January 8, 2005

Tsunami or not, Govt still ignores the Dalits

NAGAPATTINAM: Doors are being slammed in the face of Dalit survivors here - and the Government is quietly doing some of the slamming.

On Thursday, this website’s newspaper reported how Dalits from 63 affected villages are facing the brunt of the powerful Meenavar fishermen (a Most Backward Class): being thrown out of relief camps, pushed to the rear of food and water lines, not being allowed to take water from UNICEF facilities and in some cases not even being allowed to use the toilet.

Now it's been learnt that the Government, instead of ensuring justice, was reinforcing this divide-both caste and communal.

In fact, a day after the killer waves struck and thousands began pouring into these camps, revenue officials were asked to quietly go about dividing the victims and report to their superiors.

They were asked to see that the numerically powerful and politically significant Meenavars had their “exclusive” relief camps.

The equally battered Muslims, Dalits, Nadars, Pillais, Devars and other lower castes- mostly non-fishermen- were shunted into camps of their own. This has since been accomplished in most parts of this district.

When asked how the Government could endorse this discrimination, Nagapattinam Sub Collector Dr Umanath said that this was a conscious decision and a practical one. “There are the real divisions and distrust among the communities,” he told this website’s newspaper on Friday, “a crisis like this is no time to experiment with casteist and religious amity.”

The Government, Umanath said, just could not risk putting them up all together.

When asked what the risk was, Umanath declined to comment.

His defence that this is a “practical” decision has few takers. “This is sad. The Government is actually reinforcing the ancient divides and hatreds. Until the tsunami, they could at least tolerate each other. See what happens when this whole thing gets over, now,” says Father Gunalan, pastor of Asia's first Protestant Church, the 298-year-old New Jerusalem Church in Tarangambadi, one of the worst-hit coastal villagers.

Gunalan said it was appalling to see those belonging to different communities stopping relief trucks on the road and diverting them to the relief camps of their own community. The camps of the powerless denominations bore the brunt of this.

Another fallout is that villages in neighbouring coastal stretches that the waves spared now have bargain deals. “Relief is now being virtually dumped in some of the camps here. So even the kids carry a few stoves, mats, vessels and other relief material to sell in other villages.”

The pastor says some Muslim homes were looted in the area soon after the waves struck. “That was ironic. The first people who went around helping survivors of all communities and rushing people to hospitals were men of the Tamil Muslim Munnetra Kazhakam,” he said.

Many Muslim families had fled their homes, but are now coming back. “We have now our own security system in place. Our men take turns to guard our area day and night,” says Abdul Haleem, president of the Tarangambadi Muslim Jamaat. He said seven looters were caught and handed to the police, on Tsunami day. “We foiled an attempt even last night.”

One of the relief camps that the Government gave to the non-Meenawar communities here was the local Jnanapoo Illam School. Most of its occupants had lost their homes to the waves. This morning, officials came knocking with the District Collector's order asking them to vacate, and they meekly did.

With nowhere to go, to plead, they trudged to the Tehsildar's office, a few kilometres away in Porayar. A few hours later, officials there said all of them have been asked to go to the village's only movie hall, converted into a camp.

At this Ganapathi movie hall, a few Meenawars at its entrance said they had asked these people to go away to a neighbouring marriage hall.

But they were not allowed in there, either.

And no one claimed to know where these 180-odd men women and children eventually went.


Taking note of this website’s newspaper report on the way Dalit survivors are being ostracised, chairman of the National Commission of Scheduled Castes said here on Friday that the panel's director in Chennai has been asked to visit the areas and take action.

Said chairman Suraj Bhan: “I have prepared a note for the commission's Tamil Nadu representative, Kannagi Packianathan. We shall ask our director in Chennai on Saturday to herself visit the spot and take necessary action.”

In Chennai, too, NGOs and relief agencies met on Friday to grapple with a problem that's not only hampering relief but undermining the credibility of the official establishment.

Sources who attended the meeting in Chennai told this website’s newspaper that caste confrontations came up for discussion when John Kurien from the Thiruvananthapuram-based Centre for Development Studies explained the “peculiar aspects” of relief distribution among fishermen.

It was then that various NGO representatives working specifically in Nagapattinam pointed out that Dalits were feeling discriminated against. A few voluntary organisations narrated details of several incidents that have occurred over the past three or four days in which the Meenavars, the majority fishing community, and the Dalits have virtually come to blows over relief.

Sources said two key points were highlighted. First, the community panchayats of the Meenavars were very well-organised and were in a position to “play on the sentiments” of NGOs unfamiliar with the terrain and could bag a bulk of the relief for their own.

Not only were the Dalits scattered and leaderless, they have also been prevented from approaching NGOs to talk about their plight.

It was also pointed out that NGOs or NGO activists operating in the area for the first time were not aware of the dimensions of the caste problem.

They were choosing the easy way out of looking at the entire coastal population as part of a large fishing community. The ground reality was, however, different. It was a “multiple caste structure.”

Said a senior member of Action Aid India, who attended the Chennai meeting: “What is positive that even leaders of established bodies of South India Fish Workers Federation like Vivekananda have agreed that the discrimination in relief would not be tolerated.”

Said Gopalananda Maharaj, supervising the massive relief operation mounted by the Ramakrishna Mission from Belur Math near Kolkata:

“We have a policy of making it absolutely clear that we understand no barriers between human beings.” Harry Sethi, director, external affairs, Care India, said they are watching the situation unfold in all four districts of Tamil Nadu where they are working.

“We shall move in with relief material and our rehabilitation package once we identify the most deprived target group.”

India Committee of the Netherlands / Landelijke India Werkgroep - 20 januari 2005