Villupuram Atrocity: Physical and Symbolic Violence against Dalits[*]
Abstract: This paper describes the violence against Dalits in Villupuram in 1978, by the caste Hindus. By using the concept of symbolic violence it critically analyses the content of the Report of R. Sadasivam Commission, which was constituted by the Tamilnadu Government to enquire the violence. It also explains how the Dalits counter the symbolic violence by preparing and publishing their own report. From the comparison of these two reports the study demonstrates how the state upholds the system of caste by supporting the views of dominant castes.
Looking back the Violence
Periyaparaichery (Big Paraiyar Colony) is situated near the vegetable market and bus station, considered as the center place of Villupuram city. This settlement has dalits mostly engaged as load men and coolie labourers in the vegetable market. The shops in the market are owned by dominant caste Hindus of Mudaliyar, Vanniyar, Nadar and also Muslims (In violence Muslims took active part). Though the Vanniyars were the ground level executors of the violence, other caste Hindus played a vital role by providing economic and moral support to the violators. As Dalits are numerically in majority (in 1978 around 5000 in 2011 around 8000) they never faced any physical atrocity from other dominant castes. This numerical strength gave the Dalits a moral strength to counter any physical violence. M. Jothilingam and T. Loganathan were the respectable people among the Dalits. The former was a business man and latter was the Congress party man. Both of them enjoyed respect from the Dalits of Priyaparaichery. Loganathan was a strict Gandhian follower; he never allowed liquor shops to be opened in the Periyaparaichery. Jothilingam owned a truck and also ran a cooperative store, in which around 300 Dalits worked. This position gave them the power to mediate the petty issues that arose not only among the Dalits but also among the caste Hindus. This respectable position of Dalits and their presence in the center place of the city always irked the caste Hindus.
Salammal, a Dalit woman was molested by a Vanniyar caste man Kaliyamoorthy alias Kaliyan,who was a vegetable vendor in the market. Salammal’s husband Shanmugam – worked as a truck driver with Jothilingam – went to Kaliyan’s place with other seven Dalits to enquire about the molestation which ended in the attack of Kaliyan by Shanmugam and other Dalits. Based on the advice of Kamaraj Vegetable Market Vendors Association's President Annamalai, Kaliyan lodged acomplaint against Shanmugam and others. But the caste Hindus assumed that the police will not take any action against the Dalits, so they called for the closure of shops and a procession demanding to take police action against the Dalits who attacked the Vegetable vendor. In that procession anti Dalit slogans were raised like ‘Displace Dalits from the center part of the city’, ‘Paraiyans wives our concubines’. The accused Dalits later surrendered in the police station. After this the police convened for a peace meeting between the two parties. But the caste Hindus boycotted the meeting and they called for a secret meeting in a place called Muthuthoppu. They collectively decided to attack the Periyaparaichery. In the same night a few cycle rickshaws of the Dalits were torched and the rickshaw men were attacked by the caste Hindus and also torched nearly eight huts of the Dalits. The next morning (25th July) Dalits in order to retaliate, attacked the caste Hindus and also torched their houses. In the end of the violence, twelve Dalits were brutally murdered and many huts were burned down. After the two days of violence twenty two more huts of the Dalits were torched and also many were damaged.
After the violence, the Congress leader Jegajeevanram, Janata party leader Chandrasekar, Tamilnadu assembly opponent party leader Karunanithi and Chief Minister M.G.R. visited the affected areas. This external pressure necessitated the Tamilnadu Government to form an Enquiry Commission. The Commission was formed on 29.07.1978. Regarding this violence 41 caste Hindus were accused and among them 34 were arrested. In the court judgment three accused were sentenced to death (later it was reduced as life conviction) and life sentence were given to 27 people. Later many of the life convicted were released as their convictions were reduced.
Sadasivam Commission Report and Symbolic Violence
Pierre Bourdieu, who coined the term, symbolic violence, is the gentle, hidden form of violence takes when overt violence is impossible. When we critically analyse the report we understand that the Commission Report is a deliberate symbolic violence against Dalits. On 31.07.1978 Justice Sadasivam took charge as the Chairman of the Commission. From 10.08.1978 onwards, the Commission started its enquiry and submitted its report after six months. The Commission Report (150 Pages) was prepared with the support of 211 witnesses and 310 material evidences. The Dalits questioned the objectivity of the chairman of the Commission Justice Sadasivam since he belonged to the Mudaliyar caste. In the violence the Mudaliyars played a vital role, so the dalits believed that the enquiry will be a biased one. At that time the Tamilnadu Law minister was K. Narayanasamy Mudaliyar. The Chief Minister nominated Sadasivam as the chairman of the Commission, only by the recommendation of the Law minister. When the Commission started its enquiry, the Dalit leaders decided not to cooperate with the Commission, but after the intervention of the Dalit Leader L. Ilayaperumal and Dalit Congress Member of Parliament Maragatham Chandrasekar, Dalit activists and leaders changed their decision. They believed that with the evidences available they could get justice.
