The room filled with the smell of burning flesh. Wails of dying women and children ripped my ears. My hands were covered in warm blood. I was scared that the blood would soak the book I was holding in my hands.
A loud knock at the door of my room brought me back to reality. I was gasping for breath. It took me a while to regain spatial consciousness. It was December 2016. This was the first time that I learnt about the Keezhvenmani massacre.
It was the first such gruesome Dalit massacre that happened in India after its Independence.
On the 25th of December 1968, 44 Dalits from the Devendra Kula Vellalar and Paraiyar communities — women, men and children — were locked inside a hut and burnt alive by the Naidu caste feudal lords at Keezhvenmani village near Nagapattinam in Tanjore district of Tamil Nadu. It was one of the most horrific Dalit massacres in history.
As a Christian, Christmas has always been an important festival for me. It is a festival of joy, but unfortunately as a Dalit, I could not get past the horrors of this massacre every year since I first read about it in 2016.
Every time during Christmas, my catechism teachers and priests from the local church would narrate so passionately the suffering of Mary as a pregnant mother as she could not get a place to give birth, somewhere in Palestine, so far from my land. So sympathetic.
None of them has ever spoken about how mothers of my own land were burnt with their kids hugging their bodies. Bodies fused together by the heat. Nobody spoke of that suffering. The suffering of my own blood. Christmas now is a day of mourning for me and my Dalit brothers and sisters across the world.
Manjolai tea estate massacre of Dalits
My first encounter with a Dalit massacre was at the age of 16.
The Manjolai tea estate massacre in the year 1999 created a furore across the state. The Dalit tea workers of the estate were conducting a peaceful march from Manjolai to the collector’s office demanding a ₹30 hike in their daily wages.
The ruling DMK government conducted a police assault and the battalion opened fire at the unarmed, peaceful protestors. Women with children in their arms and men jumped into the Thamirabarani river fearing the bullets and many drowned to death.
Seventeen people died. Nobody was punished in the legal process. The culprits were exonerated by the state-appointed one-man legal commission.
Oozhiyam and its abolition
But the Keezhvenmani massacre had happened three decades before that and yet, most of us Dalits were not aware of the incident. Why?
I will share the details of the politics in the state that was the reason behind it.
Dalits of Tamil Nadu, like their brethren in other parts of the country, have always led very strong and powerful struggles against capitalistic entities throughout history.
The landlessness of Dalits has always been exploited by the casteist feudal landowners. Who owns the land matters.
Ownership of lands gives power. That power is used by feudal castes to dominate, discriminate against, and exploit Dalits and their labour.
This is not the same as class exploitation in other parts of the world, for example the United Kingdom and the rest of Europe, but similar to the Black slaves in the farms of the American white landowners. This is where caste supersedes class. Or there is an intersection of caste and class.
Dalits in the Madras presidency and Travancore have always been made to do unpaid labour — as bonded labourers. It was called “Oozhiyam”.
The upper caste landholding communities would treat every Panchama or Dalit as their slave. Entire families were bonded to farms and they were not paid anything for their labour. It was free labour on the basis of caste.
“You are an avarna, an untouchable. You are indebted to provide me services as free labour according to the sasthras,” is what was spoken by the landowners to the Dalits.
The Dalits who rebelled against it were lynched by the landowners. You have to note that the landowning castes were never used to paying Dalits for their labour. They thought that they were entitled to get free labour from them on the basis of caste. It was caste-based slavery.
But something happened in the 19th century. Due to the continuous efforts of London missionaries, Colin Macaulay, John Munro and others, Oozhiyam or slavery was finally abolished in the year 1865.
No change in attitude of feudal caste landowners
But 100 years after the abolition of caste-based slavery in India, there was no change in the attitude of feudal caste landowners.
Caste power always overpowers political power. No laws, no rules can be imposed on them.
It was the 20th century and they had modern ways to carry on the same caste-based systems. Though agricultural labourers came from different backward castes in Tamil Nadu, 80 percent were Dalits.
Being landless and ostracised from other caste-based jobs, they were forced into being farm workers. The landowners used the pathetic socio-economic conditions and paid them very little.
