Ballads, Statues and Symbols : Microhistories of Anti-Caste Protests
Key feature of Dalit histories are the numerous struggles and sacrifices of martyrs who were either subsumed under larger identities or denied place in the annals of history. This is an attempt to recover those histories.
This article begins by explaining three different incidents that happened at three different places at different temporal periods. However they all carry an analogous character as they speak about microhistories of caste protests. As these narratives are built more directly on the ‘little facts’ of the sources it can be termed as microhistory. In line with Siegfried Kracauer’s notion that microhistory gives a more real history (Kracauer 1971: 115), these following narratives carry minutiae on real life. The central element of these microhistories in context is the hero who emerges out of nowhere and as stated by Jacques Revel “the best works of microhistory describe the hero in a multiplicity of contexts,” (Revel 1995: 807). And the following narratives bring that hero in a multiplicity of contexts.
On August 11, 1928 a gang of armed men enter the cheri(Spatial location outside of proper village) of a village called Angambakkam near Kancheepuram district, Madras Presidency(now Tamil Nadu). The gang numbering around 70 men go on a rampage attacking the Dalits and their houses in the colony. Unanticipated of such attacks the Dalits run helter-skelter. After the attacks the gang torches the houses of Dalits and moves forward approaching towards the house of Kuppusamy. The gang tried to break the front door of his house, Kuppusamy who was returning to his village came to know about the attacks against the Dalits in the colony and also found out that his house is also under attack. He rushed towards his home to find out the fate of his family, when he entered his house the gang armed with weapons laid siege to his house. He locked from inside and to chase them away and protect his life, he took his gun and fired shots towards the roof. The gang then took haystack and tried to set his house on fire.
Unable to escape from the dangerous situation he started firing shots towards the gang and in total he fired 21 shots in which fifteen members were injured and nine members were heavily injured and five died. When all this rioting was over it was almost 6 a.m. in the morning. After sending telegrams to the Police Commissioner and District Collector of Madras Presidency, police came to the spot and Kuppusamy handed over his rifle to them. The police arrested him and seven Dalits in connection with the murders.The major reason behind the plan to attack Angambakkam Kuppusamy was nothing but caste-hatred. Kuppusamy, a Dalit joined the British Indian Army as a Havildar and came back to his native village and was involved in activities attempting to uplift the Dalits. People who return to their villages after serving in the army were involved in replicating the discipline that they learned from their military life among the villagers as a way of life based on the notions of self-respect. Immauel Sekaran was one such activist.
The oppressed classes who were working through various forms towards their emancipation utilized the spaces that modernity had carved out. In that sense Kuppusamy founded an educational society in the village and established learning centres for the uplift of the villagers. Kuppusamy who was influenced by Pandit Iyothee Thass’s Buddhism had already embraced it and through his connections with the Buddist Society was involved in collecting funds and had constructed buildings for schools bought educational tools and provided salaries to the teachers. He established contacts with the British civil servants and through Cooperative Societies got assistance for the agricultural wage labourers and also helped them acquire the wastelands to engage in agriculture. The Dalits who were caught in the quagmire of poverty and bonded labour due to debts and agricultural loans were trying to break their shackles through these efforts.
This economic independence and its subsequent result of self-respect in everyday lives became a challenge for the existing traditional caste norms. So the members of castes like Mudaliar and Vanniyar and others who were the traditional landholders in these areas came together planning to attack the Dalits and Kuppusamy who was instrumental in the uplift of the Dalits. The above said incident was what happened when they decided to carry out an attack. It was an incident of violence orchestrated by caste Hindu groups who had strength of 150 families against the 60 families of Dalits who were living in the colony.
Following the arrest of Kuppusamy, eighteen members from the dominant castes were arrested. The Court while sentencing others under various sections of the criminal law ruled life imprisonment for Kuppusamy for his involvement in five murders. The Dalits were unable to take the sentence, during this time Dalit politics was highly conscientised in and around Madras and this case was highly influential. Prominent Dalit personalities of the time and people got themselves involved in the legal proceedings of the case with great interest. The Kolar Gold Field based journal Tamilan provided the space for Kuppusamy’s arguments and published all the details of the case till the very end and took it among the readers. First a forum called ‘Angambakkam Grief Compensation Forum’ was established under the leadership of V.P.S.Mani with an idea to go for an appeal in the higher court. In relation to that, a lengthy appeal was made through the Tamilan journal on March 20 1929. Prominent members of the Depressed Classes, G.Appadurai, M.C.Rajah, Swami Sahajananda and V.I.Muniaswami Pillai evinced interest in this legal battle and also contributed funds.
