New Delhi: In poll-bound Tamil Nadu, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had in February brought up a decades-old demand by the Hindu Pallars, a Dalit community who comprise 17 per cent of the state’s population.
The Pallars had been looking to be renamed as the Devendrakula Vellalars, and Modi recalled a 2015 meeting he had with members of the community. “I told them one thing. I said their name Devendra rhymes with my own name: Narendra. I understand their emotions,” he had said in February.
A month on, the Modi government has fulfilled the demand.
Ahead of assembly elections in Tamil Nadu, Lok Sabha Friday passed The Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order (Amendment) Bill, 2021 which amends the Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order, 1950 to modify the list of Scheduled Castes in the state of Tamil Nadu.
These sub castes include the Devendrakulathan, Kalladi, Kudumban, Pallan, Pannadi and Vathiriyan. The new law also replaces the entry for the Kadaiyan community and creates a distinction for the community based on residence. This includes members of the Kadaiyan community from the districts of Tirunelveli, Thoothukudi, Ramanathapuram, Pudukottai, Thanjavur, Tiruvarur and Nagapattinam. Members of the Kadaiyan community living in other districts are included in the Devendrakula Vellalar grouping.
Minister of Social Justice and Empowerment Thawar Chand Gehlot said the amendment will give respect to the members of these communities. “This (amendment) will not adversely affect the central government in any way or cost us anything economically but just by renaming these groups will get them respect in society,” Gehlot said in his concluding remarks in Lok Sabha. He also said that the amended law reaffirms PM Modi’s resolve to work for the poor. “PM Modi had said that this government is for the poor, and the government will continue to work for their welfare,” he added.
The passage of this bill just ahead of the state assembly polls is especially significant as it is expected to “appease the Dalit community”, which had made the long standing demand to be brought under the umbrella name of Devendrakula Vellalars.
But the demand of the seven communities is not just restricted to the name change — a section has also asked to be removed from the Scheduled Caste list, though this is a divisive issue within the community.
The seven communities combined have a presence in 28 of Tamil Nadu’s 33 districts. They, however, are largely concentrated in southern Tamil Nadu, particularly Madurai, a region that could determine the electoral future of political parties and governments in the state.
Who are the Devendrakula Vellalars?
According to government records, the Devendrakula Vellalars are also called Pallars in Tamil Nadu. They are listed under the Scheduled Caste category.
The total SC population in Tamil Nadu, according to the 2011 census, is 20 per cent, of whom, the Pallars comprise nearly 17.07 per cent.
The word Pallar is derived from the Tamil word called Pallam meaning a low-lying area. While Pallars are largely peasants and cultivators in the lower wetlands, conditions such as poverty and drought forced them to take up other menial jobs.
The demand for the name change is attributed to the stigma associated with the term Pallar. The community’s leaders say that while all their members are on one page about wanting all seven castes to be recognised as Devendrakula Vellalars, another group has also made the additional demand of being moved out of the Scheduled Caste category altogether.
The new law
The bill, however, does not address the other demand, which is to remove the seven communities from the Scheduled Caste list.
For the last three decades, says Dr. K. Krishnasamy of the Puthiya Tamilagam Katchi, he and his party have been fighting to get the Hindu Pallars excluded from the Scheduled Caste (SC) list.
“We have been pressing to delist these communities for the last 25 years,” he told ThePrint. “It is a mere name change and nothing else has been given importance. Our fight is not just to change the name but also put us under the MBC (most backward caste) category.”
The Devendrakula Vellalar Ezhuchi Iyakkam president Kannapiran told ThePrint through phone that their effort is to wipe out humiliation that they have faced for several decades. “We are very clear, if our demand is not met, the voters can exhibit their anger and it can turn the fortunes of the parties in 20 districts in Tamil Nadu,” Kannapiran said.
Opposition from within
Not everyone, however, is on board.
Jeevan Kumar Malla, the national president of the Bahujan Dravida Party, a political outfit fighting for the rights of the SC community believes that the move to name the seven sub-sects as Devendrakula Vellalars is a conspiracy. A member of the community, he says they should be known as the Pallars or Mallas.
“We oppose the move to rename the community and the demand to be removed from the SC list,” he said. “The term Devendra according to the revered Tamil scholar Deveneya Pavanar, is a Sanskrit word. It does not exist in the original pure Tamil language. So why should brahmanical forces impose on us?”
On the demand for removal from the Scheduled Caste category, Malla said some are making such statements to create divisions among Dalits.
The Palaniswami government in Tamil Nadu had in 2019 set up a one-man commission under IAS officer Hansraj Verma to review the demand. In December 2020, Palaniswami made a recommendation to the Centre requesting the demand be met considering the communities’ socio-economic conditions.
But the state government stressed that the community will continue to enjoy the same reservations in education and jobs as it did under the SC category.
Experts say the law is likely to help boost the electoral chances of the AIADMK-BJP alliance in the forthcoming elections.
Traditionally, the Devendrakula Vellalars have mostly voted for the DMK. Madurai is a DMK bastion and M.K. Alagiri, Karunanidhi’s son, is said to have a strong grip on the region. But with Alagiri on the backfoot in this election, the BJP and the AIADMK see a perfect opportunity to woo the community.
Political analyst and social commentator Aazhi Senthilnathan feels that the demand is the prerogative of the community members to demand the right to life.
“The social argument by the Devendrakula Vellalars is that they were put in the SC list after being ill-treated. But even as SC’s they have faced a lot of discrimination and would want to have respect given to them in society,” he said.
“The other SC communities are not making such demands. But the Devendrakula Vellalars say they feel extremely discriminated against,” he added.
Senior journalist Sandhya Ravishankar, who has worked to highlight the plight of the Dalit community in Tamil Nadu, feels that the community votes may sway in the favour of the AIADMK-BJP alliance. “This is bound to impact 15-20 constituencies and in this closely fought election, every vote counts,” she said.