But this was not the 19th century to not pay them anything. This was a free, independent, developing country.
The feudal landowners paid them a little bit more than nothing. While the other backward caste workers were not paid much, the Dalit labourers were paid even less. Mostly, they were not paid in money but given meagre amounts of cultivated rice as wages.
I want to quote Babasaheb Ambedkar at this juncture.
“Caste System is not merely division of labour. It is also a division of labourers. Civilised society undoubtedly needs division of labour. But in no civilised society is division of labour accompanied by this unnatural division of labourers into water-tight compartments.” (BAWS, Vol. 1, p. 47, emphasis in original)”
The reason why I am referring to this is very important. Many Dalit struggles against capitalistic entities have been rightly termed as “Dalit rights protests” or “anti-caste protests” — for example, the Manjolai massacre.
But in the single case of Keezhvenmani, it has been always referred to as a “communist protest” or “class protest by the Dalits”.
Dalits force-fed water mixed with cow dung as punishment
The Delta region or the unified Tanjore district has always been referred to as the “Nel kalanjiyam” or paddy repository of South India.
Agriculture has always thrived in this region and there are numerous references in the Sangam literature. The historians of the Chola period mention how they even used elephants in the harvest process.
The grandeur of the situation could be imagined. But all talk of this glory and pride has always sidelined or masked the plights of the agricultural labourers, especially Dalits. The whole pride around agriculture in Tamil Nadu and the divinity of the farmers have always revolved around the culture and traditions of the landowning feudal castes.
Even after the dawn of the 20th century, the plight of the Dalits did not change. Dalit agricultural labourers were always paid less than those belonging to other castes. Again they were bonded labourers along with their families. Even an infant was bonded to the land and the owner.
They were expected to get up at 3 am in the morning and start work around 4 am. Apart from the agricultural tasks, they were also made to do any kind of work for the landowners — free of cost. The Dalit women were sexually harassed by the landowners.
If the farmers didn’t turn up to work on time or if they made any mistake, they would be force-fed “Saanipaal” — a mixture of cow dung and water — and lashed until they bled as punishment. The life of a Dalit agricultural labourer was the most miserable.
Some of them resisted this and rebelled. The anger against the injustice caused to them was always burning like a flame in their minds.
They had the rage, the empowerment, but they lacked agency and resources.
Guidance of Comrade Srinivasa Rao
Around the 1940s, they started rebelling against the “mirasudars” or the landowners through the Kisan Sabha. But the landowners were very rich, owned most of the land in the villages, and could not be fought easily.
Later, the Dalits (Devendra Kula Velallars) were unionised through the agricultural workers union and the Communist Party of India. It was thanks to Dr Ambedkar who set up the ‘Tripartite Labour Council’ in 1942 to safeguard social security measures for the workers, and gave equal opportunity to the workers and employers to participate in the formulation of labour policy by introducing compulsory recognition of trade unions.
The communists were thus able to set up unions and farm labourers associations and unified all the workers in the East Tanjore region. I would say this is the turning point in the history of the labour struggles of the Dalits in the Delta region.
The Dalits now had a voice. They had representation under the guidance of the greatest communist leader of the 20th century, Comrade Srinivasa Rao. He founded the first unit of Kisan Sabha in Tamil Nadu in 1943. It was the first labour union for agricultural labourers in the Madras Presidency.
I would like to quote Comrade Srinivasan here as he presided over one of the meetings with the labourers.
“What is the difference between you and the landlords? Are you not also human beings, born of your mother’s wombs and with two arms and legs? If you are hit, hit back. It is illegal to whip pannaiyals and to force cow dung into their mouths. If the landlords try to impose such punishment on you, retaliate, chase them down, and fight back. If goondas come to attack you, tie them to a tree. If a single one of you is attacked, the entire village should unite against the attack and in defence of the victim.”