The case was shifted from Saidapet Court to the Madras High Court and whenever the case came for hearing it saw a good turnout of people assemble at the court complex. Handbills were distributed at times carrying details of how the case is proceeding. Advocate V.L.Ethiraj argued efficiently for Kuppusamy and on May 29, 1923 following the final hearing Kuppusamy was acquitted from all charges in the case. His acquittal was hailed as a victory of the Dalits. A short book carrying the details of the funds collected and spent on behalf of the ‘Angambakkam Grief Compensation Forum’ for Kuppusamy’s case was released on July 12, 1929. Moreover in the same year, a ballad titled Angambakkam Sriman Ebaiyan Kuppusamiyarukku Jaathi Hindukalal Nerndha Aabathin Tharkappu Sindhu ( A Self-Defense Ballad protecting Angambakkam Sriman Ebaiyan Kuppusamy from the dangers posed by caste Hindus to his life) created by J.I. Paul Vannam was sung in Chennai and on the trains from Chennai to Bangalore to collect funds for the case.
The ballad printed in the name of Tuticorin Adi Dravida Union apart from a few handbills remains as a major source of evidence about this case. Stuart Blackburn in his study on the ballads of the Tamil-speaking people finds himself in an cultural domain where there exists an alternative hero, another type of hero, who he terms as “local hero,” who differs from the courtly model precisely because he represents a different social class and Kuppusamy can be hailed as a local hero who fits the cultural framework posited by Blackburn.
Vanjinagaram is a nondescript village situated on the Madurai to Tiruchi highway near Thumbaipatti the village of former Madras Presidency(now Tamil Nadu) home minister and Congress leader Kakkan. After you enter the Dalit section of the village and walk a few paces ahead a cement plinth of 3ft height carries a painted image of a man and below his image it is engraved Kandan (03.09.1959 – 08.10.1987). There exists a practice that all the auspicious events of the villagers in this area are marked by worship to the built structure and even festivals too. This practice reminds us of an extension of the ancient hero stone worship practiced among Tamils. Heroes who lay their lives fighting for the community to save them from enemies or fighting a beast were remembered through erection of hero stones where their images are also carved. If so then what was Kandan’s struggle and loss?
Caste oppression that is prevalent in the Melur region of Madurai is comparatively harsh and rigid than other parts of the region. The caste system practiced here is regional in nature, Ambedkar himself has written about the caste practices (Babasaheb Ambedkar Writings and Speeches (in Tamil) Volume-9). Seeing the level of caste discrimination prevalent Gandhi’s Harijan Seva Sangam also functioned from the region, in 1992 two Dalits Ammasi and Velu of Chennagarampatti and in 1997 Murugesan and 6 others of Melavalavu were hacked to death and these two villages also comes under this region. In most of the villages in this region there was a system called Kudikallar where the member of the intermediate caste Kallars can possess ownership to a Dalit family to work either in their house or their lands. The Kallar family then becomes the patron for the respective Dalit family and the latter’s everyday life revolves around them. If anyone in the village has a complaint over the Dalit member they would directly approach the Kudikallar and this form of social contract was in place. So the Dalits in the region were unable to unshackle themselves from this oppressive system and gain mobility or access towards education or remove themselves from doing menial jobs. Even basic civil rights were denied to them.
Given these social realities in place, Kandan who had a basic education to the level of eighth standard joined his brother Subbaiah at a stone quarry in Kidaripatti village and was involved in stone cutting work. The Dalits who work, as daily wage labourers in these quarries never rose up to the stage of owning a quarry. Following the death of Kandan’s brother Murugan in an accident the family received an amount of Rs. 1.75 lakh(1,900 GBP) as compensation. Keeping their four year experience in the quarry and this amount of 1.75 lakh rupees the brothers gained sub-contract for a quarry. This was the first time a Dalit had got a sub-contract to a quarry in this region. When they started their quarry business they were able to hire Dalits for quarry work and also were able to procure tools and machines for stone quarrying on their own. This effort by the Dalit brothers threw up questions of caste restrictions in place and there is no need to explicate how much frustrated and angered was the caste Hindus about this initiative. Moreover Kandan was centrally involved in sending numerous petitions to the Government to intervene and prevent the various practices of untouchability, prominent among them were restrictions to have footwear on and to draw water from public wells. The persistent efforts of petitioning made the district administration to convene a peace committee to discuss these issues of untouchability.
