Debating India


A clean sweep

Friday 28 April 2006, by MENON*Jaya

SANKARANKOIL (NEAR TIRUNELVELI), APRIL 27 : She wears a blue silk saree that looks like an expensive Kanjeevaram. But it’s a ??fake’’ and cost her just a couple of hundred rupees. She wears some imitation jewellery that cost a few rupees at the local ??fancy’’ shop. And she walks barefoot as she is not used to wearing ??uncomfortable’’ footwear.

Till the other day, Subbulakshmi Ponraj (37), a conservancy worker, used to sweep the police quarters in Sankarankoil, a reserved constituency in the heart of Tirunelveli district. Today, the woman belonging to the lowest sect of Dalits, the Arundhadhiyars or Chakkliyar community of scavengers and cobblers, who live like outcastes, is a celebrity among the upper caste Thevars. And that in a region notorious for its bitter Thevar-Dalit enmity.

Subbulakshmi is the candidate of the All India Forward Bloc, handpicked among eight applicants by the party’s Tamil Nadu chief and matinee idol Karthik.

That seems to have changed Subbulakshmi’s life as she has known it so far. Now, she is much in demand at Thevar weddings, blessing mangalsutras of couples and invited to lunch and dinner at their houses. When she refused to sit down at a Thevar function, they all stood along with her. Just a month ago, she dared not step out of the colony in her Kalappakulam village; now there are no restricted areas as far as she is concerned.

??She is now one of us because she is Karthik’s candidate,’’ says Ramachandra Thevar of Othakkadu, about 12 km from Sankarankoil, as his wife Muniammal takes the aarti to Subbulakshmi, who had come to canvas for votes. The couple push some currency notes into her hand. In another Thevar household, she falls at the feet of Sundaram Thevar who blesses her.

In many villages spread across the constituency, Subbulakshmi is invited to garland statues of the much-revered Muthuramalinga Thevar, a founder leader of the AIFB, recognised in the Thevar belt as a caste leader. ??It is a great honour for a Dalit. Usually, they are not allowed to come anywhere near the statues,’’ pointed out VC Sekar, a Thevar, and in charge of the election campaign for the AIFB in the constituency.

He claimed that many of the 60,000-odd Thevars of the 1.82 lakh strong electorate in the constituency had agreed to back his party’s candidate. Subbulakshmi’s candidature and her instant acceptance among the Thevars are being hailed as a significant social change in these parts, which has seen some of the worst caste clashes.

Veerasigamani, about 15 km from Sankarankoil, witnessed the worst of caste clashes in 1996 triggered by a tiff between a few Thevar students and a Dalit bus driver. The ripple effect across south Tamil Nadu left more than 50 people killed. Angry Dalits took the crowbar to the Thevar statue in Veerasigamani and damaged it. Last week, Subbulakshmi garlanded the newly sculpted statue.

??I did not know how I was going to face up to the election. I was scared to go into the Thevar villages and I was fighting against a powerful AIADMK minister (S Karuppusamy) and a former minister belonging to the DMK (Thangavelu),’’ says Subbulakshmi, sitting in a bungalow converted into an election office, donated by an affluent Thevar. But no sooner had her candidature been announced than AIFB members, all Thevars, landed at her house and took her under their wing.

She gave up her conservancy job, which paid her Rs 140 a month before filing her nomination papers for the constituency. She declared her thin gold chain and her tiny one-room house allotted by the state government, as ??property’’ before the Election Commissioner.

Her husband, Ponraj, continues to be a conservancy worker for the police quarters, earning a monthly pay of Rs 600. The donations pouring in from Thevar households took care of her campaign expenses while another generous Karthik fan donated a Tata Sumo for her trips across the constituency.

There is little doubt that the actor has emerged as a new contender for the affections of the powerful Thevar community in the southern belt, which has fiercely backed J Jayalalithaa and her AIADMK in the past. When his other candidates were kept hidden after being ??intimidated and kidnapped’’, Subbulakshmi freely roamed her constituency, under the watchful eyes of her Thevar campaign managers.

At least 10 of the AIFB candidates crossed over to the AIADMK. Last weekend, all candidates, including Subbulakshmi, were whisked away and kept hidden in a hotel in Madurai. The AIFB had fielded 72 candidates in south Tamil Nadu. The number has now dwindled to 62.

Whether she makes political inroads or not, Subbulakshmi can be credited with a few daring social inroads into the Thevar heartland.

See online : The Indian Express

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