“Establishing unity and strengthening the Kisan Sabha are of the utmost importance. Hoist the red flag in every village. If you establish a Kisan Sabha everywhere, and if you begin to hit back, you can indeed instil fear in the landlords. The police too will have to reconsider their position, and they will be unable to cause the same fear that they did. Do not hold back: Face this challenge boldly and move forward,” he added.
This speech boosted the confidence and morale of the Dalits. Srinivasan was one of the rare communists who knew exactly that the issue of caste should be addressed first to stop class exploitation.
He knew that it was important for the Dalits to overcome discrimination and untouchability in order to fully participate in the class struggle. The same day of the speech, red flags were hoisted at every Dalit hut in the Cheri (residing place of the Dalits).
The flame in the minds of the Dalits found the right political leaning. They had strength now. They had the support of the communists.
Landowners, who were with Congress, cosy up to DMK
The landowners from a distance were quietly watching all these political movements unfolding in front of their eyes. The landlords or the Pannaiyars were the beneficiaries of the Congress party. Even now, the Tamil Nadu Congress is nicknamed the “Pannaiyar Katchi”.
With the large amounts of land they owned and the vast amounts of money they had, they climbed up the socio-political ladder very easily. They were treated as royalty by the Congress.
After the emergence of Dravidian politics in the region and the rise of the DMK in the state, they cosied up to them as well. They were enjoying the political patronage of both the Congress.
In fact, they were also quite close to the Dravidar Kazhagam headed by Periyar. The Naidus, Kallars, and Moopanars comprised the farm owners association in East Tanjore. All anti-Dalit activities were conspired by this association.
For almost 25 years from the 1940s, many Dalits in the region started adopting the socialist ideology and enrolled themselves as communists. These decades saw a series of Dalit anti-caste struggles along with labour fights.
Keezhvenmani massacre: Dalits killed after demanding dignity
There had been murders here and there. But it was the early 1960s and the Green Revolution that stirred the storm in the region.
With the dawn of the Green Revolution, production increased and the agricultural labourers realised it was high time they received a pay hike. All they wanted was half-pot more rice.
A tripartite agreement was reached but the landowners did not do as promised over the course of time. So the labourers along with the CPM managed to start a new set of rigorous agitations.
It was do or die. It was about more than the pay hike. It was about dignity.
The Dalits demanded dignity from the landowners. They demanded that they be treated as humans and not as animals. They demanded equality. They demanded that their bodily labour stop being exploited.
Thanks to communism, the labourers realised the need to be compensated rightly for the bodily work they put in irrespective of caste. They realised that caste was not the deciding factor of how much they are paid, rather it is their work that determines it.
The landowners association convened in the month of November 1968 under Gopalakrishna Naidu, the head, and conspired to kill anyone who rebelled against them.
On the night of 25 December 1968, when the Dalit men were away from the village to get legal help for the murder of Pakkiri, a fellow activist, Naidu along with 22 other landowners and hundreds of rowdies surrounded the village.
There were only women, children, and elders in their homes. The landlords blocked all the ways out and started shooting at the people mercilessly with guns.
To escape getting killed, the people started to scatter and 44 of them entered a nearby hut and took refuge. Knowing they were inside, Naidu locked the door of the hut, poured kerosene all over, and burnt it.
Women, children, and the elderly were all trapped inside. When a few women threw their toddlers out of the window to save them from fire, the landowners grabbed the children and threw them back into the fire.
To prevent them from escaping the fire, they started to pierce them with sharp farm tools and arrows. The children who tried to escape were slaughtered to death.
The morning of the next day, police found the bodies of 44 Dalits mostly charred to the ground. There were bodies of mothers hugging their children. They even found the corpses of a mother and an infant who was sucking her breast — both charred in the same position.
DMK government sided with landlords
The police, as noted by KPS Mani, a Dalit MLA in the state Assembly, “were aware of the conspiracy of the landowners to kill the Dalits but remained mere spectators”. Twenty-three children and 16 women were the victims along with a few elderly persons.
An FIR was filed against 23 people, A1 being Gopalakrishna Naidu, and 22 other landowners as co-accused. Naidu was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment in 1970, on 11 November.
