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Geographic spread of clashes changes

Recurrent clashes between groups of Maravars and Devendra Kula Vellalars, the two predominant castes in Tamil Nadu's southern districts, culminating in arson and stabbings in Rajapalayam, close to the Western Ghats last week, are clear pointers to an altered politico-geographic order.

The clashes, which have claimed more than 40 lives in the last two months, have been extremely violent as was the case during the 1948, 1957 and 1989 riots. However, their geographic spread seems to have drastically changed, with the clashes centring around parts of Tirunvelveli and Chidambaranar districts, Madurai town and the Western Kamarajar district.

Indeed, Ramanathapuram district, the heart of 'Maravar country', which in 1948 witnessed a week-long conflict, now labours in relative peace. The Mudukulathur region in the same district, which in 1957 had seen a fortnight-long violence, is free of tension so far. The same has been the case with Pasumpon district, named after Muthuramalinga Thevar, the undisputed leader of the Maravars, Kallars and Agamudaiyars put together and an associate of Subhas Chandra Bose.

The major reason for the recurrent clashes is the new awakening against caste oppression among Devendrar youth in the affected districts, especially in Kamarajar and Chidambaranar, where Devendrars are present in substantial numbers, and the inability of the Maravar youth to come to terms with this new situation.

That groups of these two communities had been at loggerheads was evident since 1995 when police assaults took place on Devendrar habitats at Kodiankulam in Chidambaranar district and Naraikinaru and Kadayanallur in neighbouring Nellai-Kattabomman district. The Kodiankulam assault is being probed by the Central Bureau of Investigation following a court order.

Kodiankulam is one of the few villages where Devendrars have enjoyed new-found prosperity, benefitted by education and government-sponsored welfare schemes. In areas neighbouring such prosperous enclaves, Devendrar youth have started protesting against the treatment meted out to them by upper castes in the public sphere.

They have been resisting orders to carry out ritually demeaning tasks and claiming equal share of public properties like land, water and fish from the village tank. At Kovilpatti town, for instance, Devendrar youth launched a stir in April last demanding equal treatment during a temple festival.

In some areas in these districts, Maravar youth, incensed over the state government's decision to bifurcate the state-owned Pandyan Transport Corporation and carve out a new transport corporation named after Veeran Sundaralingam, even tried to reestablish the abominable practice of keeping, in tea shops, separate coconut shells from which alone could Devendrar customers drink their tea.

While the colonies where Devendrars were less in number had to put up with such casteism, habitats where they lived in substantial numbers decided to retaliate, even at the cost of endangering the safety of smaller Devendrar settlements in Rajapalayam town and suburbs.

This led to sporadic Maravar attacks including arson and looting on Devendrar localities like Mangapuram and Amachiyarpatti in Rajapalayam and the resultant no-holds-barred clashes between the two communities in which bystanders were also becoming victims. According to official sources, it has been tough for the police to segregate the two groups especially in places where one of them is smaller in number.

Official sources also admitted that the sudden spurt in the strength and reach of the Devendrar organisations was posing new problems even in regions which had not seen violent conflicts so far.

This, according to the sources, indicated that at least in some enclaves Devendrars were no longer under the servility of the upper castes, either in terms of employment in agriculture, artisanship or small trade. These areas were fast emerging as habitats of independent economic existence, ready to relate to other castes only on equal terms.

Also, Maravar and Devendrar groups have exhibited mutual animosity by claiming their rightful status as rulers and soldiers of their respective landscapes in the southern districts.

Devendrar youth were unanimous that their community should shed its much-hated ''Pallar'' tag. The Devendrars of late have been asserting that they, being descendents of the god Indra, are the real Cholas, Cheras and Pandyas, the three kings of ancient Tamil Nadu. According to them, the upper castes had driven them out of this status and made them ''Pallars'' confining them to carrying out ritually impure task.

This new genealogy of their caste, curiously, is made to blend with a modern republican dalit consciousness, articulated by a range of social activists working in rural areas of the southern districts with a relatively high degree of political autonomy.

The Maravar groups, however, want to be known as Thevars, an umbrella grouping of Kallars of East Thanjavur region, Piramalai Kallars living west of Madurai and the Agamudaiyars living east of Madurai. The Maravars take enormous pride in staking claim to a martial past and invoke some recent Tamil films which celebrate their pride.

The current Maravar icons, apart from Muthuramalinga Thevar, are freedom-fighters like Vellaya Thevar, another key lieutenant of Veera Pandya Katta Bomman and Puli Thevar, after whom the state government has been forced to name a new transport corporation.

Devendrar organisations have long demanded the carving out of a new district named after Immanuel Sekaran, a youth leader of the community who succumbed to injuries sustained in the 1957 violence.

Both castes have substantial presence in the lower echelons of the local bureaucracy and the police force, a factor which often leads to unforeseen problems including leaking out of crucial information about the government strategy to deal with clashing groups. It is to be seen whether the state government's decision to transfer a number of police personnel at the lower levels from the affected areas would alter this situation.

Official sources also admitted that the high-voltage campaign styles of casteist pressure groups based in Madras and Madurai were rendering the functioning of village-level peace committees difficult.

Political parties have failed to evoke enthusiasm from youth of both communities. While Devendrar youth criticised the previous AIADMK regime as well as the present DMK regime as pro-Maravar, the Maravar youth felt they were being betrayed by the political parties. It is precisely this vacuum that leaders like Krishnasamy and Thevar Munnani leader and former state director general of police Pon Paramaguru are seeking to fill.

Thus the peace in some southern districts could well turn out to be tenuous before yet another bout of violence, which would doubtless have its repercussions in areas untouched so far.


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