ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Dalit Political Imagination and Replication in Contemporary Tamil Nadu

Tamil politics is dominated by the Dravidian parties and it is an indictment of their rule that untouchability and caste discrimination continue unabated in the state. Dalit movements arose in opposition, and as an alternative, to Dravidianism but have been shaped by their political context. A dalit-left alliance might offer one way out of the current impasse in dalit politics.

The editorial, “Dalits in Tamil Nadu” featured in the 21 July issue of the Economic & Political Weekly highlights some of the difficulties faced by, and the shortcomings of, dalit politics in Tamil Nadu. It rightly notes how practices of untouchability and casteist discrimination not only continue, but are often unchallenged in the cradle of the Dravidian movement. It cannot be gainsaid that much dalit politics revolves around issues of identity and occurs in the symbolic sphere. Likewise, the lack of adequate dalit leadership in the Communist Party of India (Marxist) – CPI(M) – is a major omission that has prevented the communist party from emerging as a significant dalit force. The editorial, however, does little to explain why Tamil dalits face this predicament and, short of an implicit call for dalit-communist unity, it does little to suggest a resolution.

Dalit politics in the state, furthermore, currently stands at a crossroads. As some sub-dalit groups are just starting to mobilise and organise themselves, existing dalit parties are attempting to embrace the wider politics and identities of Tamil nationalism. Bhimrao Ambedkar, Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin are neither unknown nor unread here though Jyotiba Phule is less prominent, and all four are less familiar than Periyar E V Ramasamy. Pandit Iyothee Thass and Rettaimalai Srinivasan in the past and a host of dalit intellectuals from the 1980s onwards have articulated a coherent counter-­hegemonic discourse but they have been joined or even replaced on contemporary dalit banners by Vellupillai Prabhakaran’s (of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) image on the one hand and a host of caste-specific characters from history or “mythological history” on the other. Taking our cue from the timely editorial we wish to use this article to outline some of the reasons behind the continuing marginality of dalits in the state, reflect on current dalit politics and conclude by considering some of the possible alternatives and avenues that are open to dalit parties today.1

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