Forty years ago, on the night of 25 December 1968, in the village of Keezhavenmani in what is today Nagapattinam district of Tamil Nadu, 44 dalits, many of whom were women and children, were burnt alive in a hut in which they had taken refuge. The reason: the labourers had the “temerity” to organise themselves and demand better wages for agricultural work. All that they were demanding was six measures of paddy for every 48 harvested on the land of the mirasdars (landlords). In the course of a prolonged struggle for better wages the dalit workers had organised under a communist union. In retaliation, the landowners had formed a paddy producers’ association. It was not just the demand for higher wages that was galling to the landlords; the fact that they were standing up to the all-powerful mirasdar was unacceptable.
A mockery of a court case followed. Ten landlords were convicted to 10 years of imprisonment. But the Madras High Court overturned the judgment citing the convicted’s “respectable statuses as mirasdars” and this was confirmed by the Supreme Court. Justice denied by the law was in a grotesque way delivered by the brutal murder of P Gopalkrishna Naidu, the leader of the landlord association, when he was killed 12 years after the incident.
What is striking about what has transpired through the years since Keezhavenmani is the improvement in the lives of the dalits in the village and in surrounding areas in Nagapattinam district. The flashpoint in 1968 and the court acquittal did not lead to the dissipation of the agricultural workers’ long-standing movement. The political movement for wages became a wider one for justice for the victims of the brutal murders, for emancipation from untouchability and for self-respect. After demanding a mere handful of measures of paddy in the late 1960s, by the mid-1970s the workers had managed to extract substantially higher agricultural wages. The class mobilisation of the dalits and the agricultural workers soon consolidated into a strong political movement, and today 40 years later, the strength of the left parties (the Communist Party of India-Marxist in particular) under the leadership of the dalits in the district is there for all to see, as substantiated by their electoral performance in the area.
Today’s dalits in Keezhavenmani and in Nagapattinam face other issues – the agrarian crisis in the Cauvery delta region, lack of other means of employment beyond agricultural labour, and only a marginal improvement in livelihood indicators. But the deaths of 44 villagers from Keezhavenmani spurred the dalits of the area to reject exploitation and they took up a concerted struggle that built consciousness and forced the governments of the day to acquiesce to their just demands. No longer is the mirasdar the controller of the workers’ destiny or the overlord of economic activity in the paddy fields. Landownership patterns in the Cauvery delta have changed, though much of the land in large quantities is still under the control of temple trusts. Today’s struggles are oriented towards demand for redistribution of such land and house pattas, as announced by the government but not yet implemented.
The 40-year-long journey of the dalits of Keezhavenmani and of the erstwhile east Thanjavur district since the gruesome events of December 1968 stands as an inspiration to the vast numbers of dalits elsewhere in the country who continue to face the twin barriers of social and economic exploitation. As the Karamchedu massacres in Andhra Pradesh in 1985, the Jhajjar lynchings in Haryana in 2002, the Khairlanji murders in Maharashtra in 2006, and the scores of incidents in which the feudal Ranvir Sena have targeted dalit families in Bihar in the 1990s have shown, dalits are still at the receiving end of violence and exploitation across the country. While affirmative action and reservation have provided some relief, they have only been formal ways of enshrining equality while entrenched caste prejudices and economic exploitation remain.
No longer does the judiciary in India show a blatant class/caste bias as it did in the Keezhavenmani judgment. But kangaroo courts, run by caste panchayats, still go about ostracising dalits in the rural hinterland. Without a concerted political movement for rights, political representation has largely resulted in cooption of sections of dalits into the system.
The saga of struggles and steady political mobilisation by the dalits in Nagapattinam district – despite setbacks such as the court rulings on the Keezhavenmani murders and periodical dilution of land ceiling laws in Tamil Nadu – stand out as a success story in the fight against exploitation and casteism in the country. They may be facing newer challenges and newer struggles, but they hold their head high today in reverence to the memory of those who were brutally massacred 40 years ago.