Dalit Parties and the Dilemmas of Democratisation in Tamil Nadu by Hugo Gorringe Abstract

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Gorringe, H. 2012. ‘Dalit Parties and the Dilemmas of Democratisation in Tamil Nadu’, in Governance, Democracy and Political Parties conference proceedings. Hyderabad: University of Hyderabad.

Dalit Parties and the Dilemmas of Democratisation in Tamil Nadu
by Hugo Gorringe

Abstract: In 1999 the largest Dalit movement organisation in Tamil Nadu abandoned a decade long boycott of elections and entered party politics. Just over a decade on from that transition this paper asks what has changed both in Tamil society and within the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK - Liberation Panther Party). The focus of the paper will be on the processes of institutionalisation both into political institutions and into socio-cultural ways of doing politics. Looking at institutionalisation in this way problematises the usual focus on a party’s electoral success or failure and compels us to analyse their political performance within its specific context. I will show how institutionalisation in Tamil Nadu has taken particular forms which have some benefits for VCK supporters, whilst also creating a rift between the party and its core support.


This paper concerns the institutionalisation of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK - Liberation Panther Party), the largest Dalit movement organisation in Tamil Nadu. The VCK first contested elections in 1999, since when it has succeeded in winning three MLA seats in different elections and 1 MP. As of late 2012, only the MP – Thirumavalavan, the party leader - remains in office. Although 4 political representatives over 13 years can hardly be termed a major political success, set against the backdrop of caste discrimination, hegemonic Tamil politics and a chronic lack of resources, the party cannot be said to have failed either. In this paper I draw on recent fieldwork with the VCK to reflect on the process of institutionalisation and offer an assessment of how the party is viewed today.

One of the key issues to be aware of when researching movement or party members, as any good textbook on political research will attest, is the tendency for interviewers to be fed a ‘rehearsed narrative’ that accentuates the positive aspects of the organisation concerned. It is only, researchers are advised, by winning the trust of the various activists and observing the party/movement in action that one is able to get beyond this initial portrait and arrive at a real understanding of what is happening. On countless occasions during fieldwork in the late 1990s, people would silence those who wished to voice doubts about the Dalit Panther Iyyakkam (DPI) as the VCK was then known. It was only by staying with people, travelling far and wide and getting people onside that I encountered divergent voices and perspectives.

Back then the DPI was a radical mass movement organisation that promised to return a hit for a hit and confronted caste atrocities head on. They boycotted elections, castigated all established parties and engaged in forms of violence to defend themselves and retaliate against caste oppressors. Thirumavalavan was commonly referred to as a second Ambedkar or a deity by followers who felt that he had sacrificed himself for his people. This oppositional stance led the movement to be seen as extremist, radical and militant and saw innumerable party activists arrested on serious charges and countless obstacles placed in the way of movement organisation. Against this backdrop, dissenting voices were cast as traitors, self-serving individuals or as inadequately conscientised.

Returning in 2012, I anticipated a professionalised party organisation that would be even more effective at presenting a common front than the movement had been. I devised multiple strategies to help me transcend the rehearsed narratives of party triumph and get a rounded view of the organisation. It was utterly bewildering, therefore, to find myself confronted time and again by activists criticising the party, bemoaning its policies and harking back to its past glories. From top to bottom of the party, leaders and activists were engaged in an introspective critique addressing precisely the issues that I thought I would struggle to record. As months past and one interview followed the other I found myself desperately searching for the narratives of success and triumph that I imagined I would have to dissect and found myself asking: (where) did it all go wrong for the political panthers?

In this paper I begin with a brief review of the literature on institutionalisation and offer an outline of the institutionalisation of Dalit politics in general and within Tamil politics, before analysing the institutionalisation of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal as a political party. I will chart the changes that have taken place since the late 1990s, offer an account of their current politics and how they are perceived on the ground. In closing I will problematise Gamson’s (1990) four-fold categorisation of movement success, consider the extent to which the VCK have been co-opted, and analyse their political performance within the political culture of Tamil Nadu.

