Decoding VCK, The Face of Assertive Dalit Politics in Tamil Nadu
What does VCK mean to DMK and how strong is its influence among Dalits?
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Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) president Thol. Thirumavalavan, on 2 January in a public meeting in Puducherry, spoke in favour of parties contesting on their own symbols in the 2021 Assembly election.
“We have taken a firm stand on the symbol issue. In 2001, VCK had contested on a different symbol. In all other elections, we have contested on our own symbol or an independent symbol. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, as an election strategy, we contested on the Rising Sun (DMK) symbol in Villupuram constituency,” he said.
This is the second party from the expected DMK alliance to make such an announcement. In October 2020, MDMK chief Vaiko, too said that his party will contest on its own symbol. The two parties have been strong allies of the DMK.
What does VCK mean to the Dravidian party and how strong is their influence among vote banks?
VCK, a Party for, by and of Dalits
Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK), formerly known as the Dalit Panthers of India or the Dalit Panthers Iyyakkam was started as a political party that aimed to combat caste based discrimination.
VCK formed in 1982 in Madurai, Tamil Nadu under the leadership of M. Malaichami, started off as a group of local activists seeking protection for Dalits against several atrocities.
Speak to Thirumavalavan and he will respond with the kindest tone on what he intends to do this election season. Leave the man on stage and he will unleash the tiger within, is what I heard and witnessed when I attended his election rally in 2016.
Being a fiery orator, he took on the leadership of the erstwhile Dalit Panthers of India (DPI) after the death of its founder in 1989. The party grew through the 1990s, highlighting cases of discrimination and caste based violence.
The party’s electoral debut was in 1999 and Thirumavalavan emerged as the face of assertive Dalit politics.
Roller Coaster of Alliances
In 1999, he along with Krishnasamy, another Dalit leader, jointly fought the elections along with G.K. Moopanar’s Tamil Maanila Congress (Tamil State Congress), promising a non-Dravidian alternative for the state.
Though they didn’t win seats they bagged enough votes to cause the Dravidian parties to worry.
In 2001, Thirumavalavan won an Assembly seat on the DMK symbol, though he subsequently quit saying the DMK had not treated him properly.
In the 2004 general elections, he contested in Chidamabaram as part of the Janata Dal (United) alliance and lost by a narrow margin. In 2006, his party aligned with the AIADMK and won two assembly seats. In 2009, he returned to the DMK’s side and was elected MP from Chidambaram.
In May 2019, he won back his seat in parliament in the Chidambaram constituency. He had refused to use the ‘rising sun’ symbol of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the alliance leader and instead stayed autonomous. However, as a tactical choice, to make the most of limited resources, his general secretary was elected under the DMK’s symbol.
An LTTE Sympathiser
The party has always been a strong supporter of the freedom movement of Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka and had also demanded that Mahinda Rajapaksa should be charged with war crimes for the killing of thousands of Tamil people during war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). VCK party along with DMK, DK, NTK formed Tamil Eelam Supporters Organization (TESO).
The party has also been heavily criticised for supporting LTTE and its leader Prabakaran.
Thiruma had also penned a book Eelam Enral Puligal, Puligal Enral Eelam (Eelam means Tigers, Tigers means Eelam), played a guest appearance as a Tamil militant leader in Sri Lanka in his first film Anbu Thozhi in 2007.
The party has also never shied away from speaking out on issues such as the suicide of Anitha, on the NEET exam issue, Jallikattu (bullfighting), Manusmriti, vandalising of Ambedkar statues and demanding release of the convicts in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case.
The Consolidation of Dalits
In 2019, VCK MP Ravikumar made a call to consolidate 60 sub-castes of Dalits in Tamil Nadu under the 'Adi Dravidar' identity, to create a common identity for Dalits, excluding Arunthathiyars and Devendra Kula Vellalars. The VCK’s move is also dubbed as an attempt to consolidate the Dalit vote base with an objective to strengthen the party's bargaining power in the alliance with the Dravidian majors.
The VCK has always reiterated its demand that Dalit persons belonging to the Christian or Muslim faiths also be extended reservation in government institutions for education and employment.
It is important to note that VCK is the largest party representing the Dalits in the state and has a significant presence number of Muslims among its office-bearers.
Leading the Anti-Modi Bandwagon
The VCK may be seen as just a minor partner in the DMK-led alliance, but Thirumavalavan and his Liberation Panthers have been known to spearhead the anti-Modi wave in Tamil Nadu. While the BJP has been working hard to breach the Dravidian fortress, VCK has on several occasions slammed the saffron party for forcing their Hindutva ideologies.
In February 2020, Thirumavalavan organised a Desam Kappom (‘Save the Nation’) conference to raise voice against ‘the Hindutva forces.’ He created a major platform for opposition parties to vow to defeat the Modi government together. He even named the convention ‘Save Nation’ from the hands of RSS and BJP.
He has also been vocal against the anti-minority tone of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the OBC reservation issue, stating that it diluted the social justice aspect of reservations.
The Manusmriti Controversy
After decades, VCK recently brought back the call for a ban on Manusmriti, the ancient book of laws which is considered to be a code of conduct for Hindu society, stating it denigrates women.
In a protest held on 24 October 2020, Thol Thirumavalavan had called for the ban and the BJP in turn staged protests accusing him of making misogynistic remarks.
While many experts had argued that this could be just a move by VCK to gain political mileage for the upcoming Tamil Nadu Assembly elections in 2021, many others disagreed stating that Manusmriti ‘was not just another outdated script.’
“It is a much larger issue which goes back hundreds of years to the gender and caste-based discrimination that is deeply entrenched in our society,” Kutti Revathi, a Dalit poet said. “Every time we see people saying anything against social justice, protests happen. I always wonder how we waste time on reactionary politics. This is the first time we are seeing reform politics,” she added.
The Manusmriti has been criticised by anti-caste activists and feminists for its views on women and caste, among other issues.
“I had not criticised any women of any culture. VCK and I fight for the rights of the marginalised sections, particularly women, Dalits and minorities. And I still maintain that Manu Dharma denigrates women,” he had said in an interview to Huffington Post.
VCK vs PMK
VCK and PMK are political rivals, mainly due to the communities they represent. They enjoy support of the people in the northern part of the state. While the VCK is a party that works for Scheduled Caste communities, PMK stands for the Vanniyars, who constitute 25 percent of the state's population. There have been many instances when the dominant Vanniyar community has been accused of inflicting caste-based violence against the Dalit community. PMK leader Anbumani Ramadoss was booked for allegedly inciting caste enmity in 2014.
Thirumavalavan has also declared on several occasions that he will never be part of an alliance that has chosen PMK, led by Dr S Ramadoss, as a partner.
There has been traditional rivalry between the Vanniyars and the Pallars, a Dalit community. The PMK has been accused of instigating honour killings to prevent inter-caste marriages involving Dalits. The PMK, however, accuses the VCK of stirring up violence.
VCK seems confident to contest on its own symbol this 2021 season but will that be a wise choice giving them more bargaining power during seat-sharing talks? With new players entering and BJP raising its voice in Tamil Nadu, it will be interesting to watch the party’s manifesto and how it intends to quell the saffron party’s expansion efforts once again in the state.
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