Monday, June 14, 2010

[ZESTCaste] Media coverage of Dalit issues in Tamil Nadu

Opinion - Readers' Editor : Online & Off line

Media coverage of Dalit issues in Tamil Nadu

S. Viswanathan

There is no denying that media coverage of Dalit-related incidents and
issues in Tamil Nadu has improved in the last two decades. In the
early years of Independence, the typical attitude to Dalit problems
was, as in every other State, one of complacency. This was mainly
because the moment the Republican Constitution declared that
untouchability was abolished across India, the media, civil society,
and the political establishment began to believe that the problems
concerning this section of the people have been resolved once for all.

In Tamil Nadu, particularly in the first few years of Independence,
the struggle for reservation for backward classes in government
employment became the foremost item on the social agenda of the
Dravidian parties. So, unsurprisingly, when the State was rocked by
incidents of violence involving Dalits and a section of caste Hindus
in southern Tamil Nadu in the 1950s, the media as well as the
mainstream political parties saw it as a "riot involving two social
groups" or a fallout of competitive politics.

Only in the 1990s, when the birth centenary of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar was
celebrated across the country and Dalit socio-political assertiveness
was in evidence did the media begin to see the issue from a different
perspective. Horrific violence against Dalits, the resultant loss of
life and property, and brutal intervention by the police on the side
of the oppressors gave a new dimension to the media approach to
Dalit-related issues. The killing of Dalits, and entrenched
discriminatory practices against them were now seen, at least by a
section of the media, from the angle of violation of human rights.
Kodiyankulam (1995), Gundupatti (1998), and the Tirunelveli massacre
(1995) can be cited as notorious examples of police repression against

The dawn of the 21st century witnessed some new developments. The
realignment of political parties, hopes raised by electoral politics,
and the success of coalition-building among Dalit parties altered the
ground reality. Media coverage of Dalit issues seems to be in decline,
although a few popular Tamil magazines have chosen to keep the
coverage alive, in a diluted form, usually with an eye on those
looking for sensational reports. During the same period, there has
been a decline in anti-Dalit violence but the chronic or entrenched
problems loom large. Aside from persistent social discrimination
against Dalits, landlessness, loss of land owing to ignorance or acute
poverty, and improper implementation of the reservation system cry out
for a solution. In the most recent period, the subject has been given
lower priority even among the handful of newspapers that have been
maintaining a decent level of coverage.

Madras High Court judgment

For instance, a recent court judgment of the Madras High Court on the
alienation of the "Panchami Lands" assigned to the 'Depressed Classes'
(later termed Scheduled Castes) to persons who were not from the
Depressed Classes raises questions about a problem that has defied
solution over decades. Dismissing the writ appeals filed by a private
builder and a residents' association against an order passed in 1996
by a single Judge of the Madras High Court, a Division Bench
comprising Justice Prabha Sridevan and Justice P.P.S. Janarthana Raja
affirmed the findings of the single Judge that the lands in question
were the [Panchami] lands allotted to members of the Scheduled Castes,
subject to the conditions stipulated in Standing Order No. 15 of the
Board of Revenue and that the present alienation of the land was in
violation of these conditions. According to the Standing Order, if
there has been violation of the conditions in the alienation of
Panchami land, the Government has the power to resume the land. In
such cases, "the Government will be entitled to re-enter and take
possession of the land without payment of any compensation or refund
of the purchase money." The judgment pointed out that the conditions
imposed by the Government when it assigned the land were that the
allotted land should not be alienated to any person for 10 years from
the date of assignment and thereafter they could only be alienated to
persons belonging to the Depressed Classes and if they were alienated
to persons other than the Depressed Classes, the Government had the
power to retrieve such land.