Routinising Radicalism?

Whilst scholars like Tarrow (1998) and Jenkins & Klandermans (1995) regard political participation as the aim of protest groups, however, many such groups perceive politics as corrupt and/or reformist. The process of ‘institutionalisation’ – whereby movements ‘develop internal organisation, become more moderate, adopt a more institutional repertoire of action and integrate into the system of interest representation’ (Della Porta & Diani 1999: 148) – is therefore contentious. Coy & Hedeen (2005: 417) highlight the benefits that can accrue from institutionalisation including material gains, access to influential allies, and wider legitimacy. Institutionalisation, however, also has costs; movements may become ‘bureaucratized and technique centred’ with a dilution of movement critiques and tactics (Coy & Hedeen 2005: 407). It can also, as Piven & Cloward (1971) show, result in demobilisation or co-optation. As Mosse (2007: 27) puts it: ‘Empowerment depends upon political representation, but such political capacity is gained only at the cost of conceding power to a political system’. Understanding how movements move from radical actors to political contestants, therefore, is vitally important in understanding processes of democratisation and combating social exclusion (Tilly 1998).

Whilst India’s democratic system has struggled to accommodate oppositional movements, according to Lakha and Taneja (2009: 316) the recent upsurge of lower caste (Dalit and ‘Other Backward Caste’) groups is reshaping political institutions. Indeed, these authors describe the political accommodation and electoral successes of such movements as signifying ‘a seismic shift in patterns of political participation and structures of power’ (ibid. 317). Certainly, autonomous Dalit parties have kept caste discrimination on the agenda, held authorities to account and gained impressive electoral victories. The BSP’s formation of several governments at the state-level in India’s most populous state of Uttar Pradesh (Pai 2002), led some commentators to identify a ‘Dalit revolution’ in northern India (Jaffrelot 2003) even before it won an unparalleled absolute Assembly majority in 2008.

The BSP has undoubtedly effected significant social and political alterations in Uttar Pradesh and its success signifies an expansion of the public sphere as well as demonstrating the ability of Dalits to wield political power (Pai 2002; Ciotti 2009). Representation and electoral success in and of themselves, however, do not necessarily reflect the interests of the disadvantaged (see for example, Jeffery et al, 2001; Mosse 2007). As Fraser notes, such ‘politics of identity’ can entail the ‘displacement of redistribution and the reification of group identities’ (2003: 32). Dalit parties can entrench caste identities by emphasising the background of parliamentary candidates rather than their policies, and once parties are in positions of power, those who mobilised to demand recognition anticipate beneficial outcomes (Chandra 2004). The inability of Dalit parties to determine public policy jars with the increased expectations of followers, resulting in the argument that Dalit politics has ‘reached an impasse’ (Shah 2004:131).

In other words, Dalit movements across India are confronting the problems of ‘institutionalisation’ and this has arguably engendered a split between hard-line and reformist activists (Offe 1990). Pai’s (2002) work on the BSP distinguishes between empowerment from ‘above’ and ‘below’ and contends that the Party primarily pursues the former, viewing empowerment in purely political terms. This emphasis on political power has led the BSP to ally with parties opposed to Dalit assertion, thus weakening their attempts to eradicate caste inequalities. Dalit parties in Maharashtra, which was at the forefront of post-colonial Dalit mobilisation, have suffered a similar fate (Omvedt 2003), indicating an enduring tension between radical grass-roots movements seeking to transform social relations and political parties seeking electoral success.

Tamil Nadu provides an interesting case study since it is one of the more developed states in India and has a long history of non-Brahmin politics and legislation. Although Tamil Governments have been rhetorically committed to eradicating caste for nearly 50 years, Dalits continue to lag behind in social development indices. The uneven distribution of land-holdings means that 58.5% of Tamil Dalits work as agricultural labourers and a further 10.2% are cultivators of marginal landholdings. SC literacy rates (63.2%) languish behind those of the general population (76.2%) and Dalit women are further marginalised with literacy rates of 57% (TN Government Statistical Handbook 2010). Backward Castes have wielded political power in the state since 1962 and portray themselves as countering Brahmin dominance. Whilst this has led some (notably Subramaniam 1999) to regard Tamil Nadu as a bastion of social pluralism, Dalit movements arose in large part because they faced continuing discrimination and were excluded from the body politic.