The Report says that this violence is the reaction of the non-Dalits against the anti social elements among Dalits, so there is no caste discrimination behind the violence. But the Report agrees that the violence took place only after Dalits’ huts were set on fire and 12 victims were Dalits. This statement is the only truth of the report. But it never raised the doubt whether the violence took place because of caste hatred or discrimination. When it narrates the sequence of the violence it states that “it appears that the Nandanar Street was first set on fire on 24.07.1978” and in another statement it states that “it seems the violence took place after attacking the rickshaw pullers and their rickshaws”. Here we must note that whenever the Report explains the damage of Dalits it used the words of ‘appears’ and ‘seems’. But while narrating the version of caste Hindus it strongly holds its tone that “the vegetable vendors could not tolerate the rowdyism of Periyaparachery” and “I came to know that the Periyaparachery is the asylum for hooligans”. The report strongly says that “There are many evidences to prove that this violence was against the anti social elements of Periyaparachery”. The Report tries to construct an image that there was a valid reason behind the violence, so it is nothing wrong in the killing of Daits. The Dalits were leading a worst life and the Periyaparacheri was the asylum for Prostitutes, thieves, rowdies etc. So the violence was essential to keep the ‘order’. The Report accepts all accounts which claims Dalits’ wrong doings led to the violence. At the same time it raises its doubts while narrating the damage of the Dalits. If one person tries to understand the violence through this Report, it is sure that definitely he/she will come to a conclusion that the violence was unavoidable one.
The main demand of the procession of caste Hindus was to change the place of the vegetable market and the Bus Station. However the Report says that the requisition for the change of market and Bus Stand was only because of safety reasons and not because of untouchability or caste bias. It also upheld the statement of the Chief Minister that it was not a caste violence. It also refutes that there were no slogans raised against the Harijans. The Report accepts all the witnesses of the caste Hindus without any doubt, but the Justice questioned all the victim side witnesses. For instance the report dismisses the witness of a Dalit woman Kalyani (Her house was first set on fire) by saying that “if Mrs. Kalyani’s witness appears as truth it was mixture of imagination”. Another witness was Mahendran who was a non-Dalit who married a Dalit woman and settled in Periyaparachery. He was an eyewitness of the brutality of caste Hindus, he narrated all the brutalities before the commission, but his account was rejected, the Commissioner’s reason was “I do not believe the witness is a genuine one”. Moreover the Report questions the marital legality of Mahendran and his wife, because they lived together. It also tries to establish that Salammal was not a legal wife of Shanmugam. It is understandable that what kind of image the Report trying to build upon Dalits by establishing these kinds of ‘illegalness’ attached to the Dalits life. Sellaram (witness 19) admitted that the caste Hindus were jealous about the decent living of the Dalits, this was the main reason behind the violence. But the Justice rejects the witness and accused the Dalits there by stating that “the educated and employed Harijans forget their relatives after settling in the city and they never come back to Periyaparachery.”
Report of David
A Government Commission’s Report is not just a report, it is an authentic legal documentation and in a way it will act as valid source for any future reference. In this situation a Report on Villupuram Violence was an important intervention from the side of the Dalits. The Report was also published as a book by D. David. The intervention of the activists and academicians like David, Bharathan (Professor in MIDS), Brindavan Moses acted as a pressure group when the enquiry was in process. The Sadasivam Report agrees that “on demand of David I requested the police to send the criminal history and list of rowdies of non-Harijans”, from this statement we could understand that David’s intervention was an obvious one. David is a Dalit Christian born in 1932 in Vellore. He actively involved in the caste issues in the diocese. In 1971 after the demise of the Vellore Bishop David Mariyanayagam, David demanded for a Dalit Bishop, but did not happen so. He formed an organisation called Purapaduththapattor Manitha Urimaigal Sangam (Human Rights Association for Excluded Citizens) with the support of other activists like Aruldoss, Sadhananthan and Joseph, in order to provide legal assistance to the affected Dalits. From this association they organised many conferences, for instance in Madurai a seminar was held titled 'The Caste will exist until reservation exists, right or wrong.’ With this political involvement and understanding he voluntarily took the Villupuram issue in his hand, when he came to know the incident through newspaper. He prepared the Report with the help of Athony raj the then AICUF (All India Catholic University Federation) Secretary, and L. Ilayaperumal, Bharathan, and Arasappan.
