Language, Violence, and the State: Writing Tamil Dalits

With the Dalit movement in Maharastra having grown stagnant, and Uttar Pradesh’s Dalit-led Bahujan Samaj Party possibly reaching the limits of its potential development, the vital forefront of Dalit politics has now shifted to Tamil Nadu. So writes Gail Omvedt in her introduction to Thol. Thirumavalan’s Talisman.1 Whether the recent upsurge of intellectual and political energy among Tamil Dalits shall indeed prove a model for Dalits elsewhere in India—or whether, on the contrary, there are not still more promising movements already afoot in the Dalit hamlets and urban slums of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, or other places yet unknown—is impossible to say. What is a good bit more certain, however, is that for the ferment in Tamil Nadu to succeed it must be translatable. This ‘translation’ cannot be limited simply to the translation of words. On the contrary, its translation must involve not only the translation of one language into another, but also of words into deeds at the national level—into policies that protect Dalits from violent atrocities not merely under law but also in fact, into substantive and not merely formal democracy, or into genuine land reform, to name but a few demands of Tamil Dalits. But before a demand can be implemented, or the argument found persuasive, it must not only be spoken but also heard. It must be taken up, it must be transcribed, translated, repeated, and repeatedly tested in political and intellectual contests. The demand that is spoken but once, or in a single place, fades on the wind. Similarly, when a laborer is beaten to death, or a Dalit hamlet [i] burnt to the ground, it only becomes an ‘atrocity’ [vakoumai] when it is recorded as such, and subjected thereby to universal standards of justice. Insofar as these events remain within an entirely local context, the murderous beating remains a ‘just punishment’ [tarma ai], and the burning of Dalit huts, a restoration of the village order [ūr āci].

  • 2  On police violence, see especially chapters 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 12, 24, 30 and 35 ‘Terror in Uniform,’(…)

4Dalits in Dravidian Land is, as its subtitle tells us, a collection of fifty-two ‘reports on anti-dalit violence’ by investigative journalist S. Viswanathan, originally published in the fortnightly newsmagazine Frontline over the ten-year period from 1995 to 2004. The majority of the reports describe acts of physical violence, which in Tamil Nadu have all too often been perpetrated upon Dalits by the authorized agents of the state—primarily the police—in addition to the usual dominant (BC) caste groups.2 Indeed, given the caste composition of Tamil Nadu’s police force, and its active support of the castes that dominate among its ranks (i.e. BCs) against Dalits, the distinction between caste- and state sponsored-violence against Dalits is of uncertain theoretical relevance.


the police… have become mercenaries of caste Hindus. In Tamil Nadu, such a state of affairs became obvious after the DMK came to power in 1967… [W]hen antidalit violence was unleashed in Kilvenmani (1968),12Villupuram (1978), Kodiyankulam (1995),13 Melavalavu (1997),14Gundupatti (1998)15 and Thamiraparani (1999),16 the police abetted the crimes as perpetrators. Both the AIADMK and DMK have been united in the unleashing of violence on dalits. (DDL: xxvi)

Nathaniel Roberts

Bibliographical reference
– Viswanathan, S. (2005) Dalits in Dravidian Land: Frontline Reports on Anti-Dalit Violence in Tamil Nadu, Forward by N. Ram, Introduction by Ravikumar, Chennai: Navayana, 318 pages + xxxviii [cited as DLL]

– Thirumaavalavan, Thol. (2003) Talisman: Extreme Emotions of Dalit Liberation, Translated from the Tamil by Meena Kandasamy, Introduction by Gail Omvedt, Kolkata: Samya, 185 pages + xxviii [cited as TAL]

– Thirumaavalavan, Thol. (2004) Uproot Hindutva: The Fiery Voice of the Liberation Panthers, Translated from the Tamil by Meena Kandasamy, Forward by Ram Puniyani, Kolkata: Samya, 248 pages + xxvi [cited to as UH]

– Ravikumar (2009) Venomous Touch: Notes on Caste, Culture and Politics, Translated from the Tamil by R. Azhagarasan, Forward by Susie Tharu, Kolkata: Samya, 298 pages + xxii [cited as VT]


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