Autonomous Dalit mobilisation generated a forceful (often violent) casteist backlash which led Dalit movements to advocate violent means (Gorringe 2006). Only in the past 15 years, therefore, have Dalit parties entered political institutions, and no Dalit party can emulate the BSP’s electoral success since the political context here is very different (Omvedt 2003). Indeed, only since 1998 has Tamil politics moved ‘from a two and a half party system to bi-polar multipartism’ (Wyatt 2009: 1). Tamil Dalit parties have been to the fore in advancing this change by seeking to strip Dalit voters away from established parties (Roberts 2010: 18).

The VCK were not the first Dalit party to enter Tamil politics but they have been the most successful, gaining 3 victories in the smaller constituencies of the State Assembly and one in national elections. It is difficult to gauge support for the party – which has always contested in alliance with others – but they have held rallies of over 100,000 people in the state capital and Wyatt (2009: 120-1) suggests it could swing the vote in movement strongholds. Their political standing was recognised in the State elections of 2006 when they contested from 10 seats and in the past few years the VCK have cemented their alliance with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham (Dravidian Progressive Federation – DMK), one of the two main political parties in the state having previously allied with the All India Anna DMK – which is the other pillar of Tamil politics.

Vernacularised Institutionalisation?

The Viduthalai Ciruthaigal Katchi (VCK - Liberation Panther Party) has successfully transformed from the largest Dalit movement in Tamil Nadu into a recognised political organisation. Having spent a decade boycotting the electoral process as corrupt and corrupting they have now spent the past decade attempting to carve out a niche for themselves within it. Political organisations do not emerge or operate in a vacuum and comprehending the forms that contemporary Dalit institutions take must, therefore, examine the existing ‘rules of the game’. Whilst much of the literature on social movement institutionalisation assumes that there is an established political template, Michelutti (2007) details the multiple ways in which democratic politics is shaped and influenced by socio-cultural practices, idioms, beliefs and norms in a process that she calls ‘vernacularization’. This being the case we should expect processes of institutionalisation to be inflected by local or regional socio-cultural practices too. Movements, we should note, are institutionalised in particular political cultures as much as to institutions.

At first glance, however, the story of the VCK’s move to politics might be that of any radical movement anywhere in the world. Time and again I was told that they were ‘just another party now’. As Chellappa, a Dalit intellectual who is still in the party put it:

Now their ideals, demands and ideology have sedimented (Neertu pogirachi). We say this in Tamil – when you leave a glass of water and the mud and so on settles at the bottom of the water. Before when they were active they were driven by ideology but now that is stagnant (Interview, February 2012).

Similarly, Mani, an educated Arunthathiyar noted how he had become disillusioned:

I was a bit engaged with stuff earlier on, but after a while I realised that all the leaders are the same. Once they became parties and got into politics then they behave just like the other politicians and parties. It is about power and money and less about the principles that got them there in the first place (Interview, February 2012).

The VCK, thus, faces the same accusations of compromise, stagnation and venality that are thrown at any movement that enters party politics. Even VCK post-holders admitted that ‘some of the enthusiasm and urgency has been lost’. Similarly, the response was predictable and taken from a text-book of institutionalisation. The loss in radicalism and spirit was countered by increasing professionalisation: the party boasted of its size and spread on the back of systematic recruitment drives that sought to raise money (Rs 10 per member) and expand the reach of the party. Tens of thousands of people were signed up to the party in a show of organisational efficiency that has been belied in subsequent years by their continued (two year) inability to get proper membership cards printed and sent out.

