The young men and boys of Sivanthipatti village in Tirunelveli district were busy digging up the soil, levelling it and marking it with chalk powder. The rains had made the area slushy and many wondered aloud how they would play their traditional games. This was the day after Pongal (15 January 2021).
“Our chief minister mentioned seven castes of Devendrakula Vellalar in a speech a few days ago — not six castes,” said 30-something Muthupandi, clad in a black shirt and black veshti, as he supervised the ground preparation.
“When I went to meet Minister Kadambur Raju regarding our demands, he smiled and told me ‘Thai pirandhal, vazhi pirakkum thambi. Kavalai padadheenga, poyittu vaanga.’ (When the Tamil month of Thai begins, solutions will arrive. Don’t worry, go home.) We are confident that the AIADMK will fulfil our demands,” he said.
‘What’s the Use of Benefits if We Can’t Live With Self-Respect?’
Muthupandi is a member of the Tamizhaga Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam, a party led by John Pandian; it represents the interests of the Schedule Caste Pallar community, particularly the seven sub-castes that comprise the Devendrakula Vellalars.
He has dressed entirely in black for over a year in protest against the larger Dravidian parties not acceding to the two-fold demands of the Devendra Kula Vellalars – (a) to change the name of seven Pallar castes to Devendrakula Vellalar and (b) to remove the Devendrakula Vellalars from Scheduled Caste status. Members of these castes in Sivanthipatti and surrounds had even boycotted the 2019 Lok Sabha polls for the same reason.
“It is about gauravam (dignity),” continued Muthupandi. “Even though we get many benefits from being a Scheduled Caste, we are always looked down upon as ‘untouchables’. Even if a Devendrakula Vellalar becomes a District Collector, other government officials treat him with disrespect, due to the caste status,” he said. “What is the use of these benefits if we cannot live with self-respect?” he asked.
‘It’s Modi Who Has Helped Us’: Why Devendrakula Vellalars Want to Vote for AIADMK-BJP
Sivanthipatti is also the native village of his leader John Pandian, and most families there survive on a small parcel of agricultural land, doubling up as agricultural labourers. Most youngsters here take free coaching classes to write entrance exams for government jobs. These classes are sponsored by members of the community and are available only for Devendrakula Vellalar students. All of them speak the language of ‘gauravam.’
“We are hopeful this time,” said 22-year-old Selvarani, who was awaiting resumption of college post-lockdown. “We want to see the change of name of our caste to Devendrakula Vellalar.”
Barely a month later, on 14 February, Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke at a government function in Chennai: “Devendra rhymes with my name, Narendra,” he said, as he announced that the Centre had accepted the demand of the community to change the name of the caste. This was tabled in the Lok Sabha on 8 March and is expected to be passed unanimously.
In Nilakottai, a reserved constituency in Dindigul district, the excitement following the announcement was palpable. A large banner sporting Modi and Amit Shah’s smiling faces seemed out of place in the main market area.
“We will surely vote for the BJP,” said an energetic young Siva who was busy tying together garlands of roses and saamandhi (marigold) in his tiny shop.
He too is Devendrakula Vellalar. Who was the BJP candidate he wished to vote for? “There is nobody in our area,” he said, breaking into a smile. “So we will vote for the AIADMK. Because they both are in alliance. But it is Modi who has helped us,” added Siva.
New Hope for Caste Consolidation in Jayalalithaa’s Absence
Autorickshaw driver Mani too stated that the sitting AIADMK MLA, S Thenmozhi, would win once again if given a ticket. “The announcement about the change in name of our caste has galvanised the entire community,” he claimed. Across Tirunelveli, Tenkasi, Thoothukudi and Dindigul districts, the sentiment of members of this caste echoed firmly.
On Friday, 3 March, the AIADMK signalled to its electorate that this Assembly election was indeed all about caste.
Releasing its first candidate list for the 2021 Assembly polls, the AIADMK put forth six candidates – Edappadi Palaniswami (Edappadi), a Gounder; O Panneerselvam (Bodinayakanur), a Thevar; C Ve Shanmugam (Villupuram), a Vanniyar; SP Shanmuganathan (Srivaikundam), a Nadar; D Jayakumar (Royapuram), a Meenavar or fisherman community and S Thenmozhi (Nilakottai), a Devendrakula Vellalar.
‘It Is Only Modi Who Can Keep the Country Safe’
With the ruling party announcing a slew of concessions for different caste groups, their hope is for caste consolidation, in the absence of their cult leader J Jayalalithaa.
