Winding Down…

Two months have already flown by and only two weeks remain! I know it’s cliché, but I am surprised at how quickly this summer is winding down. I have spent the past several weeks in Pondicherry, a seaside town in the northern districts of Tamil. The city provides a convenient access point for the northern districts of Tamil Nadu and hosts an array of prominent research institutes with excellent faculty and extensive library collections. Over the course of the summer, it has become increasingly clear that Pondicherry will provide the ideal locale for my future research, both due to its geographic location as well as the quality of scholars and resources located at the local French Institute of Pondicherry. For the next couple of weeks, my agenda is full. I have received several verbal pledges of materials including publications by political parties as well as some old party propaganda from the early 1990s. While pledges don’t always pan-out, I will re-establish contact with these individuals and certainly try to bring back some materials to Philadelphia to translate over the coming year. Materials in my field have been poorly preserved and chronicled; in fact, they often degrade rapidly in the humid climate. There is always a sense of urgency to collect documents, largely fueled by the viable concern that they might not be there in the year or years to come.

After a short trip to Bangalore, one of the primary IT-hubs of south India, I will catch a night bus to Coimbatore to meet with the founder of Tamil Nadu’s first Dalit political party, the Pudhiya Tamizhagam (New Tamil Society; PT). Dr. Krishnasamy converted his non-electoral social movement into a political party in the late-1990s. Through a mutual friend, Dr. Krishnasamy has invited me to visit with him in Coimbatore. Recent events in Madurai, which I will briefly discuss below, should provide an intriguing backdrop to this conversation.

In previous posts I have mentioned the political lives of public walls, which are frequently spaces monopolized by political parties. Party members rent designated wall space by the week or month and either paste large digital posters or hire local artists to paint party propaganda in bright hues. The erection of statues and monuments are yet another popular form of public political allegiance. Following the 100 year anniversary of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s birth in 1891, concrete (and occasionally bronze) statues were erected throughout India to commemorate the political icon and chief architect of the Indian constitution. While Ambedkar was a national politician, today he is often viewed as a specifically Dalit politician, partly due to his own politics and party due to the way he has been embraced and foregrounded as an icon of contemporary Dalit movements. Subsequently, the birth of Dalit political movements in Tamil Nadu occurred parallel to the establishment of Ambedkar as their primary political icon.

Frequently, political struggles are waged around the erection and maintenance of such statues. Recently, in simultaneous incidents, three statues of Ambedkar were decapitated in the city of Madurai and over the past week Dalit movements from throughout the state converged in the famous temple city to stage protests, often blockading government highways and impeding the standard flow of daily affairs. This vandalism of public statues also provides parties and social organizations with a prominent issue around which to mobilize as well as an opportunity to gauge and demonstrate their political strength by the style and duration of their protest. The installation of Ambedkar statues into the public sphere coincided with the development of an autonomous Dalit politics in Tamil Nadu. Dr. Krishnasamy was a central figure in this process beginning in the 1980s. As the pioneer of Dalit electoral politics in the state, his perspective should illuminate both the history of Dalit movements and offer valuable insight into possible future directions for a politics that many analysts suggest has begun to stall in recent years. More on this to come, and happy belated Indian Independence Day!

-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.