The slow and uncertain move towards professionalisation is also seen in the lack of party offices anywhere other than Chennai, the delay to the launch of the promised TV channel, the lengthy hiatus between people filing nomination papers for party posts and the results of the consultation being announced and in the inability of the leadership to get cadres to even contemplate internal elections. One journalist complained about the trouble he had had trying to get a quote for a story he was writing. He noted that there were plenty of leaders around but no obvious person to approach and no real willingness to speak out. The VCK member who was with us retirted:

They are all busy enriching themselves and sticking up posters but they cannot run a decent office – they are not concerned about that. They could have one building where people went for help drafting petitions or cases and it should have a press office section there (Interview July 2012).

The VCK are extremely professional in some aspects though. In 2012 they have totally overhauled their web-presence to better show-case what the leader is up to, outline campaigns and issues and publicise Thirumavalan’s parliamentary interventions and the songs of the party. The latter are particularly telling. Some of the video-songs hosted on Thiruma.net (notably Akaran’s Tamilar, Tamilar on http://thirumavalavansongs.wordpress.com/) achieve a technical and musical sophistication that was completely missing from the movement. It is instructive, though, that the section is entitled Thirumavalavan songs and almost all of them revolve around the leader. The institutionalisation of the party has seen great importance given to allocating party positions and yet there is still no established secondary rung leader who can stand in for Thirumavalavan.

Whilst this could just be a case of a party in the throes of change that is slowly and unevenly putting formal mechanisms into place, it is my contention that the institutionalisation of the VCK has proceeded along a somewhat different path to that of the movements discussed by Gamson (1990) in the West. In The Strategy of Social Protest, Gamson (1990: 28-9) argues that social movements aim at two basic outcomes: acceptance as political players and the securing of new advantages for participants. On the basis of this, he devises a fourfold categorization of movement outcomes: groups gaining full acceptance and securing new advantages are seen as successful and are said to have attained a ‘full response’; those that are fully accepted but secure no advantages are subject to ‘co-optation’; where movements gain many advantages but no recognition they are described as being ‘pre-empted’; and finally, those that gain neither acceptance nor advantages, ‘collapse’. Although he is one of the foremost theorists of social movements, Gamson operates within a broader political process approach that privileges the workings of institutional politics and neglects the socio-cultural dimensions of political life.

Mapping the VCK onto Gamson’s criteria, there is little doubt that they have been co-opted. To leave the matter at that, however, would at best tell only half the story. Gamson’s writing obscures the social context from which parties emerge. When asked about the gains of the VCK in its incarnation as a party, thus, Jawahar – an activist and advocate argued:

If you ask about achievements, then people who can speak their opinions and ideas have entered parliament and spoken up for Dalits on land issues, atrocity acts and so on. One cannot bring about huge changes in five years (Interview, March 2012).

Likewise, one former Marxist-Leninist member of the VCK took issue with me when I pointed out that VCK members had voted for the opposing coalition in some constituencies. In Gamson’s terms this would mark a clear failure of the party, but for Devaraj:

At least they [Dalits] are thinking about who to vote for rather than blindly voting for who they are told to vote for.

H: Did they vote for money before?

Not even money. They would vote because the landlord told them who to vote for and that was enough. It is only now that they are starting to think for themselves and consider who to support.

H: So in that light, this election is an improvement?

Better than before certainly (Interview, July 2012).

In both these accounts, the ‘gains’ spoken of by my respondents are the less tangible ones of awareness raising, advocacy and confidence. Ramesh, a former Youth Wing leader of the party was somewhat more instrumental.
HG: So what benefits have there been for Dalit people from PT and VCK becoming parties?

If you ask about benefits, then at election time they [established parties] give money. .. That’s what is good. If you ask why, they are frightened that he will vote for the VCK and for fear of that they give money (Interview, February 2012).

His point was that other parties were compelled to make concessions by the rise of Dalit organisations and it was reinforced in a subsequent interview with Shantha, a female student from a remote village:

Listen, in the last elections we are so backward we didn’t even get money to vote. Everyone else got money, when I came here [to college] and asked other SC students they all said that they got money to vote. All we got was a cup of tea! (Interview, February 2012).