Taking a leaf out of the book of the Dravidian parties, the BJP too has been aggressively wooing specific smaller castes and winning them over ever so slowly.
Take a section of Hindu Nadars for instance. In Thoothukudi, S Kumaresan, a trader and a Nadar, stated firmly that it was only the BJP which can save Tamil Nadu. “We will vote for AIADMK this election because the BJP is not strong now,” he said. “But it is only Modi who can keep the country safe.”
What Has Changed in Tamil Nadu Since 2019?
In Alangulam, a traditional DMK stronghold, Vellapandi, owner of a popular tea stall argued that the BJP had been misunderstood by people. “Our people are moving towards the BJP,” he said, referring to members of the Nadar caste. “The BJP has done great things. A national party has to come to power if Tamil Nadu has to get funds and schemes,” he said.
But in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the state voted against the BJP and Modi. What changed since then?
“Madam, we are seeing everything on our phone – on WhatsApp and YouTube. There are so many videos clearly exposing Stalin’s double standards. The DMK is trying to fool people. We were fooled in 2019, we got a wrong picture about BJP and Modi. But now we have understood the truth. The BJP is doing great things,” he claimed confidently.
Who was a good BJP candidate that he would vote for?
“There is no face for the BJP here in Tamil Nadu,” chimed in Velmurugan, a Nadar farmer with a landholding of half an acre, who was privy to the conversation. “So we will vote for AIADMK who are governing well,” he said.
As Vellapandi and Velmurugan bid adieu, the diminutive tea maker piped up. “Don’t be surprised madam. Everybody nowadays is saying BJP,” he smiled.
‘Politicians See Only Thevars & SCs. Nobody Sees Other Castes. Only Modi Cares About Us’
Yadavas or Konars are another small caste group, largely present in the southern districts of Tamil Nadu. Historically cow-herds, most are farmers now. In Nanguneri, Tirunelveli district, farmer Gopalakrishnan, 68, sat outside his house and lamented the lack of water in his area.
But ask him who he would vote for and the response comes pat – “I will vote only for thaamarai (lotus),” he said. Why? “Because he has made Indians hold their heads high,” he said. “India has a permanent seat at the UN. We have our own vaccine. Modi has resolved the Ram temple issue and the Kashmir issue. He has done so much,” claimed the elderly man.
His younger neighbour, Sappani, 43, also a farmer agreed. “Politicians see only SC and Thevars,” he claimed. “Nobody sees any other castes. It is only Modi who cares about us,” he said.
The Naickers and Reddiars of Vilathikulam, Thoothukudi too express similar opinions. These Telugu-speaking castes now say they would prefer to vote for the lotus.
“The BJP has to come to power,” said 40-year-old Vimala, a farmer. “We do not want vaarisu arasiyal (dynasty politics) or freebies. For this to happen, the BJP has to come. All the youngsters in our area want the BJP only,” she reiterated.
So who would they vote for in the absence of a BJP candidate?
“We have always been voting MGR chinnam (MGR’s symbol), rettai ilai (two leaves),” smiled 30-year-old Kaleeswari, another farmer. “We will vote for them again this time.”
‘BJP is Further Attempting to Divide Castes in Tamil Nadu & Win Them Over’
Similarly, the Saurashtras of Dindigul, the Brahmins of Chennai and a section of the youth vote is slowly swinging towards the BJP.
“The strategy of the BJP can be explained using one simple Tamil proverb — kuttaiya kuzhappi meen pidikkuradhu (disturbing a pond to catch fish),” said C Lakshmanan, political analyst and Associate Professor with the Madras Institute of Development Studies, Chennai.
“The Sangh Parivar’s ideology is to divide and rule. Right now we have about four classifications – OBC, MBC, SC/ST and general category. The BJP is attempting to further divide these castes into smaller groups and win them over. The narrative they encourage is of pride of that particular caste. It works very well on ground. First they tried to woo the Arunthathiyar (SC) in the western belt – by appointing VP Duraisamy and L Murugan in important posts in the party. Then the Devendrakula Vellalars. This is bound to pay dividends. And this is why they are systematically wooing smaller castes like the Konars and the Telugu-speaking castes in Tamil Nadu.”
The party, however, suffers from the lack of a proper structure, popular candidates and leaders.
For now though, the BJP is definitely no longer a political outsider in Tamil Nadu.
(Sandhya is a Chennai-based journalist and former editor of The Lede. She tweets @sandhyaravishan. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)