéry, 2011

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