As a Lawyer he meticulously prepared the report with the help of witnesses, material evidences and data. Throughout the Report he used the term Harijan, to denote the Dalits. Though he used the Gandhian term Harijan, it is clearly visible that he understood caste in Ambedkar's perspective. In the report he explained how the caste functions in the society directly and indirectly. The report contains ten chapters excluding introduction. The fifth chapter titled 'Whether the Villupuram violence is a clash between anti social elements or caste violence'. The report explains what is group clash? And what is caste violence? it clearly says that group violence or clash of anti social elements is that the law breakers unite together without any caste, race, language and religion differences and involve in clashes for their self development or take revenge against rival group. But the caste violence is the conflict between two castes, in this conflict the anti social elements of a particular caste will attack the people of another caste. So when the dominant caste people attack the oppressed people we call it as caste violence. A particular caste must well plan to attack another caste and it takes place systematically when the opportunity arises. In the caste violence people of single caste or different castes but having the same goal may unite together and attack another single caste. In this attack some people involve actively in the violence but some people participate passively. But the passive people never try to stop the violators of their caste and cannot cooperate with the police and reveal the truth at the time of enquiry. But in the Villupuaram violence all the caste Hindus and Muslims united together against the Dalits. The violence extended for six days. Dalits started to protect themselves when they felt that the police and the government will not give enough protection. In the way David argues that these incidents clearly prove that it was systematic caste violence against Dalits, not a clash between anti social elements. In this violence people across the political party, poor, rich good people and bad people all took position against the Dalits. So if we see the educational and economic background of the violators we cannot say it as a clash between the goons. In the conclusion, the report stated that: 1. it was apparent caste violence executed by the non-Harijans and Muslims who had vengeance on Harijans. 2. The Government officials like revenue and police failed to stop the violence. 3. The District Collector P.S. Pandian failed to visit the spot immediately and also submitted the report to the Government by gathering the information through the revenue officials who did not even visit the spot. 4. It also recommends legal action against the Vilupuram M.L.A. Krishnan, who involved in the violence.5. Tamilnadu Chief Minister M.G.Ramachandran failed to produce the petition submitted by Chinnaraj before the Enquiry Commission. The C.M. also failed to get down at the spot when he crossed Villupuram on his way back from Madurai on 25.07.1978 and ordered the subordinate officials to take action.
In the numerical majoritarian democratic political condition the state and major political parties support the opinion of numerical majority even if it is an anti constitution. In the Indian society the dominant castes want to preserve the system of caste since it gives ruling power, preserving and exercising caste hierarchy is not possible without oppressing the lower castes. But the oppressed sections of the society especially the Dalits want to liberate themselves from the clutches of caste. So the Dalits assert themselves but the dominant castes try to subjugate assertion by using violence. Since dominant castes enjoy the hegemonic position in the political power they use the state machinery against the Dalits. It could be understood by much recent violence like Kodiyankulam, Thamirabarani, Paramakudi and Dharmapuri. So far we understand that the idea of Enquiry Commissions is the strategy of the Government to reduce the anger of victims. But the review of the two reports on Villupuram (Sadasivam Report and David Report) violence clearly shows that the state not only oppresses the Dalits physically, but impose symbolic violence against the Dalits by setting up Enquiry Commissions.
Notes and References
[*] This paper’s first draft was presented in a Three Day National Seminar on “Interrogating the Reports of ‘Judicial’ Enquiry Commissions on Caste Violence in Tamil Nadu”, held at MIDS, Chennai, from 28 March to 30 March 2013. Published in the Voice of Dalit, Vol. 6, No. 2, (July-December) 2013.
[†] J. Balasubramaniam (firstname.lastname@example.org) is with the Department of Journalism in Madurai Kamaraj University,Tamilnadu.
 Bourdieu, P. (1977) Outline of a Theory of Practice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
2. Stalin Rajangam, ed., Villupuram Padukolai: Dalit Arikkai [Villpuram Atrocity: a Dalit Report], Kalachuvadu Publishers, Nagerkoil, 2012.
3. Justice R. Sadasivam, (1979) Enquiry Commission Report on Villupuram Clashes, Tamilnadu Government.
4. “Villupuram Atrocity”, EPW, Vol - XIII No. 41, October 14, 1978.
5. David, D. (1979) Vilupurathil (26, July 1978) Pannirendu Thalthapatta Makkal Payankara Padukolai [A Gruesome Murder of Twelve Oppressed People in Villupuram] (Vellor: David Publication).