It would be mistaken to read this assertion in purely material terms. What Shantha is bemoaning in the excerpt above relates both to material concerns and social status. ‘It is because we are not recognised as equals, that we are ignored’ was a common refrain. This sentiment was encapsulated in Auto Driver Thennivan’s assertion: ‘Ambedkar made us human, but Thirumavalavan has made us leaders’ (October 2012). In his eyes, the fact that a Dalit from an autonomous party is now an MP is a significant gain in itself. As Jaffrelot (2012: 52), puts it, Dalits ‘vote for their caste for both symbolic and substantive reasons’. All too often Dalit parties are said to focus on identity and symbolic politics. ‘If you ask what my main tasks [in the Party] were’, Ramesh – a former youth leader put it, ‘then it was preparing cut-outs and sticking posters’ (February 2012). Symbolism per se, however, is insufficient to retain support and so the VCK have had to learn the art of patronage and how to use connections. Dhanapal, a local VCL leader from near Madurai, noted how the movement had been cast as extremist and blocked at every turn, but:

Now that we are a party, if we want to hold a protest we get a response from officials, our voices are heard, we have the opportunity to interact with alliance partners. We’ve been in the DMK Front and the ADMK Front and so can speak to District Convenors and officials in each district or area. Now the VCK District Convenor and the DMK District Convenor and ADMK convenor have links. So what happens with these connections is that we can deploy them in the interests of the people (March 2012).
Similarly, reflecting on the past five, Gautam Sannah, propaganda secretary of the VCK argued: ‘We have created an understanding of the processes to some extent; we have understood how to best use the ruling party’ (September 2012). They and their followers could point to jobs, loans, transfers and documents that had been secured through the intervention of the party. Whilst many are disappointed that this had made the VCK ‘just another party’, activist and academic C. Lakshmanan notes that their actions need to be placed within context:
Tamil politics de-politicises the masses. It does not allow them or encourage them to think. It is based on patron-client relationships. On one hand there are the freebies - handing things out - and on the other the collapse of ideology (March 2012).

Within this context, ‘gains’ must be read in socio-political rather than purely political terms. The VCK have given Dalits a voice; highlighted discrimination; raised the profile of the Prevention of Atrocities Act; secured some patronage for followers; and gained recognition and respect from others. Operating within the hegemonic ways of doing politics, however, comes at a price. The universal concerns about compromise have a particularly sharp edge here, where leaders are accused of compromising in cases of caste discrimination. As Bhagat Singh, a lawyer, observed:
Now that they are a party they are in contact with other party leaders. Many of the accused will have party connections and so pressure is put on this lot to drop cases or come to some agreement (July 2012).

One NGO worker went further, alleging that: ‘When I go to meet cases, I now have three opponents: police, caste Hindus and Dalit parties [who are keen to compromise for a price]’ (March 2012). Allegations and rumours of this nature were pervasive both within and outside the party. For all the delight at seeing their leader in Parliament, members of the VCK were surprisingly disillusioned. Finding someone to pedal the party-line, as noted above, proved nearly impossible. The main explanation for this disillusionment appeared to be one final aspect of institutionalisation into Tamil politics and that is the adoption of Tamil nationalism. The VCK has always spoken of Tamil nationalism and supported the LTTE in Sri Lanka, but this was always secondary to the Dalit struggle. Now, as the party seeks to broad-base its support, the party emphasises Tamil issues and is actively seeking to recruit and promote non-Dalits.

The logic of the shift in emphasis is obvious. As Madurai District secretary Ellallan noted:

‘Why should we let them exclude us? We are Tamils too, so we call ourselves a Tamil party. Our people will accept that. If we call ourselves a Dalit party then they will isolate us forever. So we are a Tamil party but we are opposed to caste unlike the other parties’ (March 2012).

