Beheadings & Caste Wars in South Tamil Nadu: Pallar vs Thevar, the Inside Story

As Pallars and Thevars die by murder, state police have nabbed 3,325 people and seized 111 knives from across TN.

6 min read
Beheadings & Caste Wars in South Tamil Nadu: Pallar vs Thevar, the Inside Story

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Immanuel Sekaran did not move a muscle as he stayed sitting in his chair - says folklore of Tamil Nadu’s southern district, Ramanathapuram. In 1957, Sekaran – a Pallar (Dalit) by caste – chose not to stand and honour Muthuramalinga Thevar – a dominant OBC caste leader – when the two attended an all-caste meeting at Mudukulathoor, Ramanathapuram.

The meeting was called because close to 50 Pallars had been killed in riots that broke out after a local by-election. In the election, the Pallars led by Sekaran had voted for the Congress, even as a Thevar candidate of the Forward Bloc went on to win the seat.

The day after the meeting, on 11 September 1957, Sekaran, the educated Congress leader and Dalit, was killed for disrespecting Muthuramalinga Thevar, the Forward Bloc politician.

Dalit leader Immanuel Sekaran

(Photo: Government of India Stamp)

Though the Sekaran murder occurred six decades ago, similar caste killings still haunt southern Tamil Nadu. As recently as September 2021, four beheadings related to the caste rivalry between the Thevars and the Pallars, have rocked Tirunelveli and Dindigul districts.


Four Dead in 10 Days, 3,325 Arrested

The recent episode of beheadings started on 13 September, when a Thevar, Sankarasubramanian (38) was found decapitated in Tirunelveli. On 15 September, Mariappan, a Dalit, was beheaded at the same spot. In the neighbouring district of Dindigul, on 23 September, Nirmala Devi (70), a Thevar, was decapitated. On the same day, E Stephen (38), a Dalit, met with the same fate.

All the four murdered persons were accused of having links with other killings or gang conflicts in the past. For instance, Nirmala Devi was an accused in the murder of C Pasupathy, a Dalit leader, in 2012. Sankarasubramian and Mariappan were finished off because of gang rivalry between Thevars and Pallars, Tirunelveli police say, adding that Stephen was killed in connection with Nirmala Devi’s murder.

Meanwhile, Tamil Nadu police have nabbed 3,325 people, in 'Operation Disarm', from across the state to prevent escalation of violence. In the operation, 111 knives and seven illegal guns were also seized.

But why have clashes between Thevars and Pallars been recur since the 1950s to the present times?

Historians and sociologists say the violence is mostly retaliatory – Dalits militantly protesting dominant caste oppression. The Tamil Nadu police, however say, most murders smack of vengeance and cannot be linked back only to caste conflict.

The fact, however, remains that Pallars, who are a sub-caste of Devendra Kula Vellalars, are a land owing Dalit caste. They have been organising under their caste banner to militantly resist the dominance of of the Thevars, a politically and economically powerful caste in Tamil Nadu. Immanuel Sekaran was a prominent Pallar leader who founded Devendra Kula Vellalar Sangam in 1924.

Vedaranyam in Nagapattinam district of Tamil Nadu witnessed massive clashes on Sunday, 25 August, between two caste groups.
(Photo Courtesy: The News Minute)

“The Pallars, even though they are not economically as affluent as the Thevars, have been assertive since Immanuel Sekaran led the way in the pre-Independence years. They are assertive as they are one of the most educated castes among Dalits in Tamil Nadu,” N Bharathan, a sociologist and activist from Tirunelveli told The Quint. “Violence against Pallars is also on account of their educational upliftment and economic progress over the years.”

The socio-economic rise of the Pallars happened in the 1980s when youth of the community migrated to West Asian countries. In most cases, the money sent back home was used to buy immovable assets like land for cultivation and homes for living, Bharathan observed.


The Blood Soaked '90s

The last time Thevar and Pallar castes clashed on a largescale, resulting in a string of murders, was between 1996 and 1998. The Dalits were organized under two political outfits then - the Dalit Panthers of India and the Devendra Kula Vellalar Federation. The Thevars then stood united under the banner of Thevar Peravai.