During the peace committee meetings the Dalit youth not only claimed for equal civil rights but also rights over common property resources. However, the administration prioritized civil rights issues and efforts were taken to address the restrictions on wearing footwear. The Dalits continuously attempted to draw water from the public well; Kandan’s family spearheaded these efforts. After a few years a decision was made by the villagers to build a temple. Meanwhile the tender to re-auction a quarry went to a caste Hindu, he also demanded that the stones that were cut earlier prior to his re-auction should be given to him, however Kandan’s side refused to do so. During this time the Dalits through relentless struggles were questioning their oppression and were utilizing the various opportunities available to gain upward mobility and were moving towards a life of self-respect. This angered the caste Hindus further as their hold over the Dalits was losing grip.
Meanwhile funds were collected to murder Kandan, and he had just escaped a murder attempt during the Jallikattu (Bull baiting) event. Kandan who had gone out to a nearby village following his marriage engagement to send some message was brutally murdered with 27 cuts by sickles and machetes on his body and his body was found on a hillock. Most of his body parts were found to be mutilated, Dalit leaders L.Elayaperumal and Vai. Balasundaram helped Kandan’s family to their extent with legal measures. To remember the struggles carried out by Kandan for gaining civil rights for Dalits the villagers memorialized him by erecting a plinth carrying his image in his honour.
At the entrance of the bus stand in Cuddalore district’s Kattumannargudi there is a bust, one might not have encountered that bust anywhere in Tamil Nadu as it does not carry any traces of identity of a familiar figure from the state. The name board below the bust says that he is Reddiyur Pandian, beyond that not only his name but why he has been memorialized in the form of a bust is something even the politically conscious few could reason. Known as Pandian, he is a Dalit who fought against the prevailing practice of imposing menial jobs on Dalits and died during the protest on August, 15, 1985.
Our caste system, which is based on birth, apportioned occupational categories and spatial locations for different castes and maintains the system. Denying occupational mobility for castes and their right to choose work, the system discriminates people by assigning jobs according to their particular location within the caste system thus maintaining a rigid hierarchy from top to bottom of the social ladder. The castes lower down the order were assigned to do menial jobs mostly unhygienic in nature and service oriented. So to move away against the assigned occupational order towards caste-neutral jobs or to gain education formed the basis of anti-caste efforts. As the possibility towards such mobility was found only in modernity, the Dalit stalwarts were practicing and propagating a modernist reformative discourse. In the case of Tamil Nadu, the struggles against the ‘imposition of menial work’ happened at different regions both on a small scale and large level. These protests, which have a century long history, were not archived and recorded properly. However, Kattumannargudi has recorded it by erecting a symbol in the form of a bust to recall and reimagine those struggles.
Today’s Cuddalore district included old South Arcot district provides us a lot of references on various forms of protests between 1946 and 2000 against the beating of parai drum which is made out of cow hide and is also used mostly during funeral processions. Likewise refusing to remove the carcass of dead cattle and to dig graves for the dead caste Hindus were resisted by Dalits through various forms of protests in the Northern districts of Tamil Nadu. Most of these protests happened at the regional level and it never gained emphasis as a state level protest or a slogan and it did not receive such attention also. These protests were also spontaneous and were not led by any prominent leader.
The veteran Congress leader L.Elayaperumal in the year 1962 passed a resolution in Kattumannargudi circle that no one from the region should engage in parai drumming and especially not for members of other castes. It is how Elayaperumal had created awareness about restraining from doing menial work in this area. And in the year 1985 August 15 there was a fire-walking ceremony in the local village temple. The local Dalits had refused to beat the parai drum for the festival so the caste Hindus had hired drummers from outside the district. However, the Dalits of the village refused to the beating of parai drums in total during the festival. So there was uneasy calm in the village and police force was deployed in the region. Dalits from 16 villages approached towards the temple, police prevented them and resorted to lathicharge and threw teargas shells. Finally the police opened firing in which ten Dalits were grievously injured and one Dalit youth Pandian was killed. There was no damage either to the police or to the caste Hindus. The death of Pandian intensified the struggles and this resulted in almost a complete abolishment of beating of the parai drum in the region.