While the leaders view this as a platform on which to reach out to other castes; secure recognition as a general (not caste) party; reduce caste animosity; draw voters away from other parties; and emphasise their status as Tamils – ground level cadre see the induction of non-Dalits into party leadership positions as a slap in the face: ‘I’ve been in the party for 20 years, why am I not recognised?’ This maps onto an accusation that non-Dalits are merely out to enrich themselves rather than committed to the goals of the party and, in some cases, the claim that the VCK has ‘abandoned Dalits’. It is here that the debate about co-optation is most contested. The VCK argue that, unlike any other party, they campaign on common issues alongside others but also protest against caste atrocities. Their ‘full recognition’ as a party has not meant that political allies stand with them to condemn caste-based atrocities. For all the rhetorical emphasis on social justice and campaigns against caste discrimination the Dravidian parties in Tamil Nadu remain casteist in outlook and practice. Constituency candidates are decided on the basis of caste arithmetic and seats are allocated to allies on a similar basis.

By reference to Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, Manor (2012: 17) notes how dominant castes have adopted a strategy of ‘uneasy political correctness’. In Tamil Nadu, by contrast, dominant caste politicians have openly called for the repeal of the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act and urged members not to marry outside of their caste. Indeed, PMK Member of the Legislative Assembly, J. Guru openly threatened retaliation against cross-caste marriages. Whilst mass violence against Dalits is said to have declined, ‘honour killings’ are common and there have been several recent attacks on cheris (Dalit settlements) that have set light to houses and destroyed or looted goods. Indeed, dominant castes are taking refuge in allegations of reverse victimisation to shore up caste solidarity and status. Backward Caste organisations like the Thevar Community Protection Front or Kongu Vellalar Gounder Front speak of Dalits receiving unfair advantages and preferential treatment. As one journalist noted, however, ‘the main issue is the challenge to caste pride and dominance: “these people used to be our serfs and now they are demanding to sit alongside us!”’ (February 2012). It is against this backdrop that the VCK must be analysed.

Concluding Thoughts

At a seminar celebrating a noted Dalit author discussion turned to the state of Dalit politics, and the prevailing sentiment was summed up by Professor Muthu Mohan:

Do Dalit parties have a clear political strategy? It seems like they work hard to get to Chennai, raise a flag, launch a paper and then sit there bargaining with other parties. What is the long term goal? (April 2012)

One of the key challenges of institutionalisation has been to move from being a protest movement that reacted to instances of abuse, discrimination and exclusion, to a political party that can articulate a coherent vision. Every time I asked anyone what the VCK had achieved, they returned to their movement days and the uprising they engendered amongst the people. When I pressed them on achievements as a party, however, people were much less forthcoming. The VCK has clearly established itself as a political player in the state: its symbols are recognised; it has access to some patronage; its leaders are recognised and respected by local authorities and police; its leader is widely recognised – to the extent of being lampooned in the cartoons of popular, non-political weeklies; it is seen as a worthy coalition partner; and it is starting to gain wider recognition (Thirumavalavan’s invitation to London to address a meeting on Sri Lanka in November 2012 for instance).

In this sense, in Gamson’s terms, if the VCK has not gained a ‘full response’ it has not been totally co-opted either. The protests against caste discrimination, the police firing in Paramakudi in 2011, and the desecration of Ambedkar statues in 2012 demonstrate an abiding commitment to the Dalit cause. The problem is that the party has been overly integrated into the Tamil way of doing politics. The VCK – which galvanised people who had never voted before in 1999 – now struggles to enthuse its core supporters. As a small party it lacks the resources to win people over with material gains, but it is too vociferous on Dalit issues to be fully embraced into ruling coalitions. As its leaders plot out a strategy that will enable them to win elections with the support of others, the cadre at the grass-roots are reducing to singing the praises of their leader and hoping for a return to the glorious struggles of the past. As T. Rani, case-worker in a Dalit organisation, put it:

There are two main parties here and only they can win. We are like a mouse caught in a cage with a cat – we’ll do anything to escape and so we vote for the other party to gain some respite. We need to escape from their coalitions and the pressure that they place on Dalit leaders. We need an alternative politics to develop properly not more of the same (March 2012).


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