Monday, September 4, 2023

A horrendous massacre in Tamil Nadu, 1968

A recurring theme in Understanding Society for the past several years is the occurrence of unfathomable atrocity in the twentieth century. Many of the examples considered occurred in Europe. But atrocities have occurred in many countries and civilizations. A horrific example occurred in Tamil Nadu, India, in 1968. In the small rural village of Keezhvenmani, some 44 dalit people, mostly women and children, were gathered into a hut by the strongmen of local landlords, the hut was set afire, and all 44 innocent dalit people died a horrifying, torturous death. The exact number of victims is uncertain.    

The term "dalit" refers to the lowest caste of people in the Indian caste system, now officially designated as "Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe", and the massacre at Keezhvenmani was only one of a number of mass murders of dalits in Tamil Nadu since independence. (Here is a detailed report by Human Rights Watch on violence against dalit women in India (link). A central finding of the report: "The lack of law enforcement leaves many Dalit women unable to approach the legal system to seek redress. Women are often also unaware of the laws; their ignorance is exploited by their opponents, by the police, and, as illustrated by the cases below, by the judiciary. Even when cases are registered, the lack of appropriate investigation, or the judge’s own caste and gender biases, can lead to acquittal, regardless of the availability of evidence or witnesses. The failure to successfully prosecute cases of rape also allows for crimes against women to continue unabated, and in the caste context, encourages the use of rape as a tool to punish and silence Dalit communities.")

The young scholar Nithila Kanagasabai (herself a resident of Tamil Nadu) attempted to provide an evidence-based reconstruction of the Keezhvenmani massacre in "The Din of Silence: Reconstructing the Keezhvenmani Dalit Massacre of 1968" (link). 

The background of the 1968 killings was the conflict between landlords who owned or controlled the rice paddy of the region (mirasdar) and the landless workers (often formerly bonded laborers) who were the primary workforce. These agricultural workers were dalits and they were extremely poor. When these workers and families began to support the mobilizing efforts of the increasingly active presence of several Communist parties in the region, the landlords began to use violence against these workers and families. A number of murders occurred in the months preceding the December 1968 massacre at Keezhvenmani. Here is Kanagasabai's description of the December 25 massacre:

According to eye witness accounts, on 25th December 1968, at around 10 p.m., the mirasdars and their henchmen came in police lorries and surrounded the cheri (hutments), cutting off all routes of escape. They shot at the labourers and their families who could only throw stones to protect themselves or flee from the spot. They also started burning the huts in the vicinity. Many of the women and children, and some old men, sought protection in a hut that was 8 ft x 9 ft. The hut was burnt down, and the people with it. Both the sessions court and the high court that later heard the case, held that those who committed the arson were not aware of the presence of people in that particular hut (Krishnakumar, 2005). But eye witness accounts by the survivors point to an altogether different truth. (111)

The accused perpetrators of this atrocity were charged, tried, and convicted, but their convictions were set aside by the Madras High Court. "The evidence did not enable Their Lordships to identify and punish the guilty” (114).

This event illustrates the workings of oppression involving both caste and class. The landless workers were predominantly dalit -- the lowest caste. And they were the poorest of the poor, with very little power to assert a fair share of the harvest. Land owners were in a position to resist increases in wages (the primary demand of the workers in this dispute), both through their structural advantage within the property system (land ownership) and their coercive power (through their ability to call upon armed thugs to carry out their violence against the dalit protests). A solution for the property disadvantage for the dalit workers is land reform, and during the years following the Keezhvenmani massacre there was a reasonably strong organization dedicated to land reform and dalit land ownership, the Land for Tillers Freedom (LAFTI). However, land reform based on NGO activism is likely to remain small-scale, in comparison to state-wide land reform programs.

Kanagasabai quotes V Geetha and Kalpana Karunakaran in the introduction to Mythily Sivaraman's Haunted by Fire (2013):

That episode and visit brought home to Mythily the starkness of life in this grain rich part of Tamil Nadu... She realised that the price for dignity, for daring to declare oneself a communist was very high in these parts – many had paid with their lives... Unsurprisingly, in her subsequent reflections, she refused to concede that the monstrous incident at Kilvenmani was only a wage dispute gone wrong, and argued passionately for it to be recognised for what it was: class struggle in the countryside. (Geetha & Karunakaran, 2013)

Class struggle in the countryside, indeed -- landlords exercising horrendous violence against landless workers.

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