In Tamil Nadu, Dalit panchayat leaders hoist national flag under police protection

In Tamil Nadu, Dalit panchayat leaders hoist national flag under police protection

In Tamil Nadu, Dalit panchayat leaders hoist national flag under police protection

Under the watchful eye of district and block officials, Dalit panchayat heads in caste-sensitive villages in Pudukkottai district were finally able to unfurl the tricolour for the first time this Independence Day. 

Putukkottai, Tamil Nadu: It was around 8 in the morning and already there were crowds milling about the Senthangudi panchayat in Pudukkottai district, the air thick with the scent of eucalyptus and patriotic fervour. In the elementary school near the panchayat office, students lined up neatly, national flags pinned to their school uniforms, getting ready to celebrate 75 years of independence.

It's not a particularly unique or noteworthy scene; unless you knew who the man in the traditional white shirt and veshti (albeit adorned with the ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam colours along the border) was, or why he was accompanied to the podium by a police constable and why he burst into tears in front of the crowd.

For the first time since Indian Independence, the tricolour here was hoisted by a Dalit — in fact, its Panchayat president M Tamilarasan, who unfurled the flag amidst police protection.

He had been elected into the position two years ago but hadn't had the opportunity until this year. "The past two years, dominant caste Hindus stopped me and now I am the first person from the Dalit community to hoist the flag in this village panchayat. I am proud of this,” Tamilarasan said.

Like him, four other Dalit panchayat presidents from other reserved panchayats in the district also hoisted the tricolour under the direct supervision of district administration officials including District Revenue officials and Block Development officers to ensure that there was no discrimination. Police protection was also deemed necessary to ensure the safety and security of those participating in the event.

This was following orders issued by Tamil Nadu’s Chief Secretary V Irai Anbu to all District Collectors on 12 August to ensure that elected leaders hoist flags in their respective panchayat offices without facing any discrimination on the grounds of caste.  However, since the order mentioned only panchayat offices and not any other institutions, some panchayat leaders were still snubbed during flag hoisting events in schools. 

Tamilarasan said that among the 10 elected ward members from his panchayat only three showed up to the panchayat office and the rest of them ignored the ceremony. Very few people attended the Gram Sabha meeting that followed, he said. “Though I feel proud in hoisting the flag in the panchayat office and the elementary school, the headmaster of the local high school in Keelaiyur invited me but hoisted the flag himself in front of me. This is an insult to the people’s representative.”

A recent report produced by the CPI(M)-affiliated Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front (TNUEF) highlights the caste-based bias against Dalit presidents of the village panchayats. According to the survey, in Pudukkottai district five village panchayats presidents were unable to hoist the national flag in the past. These were listed among the 20 sensitive panchayats, with Thoothukudi district having the most number of discriminatory panchayats—six. 

Samuel Raj, State Secretary of TNUEF, said “Though overnight change is not possible in eradicating  discrimination, the initiatives taken by the Tamil Nadu government should be appreciated and it’s a great step towards building a better world.” Commenting on cases where, despite government efforts, some of the village panchayat leaders were not allowed to hoist the tricolour in the local schools in favour of the headmasters, he said that it wasn’t a question of protocol. 

“Protocols are not followed when a caste Hindu is the panchayat president. They are welcomed and people even wait for them to hoist the flag in every school in the village. But every rule in the book is scrutinised and read between lines when a Dalit is the village president.” 

Paapangudi, a reserved panchayat in Karambakudi block, is among those listed as sensitive areas by the TNUEF. P Vijayakumar, panchayat president and a DMK member, said  “It’s ironic that I needed police protection to hoist the national flag in my own village. I don’t face any security threats, but still I face discrimination. Two years ago I was invited to the high school in my panchayat but was not allowed to hoist the flag. That is why I boycotted the last year’s ceremony. I stopped worrying about these things and started working for the welfare of the people irrespective of their caste and religion.”

He also said people from the Dalit community, and it didn’t matter that they are economically well-off, couldn’t contest in panchayat elections held in past and had faced threats from the caste Hindus in his village. It was only after being announced as an SC reserved panchayat in 2016 and following the panchayat elections held in 2020 that they were able to contest and win. And thus have the opportunity to hoist the tricolour for the first time.

He also said, “Panchayat leaders from the neighbouring village—those from my own party—attended a family event recently and refused to eat there. I feel left out and offended that they don’t consider me as their fellow panchayat leader."

In Manjanviduthi panchayat, a little assertiveness by President V Suresh Kannan did wonders. He said proudly, “This year I hoisted the flag in every school in my panchayat. Last year, I was invited but stopped by the caste Hindu PTA association leader of the school from hoisting the national flag. This year I told the headmaster in advance of my desire to hoist the flag and now I’m happy that I asserted my right as village president.” He decried the need for police protection and how it made it look like he was unsafe in his own village and said he wouldn’t need it next year. “Despite the discriminatory attitude some people have towards me I try to work for the welfare of the people while maintaining my self-respect,” he said. 

Kavitha Ramu, Pudhukottai District Collector, said, “Our district and block officials were constantly monitoring the events to ensure peaceful flag hoisting and Gram Sabhas in the panchayats. ADSPs ensured protection of the panchayat leaders in sensitive areas.” She also said that a complaint cell was created in the district collectorate and the call centre numbers were circulated across the district to ensure a peaceful Independence Day. 


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