But Naidu was acquitted in 1975 after he went for an appeal. The judges who acquitted him and others observed: “These men are from wealthy families, they are mirasudars. They have so much land and so many people at their service. It is hard to believe that men of such nobility would be able to burn down houses or kill people.”
It reminds me of Bhanwari Devi’s rape case in Rajasthan. North or south, Dalits suffer the same consequences.
As Justice Chandru noted in his column in the Tamil Hindu, the DMK government, which was in power when the incident happened and also when Gopalakrishna Naidu got acquitted, did not handle the case well. The state acted as a friend of the accused.
Killers of Dalits getting acquitted in Tamil Nadu is not a new phenomenon.
Naidu, after he was released by the court, was later killed by Mr Amalraj from the same Dalit community.
He had witnessed these murders as a young boy. On the evening of 25 December 1980, the same date when he killed the Dalits, Naidu was stabbed 44 times by Amalraj. His blood was spilt in the same land.
Periyar and Keezhvenmani
Periyar’s silence during the Keezhvenmani massacre is something that is unsettling. In fact, we were told that he was silent all these years by the media. But going back in history, thanks to the resources now available, we did get a copy of his speech in Viduthalai, a Dravidar Kazhagam magazine, dated 20.1.1969.
In his speech at Sembanar Koil in Nagapattinam district on 12.1.1969, just a few weeks after the Keezhvenmani massacre, Periyar addressed Dalits and said: “The communists are pretending to help you. They give you promises of a pay hike and a better life. But a wage hike is not possible through political agitations. It is only possible from the market value of commodities. Instead of teaching you how to live peacefully with the wages you get, they want to create riots in the state and they want to get the DMK government dissolved.”
It looks like Periyar was worried more about the landowners and the DMK government than the 44 lives lost.
In fact, it is so interesting to know that Periyar had a deep friendship with Sivaji Ganesan, the dominant caste actor who hailed from the region, a landowner and a member of the landowners association during the time of the massacre.
There may be a thousand books that have been written by Dravidian historians and writers whitewashing Periyar’s actions or putting out an alternate reality, but nothing will erase these words and actions.
Erasure of history
As I have written in the earlier part of this article, the Keezhvenmani massacre was not even considered as a Dalit anti-caste struggle and not many of us were aware of it.
The main reason is because the next generation of communists made Keezhvenmani their political strong ground and talked about it as a class struggle and took away caste from it.
Up until a few years ago before the internet boom, the narration around Keezhvenmani has always been about the communist struggle. A monument built at the massacre site and everything around it was considered as a communist political scene.
Most of the Dalit leaders started taking note of Keezhvenmani and the Dalit massacre only after the 90s. There was a new wave of Dalit uprisings and new parties founded by Dalit leaders such as Mr Thirumavalavan and Mr Krishnasamy.
They started to speak about Keezhvenmani as a Dalit anti-caste agitation.
In the year 1999, when Thirumavalavan along with his followers entered Keezhvenmani to pay his homage, he was sent away by the communists. He, with so much anger and disappointment, wrote an article where he said: “How come socialists behave like Keezhvenmani is their private property?”
The 90s was the golden period of Thirumavalavan as a leader.
The erasure of the history of the Dalit massacre by the DMK and the insecurities of the next generation of communists in not sharing Keezhvenmani’s history and social significance with Dalits had made it difficult for Dalits like me.
If we had been introduced to Keezhvenmani and the politics around it, our political leanings would have changed.
Knowledge about Keezhvenmani would have helped us prioritise our political goals and build a more powerful Dalit movement in the state.
We may have heard about the Keezhvenmani massacre about 50 years after it happened, but the lives of Dalits are not anywhere much better than what it was before.
But the flame of Keezhvenmani embraces us every moment, reminding us that there have been rebellions and struggles by Dalits throughout history.
People have lost their lives fighting for dignity and self-respect. We should keep on fighting the good fight, we should keep on opposing caste power even when we are burned down to death. From the ashes, one day the spirit of equality would rise.
(Shalin Maria Lawrence is an intersectional feminist, author, and a Dalit rights activist. These are the personal views of the author)