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What was initially intended to be a casual dinner with a General Secretary of the Liberation Panthers, the state’s largest Dalit political party, quickly evolved into an extended affair. I arrived at Sinthanai Selvan’s Villupuram post prepared to enjoy an evening of conversation where we would likely discuss Dalit politics in Tamil Nadu alongside broader topics such as the upcoming US Presidential Election and Indian cricket. When I arrived, Sinthanai Selvan informed me that due to electrical maintenance work power had been shut off in the area and he proposed that we travel an extra hour to Neyveli, where I could enjoy a relaxed, home-cooked dinner with his extended family, eight people in all, and stay for a relaxing weekend. I had a couple hundred rupees in my wallet (not more than five dollars), a notepad and a pen; I certainly wasn’t prepared for a weekend trip. Regardless, I accepted the offer and shortly thereafter we were jolting our way down an old road that winds from Villupuram to Neyveli.

When were arrived at the Neyveli township, chicken curry was warming on the stove and fresh roti were being rolled. I was promptly introduced to the extended family: his wife, their two sons, his sister, her husband and another pair of sons. We huddled in the living room and discussed a variety of topics ranging from cinema and politics to botany and ecology until a little past midnight. On the following morning, I traveled with Sinthanai Selvan back to Villupuram where he had an evening program to attend, stopping several times along the way to meet party functionaries. Following tea and conversation in Villupuram, I caught a bus crammed like a sardine can and sputtered my way back to Pondicherry in the early evening.

There seems to be a general consensus among many of my interlocutors that Dalit politics faces a crisis in Tamil Nadu. Dalit parties have found themselves on the wrong side of coalition alliances in recent elections and a growing dissatisfaction has emerged regarding the extent to which democratic politics sapped the earlier radicalism of Dalit movements. In the northern districts of Tamil Nadu the past decade has witnessed the growing enfranchisement of Dalit communities within electoral politics, a development that can at least in part be attributed to the growth of Dalit political parties. But, the very emergence Dalit politics has provided an impetus for mainstream parties to address Dalit concerns in a more meaningful way, not simply rhetorically. For example, the CPI(M), one of the communist parties in Tamil Nadu, recently formed the Untouchability Eradication Front to address caste discrimination and mobilize the Dalit vote. It’s not a coincidence that the CPI and CPI(M) only began to address the caste question in earnest following the successful mobilization of autonomous Dalit political fronts. In a sense, Dalit politics has created its own competition.

In the attempt to grow the party, leadership has increasingly attempted to swell its ranks with non-Dalits and religious minorities alongside members of the Backward and Most Backward Classes (BCs and MBCs). This strategic move, an attempt to publicly recognize and increase the prominence of non-Dalits within the party, has stirred internal turmoil. Individuals from other communities are actively recruited and their progression through party ranks appears expedited, leading some grassroots cadre to scoff that if a non-Dalit joins the party they are immediately promoted and supplied a post, while party members for the past ten years are overlooked for such posts. It is too early to tell what type of internal restructuring will occur within the party, but the coming five years will almost certainly be a crucial time of transition and restructuring as the party adapts to a changing political environment.

-Michael

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About plcflash

This site provides a forum to share recent translations of Tamil speeches and essays. I hope it can be of use to both a general and an academic audience.