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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.