The Division Bench quotes extensively from the observations of the
Supreme Court of India while dealing with the question of the right to
economic justice under Article 46 of the Constitution, "which casts
upon the State a duty to provide economic justice to Scheduled Castes
and Scheduled Tribes and other weaker sections of the society in order
to prevent their exploitation." Justice Prabha Sridevan, who delivered
the judgment for the Division Bench, gives a brief history of the
assignment of lands to the Depressed Classes, before elaborating the
Bench's verdict. In 1891, the Collector of Chengalpet District in
northern Tamil Nadu, J.H.A. Tremenheere, sent a report to the British
government on the plight of the Depressed Classes. Lands were then in
the total control of persons who were considered to be at higher
levels in the caste hierarchy and the bonded agricultural labourers
and landless workers mainly belonged to the Depressed Classes.

Tremenheere stated further in his report: "The small marginal land
holdings, housing, literacy, free labour without force/bondage,
self-respect and dignity are the factors that could lead to
transformation (in their lives)." The British Parliament passed the
Depressed Class Land Act in 1892 and 12 lakh acres of land were
distributed to people from the Depressed Classes in Tamil Nadu. The
lands were called Panchami Lands [also known as Depressed Classes
Conditional Lands] and were given away on certain conditions.

Justice Prabha Sridevan noted in this judgment that it would appear
that the conditions over sale were imposed bearing in mind that it
would be easy to exploit persons belonging to the Depressed Classes
who had been kept in a subjugated condition. Statistics showed that
vast extents of lands distributed under the scheme were later in the
possession of persons who did not belong to the Depressed Classes. The
Judge observed that the conditions appeared to have been violated
without any check or restraint. (The counsel for the appellants had
submitted that such a restraint on alienation of land was void.)

The Judge drew attention to an excerpt from the Statement of Objects
and Reasons of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention
of Atrocities) Act, 1989, which the Supreme Court referred to while
dealing with a petition challenging the Act. The excerpt read:
"Despite various measures to improve the socio-economic conditions of
the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes, they remain vulnerable.
They are denied a number of civil rights. They are subjected to
various offences, indignities, humiliation, and harassment. They have,
in several brutal incidents, been deprived of their life and property.
Serious crimes are committed against them for various historical,
social and economic reasons." She added: "The very sad truth is that
the conditions recorded in the Statement of Objects and Reasons in the
year 1989 have not abated. Therefore, this only underscores the
importance of protecting the rights of those who have been for
centuries, denied this right [to live with human dignity]."

The verdict of the Division Bench, which has looked into the problem
from the perspective of the constitutional rights of Dalits, such as
the right to economic justice and the right to live with dignity,
gains significance in the context of repeated appeals of Dalit and
Left organisations to the government to retrieve Panchami lands,
assigned to Dalits but now in the possession of non-Dalits, and
restore it to Dalits. Only massive, concerted efforts of the
government to survey the land assigned under the Panchami Land scheme
and identify the land alienated to non-Dalits in violation of the
conditions can lead to restitutive justice on the ground.

Dalit reassertion in Tamil Nadu

Although 1.2 million acres of land are reported to have been assigned
to Dalits in Tamil Nadu, much of this has fallen into the hands of
non-Dalits over the decades. The problem came to light only around the
1990s. It is noteworthy that an organised agitation demanding
retrieval of the assigned land back to Dalits was staged in 1994 at
Karanai near Chengalpet (now Chengalpattu), where the District
Collector Tremenheere initiated the historical move to recommend to
the British India government distribution of land to people of the
Depressed Classes in 1891. The agitation was met with a heavy hand,
resulting in the death of a couple of Dalits in police firing.
Although the agitation did not succeed, the movement marked the
beginning of Dalit reassertion in Tamil Nadu.

It is unfortunate that the Madras High Court judgment has not got the
media attention it deserves. Only a few newspapers have reported with
insight and context on the issue. Truthful and sensitive investigation
of social issues and challenges, linked to mass deprivation in rising
India, is a key responsibility of the media. Provided they are
sensitised to the social responsibility of the media, young
journalists with their skills, talents, and energy can do a lot to
investigate these issues and help place them on the public agenda. It
is up to those who lead media organisations and shape their agenda to
give them their head.


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