Moolakarai village in Tiruchendur, Thoothukudi district is lush green. A healthy paddy crop waves in the fields. But enter the village, and money is evident. Every home is a bungalow with vast expanses of fields beginning in the backyard.
No one is home at Subash Pannaiyar’s residence. Accused of murder, he is out on bail and in hiding. The large bungalow is locked, unoccupied.
His diminutive cousin’s house is barely half a kilometre away, at the entrance to Moolakarai. Duraipandi looks nothing like a big landowner as he waves a welcome. “He is my periyappa paiyan (father’s elder brother’s son),” says the affable Duraipandi, as he quickly buttons up his shirt and adjusts his lungi.
“Nobody knows where Subash is,” continues Duraipandi. “There is threat to his life so he is in hiding,” he remarks nonchalantly, referring to a two-decades old feud that has claimed many lives. We will come to that bloody battle later.
“The Nadars are fighting against Anitha Radhakrishnan,” says Duraipandi. When asked why, he says: “Personal enmity turned into a political feud. It is a case of two men thinking they are bigger than the other,” he smiles.
The Players in the Poll
Anitha Radhakrishnan is a five-time MLA of Tiruchendur assembly segment. In 2001 and 2006, he won on an AIADMK ticket. He switched sides in 2009 and won yet again on a DMK ticket. Anitha Radhakrishnan is viewed as an ‘unbeatable’ candidate.
By all accounts, he is approachable, unassuming and freely doles out hand loans to those who need it. He is present at weddings, funerals and does not hesitate to tie his veshti up and join protesting residents.
One such protest took place on 21 September 2020. As is the MLA’s wont, he stood alongside the people. The issue was over one 28-year-old T Selvan, who had been found beaten to death four days earlier. Selvan’s parents refused to take the body until a police inspector, who had allegedly connived with the murderers, was also arrested. Anitha Radhakrishnan, according to bystanders, got into it rather enthusiastically.
“The police then decided to call Subash Pannaiyar to calm the situation and especially the MLA,” said one source who is part of the entire feud. “But Anitha Radhakrishnan flared up at Subash Pannaiyar. He asked – who is he to tell me what to do,” said the source who preferred to remain anonymous.
Gangsters have fragile egos apparently and that night, Anitha Radhakrishnan’s car windshield and windows were smashed as the car was parked in his house. This small perceived slur has now snowballed into an issue that threatens to at least make a dent in Anitha Radhakrishnan’s campaign.
“We are backing KRM Radhakrishnan,” smiles Duraipandi, a cousin of Subash Pannaiyar. “This time he will put up a tough fight against Anitha.” The words are ominous since they come from an important member of the feared Pannaiyar faction.
The irony is that Anitha Radhakrishnan was close to Venkatesa Pannaiyar and the family until recently.
Who are the Pannaiyars?
Pannaiyar in Tamil literally translates to ‘landlord’ or ‘zamindar’. During the Raj, the British bestowed this title upon large land-owning families.
For our purpose, this story begins with Asupathi Pannaiyar, father of Subash Pannaiyar and uncle of Venkatesa Pannaiyar.
The Dalits of Pullaveli village, neighbouring Moolakarai, were the ones hired to tend to the close to 2000 acres of fertile farmland owned by the Pannaiyars and the wealthy Nadars of the village. Nadar is a disadvantaged caste, to which the Pannaiyars belong.
In the early 1990s, salt pans belonging to the Pannaiyars became the fulcrum of a dispute. A bank employee owning about an acre, was asked by the Pannaiyars to sell his land to them. He refused and found refuge in Pasupathi Pandian, a member of the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) at the time and an upcoming Devendrakula Vellalar (SC) leader. Four to five Dalit farm labourers too rose up against the Pannaiyars. They too found support in Pasupathi Pandian.
The stage was set for battle. After small skirmishes and sloganeering, in 1993, Pasupathi Pandian murdered Asupathi Pannaiyar. After surviving an attempt on his life, Pandian murdered Subash Pannaiyar’s grandfather Sivasubramanian Pannaiyar as well.
A Bloody Battle
A bloody battle ensued, with decapitation, shoot-outs and even a country bomb exploding in a car. The trigger-happy Venkatesa Pannaiyar was ‘encountered’ by the police in 2003.
So much clout did the Pannaiyars have at the time, that Venkatesa Pannaiyar’s wife Radhika Selvi was given an MP ticket by the DMK in 2004 and won the Tiruchendur Lok Sabha seat. She went on to become the Minister of State for Home Affairs.
In 2006, the Pannaiyars attempted to kill Pandian, who had shifted base to Dindigul, but he escaped. Pandian’s wife Jesintha died in the attack.
It was in 2012 that Subash Pannaiyar exacted his vengeance. He and his men murdered Pasupathi Pandian as he was being escorted to court by police. The 13-member gang sprayed chilli powder mixed with water into the eyes of the police and hacked Pandian to death.
The law finally caught up with Subash Pannaiyar in 2017 as the murder of one Singaram came home to roost.
In October 2017, Subash Pannaiyar surrendered before court, was granted bail and promptly went into hiding.
Radhakrishnan Vs Radhakrishnan
The Pannaiyars have made it clear to Tiruchendur that they have thrown their lot behind the AIADMK candidate KRM Radhakrishnan.
The poster above greets KRM Radhakrishnan, the “winning candidate” as the “candidate who has got the blessings of Subash Pannaiyar.” It is signed “residents of Moolakarai.”
Radhakrishnan himself is said to hold kangaroo courts and has made money from collecting mamool (protection money) from small shops in Chennai. The youngster is confident, especially now that he has the support of the powerful Pannaiyars.
“Was Kamaraj (former Congress chief minister) a strong candidate?” he asks, when asked as to how he was planning to take on DMK strongman Anitha Radhakrishnan. “But the great Kamaraj himself was beaten by a youngster. I am like that youngster,” he laughs.
Evoking Kamaraj is a hat tip to the Nadar caste, for whom Kamaraj is an icon.
“Anitha Radhakrishnan says that he is a Pannaiyar,” said a close associate of KRM Radhakrishnan. “How can the Pannaiyars tolerate this?”
In a quirk of fate, KRM Radhakrishnan’s wife is herself an ‘Anitha’ — an Anitha Radhakrishnan at home and another to beat in a tough election.
DMK’s Anitha Radhakrishnan did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The incumbent still has many tricks up his sleeve and all bets are on him winning the election. Perhaps for the first time though, he is set to face a stiff challenge.
(Sandhya Ravishankar is a Chennai-based independent journalist. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)