Sunday, January 9, 2005

Caste divide in relief camps

Two places where Tsunami relief is getting messed up are in Sri Lanka and, sadly, in Nagapattinam. The Tamil-Sinhala rivalry hasn't been broken by the disaster. Nor the caste divisions.

This brings to my mind, an incident some 10 years back -- in September 1995. (Incidentally, one month prior to the Surat plague.) I was in Vadodara. The city got flooded after a dam was opened following torrential rain lasting two full days. That was the first time I experienced flooding on the scale that we see on TV.

As water began entering the house of one of my colleagues, he shifted his family, including his grandmother, to a flat upstairs. So much was the flooding that water rose up to more than half the height of the rooms.

In the upstairs house, the grandmother of my colleague refused to have even water from the hosts. My colleague, who was himself shocked, told me the reason. She was a Brahmin, and the hosts were Muslims. My friend told me that he tried his best to convince his grandmom. But she wouldn't.

Luckily water receded after a day, during which she ate or drank nothing. Then, by wading through knee-deep water, food was brought to her from the house of another colleague who was a Brahmin.

It was at the initiative and with the help of the Muslim neighbours that my friend had shifted to their house. They were very good friends too. His grandmom's behaviour was so embarrassing that my friend had to reel out a series of lies to the hosts (like, because of health reasons, she takes only particular type of food etc, etc.) My friend, who is quite progressive in his thoughts and actions, was very upset with his grandmom. As he told me with a lot of disappointment, "Maybe, it's the mindset of a previous generation that's difficult for us to fathom."

But today too such mindsets exist. Don't they?

During the last two days Indian Express has been carrying stories by Rajeev P.I. on how relief efforts have been muddied by communal colour.

In Nagapattinam, Dalit suvivors of 63 damaged villages were thrown out of relief camps, cut out of food, water supplies and even toilets. They were being harassed by the majority Meenavar community, who are of the Most Backward Class. For them Dalits are still more backward and untouchable! Imagine the extent of backwardness.

Now, it turns out that the government instead of taking corrective steps, reinforced this divide. Officials had been told to give separate treatment to the powerful Meenavar community. They say it is "more practical, since there is so much hatred between the two communities."

In Tirunelveli too Dalits have been complaining of discrimination.

It's really difficult to believe how even when your survival is at stake, caste and communal preferences can prevail. Just goes to show how deep the divide is; still.


  1. It's disgusting and sad to note the seepage of such communal feelings into the minds of the people even during a time when their very survival is at stake?!!
    Worse still is the Govt's attitude of setting up separate camps. Only now, I think, should it try to bring out some sanity into the minds of people rather than fan their hatred. But again, politicians are politicians and their votebank is always a precious treasure for them.....

  2. I have a doubt reg. your post. Meenavars simply mean fishermen. Does it mean that there are no Dalits among fishermen? Or is there a community called 'meenavars' apart from fishermen? Does Rajeev's report throw any light on this? (Though I am from TN, communities and their histories are not my strong points.)

  3. Stumbled on this blogsite quite by accident, and saw Dinakaran's comment/query. I am Rajeev PI, who wrote those reports about casteist insanity in Tsunami relief camps in Nagapattinam, in The Indian Express.

    Officially, Meenavars belong to what is called a Most Backward Community. The Dalits come well below them in the casteist hierarchy. There are very few Dalit fishermen, and most of them make a living as either helpers to Meenawars or as labourers and menials.

    Hope that makes things clearer.