How Does Caste Play Out in Tamil Nadu’s Welfare State?

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"Dravida" in the names of Tamil Nadu's political parties is symbolic of anti-caste struggle. Why is this agenda missing today?

As the political battle between the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) turned into a war of personalities, the Dravida in their names started to lose its significance.

Dravida refers to an anti-caste social reform movement from 1925, started by activist and freedom fighter E.V. Ramasamy (known to most as Periyar). The ‘Self-Respect’ movement launched itself on the platform of abolishing caste inequalities and ‘tackling Brahmanism’, with the vision of a casteless Tamil society. The movement later evolved into an anti-Hindi, Tamil nationalist force, diluting its shot at having a Pan-India appeal.

Its political successors have triggered a sense of disillusionment among Dalits, who found that the parties positions were increasingly appropriated by increasingly favoured the powerful forward caste communities over their own. Tamil Nadu’s most successful Dravidian party had a person who was Brahmin at birth as chief minister – but not a Dalit.

However, caste politics play out differently in Tamil Nadu. Jayalalithaa might have been Brahmin at birth, but she had to take up the roles her party’s origins demanded of her – ostensibly atheist and rationalist. Her body was not cremated in the Iyengar style, but buried – the same way as other Dravidian leaders like Periyar, Anna Murai and her mentor, M.G.R.

Her cabinet was not free of caste-based arithmetic. Number crunching before the elections always accompanies a run to woo the consolidated caste groups. The caste with the biggest numbers is the one worth wooing – so forward castes like Thevars, Vanniars and Gounders usually grab the most attention. Dalits – largest groups being Pallars and Paraiyars – form up to 19% of Tamil Nadu’s population, but their vote is split by the presence of rival Dalit political outfits that don’t work together.

Jayalalithaa’s immediate circle comprised powerful Thevars – such as acting Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam, for one, as well as Jayalalithaa’s historical confidante, P. Sasikala.

There are many historical animosities between the dominant and Dalit caste groups.

Incidents of honour-killing, temple-debarring or other acts of humiliation on the Dalits, continue in Tamil Nadu. Statues of Ambedkar are covered in cages in many parts of the state to prevent people from vandalizing them.

Impact of Populist Schemes

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But, when it comes to socioeconomic indicators, Tamil Nadu’s Human Development Index is among the highest of the Indian states. Scheduled Caste children in Tamil Nadu are less likely to be underweight than Other Backward and Forward caste children in states like Jharkhand and Gujarat.

Part of this has to do with its history of ‘populist’ welfare schemes.  The Midday Meal scheme, where schools must feed their students a healthy lunch each school day, is a well-known success.

These schemes have pushed forward programmes that distributed water, grains, meals, bicycles, laptops, grinders, colour TVs, electricity, cement and even healthcare – either for free, or for subsidized rates.

Though these freebies are usually declared to win elections, Tamil Nadu also has a great record when it comes to implementing welfare programmes. Nobel laureate and economist-duo Amartya Sen and Jean Dréze have written extensively on Tamil Nadu’s success, praising its human development indicators and delivery systems.

A 2005 study on ‘Caste Discrimination in Food Security Programs’, which found rampant discrimination against Dalits in places where the Midday Meal Scheme was implemented, nevertheless, concluded that such schemes:

Whether they are operated well or poorly can – indeed does – make the difference between sustenance and preventable starvation for Dalits children and adults suffering from chronic poverty.

It added that where Dalits were employed with the government and directly involved in decision making, incidents of caste discrimination were less.

If Tamil Nadu as a model tells us anything, it is that political parties wearing the mantle of ‘social justice’ can be deceiving. Names, can be deceiving. But when governments made concerted efforts to improve lives, and include those from disadvantaged and marginalized communities, development indicators start to look positive.


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