The first major incident of violence took place in Kodiyankulam of Thoothukudi district on 31 August 1995.

The police conducted a massive raid in the village to look for some murder suspects. Unknown assailants had killed three Thevar youth a week earlier. In the police action, the land-ownership documents of Pallars residents, who had recently moved abroad for employment were torched, in an attempt to strike at the village's economic base. The 2021 Tamil film Karnan starring Dhanush, is based on Kodiyankulam police action. In the film, a beheading is the climactic moment.

Dhanush on the poster of Mari Selvaraj's Karnan.

(Photo Courtesy: Prime Video)

In subsequent years, caste riots became frequent in southern Tamil Nadu. Incidents of violence were reported in Theni, Madurai, Virudhunagar, Tirunelveli and Thoothukudi. “South was a war ground. People fought tooth and nail for their caste pride. Sickles and stones were used to kill and injure. Both Thevars and Pallars were killed in the riots, but mostly Pallars lost limbs and property,” said Bharathan.

Christudas Gandhi, who was an implementation officer of the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act in Tamil Nadu at the time, recalls the clashes of May 1997 vividly. “It started with the government naming a bus service after Pallar leader Veeran Sundaralingam. The Thevar’s refused to travel in this bus and insulted the Pallars by preventing them from using steel tumblers in their tea shops. Coconut tumbles were set aside for Pallars. This aggravated the situation and resulted in widespread clashes,” Gandhi said. At the time, Dr K Krishnaswamy was the leader of the Pallars. His arrest for “incendiary speeches” escalated tension in the region.

Dhanush on the poster of Karnan.

(Photo Courtesy: Twitter)

In the years that followed, the Pallars organised as Devendra Kula Vellalars, have been lobbying for political power. Dr Krishnaswamy and John Pandiyan are the prominent leaders of the caste group now. In recent years, the Pallars have been slanting towards the Bharatiya Janata Party. Political tension between the BJP and the Dravidian parties of Tamil Nadu too have escalated tensions between the two caste groups.


Shift Towards BJP and Rising Tensions

The recent Pallar affinity towards the BJP is rooted in the Devendra Kula Vellalar Federation’s outlook towards caste emancipation. The Federation is now called Puthiya Tamilagam Katchi. According to Dr Krishnasamy, OBCs – not Brahmins and other caste Hindus – are the main caste rivals of the Dalits. As both Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam have patronised the Thevars, getting the patronage of BJP, gives prominence to smaller caste groups, and can be politically uplifting, Pallar leaders think.

Ahead of the 2021 Tamil Nadu Assembly elections, the Central government passed the Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order (Amendment) Bill, 2021 that modified the list of Scheduled Castes in the state. Now, as per the list, the Devendrakulathan, Kalladi, Kudumban, Pallan, Pannadi and Vathiriyan sub-castes, fall under the umbrella term Devendra Kula Vellalar. But Pallar leaders have been asking for the exclusion of the Devendra Kula Vellalars from the Scheduled Caste list. “The leaders think that declassification will help them escape caste hierarchy. The BJP is supporting this aspiration,” said a social activist who is at loggerheads with Puthiya Tamilagam.

Dr Krishnasamy with Union Minister Nirmala Sitharaman.

(Photo: Twitter)

The tension between Pallars and Thevars has now in effect become a conflict between the AIADMK, DMK and the BJP.

“Matters have taken a political turn and it has only upped the tension in the region. The BJP wants to cash in on the Pallar vote bank. And DMK and AIADMK cannot antagonize the Thevars,” the activist said. In the recent Assembly elections, 55 percent of the Thevar votes went to AIADMK and the rest to DMK. Meanwhile, the seven sub-castes of Devendra Kula Vellalars form 17 percent of Tamil Nadu’s population.

Will the ruling DMK government rein in the caste conflict using police force? A top police officer of Tirunelveli told The Quint, “We are arresting rowdy history-sheeters who have been creating tension in the district. The situation is under control.”

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