People memorialized the sacrifice of Pandiyan in different ways; a flagpole was erected in honour of his martyrdom at Poovizhundhanallur, which is on the southern side of Northern River the same place where he was shot dead and a bust and flagpole was also erected at Kattumannargudi. A ballad lyric was penned imagining how Pandian’s mother Chinnaponnu would sing grieving the loss of his son, the lyric was penned by Veerananallur Murugandam and was sung on stages during village festivals, also sung as a dirge and also as a folk song during the transplanting at farms in villages. This is how the subaltern people keep Pandian’s memory alive. The bust was designed without the help of a photographic image, as they could not find one, talking about how it was done one of my interlocutors said, “ We see this image as our own visual depiction of Pandian’s struggles and sacrifice rather than an authentic portrayal of his real looks.”
Generally when we speak about Dalit struggles like most cases they become individual-centred based on either their ideologies or their actions. When we talk about ‘martyrs’ or ‘revolutionaries’ it is larger idioms that come to our minds. In many cases a small level of sacrifice and struggle too gets blown out of proportion with the idea to symbolize or create a leader out of the figure. Though there is no need to conceptualise these struggles avoiding the individuals and their contributions but we have to see that it is the traditional ‘hero in history’ figure which figments our imagination. People who are oppressed by caste somewhere in their lives are resisting either directly or indirectly the caste system or the disgrace it brings to them. Given this condition it leads to a position where an individual has to remain either as opposing caste and the disgrace it brings or to accept it and live. The person who opposes it could be someone who is not even prepared how to handle it or does not have even thought about it. But he has to face the problems that arise out of such system. The three cases explained above indicate us that the activists did not possess any strong ideological foundations or had a history of affiliation towards any movement. Vanjinagaram Kandan had no political background and was just an admirer of MG Ramachandran (the Matinee idol who later entered politics to become the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu). Reddiyur Pandian who had lost his father was working as a daily wage labourer and there were no records or evidences, which indicate his political activities. Though Elayaperumal’s intervention had created awareness among Dalits in Cuddalore to restrain from involving in menial work but there is no record to show what sort of influence it had on Pandian’s perceptions about caste. But his involvement in the struggles indicate that he carried a sense of indignation against caste, this provides us an idea that to be an anti-caste person there is no need for large ideological underpinnings but the fact that the lived experience as a member of oppressed caste was enough.
Starting from villages to towns to cities, caste discrimination is abounded and the experiences one gains out of these struggles are enormous. A lot of such struggles never gain the attention of media and many were hidden without attaching any news-value to such and remain as local histories. The political parties or the government also failed to recognize such struggles and experiences to promote social justice. Going beyond all this these struggles do not form part of “histories” in the broader categorical sense.
How caste functions in accordance to regional and local conditions the struggles to resist such existing conditions also get shaped accordingly. These histories of resistance in each region can be compiled based on its local significance. The three struggles discussed above happened during different time periods, at different places, carrying different experiences. These struggles are neglected not only by historians but also by political parties, but the people of the locality remember them in ways known to them and it is how we can see that these struggles were kept alive through ballads, statue and hero stone. We can also see that the support for these acts of memorialization from social movements is also provisional. In this essay struggles of a particular sect among the Dalits were only discussed, if an effort is undertaken to collect all the local and regional records of such histories of struggles we can compile a volume on local histories of anti-caste struggles.
Blackburn, Stuart. “The Folk Hero and Class Interests in Tamil Heroic Ballads.” Asian Folklore Studies, Vol. 37, No. 1 (1978), pp. 131-149.
Ponnoviyam, Anbu. 2009. Urimaikkaga Poaritta Uthamar Angambakkam Kuppusamiyar. Chennai: Siddartha Pathippagam.
Poovizhiyan. 2007. Reddiyur Pandian Parai Ethirppu Varalaru. Seerkazhi.
Prabhakaran, V, Pulavar. 2008. Iyothee Thassa Pandithar Idhazh Pani. Chennai: Thirivalluvar Aiyvu Noolagam.
Rajangam, Stalin. 2008. Vanjinagaram Kandan. Alanganallur, Madurai: Vanangamudi Pathippagam.
Szijártó István.2002. ‘Four Arguments for Microhistory’ Rethinking History : the Journal of Theory and Practice. 6:2 , pp. 209–215.
This article was originally written in Tamil by Stalin Rajangam and translated by Karthikeyan Damodaran.
Stalin Rajangam is a Dalit intellectual and a Tamil writer based in Madurai, Tamil Nadu. He is a prolific writer on Dalit issues, films and politics. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Karthikeyan Damodaran is a PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh.
Images courtesy : Stalin Rajangam.